Romanticism was an aesthetic in literary criticism and a wider social movement concerning areas such as philosophy, art and music which was prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet so few people today understand the concepts of Romanticism, and further still, how it is potentially applicable today. I admit, when first asked to consider Romanticism, it was ‘love poems’ which immediately sprang to mind. ‘Ah well’ I thought ‘I can perhaps understand why that is still applicable to modern day…’
But Romanticism is a much wider love, not only encompassing my own, but that of the natural landscape and human natural faculties – imagination and thought, for example. This was a love seemingly felt and documented by a number of poets including Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Blake and William Wordsworth – and it is actually believed that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in what appears to be an utter appreciation of nature, would walk over the Lake District Fells in order to visit Wordsworth! Yet the movement between 1800 and 1840 frothed bitterly, facing a state of the mass maltreatment of nature. Of course, the 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the growth of the ultimate passion-killer, the industrial revolution, and instead the challenge of neutral, unfeeling scientific reductionism – where situation was reduced to fact and figures. There was intense frustration, as boiling in the French Revolution which in its attack against the ruling classes, provided the lifeblood of bitterness towards objectivity, from which Romanticism in turn emerged.
I am often myself frustrated at how even language itself appears to install a limit on the communicative properties of the depths of the mind, so in the 18th and 19th centuries, for many sensitive individuals, watching nature being degraded and subjugated to harsh limits must have been a torturous experience. Yet Romanticism at the time had deeper tortures of its own, for example the revolt of this ‘love’ against the aristocratic enforced norms of society, and especially a revolt of emotion and subjective experience post-Enlightenment. The Enlightenment itself was largely a feature of the 18th century, and characterised by the rise of intellectual thought for example considering Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke and proposals of scientific thought and empirical reasoning. This co-incited with a period of cultural arts often referred to as ‘Neoclassic’, in which cultural features such as architecture and dress reverted back to forms more common to classical antiquity – i.e. as scientific thought grew, much of society dropped their elaborate extravagances of expression and became more reserved in their styles. This perhaps caused much angst amongst the expressive, those who attributed emotion to communication as the Romantic poet Shelley expressed in his somewhat satirical ‘A tale of Society as it is: From facts, 1811’. This poem contains the line ‘Which faintly glimmered through her starting tears’, in which the repeated fricative of the ‘f’ syllable perhaps reflects the sharpness and bitterness society faces in having to hold back her expression, personified in the form of a degraded woman. This is highly moving and also representative – women often symbolised the subjugated sex at the time, whilst many of those involved in the Romantic Movement were against such pejorative treatment, especially that of the working classes.
Furthermore, the expectation ‘reserve’ with which Wordsworth and Coleridge may have been confronted, is not necessarily intrinsic to raw, hungry human nature – especially in terms of a passionate love, and vivid observations of beauty. Whilst it is often considered that the purpose of The Enlightenment (if such can have a Telos) was to advance social development and knowledge, the Romantic poetry appears especially to contrast and hold the pledge that man’s own experience is enough to be moving and powerful, rather than a base of science. For example, it could be argued that one does not require in-depth teaching of what a flower consists of in order to appreciate it. How can nature, with its obscure beauties which humans can freely accept or reject, be rationalised? Yes, perhaps we have normative and even absolute ethical codes in our human society – but why appropriate such to nature? In this consideration, Romanticism was an emotionally-fuelled reaction against the rationalisation of nature the Enlightenment had seemingly inspired. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, expressed, in strong emotion of his own, that art was the mode in which humanity could be supported in times of such emotional devoid or,’ the mediators between, and reconciler of nature and man’.
The movement validated strong emotions, especially in terms of the poetry, upon which I will focus. I believe that in current society, especially in education, there is insufficient emphasis on the importance of realising our emotions and in turn many people do not understand or appreciate the enormous potential they hold themselves to appropriate their faculties in marvellous ways to many tasks. It could be considered that our current society has much of the present factors which stirred the Romantics into action, for example the ever-growing technological market often compromising our relationship with nature. Technology to artificially manage the home and even the garden environment which we inhabit is just one example. But it is not just on this wider environmental level, it is our social environment which is often compromised by technology – why go and meet a friend when a computer-mediated source can be to hand in a couple of seconds? But technology is often limiting to emotion, exposed by the frequent studies into child development and relationship with video games, in which the simulation of excessive violence often influences a delayed or limited response to violence in the child.
Whilst many children consider poetry ‘boring’, often due to their limited experience of it, the domination of technology is in turn degrading not only children’s perception and appreciation of the world around them, but that of adults also. Whilst poetry may be considered ‘boring’ in that it does not exhibit the immediate reaction of violence, as some may argue, I believe this is a false statement. Yet it was the movement of The Romantics which validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and even awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublime aspects of untamed nature. Poetry holds the potential to escape our confines (and we do have confines in society), rather than exacerbate them – hence I entirely agree with one poet, who recently on Radio Four, announced that he was against teaching poetry to 4 and 5 year olds. Considering Romanticism especially, I believe this approach to be admirable and of interest , as rather than impose limits and definition upon the natural form, such is a praise of spontaneity as a desired characteristic i.e. if a child wants to read poetry they should be given the facilities, but it should not necessarily be ‘taught’ in a confining way.
This raises a burning question – can we even ‘teach’ poetry? This potentially draws on my frustration, as lower in school, being given a poem and the simultaneous imperative: ‘This line means this.’
The joy of poetry is even just the marvel at its product – especially Romantic poetry, the joys of nature filtered through the human mind to moving word forms. For example in William Blake’s poem ‘Love’s secret’, the tender lines of ‘For the gentle wind doth move / Silently, invisibly.’ With the closing sibilance of the lexis on the second line, slowed with the separation of punctuation, this possibly reflects a personification of the wind in its own passionate breaths, embodying itself with the angst of humanity. At the times in which we feel alone, or lonely, I believe Romantic poetry offers the great reconciliation of ourselves, our being, in the company of nature. Nature can help us come to terms with the anxieties we face, and even reflect such in itself.
But in the situation of a society with heavy focus on technologically, and even nature’s confines, praising the subjectivity for which the reading of poetry allows – old and new – is highly important. As Aldous Huxley expresses a future dystopian society in his novel ‘Brave New World’ and concerning how George Orwell demonstrates how, as is perhaps increasing the case, in a future perhaps nearer than initially envisioned, language is used by the elite to control the masses – the imagination evoked as important by the Romantics, and many poets following their influence, appears the ideal means of a much-appreciated escapism. Hence I can only encourage that perhaps the ‘New romantics’ is a term we perhaps have the capacities to enliven, to stimulate ourselves through nature in the creative processes we undertake and possibly take that small moment longer to consider the meaningfulness and passion expressed in the perhaps even greater body around us, like we ourselves are wholly living, the living World.