Romanticism: Revolt of the Spirit

From Gerald R. Lucas
Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog.jpg

No simple label can describe the Romantic Age, for if anything the artists of this era were individualists. Some were disillusioned by the empty promises of the French Revolution; most were disgusted with the mechanistic society they saw around them in their cities. They seemed to feel that the men before them had been too analytic, too dogmatic, too shackled to rules set up by formidable academies. Now it was time for self-expression, for a new emergence of the individual and his feelings. The following sources point to some of the directions this concern with self took.

The Man of Feeling

The paradoxical Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a writer, musician, and vagabond, was one of the greatest literary influences on the Romantics. In proclaiming the supremacy of the self in his autobiography, The Confessions, he gave rise to the subjective literature characteristic of the period—the lyric poem and the spiritual auto-biography:

I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all truth of nature, and that man is myself.

Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different. . . .

I have neither omitted anything bad, nor interpolated anything good. If I have occasionally made use of some immaterial embellishments, this has only been in order to fill a gap caused by lack of memory. I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false. I have shown myself as I was: mean and contemptible, good, high-minded, and sublime, according as I was one or the other. I have unveiled my inmost self even as Thou hast seen it, o Eternal Being. Gather round me the countless host of my fellow men; let them hear my confessions, lament for my unworthiness, and blush for my imperfections. Then let each of them in turn reveal, with the same frankness, the secrets of his heart at the foot of the Throne, and say, if he dare, “I was better than that man!”

I felt before I thought: this is the common lot of humanity. I experienced it more than others. I do not know what I did until I was five or six years old. I do not know how I learned to read. I only remember my earliest reading, and the effect it had upon me; from that time I date my uninterrupted self-consciousness. . . . I had no ideas of things in themselves, although all the feelings of actual life were already known to me. I had conceived nothing, but felt everything. These confused emotions which I felt one after the other, certainly did not warp the reasoning powers which I did not as yet possess; but they shaped them in me of a peculiar stomp, and gave me odd and romantic notions of human life, of which experience and reflection have never been able wholly to cure me.

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Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Goethe in der roemischen Campagna.jpg

From Germany, one of the first centers of the Romantic movement, came Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a poet, critic, dramatist, scientist, and novelist. During Germany’s “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) literary movement, Romanticism was at its most emotional and sentimental. It was Goethe’s Werther who exemplified one common romantic pose—the sensitive, self-pitying young man who constantly despairs over his misfortunes in life and most especially in love:

August 30

Unhappy man! Aren’t you a fool? Aren’t you deceiving yourself? What sense is there in this raging endless passion? I no longer have prayers except to her; no other form appears to my imagination except hers, and I see everything in the world about me only in relation to her. And this brings me many a happy hour—until I must tear myself away from her again. Oh Wilhelm! The things my heart often urges me to do!—When I have been sitting with her for two or three hours and have feasted on her figure, her manner, the divine expression of her thoughts, and then gradually my senses become tense, a darkness appears before my eyes, I can scarcely hear anything, my throat is constricted as though by the hand of an assassin, and my heart beats wildly trying to relieve my oppressed senses, but only increasing their confusion—Wilhelm, often I don’t know whether I really exist. And at times—when melancholy does not get the upper hand and Lotte permits me the wretched comfort of shedding my tears of anguish on her hand—I must leave her, I must get outside and roam far through the fields; I then find my pleasure in climbing a steep mountain, cutting a path through an untrodden forest, through hedges which tear me, through thorns which rend me. Then I feel a little better. A little . . . Oh, Wilhelm! The solitary dwelling of a cell, the hair shirt, and belt of thorns are the comforts for which my soul yearns. Goodbye; I see no end to this misery but the grave.

November 26

Sometimes I tell myself: Your fate is unique; consider other men fortunate—no one has ever been tormented like this. Then I read some poet of ancient times and I feel as if I were looking into my own heart. I have so much to endure! Ah, have men before me ever been so wretched?


Search for the Lost Past and the Exotic

The same Romantic age which exalted the common man, the child, the forces of nature, also found its subject in the remote and the mysterious. The world of the past, particularly of Ancient Greece and of the Middle Ages, was a prime source for many poems and stories. Yet typically, not even in the splendor of the lost past did the romantic hero find more than fleeting happiness and love:

John William Waterhouse - La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893).jpg

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
By: John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no birds sing!

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 5
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
     With anguish moist and fever-dew, 10
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
Fun, beautiful, a færy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light 15
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
     And made sweet moan 20

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet, 25
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
     And there she wept and sighed full sore, 30
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woo betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d 35
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
     Hath thee in thrall!” 40

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide;
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here, 45
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

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By: François-René de Chateaubriand

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Nevertheless, I set forth all alone and tall of, spirit on the stormy ocean of the world, though I knew neither its safe ports nor its perilous reefs. First I visited peoples who exist no more. I went and sat among the ruins of Rome and Greece, those countries of virile and brilliant memory, where palaces are buried in the dust and royal mausoleums hidden beneath the brambles . . . I meditated on these monuments at every hour and through all the incidents of the day. Sometimes, I watched the same sun which had shone down on the foundation of these cities now setting majestically over their ruins; soon afterwards, the moon rose between crumbling funeral urns into a cloud-less sky, bathing the tombs in pallid light. Often in the faint, dream-wafting rays of that planet, I thought I saw the Spirit of Memory sitting pensive by my side . . . On the mountain peaks of Caledonia, the last bard ever heard in those wildernesses sang me songs which had once consoled a hero in his old age. We were sitting on four stones overgrown with moss; at our feet ran a brook, and in the distance the roebuck strayed among the ruins of a tower, while from the seas the wind whistled in over the waste land of Cona . . . And yet with all my effort what had I learned until then? I had discovered nothing stable among the ancients and nothing beautiful among the moderns. The past and present are imperfect statues—one, quite disfigured, drawn from the ruins of the ages and the other still devoid of its future perfection.


Nature Versus City Life

In Nature, the Romantic artist found the beauty that was lacking in the ugliness of the city—an ugliness which he felt was repugnant not only to man’s sight, but to his soul as well. Yet Nature at her best represents more than simply a serene contrast to the city. She is the mystery that “rolls through all things,” the “still, sad music of humanity,” and in her the poet finds the essence of life and growth:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man, 5
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appalls; 10
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blast the new-born infant’s tear, 15
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

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Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
By: William Wordsworth

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, 5
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view 10
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
’Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines 15
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, 20
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: 25
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind 30
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts 35
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight 40
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood 45
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. 50

If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, 55
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought, 60
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts 65
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides 70
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days 75
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, 80
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past, 85
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned 90
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt 95
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air, 100
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods 105
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense 110
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Nor perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more 115
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read 120
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray 125
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed 130
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb 135
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years, 140
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then, 145
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear 150
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came 155
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs, 160
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

The Romantic Manifestos

In an age of technical endeavor, the Romantics called attention to the individual—his feelings, his experiences, his imagination. It is not unusual, then, that poetry would be at the heart of romantic literature. Wordsworth describes poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” But convincing men that the poet’s feelings and creative imagination were “at once the centre and circumference of all knowledge” was not an easy task. The excerpts from Shelley and Wordsworth attempt to define and defend the function of the poet and his poetry against the society described by Thomas Carlyle. While not of a strictly romantic temperament, Carlyle, British historian and social critic, did align himself with the Romantics in lashing out against the materialism and mechanism in society.

Signs of the Times

By: Thomas Carlyle

John Everett Millais, Thomas Carlyle.

Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches, and practices the great art of adapting means to ends. . . . Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. Here too nothing follows its spontaneous course, nothing is left to be accomplished by old natural methods. Everything has its cunningly devised implements, its preestablished apparatus; it is not done by hand, but by machinery. . . . Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand. . . . In defect of Raphaels, and Angelos, and Mozarts, we have Royal Academies of Painting, Sculpture, Music. . . . These things . . . indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavor, and in natural force, of any kind.

Preface To Lyrical Ballads

By: William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

The principal object, then, proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men. . . . Humble and rustic life was generally chosen because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity . . . and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. . . .

What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. . . .

Aristotle, I have been told, has said that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so; its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony. . . . The man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude; the poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.

A Defense of Poetry

By: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Curran, Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819)

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, and their disciples, in favor of depressed and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women, and children burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek Literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief. The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.

We have more moral, poetical and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry, in these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. . . . We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. . . . Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought. . . . Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.


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  • Chateaubriand, François René de (1966). "René". In Mack, Maynard. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces (Fifth Continental ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Co. pp. 1733–1754.
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