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Lecture 6a: From Romanticism to Transcendentalism

March 10, 2014

The Translation of Romanticism in the American Setting

a. Romanticism and gardens

Romanticism has two key features, as Charles Taylor makes clear in Sources of the Self (pp. 368-369). On one hand, the movement can be identified with the rebellion against against the construction of neo-Classical norms in art and especially literature. To the classic stress on rationalism, tradition, and formal harmony, the Romantics opposed the individual, imagination and feeling. This classical stress was especially hard to displace in France, which perhaps explains why it took some time for the movement to take root in French culture, dominated as it was by classical and neo-classical schools of thought. On the other, there is the philosophy of nature that is often identified with this movement according to which humanity should live in harmony with nature. Yet the impetus for this new way of living comes from within ourselves. This inner impulse or conviction tells us of the importance of our own natural fulfillment and solidarity with our fellow creatures in theirs, as well as the need to explore our own natures. There is a great current of life running through the world and of which a part runs through ourselves. This is the voice of nature within us. If nature awakens or intensifies strong feelings in us, it is precisely because the scene before us reflects something primal within us.

From this, it is clear that the transition to Romanticism reflects the culmination of the shift to sentiment and feeling that we initially highlighted in the Scottish Enlightenment with the theories of “moral sense” and “sympathy”. This same emphasis finds expression in literature, art, and music. Perhaps one of the most interesting translations of this “Romantic” paradigm is that of landscaping and gardening. In particular, the late 18th century transition from the the French garden to the English reflects the growing importance of sentiment and feeling in relation to nature, as captured in Romanticism. In general, the English garden is thought better to put us in touch with unfettered and changing nature than the French. As Taylor makes clear, for this same reason, the English garden was to awaken and nourish certain feelings as the way in which the grounds were laid out were thought to enable the person to give him or herself certain feelings and thoughts: feelings of awe faced with teh breadth creation, of peace before an open field, of melancholy in an isolated wood, of nostalgia before the temples, statues, pagodas and follies (fresh ruins) common in these parks (cf. ibid., pp. 296-302). Gone are the orderly rows, fixed, geometric patterns and symmetry of the French garden, all of which enables the recognition of the regular cosmic order. In its place is an affinity between nature and humanity no longer mediated “by an objective rational order but by the way in which nature resonates in us” (ibid., p. 299). 

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