The Magazine

Breaking the Mold

The Romantics as precursors to the Modern Age.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By PETER LOPATIN
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Although the definition of Romanticism has been much debated, it is not an exaggeration to claim that the generations spanning the period from the mid-18th through the mid-19th centuries were witness to a transformation in the literary, artistic, and intellectual life of Europe so radical as to be regarded as revolutionary. As Tim Blanning puts it in this condensed, well-crafted volume, “the rule book of the classical past was torn up,” and there ensued “a radically different approach to artistic creation that has provided the aesthetic axioms of the modern world, even if a definition of Romanticism has proved elusive.”

Painting of Goethe contemplating his first love

Goethe contemplating his first love

Although Blanning is a historian with impressive academic credentials—formerly professor of modern European history at Cambridge, currently a fellow of the British Academy and general editor of The Oxford History of Modern Europe—he offers neither a precise definition of Romanticism nor a general history of the movement. His goal, rather, is “to identify the most striking characteristics of the Romantic revolution and to illustrate them,” which he does in a way consonant with Hegel’s characterization of Romanticism as “absolute inwardness.” To that end, he calls for (and demonstrates) “a willingness to enter the world of the Romantics by routes they chose themselves .  .  . through sounds and images, dreams and visions.”

Blanning’s coverage is sweeping: Goethe, Coleridge, Beethoven, Keats, Byron, Schiller, Goya, Hegel, Hugo, and Wagner—among others—are all here, as well as a number of figures less known to the general reader. The book is a bit of a whirlwind tour, but those seeking a brief, nuanced overview of the movement will find in Blanning a knowledgeable guide—deft and incisive, but never facile. And although his goal is breadth, not depth, of coverage, his reach never exceeds his grasp.

His point of departure is Rousseau’s “conversion experience” in 1749 when the philosopher’s eye fell upon an advertisement in the Mercure de France, announcing a prize essay competition, staged by the Academy of Dijon, on the question “Has the progress of the sciences and the arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?” As Rousseau would later recount, his consideration of this question was intoxicating and transformative, and in his prize-winning essay (A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences), he argued that the progress of the arts and sciences, far from exercising a salutary, liberating effect, had merely flung “garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh us down” in its malevolent pursuit of “the destruction and degradation of everything sacred among men.” This claim represented a radical volte-face from the spirit of the Enlightenment and was accompanied by a call for the turning inward that is emblematic, if not definitive, of Romanticism.

In his Confessions, Rousseau would later write:

My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself. .  .  . I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.

Of Rousseau’s turn, Blanning says: “This signaled nothing less than a revolution, one that placed the creator, not the created, at the center of aesthetic activity,” thereby overturning the neoclassical notion of art as mimesis—imitation of nature, guided always by the great artistic exemplars bequeathed by the ancients. Henceforth, an expressive, rather than a mimetic, aesthetic would prevail in the arts, and in that radical turn Blanning discerns the essence of Romanticism: “Artistic creativity was to be from the inside out. .  .  . No longer does the artist carry around a mirror, to hold up to nature. A better metaphor for the creative process is the lamp, which shines from within.” From this starting point, he takes us on a thematic and historical tour of the Romantic revolution, examining its manifestations in (and influence on) the arts, literature, and the broader range of cultural expression.

Noting the familiar charge against the scientific method—which is to say, against Newtonian science—that it “could explain everything but understand nothing,” Blanning adumbrates the many forms this indictment took: Coleridge said those he had known “who have been rationally educated [are] marked by a microscopic acuteness, but when they looked at great things, all became blank and they saw nothing.” Heinrich von Kleist complained that “all Newton saw in a girl’s heart was its cubic capacity and in her breast just a curved line.” August Wilhelm Schlegel asked, “What can a poem prove?” In his Prologue to Faust, Goethe, speaking to God through Mephistopheles, mocks Reason:

The little earth-god still persists in his old ways,

Ridiculous as ever, as in his first days.

He’d have improved if you’d not given

Him a mere glimmer of the light of heaven;

He calls it Reason, and it only has increased

His power to be beastlier than a beast.

Against the coldness of Reason and its pretensions to understanding, the Romantics “stressed the need to escape from the arid factual world of appearances and enter the interior realm of the self.” That self, of course, was not that of the ordinary man but of the artistic genius who would “set the pace as the role model, not just for fellow artists but for all society.” Thus would the cult of genius come to the fore as a characteristic feature of Romanticism: Unbound by tradition, rules, or external restraints of any kind—certainly not those of the “philistine public”—the genius is animated and impelled only by the force of his passion and imagination. The Romantics saw artistic genius as partaking of the divine, and art became “sacralized”—elevated to the status formerly held by religion: “It was only when the last external restraints were cast aside,” writes Blanning, “that the creative artist could break out of the mimetic cocoon and achieve full independence as a high priest of an aesthetic religion.”

In a melding of the cult of genius with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s conception of music as the most Romantic of all the arts (“since its subject matter is infinity”), Beethoven, Paganini, and Liszt attained heroic status in their own lifetimes. It was rumored of Paganini that he “had captured the Devil in his sound box or that he had made a Faustian pact with the Devil, sacrificing his soul in return for matchless skill.” And Liszt, departing Berlin in 1842, left “in a carriage pulled by six white horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other coaches and an honor guard of students.” For the first time, great artists had not only admirers but fans.

As Blanning examines in some detail, a complication of Rousseau’s call to inwardness is that what lies within is as likely to be dark as light, as much a nightmare as a sweet idyll: “What [Rousseau] found inside himself was a witches’ brew of emotions, neuroses, and paranoia.” Whether in the dark eroticism of Henry Fuseli’s paintings or in the later works of Goya (“a pre-Newtonian world peopled by cripples, criminals, whores, monsters, devils, witches, magicians, and lunatics doing unspeakable things to one another”), the Romantic imagination was aroused by the power of the dark and the carnal. In music, the dark side can be discerned in the way in which the motif of night—in the form of the notturno or Nachtmusik—was transformed from “a cheerful piece to be performed usually by wind or brass ensemble as background for an al fresco summer festivity” to the more introspective and melancholy yearning of the nocturnes of Liszt and, especially, Chopin. And in Schubert’s later song cycles night has become frozen, stormy, and barren, a bleak landscape in which the unnamed hero wanders in the consuming misery of his unrequited love.

Perhaps the best-known instance in the Romantic canon of the tormented, impassioned hero is Goethe’s Werther—paradigm of the besotted, melancholy intellectual whose “morbid hypersensitivity could find release only in language of intense passion.” The agonized eroticism of the sort depicted in The Sorrows of Young Werther was a pervasive feature of the literary and artistic canon: “Indeed,” says Blanning, “it might be said that Romanticism was institutionally erotic.” The fusion of Eros with a sacralized conception of art led, with the inevitability of a chemical equation, to the elevation of Eros to the realm of the aesthetic and quasi-religious, particularly among the German Romantics, for whom Romanticism was “the continuation of religion by aesthetic means.” Now those means had become as much carnal as spiritual, leading Schlegel to declare that “the rights of love are higher than the ceremonies of the altar.”

The idea of the pure individuality of genius as it resides in each artist found a parallel in the notion of the individuality of national cultural identity, in all its manifestations. Under the influence of Herder, as well as Rousseau, Goethe rejected all notions of artistic universals, laws, principles, or rules, proclaiming that “the only true art is characteristic art”—that is, art whose “influence arises from deep, harmonious, independent feeling .  .  . ignorant of everything foreign.” Largely swept away was the Enlightenment veneration of the classical ideals of artistic beauty: “All those characteristics derided by the classicists—irregularity, ornamentation, gloom, clericalism, transcendentalism—were now paraded as inspiring assets.”

So, too, in the realm of history: “The Romantics believed that the Enlightenment approached history from the outside, imposing on the past contemporary standards and a contemporary agenda.” For the German Romantics, the German language, German history, and (in retrospect, more ominously) the German Volk were unique repositories of purity and perfection:

The German language was unique, [Fichte] believed, because only the German language had remained pure. All the others had been polluted to a greater or lesser extent by their assimilation into the Latin culture of the Roman Empire. .  .  . For this reason, the Germans had a special mission to redeem mankind from the abyss into which it had tumbled.

Blanning’s further explorations of the impact of Romanticism on the European understanding of history and politics in the 19th century are illuminating, though necessarily abbreviated. And in his conclusion he touches briefly on the affinity between Romanticism and the various postmodernisms, explaining that absolute inwardness—the “central axiom of Romanticism”—will continue to play a role in the cultural conversation. What direction that conversation will take is unclear, but Blanning is surely correct when he says, “The Romantic revolution is not over yet.”

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.