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Romanticism: The Period of Lovers

Text by: Amy Carpenter

Imagine a world ruled by reason. In this world, nature is a machine, clicking away at a regular speed, following set rules, never varying, as reliable as the sunrise. Music dances to a certain beat, its genius creators following strict rules of composition —sensible and predictable. Artwork is seen merely as a mirror of reality, like the shimmering reflection of mountains and sky in a lake on a clear summer day. Writers emphasize the importance of human reason over emotion, satirizing silly human foibles and using the pen to foment social change. Men believe they have discovered the secret to happiness: a natural set of rules, which if followed, will lead humanity to a utopia of reason and peace. Everything is perfect, and everyone falls in line with how things “are supposed to be.”

This was the Age of Enlightenment, which culminated in the American Revolution, a rebellion against the monarchal rule of England. The American Revolution sparked the spirit of revolution throughout the western world, especially France. Beginning in 1789, with the storming of the Bastille and ending in 1789 with a new constitution and government firmly in power, the French Revolution brought the ideals of liberty to new reality in Europe. This spirit of revolution ironically inspired a rebellion against reason and its suffocating hold on human emotion and creativity. This new philosophy of life, which spanned the late 18th century into the mid 19th century, became known as Romanticism.

Romantics saw reality as an internal, changeable thing. It was not enough simply to understand the laws of nature. The world could only be fully understood if the imagination was employed to complete the outward appearance of truth, for the inner self was part of that reality. Logic was not the only road to truth.
Emotion and instinct led to greater understanding and awareness. The world could not be understood by mere reason. The subconscious, hovering beneath the surface, could only be accessed through the medium of emotion, and art became the light of the inward person, not just a reflection of reality.

Nature was a living thing, personified and breathing, rather than a juggernaut. New discoveries in science made the world more mysterious, not less as the Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the late 18th century, brought machinery and pollution to the cities. People sought refuge in the countryside. Literature and art of the time reflected this rustic return to roots.

In literature, history became an anchor amidst the upheavals of change. The historical novel blossomed during this period—Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers are two such examples. There was also a return to the medieval period, which gave rise to Gothic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Language became more than just spoken word. The language of the heart was expressed through art, music, and poetry. The great Romantic artists, composers, and writers were inspired by one another. For example, Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix mixed world events of his time (the French Revolution) with literature (Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Inferno) to create his paintings. Composers, inspired by poetry and prose, created music without words meant to invoke living, breathing stories in the imagination.

This return to emotion and inward reflection also led to greater emphasis on emotion in relationships. No longer was marriage just a social contract. It was also about love. During the Age of Enlightenment, such frivolous emotion was disdained. During the Romantic period, love and passion was the epitome of the inward person, leading to great rhapsodies of emotional language.

Percy Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy is a perfect example of the Romantic’s mixture of nature and human emotion, personification and rapture, interconnectedness and beauty:

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another's being mingle--
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;--
What is all this sweet work worth,
If thou kiss not me?

What heart could resist being swept away by the passion and persuasion of this rapturous poem? What woman wouldn’t give in and reward its author that elusive, sought-after kiss? This is the raw core of Romantic Language and Literature. It is the appeal to the senses and emotions of the recipient, a persuasion to change and see reality in a different light. It is that umbilical connection of humanity to nature. It is the abandonment of restraint replaced by the embrace of freedom. It is, in a word, romantic.