From its earliest manifestations in Germany, with the Sturm und Drang Movement of the 1770’s, to its vibrant first flowering in England in the 1790’s, to its importation to American soil from the 1820’s onward, Romanticism has exerted a powerful hold on Western thought and culture. The Age of Enlightenment, as the 18th century was named for its emphasis on reason and its optimistic faith in a perfectible material and spiritual universe, immolated itself in the flames of the revolutions which closed that century. And as Europe and America arose phoenix-like from the ashes, a bold new vision had taken hold. The birth of Romanticism is, as historian Paul Johnson has written, also the birth of the modern.
Romanticism, more than anything else, is the cult of the individual–the cultural and psychological nativity of the I–the Self–the inner spark of divinity that links one human being to another and all human beings to the Larger Truth. In poetry, visual art, and music, artists became increasingly preoccupied with articulating the personal experience that becomes, in turn, a representative one. The Poet–the artist in all his various incarnations–takes on quasi-religious status not only as prophet and moral leader, but also as a divinely inspired vehicle through which Nature and the common man find their voices.
For the Romantics, concern for the common man evolved not only from the democratic ideologies of the Age of Revolution, but also from a renewed interest in folk culture. While the search to preserve stories, songs, legends, and verse was born, in part, from a nationalistic impulse, the Folk Movement conversely became the conduit for an international language of human commonality, at whose center stood the images of home and the heart.
In aesthetic terms this individuality translated into the revolution of feeling against form–the rejection of classical equipoise in favor of Romantic asymmetry. Romantic poets, painters, and musicians ceased struggling to make their expression fit conventional forms; they boldly carved out new forms to encase their expression and thought. Ever striving, ever in flux, the Romantic Soul required an equally dynamic new language to make itself understood.
Embracing the unknown, and unafraid of the contraries of human existence, the Romantics overthrew the philosophical, artistic, and even geographical limitations of the Enlightenment. The quintessential Romantic figure was the Wanderer, literally and figuratively journeying in search of new lands, new places in the imagination, and new vistas for the soul. Exotic lands, the amorphous world of dreams, the dark terrors of the psyche as well as the dizzying heights of creativity and the dazzling beauties of Nature–these were all way stations along the Romantic quester’s route.
For the Romantic, Nature was a constant companion and teacher–both benign and tyrannical. She became the stage on which the human drama was played, the context in which man came to understand his place in the universe, the transforming agent that harmonized the individual soul with what the Transcendentalists would call the Over-Soul. Throughout all of Romantic literature, music, and art, Nature is a dynamic presence, a character who speaks in a language of symbols at once mysterious and anthropomorphic, who engages man in a dialogue with the life-force itself.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Image: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, at age 69, painted 1828 by Joseph Karl Stieler