Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Romanticism was a movement that began in Europe at the end of the 18th century, centering in Germany, France, and England. The term 'romanticism' comes from medieval romances - adventurous tales about knights, damsels, and fighting, full of magic and imagination. The father of the movement is the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau:

1. Romantics emphasized imagination and emotion over reason and logic. Rousseau said, "To feel is to exist. And, our feelings come, most incontestably, before our thoughts."
2. Romantics valued the rights, freedom, and dignity of the individual over the good of society as a whole. They were anti-authoritarian. There was also a religious movement in England called Evangelicalism that wanted the same thing for the church - emphasizing the importance of the individual, and one's ability to change the world for the better.
3. While others looked to the classics for inspiration, Romantics turned to medieval themes, and the nostalgia of nature.
Socially, romanticism was a time of unguided change, of great hopes and bitter disappointments. At the forefront was the tyranny of monarchy, which limited people's freedom. Rousseau watched in horror as his friend, the philosopher Diderot, was imprisoned for writing an encyclopedia in which he left out references to God.
The industrial revolution, while leading to many technical advances, also contributed to human misery and poverty. The privatization of communal farmland in England forced many farmers into cities. Workers were treated brutally and forbidden to organize. Common people had no rights, only duties.
The English government did little to help the poor, arguing in favour of laissez faire economics. To make matters worse, King George III, of England, was declared incurably insane in 1811, and rule transferred to his son, who hosted lavish parties and ignored England's problems.
This was typical of European countries at the time. Dissatisfaction and unrest led to revolutions in America and in France. Many leading voices of the romantics welcomed this change. Diderot himself said, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
The romantics cheered when a Parisian mob charged the Bastille prison and freed those inside. But, then France fell into its "Reign of Terror". Thousands of people, not just from aristocracy, were taken to the guillotine and beheaded. Priests and nuns were killed for refusing to take republican oaths.
The democratic movement in France fell apart, leading to Napoleon, who tried to rule all of Europe. England's triumph at Waterloo was seen as one tyranny defeating another - no real victory at all. England became a global super power, controlling the seas after the Battle of Trafalgar, starting settlements in Australia, New Zealand, and India, and taking Dutch settlements in South Africa. England was now an empire.
But there was still no freedom in England, up until the First Reform Bill of 1832 which expanded voter rights, limited the power of the aristocracy, and redistributed parliamentary representation to the middle class, by eliminating "rotten boroughs" - seats to villages controlled by squires. This bill was passed largely due to Evangelicals who believed in humane causes, and also banned slavery in all British colonies in 1833.
Romanticism in England began with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, who collaborated on a book of poetry titled Lyrical Ballads, in 1798. They wanted to turn poetry in a new direction with:
1. vernacular language and slang.
2. stories of everyday, rustic life and common people.
3. supernatural events and exotic places.
4. love of nature, as a cure for humanity's ills.
5. based on the writer's emotions and feelings, rather than cold logic. Wordsworth said, "All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."
Poetry was the dominant form of writing in this age. There was also the London Magazine, which ran from 1820-29. It published many essays of personal, daily life. Frightening, Gothic novels were also popular, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The best known English romantic authors today are Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.
In America, famous romantic authors include Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Although different in beliefs and style, each of these writers questioned man's place in society, and the importance of individual thought and freedom.

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