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What is Romanticism?

Are you a Romantic? If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking ‘what’s a Romantic?’, and you’d be forgiven. Despite its wide-ranging influence on just about everything, many people can not give an ample explanation of what Romanticism actually is. So, who knows, after you’ve read this, you may think you’re the expressive, emotional, nature-loving type.

Romanticism, or the Romantic movement, traces its roots back to Europe in the latter half of the 18th century, as the world was becoming increasingly scientific and rational. It is characterised by its emphasis on the individual and their emotions, the idealization of nature, and a suspicion of industrialization. As such, they herald a Medieval ‘golden age’, before the world was engulfed by the steam, smoke and machines of 19th-century capitalism. Its influence has been keenly felt in politics as well, influencing conservatives, liberals, radicals and nationalists alike.[1]

To get a better understanding of the focus romantics have on emotion and nature, we must pay a visit to the world of music, art and literature. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is perhaps the most famous painter to embody this, whose German

Romantic landscapes typically featured night skies, morning mists and ruins. Friedrich’s primary interests as an artist were centred around a contemplation of nature and conveying emotion through his depictions of landscapes, buildings, and symbols of the natural world. [2] He is also credited for his saying “the artist’s feeling is his law” – which has come to embody romanticism and its worship of emotion and expression.

Now, it would be preposterous if I were to not include some of our favourite poets in our exploration of romanticism, so now we turn to what Shakespeare termed ‘a blessed plot’, now we turn, to England. The School of Life refers to romanticism, not as a piece of technology or event, but a set of ideas that changed the way we looked at nature, children, love, sex, and work. [3] Nobody did that better than the most famous of all English poets. In 1799 William Wordsworth moves into Dove Cottage, Grasmere, and it is in this quaint cottage on the edge of the Lake District that Wordsworth would compose some of his finest works. Many of these works celebrated nature and greenery, and being in the company of oak trees, flowers and rivers, Wordsworth showed a disdain for the progress being made by the mechanized, technological world.

Perhaps a precursor to today’s oil-throwing, road-blocking, milk-pouring climate activists we see today, Wordsworth and his followers led a campaign against a proposal to direct a railway line through the Lake District. Perhaps it is to him that we should give thanks for that most beautiful part of our ‘blessed plot’.

Such recognition of the beauty in nature extends its long arm into the infant United States, as the English-American painter Thomas Cole depicts Niagara Falls in 1830, encapsulating a love for the natural, unvarnished world. As Romanticism continues its long, graceful sweep across Europe, different painters from different nations are joined by their depictions of landscapes and areas of the earth that are yet to be penetrated by the wheels of business.

But these artists’ love for the natural, simplified existence embodies something much more. Emotion and repression become recurring themes in Romanticism, and their rejection of the mechanised world focuses on the repression that nature is being subject to at the hands of organized science and industry. No one’s life symbolised this more than that of Thomas Chatterton, who, in 1770, poisoned himself as his political and artistic works failed to gain him publicity.[4] Romantic sympathisers in subsequent decades have come to realize Chatterton as a martyr, and an embodiment of the belief that we should place more emphasis on feeling than rationality.

This belief pops up again in Germany, in 1774, when the poet, playwright and novelist, Goethe, pens The Sorrows of Young Werther. This work made Goethe a formidable celebrity in both the wider literary market and the proto-romantic scene. The plot centres around Werther, a young man whose suicide was in response to unrequited love, and celebrates the irrational. Such was the influence of Goethe’s work, that the first known examples of ‘copycat suicide’ were traced to the novel. Indeed, rumour had it that the book was often found at suicide scenes. [5]

Overall, Romanticism has been a force throughout the world since the 18th century and has influenced how many of us view art and nature. But perhaps its lasting effect has been how we look at love and relationships. In 1812, the first Earl of Durham, John Lambton, married Harriet Cholmondeley in the haven of Gretna Green, just over the border into Scotland. The couple had eloped to Scotland to escape the English law that forbade marriage without parental consent, consent which neither party had.[6] Their marriage marked a new idea in a time when conventional attitudes of practicality and economic prospects still prevailed: that marriage was about love. Young couples in the Regency era and beyond were representing a notion that their parents and grandparents had not entertained and were fighting against the conventional idea that one married for social and economic interests, but because of love or emotion.

You’d be mistaken for thinking that nature-loving romanticism has nothing to do with politics, because it does. With the emergence of romantic nationalism, a broad and fascinating political idea, the concept of being part of a nation was tied down to folklore, legend and ethnic unity. Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that a ‘country’ is not defined by race but culture, had a significant influence on the Brothers Grimm, who created a collection of stories designed to be quintessentially German. [7] Romantic nationalism in itself is such a big idea and so broad that it can be attributed to the role of folklore and literature in creating culture, the creation of new, independent European nations, and even the rise of Nazi Germany. But that’s for another day.

I hope you can now decide whether you are a nature-loving, capitalism sceptic. And whilst it may not be the most popular or renowned philosophy, romanticism definitely deserves a chapter or two in the history books.


Edited and Reviewed by Tanish Bagga.


References/ Further Reading:










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