Two hundred years ago, the Romantic movement in England was in full swing. Indeed, 1818 was something of a bellwether year for the Romantic poets. The first generation of Romantics — William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Coleridge — were producing their late-career works. The second generation were just stepping into their poetic powers, with John Keats writing “Endymion,” Percy Shelley publishing his masterful “Ozymandias,” Lord Byron completing Childe Harold, and Mary Shelley publishing Frankenstein. Alas, such a creative bounty could not last. By 1830, the major Romantic writing was complete; by 1850, the Romantic poets were all gone. Yet, this small handful of poets left an indelible mark on English literature and did much to shape the modern mind. For better or for worse, we are all still living in the world of the Romantics.
How did this come to pass? Romanticism, which began in Germany and was soon adopted in England, represents a rejection of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that swept Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment was itself a rejection of religious orthodoxy, a new way of understanding the world through rationality and scientific empiricism. Enlightenment thinkers demoted the prevailing Christian deity, instead placing humans at the center of the universe. These thinkers hoped that through rational inquiry, humans could attain endless knowledge and power.
By the turn of the 19th century, the cracks were beginning to show in the temple of the Enlightenment. The poets and philosophers of the burgeoning Romantic movement criticized the cold objectivity and false certainty of the Enlightenment project, valuing instead subjective experience, beauty, and humility before the unknowable grandeur of the cosmos. Rather than look backward to a religious past, the Romantics looked forward to a new kind of humanism that attended to the feelings of the individual and tolerated mystery. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin called Romanticism “the greatest transformation of Western consciousness, certainly in our time.” Let’s look at some of the pleasures and perils unleashed by that great transformation.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
Bowing to Beauty
The pleasures of the Romantic view — and of Romantic poetry — are many. Chief among them is the experience of beauty, which the Romantic poets conveyed to their audiences through their aesthetic powers. While the Romantics were interested in expressing truth, beauty was always an equal, if not greater, goal. Keats even blurred the line between the two in his famous, koan-like formulation: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” The Romantics revelled in beauty of various kinds. There is the physical splendor of the world: “hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind” and “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples… all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” There is also the beauty of art and of poetry itself. The Romantics concocted some of the most gorgeous verse in the English language, from Blake’s incantatory ballads to Shelley’s spare sonnets to Keats’s abundant odes. Their stylistic achievements simultaneously celebrate and create beauty, reminding readers where and how to look for it.
Liberating the Imagination
The Romantics preferred the capacities of the human imagination to those of the rational intellect. The mind’s eye, with its remarkable range and precision, remained a continual source of fascination and creative energy for the Romantic poets. Blake mused that “to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.” The Romantics placed imagination — rather than empiricism — at the start of all knowing, allowing them to remain in a world of subjectivity, imagery, and metaphor. Coleridge wrote elaborately of the imagination, and in his poem “Kubla Khan,” he figured it as a surging river welling up from “caverns measureless to man.” Keats and Wordsworth were masters at tracking the movements of the imagination, writing poems that capture its flights of fancy and dramatic turns. To read Romantic verse is to find the imagination unlocked, expanded, and set free.
Investigating the Interior
One of the greatest contributions of the Romantics was their emphasis on interior experience. Wordsworth in particular revolutionized lyric poetry by turning his poetic gaze inward to trace the subtle, sinuous current of thoughts and feelings flowing within his own consciousness. Wordsworth took his feelings seriously enough to record them carefully, shedding grandiosity for accuracy. As he describes a natural scene in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…
Wordsworth is interested in how the world stirs his heart and, in turn, how his heart absorbs the world. By paying attention to how experiences become internalized, understood, and valued, he completely changed poetry. The majority of English-language poetry since Wordsworth has been written in the Wordsworthian mode. This shift extends beyond poetry into the modern conception of self. Today, it is common for a person to see within herself a vast, dynamic region of interior consciousness that reacts to the world, constantly evaluating and shaping experiences. Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics taught us to look into that space and gave us a language to describe it.
Romantic Unreality & Scientific Stagnation
By eschewing the hunt for absolute, capital-T Truth, the Romantics opened up an exciting landscape for subjective, personal exploration. Free from the demands of Truth, the Romantics found the lowercase-t truths for which the arts are so well equipped. For example, when Keats remarks that “in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,” his statement is impossible to verify in any literal sense. But to those who feel that Keats’s lines are true, the question of literal veracity doesn’t matter.
The danger arises when the Romantic sensibility clouds our investigations into those areas where literal, objective truth does indeed matter. The Romantic map of reality is built on metaphor and feeling. This map is not false so much as limited. Where mere metaphor won’t do, we need to leave the enraptured Romantics on their mountaintop and seek out the nearest laboratory, where Enlightenment-trained empiricists are busy preparing slides for their microscopes.
Why defer to the empiricists? For one thing, the tools of science, bequeathed to us by the agents of the Enlightenment, are our best means of understanding the universe and the forces at play within it. Less than a decade after Wordsworth’s death, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a paradigm-shifting study that proposed the theory of evolution through natural selection. Darwin did not discover the foundations of biology by examining his feelings and then composing supple lines of pentameter. No — he amassed enormous stockpiles of empirical data, carefully observed the phylogenetic relationships between species of flora and fauna, and painstakingly devised his theory. At the very least, the fruits of such empirical investigation are, well, interesting. More importantly, empirical research has allowed us to invent medicines and eradicate famine, saving billions of lives. The Romantic perspective itself isn’t the peril. But the Romantic tendency to turn away from empiricism and other modes of rigorous inquiry is perilous indeed.
As a tool to explore oneself and heighten individual experiences, Romanticism is harmless. But when Romanticism spills into statecraft, the results can be toxic. Here, we need to leave England and its poets behind and head to the European continent. During the 19th century, the rise of European nationalism occurred in tandem with the rise of Romantic values; the two movements fueled one another. If this trend seems strange, consider that nationalism itself is a fundamentally irrational project. For a group of complete strangers to band together and place their collective faith on a fictional state, they need much more than empiricism, skepticism, and rationality. They need to feel stirred, moved, emotionally engaged by national myths and anthems. They need Romanticism!
Why is this a problem? Nationalism in itself is not a bad thing. But the Romantic project of concocting national stories and songs can have tragic consequences. As an example, look no further than the German Romantic composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), every bit a child of the Romantic movement. Wagner embodied Romantic idealism, striving to craft his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art,” by combining music, poetry, and visual art in his grand operas. The Romantic tendency towards yearning finds no more explicit expression than in his opera Tristan and Isolde, in which a sorrowful melody searches for its resolution for four hours. Wagner also embodied the spirit of the new German state, which achieved political unification in 1848. In his most influential work, The Ring of the Nibelung, or simply, The Ring Cycle, Wagner concocts a fairytale myth about the roots of the German people. The story pits a race of Germanic gods against the Nibelungs, a race of gold-hoarding dwarves that figures as a thinly veiled allegory for Germany’s Jewish citizens. In Wagner’s vision we find the chief ill of nationalism: its capacity to descend into tribalistic myth-making, racism, and us-versus-them thinking. Unfortunately, Wagner’s grandiose operas and anti-Semitic writings fell into the wrong hands, deeply influencing Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich half a century later.
If all of this seems to have nothing to do with the English Romantic poets, consider that William Blake, in true Wagnerian style, concocted his own national myth about England, which he named “Albion” and deemed a holy land whose people descend from a race of ancient giants. Blake’s thinking was not racist like Wagner’s and did not result in political catastrophe, but one can clearly see their shared Romantic roots. Unlike Germany’s response to Wagner, England has taken Blake’s fantasies for what they are: rich, poetic reveries. This is fortunate, because Romantic ideas, handled literalistically and deployed at a political scale, fall apart and end in tragedy.
The Romantic movement has had a tremendous impact on the world we inhabit today. That impact is neither strictly good or bad; rather, the movement has presented us with both gifts and pitfalls. As artists and explorers of the heart, the Romantics are unrivaled. As scientists or politicians, they’re out of their depth. Perhaps the best way to view Romanticism is as a lens that excels in certain scenarios.
Say we are gazing up at the night sky, its dark reaches strewn across with the moon, the stars, and the other planets. If we want to understand how those bodies burn and spin through the heavens, we should go to Galileo, Newton, and their successors. If we want to grasp the grandeur and wonder of those bodies, eternal compared to our ephemeral selves, then Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats make perfect company. Faced with the competing legacies of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, we need not choose one or the other. We can choose both.