"Romanticism" and "romantic" are protean words, the despair of a rigorous semanticist. They designate a generally accepted period, especially in literature and the arts, of Western cultural history, roughly from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century.
They embrace a cluster or syndrome of ideas about the true, the good, the beautiful, philosophical ideas both in the popular and in the technical sense, ideas endlessly debated in the last few centuries.
Although the behavioral scientists groping to establish a rigorous classification of human personality generally eschew the word, romantic remains in common use to describe a temperament or personality often, perhaps usually, held to be a constitutional element of an individual and at least in part independent of cultural fashion.
|W. T. Jones|
In all these senses "romanticism" and "romantic" cover a multitude of particulars that in a given combination can appear very different, if not mutually incompatible. Hence so good a historian of ideas as Arthur Lovejoy urges the use of the plural, romanticisms, and can write of the "Chinese origins of a romanticism"; and W. T. Jones insists that romanticism can only be understood as a very complex syndrome of "biases" in the direction of what he calls the dynamic, the disordered, the continuous, the soft-focused, the inner, the this-worldly.
The Romantic Temperament
Sensitive, emotional, preferring color to form, the exotic to the familiar, eager for novelty, for adventure, above all for the vicarious adventure of fantasy, reveling in disorder and uncertainty, insistent on the uniqueness of the individual to the point of making a virtue of eccentricity, the typical Romantic will hold that he cannot be typical, for the very concept of "typical" suggests the work of the pigeonholing intellect he scorns.
Though his contempt for this world of reason and commonsense calculation may push him toward otherworldliness, the Romantic is too much a man of words and sensations to make a good mystic. He may admire the mystic, especially the exotic mystic from the East, but he himself is a good Westerner.
|The Romantic Temperament|
In fact, the difficulties of reconciling the often contradictory particulars of romanticism in respectable generalization come out in any attempt to isolate a romantic personality. William Blake has most of the marks of the Romantic, from the positive one of extreme transcendental yearning to the almost universal romantic negative one of contempt for the "meddling intellect"; yet in his quite otherworldly drawings his symbolic, mystical figures are delineated with a draftsmanship of classical solidity and of firm this-worldliness.
There is nothing fuzzy, nothing Turner-like, in Blake's art. William James has the full romantic love for the struggling, the unestablished, the untried; but he cannot be accused of what he himself called "tender-mindedness," of idealistic distrust of the instrument of thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who used "romantic" as a term of reproach, who said of Richard Wagner's music that it sweats, and called Mme. de Staël "that prolific ink-yielding cow," shared all the romantic hatreds for the shopkeeper's world of grubbing common sense and above all had the Romantic's desire for etwas mehr, the something more of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "desire of the moth for the star."
However difficult the romantic personality may be to isolate in analysis, it can be recognized all through Western cultural history, and indeed in the active life of enterprise and politics. Euripides and Catullus were surely Romantics.
The Odi et amo (I hate and I love) of Catullus is a classic assertion of romantic ambivalence; the rumoresque senum severiorum/omnes unius aestimemus assis (Let us regard all the gossip of censorious old men as not worth one penny) is a fine assertion of one of the minor marks of romanticism, contempt for the Philistine decencies of the old in spirit.
François Villon and François Rabelais were Romantics, even though they were Frenchmen who, as Frenchmen, so nineteenth-century English and German romanticists thought, should have been incapable of transcending the petty ways of mesure and la raison raisonnante.
In our own day, the romantic temperament crops up everywhere—in artists and poets of course, but also in philosophers. Henri Bergson was a Romantic. But so too, it may be argued, was A. N. Whitehead; and there are scientists not untouched by the desire of the moth for the star. In active life, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte were Romantics; Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck were classicists.
There are then, in our Western civilization, presumably always born romanticists and born classicists—or born Dionysians and born Apollonians, to use an expressive dualism especially popular with the Germans from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing through Nietzsche to Oswald Spengler. (The Germans usually classify themselves as the great Dionysian force in the West.)
We can but guess at the distribution of these two types in a general population. Probably the well-defined or extreme temperaments are limited in numbers always; most human beings can adapt to the fashion of their age. In one age, say Vergilian and Horatian Rome, or the France of Louis XIV, the Apollonian is dominant, the Dionysian subdued, even silent.
Sometimes in Apollonian ages, however, the Dionysian is the rebel, the man out of tune with his times; Giambattista Vico, perhaps, should be so listed in the Apollonian early eighteenth century. In another age, and notably in the Romantic Age here considered, the Dionysian is dominant and the Apollonian repressed, sometimes tempted, as was the quite unecstatic J. S. Mill, to romantic depths of understanding.
Romanticism and The Enlightenment
One type can be dominant, but not in sole and exclusive possession. To the cultural historian, the early and mideighteenth century and the early nineteenth can stand for two great antithetical styles or fashions: the first, classical or enlightened; the second, romantic.
The years from about 1770 to the first decade of the nineteenth century are obviously years of transition. In a graph, the rising lines of Romanticism cross the descending lines of classicism somewhere in the 1770s in Germany (with the heyday of "Sturm und Drang"), 1798 in England (with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads), and 1820 in France (with the publication of Méditations by Alphonse-MarieLouis de Prat de Lamartine).
|Romanticism and The Enlightenment|
But even after the triumph of Romanticism as a cultural fashion, individuals and groups continued to display the tastes and attitudes associated with the classicism and rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment J. S. Mill tells us in his autobiography that he was influenced by the lyricism and even the transcendentalism of the Lake poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge; but the influence seems not to have weaned him away from the fundamentals of Benthamite thought.
In France the thought of such men as Comte de Saint-Simon, Louis Blanc, Auguste Comte, though some of the externals of romantic fashion are visible among them, is, on the whole, along with that of the French Left generally, true to the traditions of the philosophes.
Even in Germany, a philosopher such as Ludwig Feuerbach asserts the unromantic doctrines of materialism; and Marxism itself, though it shows romantic marks—the concept of the dialectic, derived of course from G. W. F. Hegel, is essentially romantic in its insistence on change as an overcoming of contradictions—is nonetheless committed to an optimistic and very eighteenth-century stand on the rational organization of man and society.
The romantic generation was indeed very conscious of breaking sharply with its parents and grandparents. Few breaks between cultural generations in the West have been more vigorously asserted than this one. The romantic youth absorbed in the depths of William Wordsworth's Prelude, or Vicomte Chateaubriand's Génie du Christianisme, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust felt nothing but contempt for the abstract ideas and the confined tastes of his shallow Voltairean grandfather.
To a surprising extent, the fashionable Romantic was—or claimed to be—in all things the opposite of the Enlightened. Yet our own generation can hardly avoid holding that the romantic rebellion against its parent was in itself a proof of the filial relation between Romanticism and Enlightenment.
Not only were the ideas of men like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Vico, Lessing, and even Denis Diderot, all of whom lived at the height of the Enlightenment, seminal to all later Romanticism, but both Enlightenment and Romanticism shared much—a belief in process, change, if not actually progress, a belief in the possibilities of manipulating the environment, indeed a fundamental and very modern relativism never really transcended in the search for eternal verities.
Both, whatever their metaphysical position on the problem of determinism, in practice displayed a firm conviction that things not only change, but that they can be changed by human effort. Of many specific doctrines—primitivism, for instance, or individualism in ethics and politics—it is hard to decide whether they are more characteristic of enlightened or of romantic thought.