Yet this same student might be forgiven for being confused if told about Romantic Astronomy, Romantic Chemistry, Romantic History, Romantic Linguistics, or Romantic Politics.
Romanticism is more than an artistic style for painting, music, and poetry. In fact, Romanticism had a major impact on political revolutions and on the science of historical linguistics. But what exactly is Romanticism?
Both Romanticism and its intellectual grandchild, post-modernism, can be characterized as the privileging of emotion over reason. While that characterization is helpful, it is also merely the beginning of an exploration of how one might construct a reasonably useful and accurate definition of the word ‘Romanticism’ - as Professor Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College writes,
In 1836, Alfred de Musset created two fictional blockheads, Dupuis and Cotonet, and allowed them to make themselves ridiculous in the pages of the Revue des Deux Mondes, trying to define “Romanticism.” At first, they “thought that romanticism meant imitating the Germans.” Then, in 1830–31, they were sure it meant writing historical novels about “Charlemagne, Francis I, or Henry IV.” Then it occurred to them that “romanticism might be a system of philosophy and political economy.” But on further reflection, it seemed more likely to have “consisted in not shaving, and in wearing waistcoats with long, stiffly starched lapels.” In despair, they finally wondered, “Is it anything, or is it only a fine-sounding word?”
The poem Erlkönig, written by Goethe in 1782, exemplifies a calmly calculated text designed to give the impression of an agitated spontaneous outpouring. Its strict form - rhyme and meter - are used in a way to suggest an emotional power which seeks to break the bonds of strict formalism. Thus Romanticism - for the Erlköig poem was paradigmatic for Romanticism - contains this internal tension within itself.
Historians influenced by Romanticism tended to produce narratives in which ambiguous individuals were recast as clear heroes or clear villains, and the power of the narrative was regarded as more important than its attention to actual data points of recorded events. Romanticist history texts are often suspiciously devoid of specifics.
Scientific linguistics, under the influence of Romanticism, saw itself not as simply cataloguing and analyzing the historical development of languages, but rather as somehow tapping into the essential nature of ethnic groups by revealing their roots and sources. Thus it was that when the Grimm brothers began to collect their famous tales, originally for the purpose of documenting regionalisms in the German language and for preserving the various forms which narratives took in different localities, their project slowly morphed into a one of Romantic nationalism. They, and others, began to see these tales as revealing a psychological core of the peoples of central Europe.
Romantic history and Romantic linguistics gave way to Romantic nationalism: history and linguistics were used to fuel a vision of what it meant to be “truly Polish” or “truly French” or to belong to any nation - a nation defined as an ethnic group. Romantic history gave a narrative to each nation.
Romantic nationalism in turn fuel revolutionary movements against monarchies. A grand shift took place: what gave identity to the state was not its hereditary dynasty, but collective identity of the nation. In Germany and Italy, this took the form of a question for unity, as dozens of small kingdoms and republic united to form modern nation-states.
In Russia, the Romantic nationalist drive took the form of Slavophilia, as the Russians looked less toward Europe and more to their own heritage for identity. In England, the citizens began to identify with the nation instead of with the monarchy. In France, a series of revolutions left citizens with no predictable political identity, but a culturally national one.
Although Romanticism’s impact on the observational and empirical sciences was not obvious, it was nonetheless significant. In contrast to Newtonian optics, Goethe’s theory of colors sought to show that the phenomena of color were internal to the human mind, not an external reality about wavelengths; this was an attempt to put a the physics of light on a subjective rather than an objective footing.
Likewise, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, exemplified the Romantic understanding of science; Shelley was not a scientist herself, but as a Romantic saw science as a “promethean” opportunity for man to exercise a grand control over nature. Allen Guelzo continues:
Defining Romanticism has not gotten any easier since 1836, but neither has our sense of its importance diminished. Isaiah Berlin thought Romanticism was “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West”; Kenneth Clark believed that it introduced an entirely new sensibility into European art. But what it certainly was, at the very least, was a revolt against the Enlightenment — against the bourgeois capitalism the Enlightenment had turned into the stuff of heroism, against natural law and natural rights, and against the balance and predictability that Newtonian science had imparted to the 18th-century world. It clothed itself, as so many revolts do, in the costume of what it deemed an unjustly despised past — Hugo’s medieval Paris, Ossian’s epics, the Grimm brothers’ German fairy tales — but its real grasp was for the future, a future that would glorify the politics of race and blood, the philosophy of Dionysian passion, and the aesthetic of the mysterious.
The effects of Romanticism are clearly seen in the twenty-first century: in, for example, what is variously called ‘the politics of identity’ or ‘identity politics’ (notice how many times the word ‘identity’ appeared in some of the paragraphs above). This is the notion that one votes, or should vote, based primarily upon one’s identity as old or young, as African-American or Asian-American, as male or female, as English-speaker or Spanish-speaker, and not based upon those things which are common to all humans, not based upon reasoning about the universal human condition and human nature.
In the religious trends of North America and Europe in the twenty-first century we also detect the impact of Romanticism, in the form of postmodernism, as people do not base their religious understanding on the formulated statements of religious institutions, nor on the careful analysis of text. Rather, they base their religious feelings, not understandings, on experiences and emotions. So it is to the postmodern individual that a question like “are you Presbyterian or Methodist?” has become both meaningless and uninteresting.
Romanticism - whatever it was - has had a lasting impact on civilization. It paved the way for Hitler’s National Socialism (note the ‘national’) and gave permission to postmodern man to ignore reason and follow his passion.
It would be too simple to call Romanticism good or evil. It gave us both Beethoven and Dachau. It gave us Mary Shelley and politicized racism. Whatever it is, it’s important.