Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Understanding Romanticism

Romance: that form of literature where desires can be fulfilled unencumbered

To understand Romanticism it is useful to begin with the traditional cliché image of a man and a woman gazing deeply into one another’s eyes over a candle-light dinner.





More pedantically, the literary theorist Northrop Frye defined romance as that mode of literature in which the laws of nature and reality are somewhat suspended and a hero can therefore perform miraculous feats. Underlying both of these notions (Frye’s mode and what the rest of us describe as “romantic”) is Frye’s idea that all culture is about giving form to human desire. Our expectations of the chivalrous knight of Arthurian Legend and the courtly-love tradition have more in common with modern notions of romantic love than is at first apparent.




Though rarely acknowledged, the knight who slays a dragon and the perfect lovers are both examples of reality and nature overwhelmed by our imaginings of human desires being fulfilled.


The word "romance" refers to translating Latin texts into romance languages

Understanding Romanticism also involves understanding the origin of the word “romance”—the translation (also called “vulgarization”) of Latin texts into the romance languages:  Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.  Consequently “romance” first meant making literary texts available to the average person in a language she could understand.  When William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge published The Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the event which marked the beginning of the Romantic period in English literary history, they emphasized in the preface that their intention was to write in a language of the people hitherto excluded from being the subjects or the readers of poetry.

The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.

Romanticism and the "historical dialectic"

The understanding of Romanticism is also served by an awareness of the “historical dialectic,” a concept associated with the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, which theorizes that history progresses according to a movement of ideas following a pattern of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.  As an idea or web of ideas become dominant in a society or culture (a thesis), an opposing, contrary or contradicting collection of ideas develop at a sub-cultural level (the antithesis).  Eventually the antithesis becomes dominant but at the same time it incorporates ideas from earlier thesis and antithesis into a synthesis.  If we look at Romanticism according to this pattern we can see that first and foremost it is defined by its opposition to neoclassicism, but at the same time it brings back and celebrates elements of the Middle Ages, the period that predated neoclassicism.

Romantic “nature” versus neoclassical “nature”

Both movements emphasized “nature” but each adopted a very different notion of its meaning.  For the neoclassicist the artist should imitate the “forms” of nature.  In other words nature was an abstract concept which supplied us with rules which we should attempt to imitate and follow.  When the Romantics spoke of nature they generally meant trees and birds and flowers, etc, and took communing with this nature as a source of inspiration.


Deism versus pantheism

Deism is a scientific answer to the religious question of the origin of the world.  The neoclassicists proposed  a God the Creator but did not accept any of the versions of God supplied by the religious dogmas of the Middle Ages.  Romantics in contrast adopted pantheism, a religion of all things, in particular of nature which was the ultimate inspiration of the Romantic poet.

Neoclassical “man” versus Romantic “man”

In his poem, An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope declared that “The proper study of mankind was man.”  Pope was responding to the medieval notion that man could only be understood from the perspective of the Creator, of God.  However, Pope’s notion of “man” was a collection of universal properties that defined all men.  The poem is also a celebration of reason over passion. The Romantic notion of “man” in contrast was a living, breathing, passionate creature depending on nature for his existence. Not only did the Romantics celebrate the “common man” but Wordsworth in particular celebrated children.  His most famous line is that “The child is father to the man.”  The child is superior in the Romantic view because the child was thought to have a richer, uncontaminated imagination and a closer connection with nature.  


Neoclassical “rules” and Romantic liberalism

The neoclassical period was known for its attachment to a sense of rules, to decorum and propriety and, in particular, a rigid, slavish attachment to the “rules” elaborated by Aristotle in The Poetics. Empiricism and scientific development gave the neoclassicists a notion that underlying existence there were rules and laws that could be applied to all all things, the individual and society as well as the natural world. In contrast the Romantics celebrated the individual who broke free of the rules of social propriety and convention.

The individual versus society

The neoclassicists valued the individual as a reflection of his society, as a model of good behaviour according to social conventions.  The Romantic is profoundly focused on the individual as an individual, in particular the self, the "I" of the poem.  


Romanticism and Realism

Romanticism was ultimately displaced by Realism in the late 19th and early 20th century.  In many ways, however, Romanticism still tends to dominate or at least affect how most people view literature.    Both Modernism and Postmodernism continue the antithesis to Realism and show the lingering influence of Romanticism.

see also: http://www.thesourgrapevine.com/2014/02/how-to-make-love-to-logophile.html


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