From the late 18th to the middle of the 19th century there was an almost radical revolt against simple reasoning, the sciences, all authority and most traditions, against order and discipline, which overcame (and to a certain extent subdued) Western civilisation. This was the sweeping movement of Romanticism.
It meant social, political and moral reform, yes, but manifested itself above all in the arts; one could claim that the two major extremes of art are Classicism and Romanticism. Subsequent movements are generally regarded as being associated with one or the other.
Perhaps it started with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s cult of of sensibility, claiming that Man was essentially Good – which can be expressed as a feeling that we had better get back to looking at Nature if we are going to think philosophically. Romanticism however originated more in Germany and England than in France.
Romanticism in Europe came with the new invention of the gothick novel, a heady cocktail of mystery, beauty and horror. There was renewed interest in Shakespeare. Byron became popular. English Romanticism came with the published works of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Lyrical Ballads 1798), the latter being a collection of poems that strained to be popular common-as-muck poetry combined with the supernatural, all contained in a carefully grammatical diction.
Wordsworth’s Preface to the 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads contains his description of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’ – and this became the ‘Manifesto’ of the English Romantics.
France was not to be left behind. Madame de Staël declared her interest in De la Littérature, in which she states that a work must express the moral and historic reality of the nation in which it is conceived. This is sometimes called, to use a German word – the Zeitgeist.
In this period poets began seeking inspiration in national themes. The dreadful Napoleonic Wars themselves suggested Romantic Nationalism. Through all Europe there was a return to local origins, but this movement went beyond a revival of themes and forms to a new look of little-known languages, such as Tuscan, Flemish, Erse, Gaelic (especially Welsh), Basque, Catalan, Breton, Magyar and Czech. In the book world Sir Walter Scott published the Waverley novels, glorifying the Scottish past, and the books became an influence.
Even in politics there was Romanticism: political regimes changed in Greece, Belgium and France; there were risings in Poland and Italy, and the all-changing, all-powerful English Reform Act of 1832. A new Romantic Realism arose in the theatre just as in the novel. There was closer identification with liberalism and Socialism. Romanticism was a period of tireless experiment. In fact the spirit of the late 18th to mid-19th centuries was strong enough to take a shape in the United States, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Ireland and parts of southern France that has lasted until today.
There is more: Romanticism does not represent a single tendency, rather the simultaneous pressure of many different, perhaps even conflicting principles in a stage of European history that we can safely assume is not yet over. Its heritage is an emphasis on individuality, subjectivity and self-expression. It has taught us that Man is irrational. It has swollen the compass of Art to include areas many people cannot understand, such as Ultra-Modernity in painting, sculpture and architecture (which may have made it unpopular in more conservative circles – ‘Charles, modern art is a lot of bosh, isn’t it?’). It has challenged the harmonious rationalism of Neo-Classicism. It has emphasised the dualism of human nature – the death wish accompanied by the affirmation of life – John Keats, Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe: the face that can suddenly change – Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Dostoyevsky.
The Romantic Movement remains a protest which continues to arise against any threat of a mechanical system that might limit the potential of human experience. It is not a ‘lot of bosh’, but it must be treated with circumspection amnd careful attention. It is the writings of Baudelaire but not Browning; it is Lord Byron’s melancholy; it is frightening German children’s literature (the brothers Grimm); it is dramatic theory and stylish development; it is Victor Hugo as a champion of movements; it is Dickens’ journalisistic style as a novelist; it is Alphonse de Lamartine’s poetic moods and themes; it is Alfred de Vigny; it is Wordsworth.
In music it is Wagner and Verdi; in architecture it is poor mad Ludwig’s castles, and the reformation of the Houses of Parliament. It is Romantische, Romanticismo, Romanticism.