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.