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Romanticism a Fair Term?
The period between the French Revolution (1789) and the first two decades of the 1800s has been called the "Age of Romanticism." The mature work, specifically of English Romantic authors, covers the years of 1789 through 1823. By its' nature using an "ism" to classify a group of work by a number of authors limits discussion. An "ism" also implies that all of the authors fit into a nice, neat category. Many of the authors in Britain did have similar views of the world and similar styles of writing, but to apply the term Romanticism to all of these writers oversimplifies the work that these authors did. It is unfair to blindly use Romanticism to explain the writing of all these authors.
To have a reasonable discussion of the fairness of the term Romanticism, a good starting point is the dictionary definition of romantic. According to The New Webster's Dictionary of the English Language -- International Edition romantic has two meanings.
"1. adj. Of or pertaining to romance, a romantic novel, a romantic situation || susceptible to romance, a romantic person || not based on fact, fanciful, or exaggerated, a romantic rendering of the facts || (loosely) far-fetched, not very practical, a romantic scheme Romantic of, relating to or having the characteristics of Romanticism 2. n, a romantic person Romantic an exponent of Romanticism romantically adv. Romanticism n. The quality or state of being romantic Romanticism a movement in literature, philosophy, and art which developed in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th cc."
The dictionary continues on to explain the history of the movement and identifies Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth among others as Romantic poets. Even the dictionary seeks to group everyone together to create a definition.
Understanding the historical context of the Romantic Movement provides additional insight into the characteristics associated with Romanticism. Romanticism was a reaction against the view that everything was mechanical and could be explained rationally. The movement also grew out of a reaction against the subversion of the ideals of the French Revolution. Robespierre's excesses and Napoleon's dictatorship ran counter to the goal of republicanism in France. The manifestation of the Romantic reaction was an emphasis on individuality, on the superiority of the spiritual over the rational, and on the universe as a growing, changing entity. Even with these common characteristics the actual implementation of these principles in writing was vastly different among the authors who are all considered under the heading of romantic author.
So far the term Romanticism has helped place a historical boundary around an era. In history we like to assume that a major event such as the French Revolution marks the complete end of one era and the beginning of another. Of course this is not true and is particularly false in the case of the literature produced between 1789 and 1832. Even though Romanticism proves to be a convenient way to refer to the period 1789 -- 1832 in English literature, it does not mean that Romanticism is effective in categorizing the authors of the era. In fact the emphasis on individuality resulted in very different works by the various authors depending on their personal experiences. Spirituality affected the work of the various authors in different ways. Spirituality is a very personal thing. Each person's spirit is unique to that individual. The uniqueness of each person's spirit resulted in a range of work by the authors that does not fit into one simple category. Authors exposed their emotions in their work. As with any group of people there are as many different emotions as there are people. Some writers tended to be pessimistic and others optimistic. The focus on the universe as growing and changing applied to the evolution of the writing of these authors. Their themes and styles evolved as their writing matured. In some cases the authors evolved away from the qualities associated with Romanticism.
Differences in political orientation argue against the blanket classification of many authors as romantics. Based on the single definition of Romanticism all of the authors should have had conservative political views and should have been inclined to adopt Catholic religion or at least seek closer ties between the Church of England and the Church in Rome. In fact the authors who are called romantics represented the entire range of political and religious orientation from conservatives seeking a stronger role for the monarchy to liberals, even radicals, seeking drastic changes from the rational, mechanical direction of the Enlightenment. The usual definition of Romanticism includes a return to the thinking of prior eras. However not all of the authors agreed on the appropriate prior era on which to focus their writing. Some writers focused on the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, while others focused on the Middle Ages for inspiration. The choice of which era on which to focus had a substantial effect on an author's view of religion. The ancient civilizations observed the deity of multiple gods, where as the people of the Middle Ages believed in a single God and followed the practices of the Catholic Church. The writing by these authors who found inspiration in the ancient cultures used the various myths of that era to supply substance for their writing. Paganism exhibited in the writing of these authors was in sharp contrast to the monotheistic, strongly Catholic Church direction of other romantic authors. There was still another group of authors who rejected religion, although they did have a religious feeling, but did not identify with any type of formal religion. This group spawned a philosophy of disbelief contrary to the firm belief expounded by most of the other authors considered to be romantics. Often there was a distinction between faith in God exhibited by adherence to formal religion and pure mysticism that did not necessarily equate to a belief in God. Those writers who practiced mysticism were searching for something that would help them believe in God because the Church did not supply them with convincing, compelling sensations.
Romanticism encompasses so many qualities that nearly every author of the period could be called a romantic. Every author's work had at least one element that fits into the vast definition of Romanticism. The term really does not help to identify the distinctiveness of a particular form of writing. Part of the reaction to the prior era of structured poetry was to throw away the formal constrictions required during the rational, mechanical era. Poets exercised these new freedoms and expressed their individuality in numerous, different ways. Poetry no longer had to follow a specific form; the poet could compose poetry in any way he wanted. Each poet's personality made their poetic style unlike the style of other poets. The subject matter of poems varied widely. Some poets were known for their interest in unusual lands and unusual creatures.
As mentioned in the dictionary definition of Romanticism, there tended to be a degree of exaggeration by some of the authors. This was not true of all Romantic writers. The historical writers of the time were particularly proud of their thorough research into the lives and events about which they wrote. Historians were good storytellers because they wanted to write history that would appeal to a large readership, not just to other historians. In the effort to write a good story, the historians did not sacrifice accuracy. On the other hand some of the novelists of the period did portray an extreme picture that had some links to reality, but extended well beyond reality. Eventually even the novelists used more accurate settings for their novels. This is another example of the evolution of the so-called Romantic novelists who changed their style as their writing matured. They grew as they wrote more.
The writers did elevate the importance of nature. Man was incomplete if he did not form a bond with nature. Some writers drew from actual experience by living in the wilderness. They built a special relationship and could share their experiences with their readers. Other writers did write about nature, but it was not based on actual experience. These writers fantasized about the way that man could relate to nature. Often times they wrote about how less civilized man had a much closer connection to nature than the highly cultured man. They made assumptions about the less civilized man and did not have the benefit of direct experience. The organic characteristics of nature were applied to the characteristics of the universe. The universe was in a state of constant change as was nature. A writer describing the universe today could easily describe the universe differently next year. So even the same writer did not necessarily come to the same conclusions year after year.
Romanticism is a convenient way to refer to a period of time in history, but going beyond the historical application of the term is inappropriate. The attempt to identify a large number of authors under a single heading glosses over the…[continue]
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