Whenever I talk about Romanticism to people who aren’t as geekish as me when it comes to literature, they tend to think I’m referring to some movement started by Danielle Steele. “Why would you take a course called ‘Romantic Literature and Culture’–I thought you hated romance novels!” It’s a sad state of affairs when a highly impassioned and influential aesthetic movement is completely overshadowed by a silly genre rife with hack writers, thanks to an unfortunate similarity in naming. Oh well; if nothing else, clearing this misunderstanding up allows me to do what I love–blather on about literature.
Romanticism–at least Romantic literature–has its roots in writers like William Blake, William Wordsworth, and the ever opium-loving Sam Coleridge, who were all writing from a point of view in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that contradicted the scientific rationalization of the world so piously upheld by the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment. These so-called Englightened thinkers saw nature as knowable and therefore controllable; Romantics, on the other hand, saw nature as wild, untambeable, and overwhelmingly sublime. Along similar lines, the Romantics upheld individual imagination and powerful emotions, which contrasts directly with the Enlightenment’s firm advocacy of reason; after all, imagination and emotions are anything but reasonable. And so, we get poems like William Blake’s “London,” in which we get descriptions of woeful chimney sweeps and blind, suffering infants that arouse powerful feelings of pity; we get William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” in which the poet ruminates on the sublime qualities of nature as he looks upon the abandoned, decaying church; and we get Sam Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet discusses the comforting qualities of nature and his hyperbolic hopes that his son will live a life connected to nature. We also get, I should note, Mary Shelley‘s deliciously Romantic novel, Frankenstein (1818), in which the titular doctor is constantly portrayed as being quite intellectual, but also quite sensitive and even somewhat wild.
The European Romantic movement was paralleled by an American Romantic movement, which in many ways influenced and was influenced by its adherents across the sea. There is the wonderfully bizarre early American novel, Wieland (1798), in which the main character becomes a member of a fanatical and bloody religious cult and murders his wife and children under the influence of a demonic ventriloquist; the novel even features spontaneous combustion, anticipating the spontaneous combustion of drummers in This Is Spinal Tap by about 120 years. While this predates the Romantic era in Europe by a few years, it nevertheless exemplifies the Romantic movement’s overt evocation of emotions and descriptions of wild and untameable nature (surely, the poor man in the story would not spontaneously combust if he could control it…). Of particular note is that the novel predominantly evokes horror, which would in turn later become a topic of great interest for Romantic authors such as Mary Shelley just a couple decades later. Another profoundly Romantic American novel–more famous, perhaps, than any other Romantic work–is Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which the crazed Captain Ahab fanatically seeks out the titular giant white whale. To be sure, the monstrous whale is a symbol for the sublime–and dangerous–qualities of nature. Imagine, for example, that you are on a ship at sea and see a giant sperm whale charging you; wouldn’t you suddenly feel small and pitifully insignficant? Certainly, most readers of Moby-Dick have and will; the novel’s terrifying depictions of awe-inspiring nature (via the whale) have no doubt led to the cause of its massive and continued appeal.
Romanticism had a profound effect on the literature and culture of the Western world even after its disappearance from mainstream thought and practice. Take, for example, the fervent, almost melodramatic emotions that run amok throughout all of the principle characters in Dickens‘ Great Expectations and Tolkien‘s depictions of nature as being wild, untameable, and sublime in the Lord of the Rings. Readers today tend to see Romantic writing as “cheesy” and “trite,” especially when you have guys like Coleridge hyperbolizing left and right (“But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…”). Then again, this Romantic style of writing has only become trite because it has been copied by a plethora of imitators over the last 150 years, a sure sign of its lasting effect. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine literature after the mid-19th century without the impassioned Romantic movement; surely, literature would have become very boring, indeed.
I, for one, will gladly take spontaneous combustion over anything “rational” any day.