Friday, April 20, 2007

Introduction to Romanticism

  1. Emerging in the late eighteenth century and extending until the late nineteenth century, Romanticism broke with earlier models of thinking that were guided by rationalism and empiricism. Instead, Romanticism valorized the particular over the universal and the individual over the collective. In the work of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, children and so-called primitives were exalted for being closer to nature and to a less corrupted understanding of the human world.
  2. After the American and French revolutions, faith in social institutions declined considerably; no longer were systems that were organized around hierarchy and the separation of classes considered superior. The generation of writers and poets emerging in postrevolution Europe and North America often used their writings to explore the oppression of disenfranchised groups, particularly women. In France and the United States, belief in the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were strongly promoted. However, as we see in the writings of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, this belief in equality did not necessarily extend to people of other races. While women, children, and "savages" were exalted for their ability to feel and behave spontaneously, there was little change in how these groups were treated. William Wordsworth's description of the poet as a man speaking to men about emotion and lost feeling overlooks the fact that many women, including his sister Dorothy and other female authors ranging from RosalÌa de Castro to Anna Petrovna Bunina and Emily Dickinson, were poets.
  3. Following the 1776 publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, capitalist theories of money and economy began to be widely circulated. As manufacturing and industrialization developed, resulting in a decline in the agricultural economy, a "middle class" began to emerge in England and other parts of Europe. Access to education, the enlarged possibilities of manufacture and trade, and the availability of other forms of power previously considered to be the privilege of the aristocracy were now more within the grasp of other social classes. With the growth of manufacturing, rapid developments took place in science and engineering. The steam engine, cotton gin, and spinning jenny are all inventions of the time. During this period of change, often labeled as "progress," cities became more populated, thus creating problems of overpopulation, poverty, pollution, and congestion. William Blake's poetry, for instance, critiques the negative impact of "progress" on the lives of the middle and urban working class.
  4. Locating authority in the self rather than in the collective is a distinctive feature of Romanticism. Belief in the supposed universality of human experience was replaced by a stronger belief in the uniqueness of human experiences. Breaking with the Christian belief that the self is essentially "evil" and fallible, Romantic poets and authors often explored the "good" inherent in human beings. In addition, authors explored and portrayed the grotesque and deviant aspects of human behavior. French author Victor Hugo deals with the psychic nature of Satan, and Russian author Alexander Pushkin writes about the human obsession with money. The interest in the nature of feelings lead to a thematic focus on intense emotions. Continental and British poets such as Giacomo Leopardi, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Friedrich H-lderlin, RosalÌa de Castro, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and William Blake explored the painful and pleasurable dimensions of emotions in their poetry.
  5. As the middle class rose to ascendancy in the nineteenth century, new approaches to science, class, and race began to shake middle-class society's values. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) clearly explained humanity's nontranscendent origins, thus contradicting the biblical stories of creation and ideas about a paradise on earth. Within eight years, the publication of Karl Marx's Das Kapital prophesized the fall of capitalism and the emergence of a working class. Across the Atlantic, the raging civil war began to challenge ideals and ideas about slavery and racial difference. For many, the challenges to authority and knowledge led to an interest in the experiences of the private self. The voices of women and blacks were being recorded and heard.
  6. As a by-product of the interest in the private self, and in the context of the social and political chaos, Romantic poets began to explore the virtues of imagination. Imagination was seen as a way for the soul to link with the eternal. While originality and genius were idealized, Goethe's Faust cautioned against the dangers of unrelentingly pursuing new experiences.
  7. By the nineteenth century, Romantic poets and writers turned to nature as a source of inspiration. While the working class migrated to the city, the educated classes were able to revel nostalgically in their love for the natural world. Writing about nature and its profound beauty offered Romantic poets the ability to escape imaginatively and literally from the troubles of the human world. Meditations on nature also encompassed reflections on the idealized state of being "primitive" and "uncivilized" peoples. Many poets turned to earlier times and to "other" ethnicities and groups to extol the virtues of simpler times in the past or the simple ways of others, in contrast to the supposed pressures and corruption of civilized contemporary Europe. The new thematic emphases of poetry—belief in the virtues of nature, the "primitive," the past—engendered a form of alienation that was described in the "social protest" poetry of Romantic poets, most notably Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley. According to them, society's complicity in defiling nature, corrupting society, and oppressing people served the interests of industry and "progress." Hope, in their estimation, lay not in engaging with society, but by distancing from it.
source: the Norton Anthology of World Literature


Anonymous said...

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