Today, we begin a series of four lectures that examines the “isms” the nineteenth century brought the world. If there is one thing that were can say about Europe in the nineteenth century, it’s that it seemed consumed with ideologies. The world after 1789 became increasingly political. At the level of cultural discussion, almost everyone seemed to be explaining the world, re-imagining the world, or just taking critical positions for or against this, that, and the other thing that irked, irritated, pleased, or satisfied. I want to begin our discussion of this post-revolutionary intellectual ferment by discussing one of the most difficult “isms” to define, Romanticism. What is this thing? If we look critically at the movement that scholars today called Romanticism, we see a grab bag of people with different politics, religions, nationalities, creative specialties, historical attitudes, and the list could go on. Therein lies the problem with talking about Romanticism, it is an “ism,” but it is not like the readily identifiable movements such as Marxism, Liberalism, or Conservatism. It seems to hover above politics, touching it without actually being political.
Romanticism is best described as a style, mood, or even emphasis. This new mood had a significant impact on every aspect of European society, bringing change to art, music, literature, the human sense of self, the approach to nature, and even altered how people thought about politics. We will discuss all these areas throughout this lecture, but first we need to gain a clearer understanding of Romanticism by comparing it to what came before, the Enlightenment. You will recall from the first few lectures that I described the Enlightenment as a critical movement that was concerned with understanding and also reforming the world. Central to this mission was the cultivation of reason. Romanticism was a reaction against this emphasis on reason. Enlightened writers, musicians, painters, and politicians emphasized elegance, restraint, proportion, and taste. This combination of characteristics represents, in a nutshell, eighteenth-century salon and court life. In contrast, Romantic writers, musicians, painters, and politicians emphasized authenticity, desire, energy, and subjectivity.
What we begin to see as we move from the Enlightenment into Romanticism are major shifts in emphasis: a shift from universal to individual, from detachment to passion, from human-cultivated environments to nature. One example of this is the change in garden styles. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people prized French Gardens, which were carefully cultivated and usually laid out in a geometric pattern. By 1800, however, the soc-called English Garden had become the rage. Here nature was supposed to be set free, with trees planted at random, and paths laid out to meander through the park. There is no real distinction between the two; to plan any garden is to intervene in nature. But that people thought this distinction between the unnatural and the natural to have been important tells you something about the new mindset.
From here, I am going to pursue different aspects of Romanticism in the cultural realm. I will discuss music, art, architecture, and literature. Then I will finish with a brief discussion of politics.
If we can identify an origin for Romanticism it is to be found in Germany, beginning in the 1790s. Writers such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schlegel, Jean Paul, Novalis, and Ludwig Tieck built on the interest in subjectivity, sensibility, and emotion that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller had introduced into German literature in the 1770s. In their younger days, before they became stodgy conservative types, Goethe and Schiller were at the center of a literary movement that came to be known as the Storm and Stress, or Sturm und Drang. The Sturm und Drang had, in turn, been heavily influenced by the interest in sensibility that characterized the work of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France. You should note, however, that the German Romantics were much younger than Goethe and Schiller, and this is something that will unify all Romantics. Their relationship to the world had been shaped by a combination of youth and the French Revolution. The Revolutionary era had a way of making it seem that all the old things were outdated. Hölderlin, for example, tried to integrate his religious yearnings with classical literary models and became very interested in mystical forces, even dedicating himself in one poem to what he called the forces of the night. The German Romantics were, as a group, intensely emotional and self-centered. Hölderlin tried to make off with another man’s wife because of the spiritual connection he and she felt; he failed and began a long slide into insanity. Friedrich Schlegel, however, succeeded in luring a different woman, Brendel Mendelssohn, away from her husband, creating a major scandal in the process.
The Romantics emphasized subjective experience heavily, always concerned with documenting what they felt and why, and then acting on those feelings. Along these lines, one of the stranger things the German Romantics did is to have busts made of themselves that they sent to their friends. Each friend would then write a detailed letter about what contemplating that bust’s visage made them feel. (There is, as you can guess, a deep connection between the aesthetics of Romanticism and the nineteenth-century pseudo-science phrenology.) This early group of Romantics then gave way to a second, even younger group that included Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim, Joseph Görres, E.T.A. Hoffman, and Joseph von Eichendorff. What we see in these later writers is a growing interest in the supernatural and the horrible. E.T.A. Hoffmann is a good example, as his stories and novels were populated with ghost, specters, and evil spirits that moved back and forth between the natural and supernatural world.
A similar literary awakening occurred in England, though a little later. English Romanticism supposedly began in 1798 with the publication of William Wordsworth’s famous poetical work “Lyrical Ballads.” I have already mentioned Wordsworth in a previous lecture, because he helps us identify the importance of youth to Romanticism. Referring to the French Revolution, he wrote in Book 11 of The Prelude, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Wordsworth was part of a group of very young men that met regularly to discuss poetry and plumb the depths of their souls. The list of characters includes Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southey, and the scientist Humphry Davy, who mistakenly fancied himself a poet. One of the strange things Coleridge, Southey, and Davy did was to inhale the recently discovered gas nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. You can imagine the fun they must have had getting high and writing poetry. These writers then inspired another generation of Romantic writers. Names such as John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley come to the fore. Lord Byron was so passionately committed to a better world that he went to Greece to foment an uprising, where he died of a fever in 1824.
There were more Romantic writers in other parts of Europe, but due to the limits on our time, we must now consider art. It is in art that we can really see how important subjectivity and personal passion were to the Romantics. In this next part of the lecture, we will consider important Romantic painters from the English, French, and German traditions. We will begin with the Englishman Joseph Turner and the Swiss-born English immigrant Henry Fuseli. Turner brought English landscape painting to its height, and he particular signifies the new importance of nature to the artist. In Maggiore (1819) he made subtle use of colors and drew the viewer into the scene. Contemplating nature was meant to evoke a feeling within the viewer. Henry Fuseli points our attention to supernatural themes that we have already discussed. His painting The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1796) depicts the Greek Goddess Hecate being drawn to an infant whose blood was the object of magical desire. Here the strange and wicked reminds the viewer of dark and evil forces that permeate the world.
In France, Théodore Géricault provides another good example of the Romantic emphasis on depicting and inspiring feelings. His painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) was based on a contemporary shipwreck, in which French sailors floated on a raft for days off the Senegalese coast. The canvas is full of emotion and despair. It is difficult to be unmoved by the story of suffering in this picture. (Géricault was also no fan of the Restoration.) Another French painter who emphasized emotion, though in a way different from Géricault, is Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). His 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People on the Barricades is an optimistic and liberal interpretation of France’s Revolution of 1830. Here
emotion entered battle, while on a world stage.
In Germany, we find similar themes, the emphasis on emotions, and the inclusion of spirits in the world. In no case is this clearer than Philip Otto Runge’s work. In Morning (1808), Runge includes both landscape imagery and angels all over the place, a melding of the yearning for both the natural and the spiritual. Perhaps the most famous of the German Romantic painters is Caspar David Friedrich. In his work we see the emphasis on loneliness and the attempt to evoke a particular feeling in the viewing subject. Two paintings are particularly illustrative. The first is the Lonely Tree (1822) in which Friedrich places something completely normal, a tree, into an open area whose open space conveys separation and loneliness. Friedrich’s use of loneliness as a theme encapsulates the yearning for totality that characterized much of Romanticism. Art was now the way to heal what had been broken. We see find the same theme in the famous The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Here the viewer is invited to contemplate his or her own sense of difference and separation by considering the feelings the wanderer had while looking out over nature’s panorama.
From art we turn to music. There is a difference between Classical eighteenth-century music and later Romantic music, though it is difficult to place it exactly in time. Some composers included elements of both Classical and Romantic music in their work, and it can be difficult to pinpoint clear differences. Fore example, although there is a world of difference between Bach and Beethoven, Beethoven and Mozart share important characteristics, even if Mozart was no a Romantic. The main element of Romantic music is its emphasis on originality and freedom over form. Older, more rigid musical arrangements were thrown aside and a series of new forms appeared such as the capriccio, the intermezzo, the lied, the mazurka, the nocturne, and the prelude. Two new interests also appeared that were of fundamental importance for nineteenth-century music, the human voice and the piano. As older forms were rejected, the voice became ever more prominent in Romantic music and was intermingled more extensively with a variety of instruments. Franz Schubert’s Lieder are a classic case, as the piano and the singer were brought together almost as one instrument. Ludwig van Beethoven’s inclusion of song in the Ninth Symphony is, perhaps, the most famous example. In France, Frédéric Chopin took the piano to new heights, making his music personal and intensely emotional. Romantics followed other important themes as well. Pyotr Tchaikovsky put the world historical event Napoleon’s War of 1812 to music, and later in the nineteenth century Edvard Grieg did the same for folk tales.
Now, let us take Romanticism into the political realm. We will begin with history and philosophy. As we consider history and Romanticism, it immediately becomes apparent that Romanticism did not support any particular ideology. The French historians Jules Michelet and Alphonse Lamartine supported the French revolution, seeing it as passion written into historical events. We have already seen this kind of sentiment in Delacroix, who was both a Romantic and a liberal. However, the conservative Frenchman Francois Chateaubriand turned against the French Revolution and began to seek certainty in religion. In 1802, he published a famous book The Genius of Christianity. This is an important text for us, because it highlights a central concern of conservative Romanticism, namely the search for political authority in realms outside of politics. For Chateaubriand, the glory of Christianity was found not necessarily in its truth, but in its rituals and in the hierarchy it created. Many Romantics who yearned for hierarchy became both political conservatives and Catholics. Friedrich Schlegel is a good example. But there were also Romantic Catholics that followed a liberal line, such as Johann Joseph Görres. We can trace Romanticism’s ambiguous political effects even further in the British Romantics. William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey all began as young French-Revolutionary liberals. Yet all of them were ultimately disappointed by it. Wordsworth withdrew from politics, retreating into an aesthetic realm. Coleridge, for his part, followed much the same line, but also became an even firmer Christian. Finally, Robert Southey became an unabashed English Tory.
Now let us conclude, by summarizing and looking ahead. Romanticism rejected the classical enlightened ideals of order, harmony, and balance. It emphasized the individual, the irrational, and the imagination. It found beauty in nature, not in human-created order. It was often deeply interested in the past for its own sake. It also worshipped genius of all types, whether the artist or the world-historical political figure, such as Napoleon. These characteristics also led Romanticism in to more troubling realms, however. The tendency toward irrationalism also turned Romantics toward the folk past, which became one of the foundations of modern nationalism. Romantics became interested in the ways of the people, collecting folk tales and national poems. The modern disciplines of folklore and historical linguistics find their origins, for example, in the work of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected German fairy tales and legends. In prizing the natural and the historical, Europe’s Romantics helped to propel Europe on what was, ultimately, a destructive path. It was the Romantics who discovered the nation, and nations would become a central problem for the new regime.