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Lecture 5c: English Romanticism

February 27, 2014

c. Romanticism, nature and science

Far from seeing progress in technological advancement and industrialization, Romanticists think that our lives have grown poorer and have depreciated in value. This does not stem from any opposition to science on the part of the Romanticists. On the contrary, they view science as a fundamental way of relating nature to humanity. Yet, for them, science or rational control is but one way in which humanity can relate to nature, one according to which nature is outside humanity and to be controlled. By contrast, Romanticists hold that nature is not only outside of us but within. In other words, nature exists within us as well in some unique form that can only be brought to light or understood through the exercise of creative imagination. This inner moral source clamors for unique or individual expression. This expression is a common thread to all forms of Romanticism: in paying closer attention to our feelings, particularly those intense emotions such as terror and awe, we bring out the truly human element of our experience. While this can be done in part through introspection, it also involves paying greater attention to nature and the world outside of us so as to find inspiration for our expression in a way unavailable to the proponents of rational control. (Hence, one of the original senses of Romantic: that which is in praise of natural phenomena.) In short, there is still an important role for science, but this must be complemented in order to become more human, humane and humanistic. A close relationship, on one hand, to nature, and, on the other, to our emotions and intuitions is mentally and morally healthy.

Much as is the case for the Industrial Revolution, English Romanticism did not simply come from nowhere. It has two roots: the transmission of ideas from the Continent to England but, more importantly in the reaction to the kinds of beliefs that directly enable the societal and cultural changes that we see in both the Enlightenment and the Revolution. In this way, despite their differences, Romanticism is inextricably linked to and continuous with, to a greater or lesser extent, those views to which it is nevertheless opposed. (A prime example of this is the centrality of our feelings, senses and sympathy, a notion that was, as we saw, first developed with the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment.)

If Romanticism has its beginnings on the Continent in Germany and France (with such philosophers and writers as Jena thinkers and Rousseau, respectively), it does not leave England untouched. Although the application of the term to literature first becomes common in 1790’s Germany (romantische Poesie) with the Schlegel brothers, it soon reaches the British Isles and becomes a guiding notion in British culture from 1800 to 1850 with such writers and artists as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, the Shelleys, William Turner and John Constable, amongst others. Here, the emphasis is on a new mode of aesthetic experience, one typified by two new artistic sources. On one hand, this owes to the more prominent role of emotion and intuition in the process of artistic creation. When creating, the artist is supposed to overflow with emotions and feeling, such that his or her creation pours out of its own. Hence, the Romantic archetype of the creative genius, an individual whose exceptional work is instructive to us all. On the other, the Romanticists also privilege folk art, legend and myth, including the means and meanings of everyday life in their work. These two elements come together particularly well in the ideal shared by Coleridge and Wordsworth: conversational poetry.

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