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Legacy of the Romantics

Updated Sunday, 1 May 2022
Who were the Romantics and what did they stand for? Stephanie Forward explains.

This content is associated with The Open University's English courses and qualifications.

Character of Mary Shelley

Nowadays the word ‘romantic’ tends to trigger associations with love and sentimentality, but the period known as the Romantic era encompassed so much more! Romanticism is notoriously difficult to define and has been interpreted in various ways in different countries. However, it is true to say that it flowered originally against a backdrop of violent revolution during a period of economic, political and social transition. It was a European phenomenon, and had an impact upon many spheres of thought and activity. Advocating freedom and independence, many artists and philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries challenged the way people looked at the world, emphasizing the integrity of the individual and refusing to bow to convention.

Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley were pre-eminent among the Romantic poets. Regarding themselves as intuitive prophets, they rejected the pure rationalism and order of the Enlightenment, maintaining that nature and the healing power of the imagination could enable people to transcend their everyday circumstances. Creative powers could be used to illuminate and transform the world into a coherent vision, to regenerate mankind spiritually. Given the centrality of the poetic imagination, poets could therefore claim to be interpreters of reality. Shelley asserted that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

The Romantics found fresh ways to express themselves: their reverence for nature, in its awesome majesty, was to prove a lasting legacy. Drawing upon the environment for inspiration, they encouraged people to travel, both literally and metaphorically, into new territories. Their attitudes to life were liberating and made the world seem a place of infinite potential. The ramifications of their approach have continued to have an impact on culture subsequently.

Certain literary character types stem from the Romantic period: for example, the dark, brooding, rebellious Byronic hero and the mysterious femme fatale such as Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Romantics often embraced the macabre, hence the popularity of Gothic novels. There was also keen interest in scientific discoveries and developments. In particular, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ has endured and it has been argued that this pioneering text paved the way for science-fiction.

Literature was not the only art form to be affected by Romanticism. Composers also veered away from the formal clarity of classicism to experiment, striving for deeper emotional depth. Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz and Liszt were early pioneers. They were followed by Verdi, Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, all of whom produced innovative music, and in the twentieth century Schoenberg, Debussy, Bartok, Mahler, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Puccini and Rachmaninoff continued the Romantic tradition. Virtuoso conductors and performers attracted attention. There are a number of modern composers who are referred to as Neo-Romantics, including George Rochberg and David Del Tredici.

In the 1980s Gothic rock inspired trends in fashion and in music. The early years of the decade also witnessed the rise of New Romanticism. Whereas the eighteenth-century Romantics had rebelled against Enlightenment didacticism, the New Romantics emerged to counteract the anarchic austerity of Punk. Successful bands such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, ABC, Japan and Human League relied heavily on the use of synthesizers to produce their slick music, which some detractors felt was narcissistic and indulgent. Glamorous, flamboyant clothes were the order of the day, as the performers strove to achieve a personal look.

The impact of Romanticism upon the arts has been immense and ongoing. Romantic painters aimed for emotional intensity. Sometimes their pictures contained startlingly violent imagery, reflecting man’s smallness in the face of the vastness of the natural world, as in Gericault’s explicit and frightening ‘Raft of the Medusa’. However Romantic attitudes to nature worked on more than one level. Their affinity with the world around them was often evoked in their paintings, for example in the works of Constable. There are strong echoes of Romanticism in contemporary concerns about the environment and the need to appreciate and preserve it. Romantics also embraced the foreign and the exotic, especially eliciting an interest in Orientalism, and this too affected the history of art.

In sculpture there was a move to create imaginative pieces which would appeal to the emotions: Auguste Rodin tried to capture the inner lives of his subjects. In portraiture, painters began to explore the sitter’s feelings and psychological state, and pictures of animals were similarly probing. The Romantics revered children, because they were innocent and close to nature. Youngsters had tended to be included in family groups, dressed as young adults; but the Romantic approach was to depict them as real children, and to encourage society to be more child-centred.

Romanticism influenced political ideology, inviting engagement with the cause of the poor and oppressed and with ideals of social emancipation and progress. The individual was prized, but it was also felt that people were under an obligation to their fellow-men: personal commitment to the group was therefore important. Governments existed to serve the people. There was a feeling that people were actively part of the historical process, and could therefore contribute to social progress.

Early Romantics supported the French Revolution, although the terrible bloodshed in France caused Wordsworth, for example, to revise his opinions. Wars of self-determination appealed to Byron, who espoused Italian nationalism and advocated the liberation of the Greeks from the Turks. It seems to have been something of a Romantic trait to identify with such causes, and to get involved in foreign adventures. Similarly, in the twentieth-century the Spanish Civil War attracted ardent and idealistic supporters.

Romanticism did not supersede Enlightenment thought; rather it offered alternative outlooks and horizons. In promoting the imagination over reason, the Romantics encouraged individuals to experiment boldly, to question things instead of blindly accepting them. If we pause to think for a moment about the 1960s, this was a decade in which there was a renewed emphasis on Romanticism. The early Romantic innovative vision had clashed with classicism; in the 1960s there was again a striking opposition between tradition and counter-cultures, a desire to ‘get back to nature’, and many people were lured by Eastern mysticism. Rebelliousness and innovation were again manifest in many spheres of activity.

In some circumstances this was liberating and life-enhancing; however there has always been an underlying tension in Romanticism: it has a melancholic aspect, because Time is man’s enemy. There is a sense of the limitless potential of man, but also an awareness that life is transitory.

Lord Byron was larger than life, a living legend, and the early deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron enhanced these figures in the eyes of posterity, earning them iconic status. Heroic visionaries, battling on in spite of adverse circumstances, they invited admiration and empathy. Perhaps today’s passion for celebrity is very much in keeping with the spirit of Romanticism, and a number of media artistes have achieved immortality by virtue of their insistence on living life their way, seeking fulfilment on their own terms – whatever the outcome.

One thing is certain: the Romantic period marked a shift in the way people thought, and has continued to exert a decisive influence on the way we see and experience the world.



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