18. Romanticism

Romanticism was a philosophical, literary, and artistic movement that began in the late 1700s and ended at the end of the 1800s.[1]  The movement was essentially a reaction to the Enlightenment movement and was therefore essentially a reaction to (1) the scientific vision of the world and (2) the vision of an enlightened society.  Romanticists saw feelings and intuitions as a source of genuine knowledge rather than logic and science; and they believed that nature was more instructive than the artificial rules and regulations of society.  This excerpt from William Wordsworth’s poem “The Tables Turned” (1798) captures these two themes well:

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things—

We murder to dissect.[2]

Here you see that nature is capable, through a felt impulse, of teaching more than the sages of civilization.  And notice that this instruction can be moral. The scientific view of the world typically sees nature as amoral: nature is just a set of facts and there is no good or evil to be found in it.  But Wordsworth claims we can get moral instruction from the woods that will supersede all the moral instruction of the sages.  So clearly the romantic theme of turning away from society to nature for moral edification is present here in full force.[3] We also see a romantic reaction against logic and science.  Wordsworth claims that our intellect, far from getting us to the truth, distorts the beautiful things of nature and, in doing so, murders them.  What is meant by murder here?  Well, Wordsworth, like almost all romantics, saw nature as a living, dynamic, organic unity that we can feel. In “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798) he writes:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the jo

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.[4]

Wordsworth feels a sublime spirit that rolls through all things and unites us with nature. Scientists, however, typically see nature as something made up of inanimate parts that fit together like a machine. Certainly this way of interpreting nature has yielded practical results.[5] But the key thing to realize is that this vision of the world as a machine distorts reality and misses what we need to understand, namely, that nature is alive. And the more we see nature as a machine the more we will dissect it into parts, cut it up, and analyze it.  In doing so we freeze the dynamic flow of nature’s powerful currents—which, of course, are our currents as well—into an icy death.  Of course, this can mean literal death.  But it can also signify a death of the enchanted soul that wonders at itself and nature.  John Keats (1795-1821) captures this death well:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.[6]

We can see that the two themes of romanticism are related. After all, the reason why so many of society’s rules and regulations are corrupt is because they are related to a mechanistic view of the world where everything can, in principle, be rationally understood, controlled, and dissected. In mechanistic society we become unnaturally repetitive and soon discover that we are, to use Karl Marx’s terms, alienated from our labor: we are separated from the creative potentials that are our very essence. Indeed, the rigid customs we need to accept give rise to, as Wordsworth puts it, a “heavy frost” which yokes our freedom down:

A Presence which is not to be put by;

Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might

Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,

Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke

The years to bring the inevitable yoke,

Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?

Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,

And custom lie upon thee with a weight

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life![7]

To avoid such frosty souls we must rekindle the freedom, imagination, and sympathy of the Child within us through direct or indirect experiences of nature.

[1]Although the movement of cynicism in ancient Greece embodied romantic themes as did the hippie movement.

[2]For the whole poem go to http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/2373.html

[3]This theme was central in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) and Herman Melville (1819-1891). It was also central in the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  Other philosophers who include romantic themes are F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854), Henri Bergson (1859-1941), and William James (1842-1910).

[4]For the complete poem go to http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/2343.html

[5] Romantics can usually accept intellectual activity if it is used to point to the essentially non-intellectual and vital foundation of our being. But they are firmly against reading the distinctions and theories the intellect makes back into nature; that is, they are against taking abstractions and interpreting nature as if these abstractions really exist independently of our minds. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) would later call this mistake of taking abstractions for concrete reality the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”.

[6]Lamia, lines 230-238.  For the complete poem go to http://www.bartleby.com/126/37.html

[7]See his poem “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (1803-1806).

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