G. Catchpole, Member, on 16 April 2002

After noting that Romanticism, essentially an arts movement, reflected social, political and philosophical developments in many countries over a period of at least two hundred years, the speaker referred in turn to its three phases: 1650/1789,1789/1830, 1830/1870 or so.

During its first phase the term `romanticism' was not used in England, although `romantick' was on occasion. `Classicism'(art inspired by antiquity) and `NeoClassicism'(its copies) were the dominant art forms, which related to clarity, restraint, harmony, universality and idealism. Several trends began to undermine their dominance. A number of writers variously favoured alternatively medieval history, love, religion and some excesses (including suicide) as themes. A predilection for terror was reflected in Gothic stories and paintings. English emphasis on folk history and medieval fantasy was accompanied both in France and in Germany by emphasis on the mystical, subconscious and supernatural. Thus, `German Romanticism' was recognised well before its English identification and the concept itself spread across Europe.

Another trend focused on nature. Some praised wild scenery, while writers such as Addison, Hume and Burke praised the grandeur and violence of nature. In 1757 Burke analysed the origin of ideas of the `Sublime and Beautiful', which later influenced Kant, then Coleridge. Locally, the various activities and interests of William Beckford led to his description today as an `archetype of Romanticism' and his `Grand Tours' were copied by many tourist climbers, swimmers and collectors in Europe over the early 19th century.

Other factors may be discerned. The 18th century acceptance of the French Court, its language and culture as a model for civilisation was challenged in Germany and in France itself by writers such as Diderot and Rousseau. Rousseau's `sentimental naturalism' was accompanied by ideas of individual rights and democracy. 17th and 18th century `Enlightenment' beliefs (buttressed by those of Newton and La Place) that reason reveals a `natural' order and `natural' laws were used to support existing regimes. Such support then was patently suspect and the writings of Locke, Bentham, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau (together with Jefferson in America) prompted ideas of social contract and democracy. These led eventually to reforms in England and revolutions in France and America.

After the `Reign of Terror' which followed the French Revolution had brought radical reaction to reliance on `reason', sensation and emotion became dominant in the arts. The second phase of Romanticism began. Blake sought enthusiasm rather than reason, particular vivid forms rather than grand style, the particular rather than the general. For him `spiritual sensation' (imagination) overlays rationalised sense-experiences. While Blake (following the influences of Swedenborg and Hebrew prophets) sought symbols and fantasies, Wordsworth sought direct relationships with nature and with humanity, being himself influenced by Plato and by the Bath-based doctor Hartley, whose `associationist' views suggested that reason and imagination somehow arise from associations of sense-impressions. Wordsworth believed that worthwhile art was produced best, however, when passion was `recollected in tranquility'. Thus, while Blake rejected `philosophy', Wordsworth saw poets as teachers, seeking general truths. Both nevertheless believed their ultimate muse to be God.

Coleridge saw Wordsworth as a `philosophic poet', but he sought himself to provide a `Science of Life', under the influences of Plotinus, Fichte and others, but principally Kant. He rejected associationism as mechanistic and dependent on chance and argued that artists must develop `the obscure impulse (into) a bright, clear and living Idea'. (His `Idea' reflected both Plato and Kant's `Idea of Reason', which essentially distinguishes imagination from fancy.) Imagination, he thought, inspires the artist to add re-creation to simple arrangements resulting from `fancy'. Literary criticism must put the whole before the part, the end before the means. Feeling does precede understanding, but the mind informs the senses.

Byron, conversely, declared that `passion is the element in which we live'. Although criticised, he was very popular throughout Europe. Shelley, by contrast, while conceding that utilitarianism and prudence do serve Mammon, defended poetry as representing God. Keats, arguing against both Wordsworth and Shelley, maintained that poets are neither legislators nor philosophers - they simply show beauty, without entailing personal moral responsibility. Carlyle later restored the earlier trend, seeing the poet as `Hero' - an independent thinker with a vision of reality - a prophet and a seer.

From about 1830 Romanticism was exemplified in many forms throughout Europe and America. In painting Turner and Constable (England), Delacroix (France) and Friedrich (Germany) were active. Representative composers were Berlioz, Wagner and Brahms. Romanticism through drama was evident in Spain, Italy, Hungary, Italy and the Balkans. By mid-century poetry and prose were dominant forms - through Hazlitt, de Quincey, etc. (England); Stendhal, Dumas, Hugo, Merimee, Gautier (France); Brentano, Eichendorff and others. (Germany); Manzoni, Leopardi (Italy); Mickiewicz (Poland); Pushkin and Lermentov (Russia). German writers (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc) promoted complex metaphysical philosophies, reflecting Romantic transcendentalism.

In America, Romanticism was developed through Fenimore Cooper's nationalism and Longfellow's folk concerns, Poe's concentration on the mystical and supernatural, Emerson and Thoreau's transcendentalism and Whitman's emphasis on organic democracy. Emerson wanted `a common-sense which does not meddle with the absolute', but he applied that to the `action and reaction of nature' in `circulations' of the blood, water, vegetation, etc. as well as celestial bodies. Further, he promoted a `sliding scale of culture' which led from response to natural surroundings through concepts derived from Newton and Plato to the recognition that `globe and universe are rude and early expositions of an all-dissolving Unity'. He and Thoreau helped inspire Walt Whitman, but his attention was directed to the average man and democracy as developed in America. He sought a `healthy average personalism' within the `all-levelling aggregate of democracy', which should lead ultimately to an ideal artistic world created by artists in touch with the common people.

Critics have accused Romantics as being disguised egoists and escapists who offer only sham spirituality, childishness, irresponsibility and irrationality. One Romantic, Goethe, himself criticised others as `sickly', whereas Heine (another Romantic) thought Goethe's own `Werther' showed `effeminate dreaminess and barren sentimentality'. Others, conversely, have denied the `escapist' charge and praised Romantic emphases on personal freedom within `natural' communities. Some recognised that Romantics helped change a world-view from static mechanism to dynamic organism - Fichte, for example, declaring that `Life is life's great purpose'. A contemporary reviewer sees Romanticism however as essentially a `bourgeois reaction to a post-Napoleonic commercialism in France and Germany', which led to further revolutions in France and then national socialism in Germany, in attempts to give life some meaning. Nietsche gets credit for an attempt to move beyond both Rationalism and Romanticism through his distinction of `life-enhancing' and `life-stultifying' passions, when reason restricts only the latter. Ironically, after his warning that nationalism would develop from attempts to give life meaning, his own writing was used by nationalists.

The speaker concluded by noting that misunderstanding of the Greek concept of artists (as essentially employed craftsmen only) was followed by Renaissance views (as of Michelangelo, for example) of them as divinely inspired beings, developing in the Romantic period to seeing them as creative artists in their own right. Thus, public exhibitions came about, then an arts public, art critics and arts criticism, leading to our present condition.

Geoffrey Catchpole


Although the talk itself was an historical view, most of the discussion was an attempt to clarify the meaning of Romantic.

One member asked what were the criteria of Romanticism. The speaker said that in his historical account, he tried to show that romanticism was a dynamic thing, often a reaction to classicism or realism. The convenor tried to clarify this, by quoting the typical romantic composers such as, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, rather than Beethoven, adding that romantic could be seen as an adjective. For example, the Baroque period of music following the Renaissance, was seen as relatively romantic, compared to Renaissance music, but not generally a romantic period, as in the 19th century. Another member pointed out that Shakespeare expressed romantic ideas in a classical form, and another said the same about Beethoven. A third member pointed out that a sonata could be played romantically or purely technically.

A further theme that arose was that of the absolute, unromantic realism of today, seen not only in adult's but also in children's books, such as in those by Roald Dahl, and the concurrent escapist reaction as seen in imaginative and fantastic writings, like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.

In conclusion, it seemed that, those brought up as scientists had some difficulty in grasping the concept of romanticism, as there was little room for it in science.

Perhaps the best way to understand was simply to listen to typical romantic music as quoted, look at romantic art, like Turner as the speaker mentioned, and read 19th cent. Romantic novels, say .the Bronte's, and reflect on what they have in common, and that this was as effective as talking about it.

Peter Valentine