The Romantic movement began in the late eighteenth century as European cosmology shifted from a concept of the universe as a static mechanism to one of a dynamic organism. Rather than being perfect cogs in a celestial machine, people became individuals... [more]
The Romantic movement began in the late eighteenth century as European cosmology shifted from a concept of the universe as a static mechanism to one of a dynamic organism. Rather than being perfect cogs in a celestial machine, people became individuals with particular essences; the universe became creative, and the possibility for progress permeated the arts. Rather than writing from the Fancy or from Reason, as the increasingly outdated Neo-Classicists (such as Alexander Pope) advocated, the new generation of poets looked to the imagination and emotion to guide their art.
This shift meant, among other things, that Romantic poetry began with the self, not because the poets felt that the ego was self-sufficient, but because they saw sincerity as the test of truth. Reason and logic yielded the known and the limited, but the sincerity of one's own sensations, or 'the spontaneous overflow of emotion' as Wordsworth noted, unites passion with imagination and, ultimately Nature. For the Romantics, nature was the seat of power, inscrutability, and transcendence, and it yielded symbols and metaphors that connected humanity with the Absolute. The poet's job was to intuit the interrelationship of spirit and nature, and to perceive an order that reveals truth and beauty.
Romanticism's self-expressive roots flourished in Germany's Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) arts movement of the late 1700s. Struck by the idealist philosophies of Hegel, Kant, and Rousseau, artists like Goethe and Schiller vowed to revere the shrinking natural world, privilege the individual over the institution, and champion emotional experience over dry intellectualism. From this initial outburst, English Romantics like William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed the domains of childhood, peasant life, and communion with nature in their exploration of the soul's possibility for goodness, beauty, and truth.
Of course, inherent in this search for truth and beauty were questions of mortality, mutability, and evil. The later generation of Romantic poets, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats took up these questions in long poems such as Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound,' Byron's 'Manfred,' and Keats' 'Hyperion.'
In the great wilderness of America, the Romantic impulse swept the mid-century, with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry David Thoreau writing about the unfathomable power of nature and the secret undercurrent of madness that nestled within science's cold heart. Charles Baudelaire single-handedly resuscitated the dormant Romantic spirit in France, inspiring the subsequent movements of Decadence, Symbolism, and ultimately, Surrealism. In Germany, Romanticism never lost its aesthetic credentials; its melancholy, idealistic spirit spurred forward the iconoclastic philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, the mythic novels of Thomas Mann, and the lyric poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. [show less]