What is Romanticism?

Back in the old days, my tutorial partner and I were given a simple essay title: “Emily Brontë — romantic realist. Discuss”. My tutorial partner wrote an exemplary essay which explored (as far as I can remember) every aspect of Wuthering Heights. She has gone on to become the successful novelist Clare Chambers. I, on the other hand, flummoxed around for a week trying to find out what ‘romanticism’ was. I read several books on it, and, in the end, wrote an essay comparing Brontë to Keats, who was the only ‘romantic poet’ that I knew much about. Our tutor did his best to be kind about it, but it was fairly clear that I had neither grasped Romanticism, nor made any particular application of it to Wuthering Heights.

So, off and on, I have been thinking about ‘what is romanticism’ for the last twenty-five years. In the hope that it may save someone else twenty-five years thinking about it.

In considering Romanticism, I have been trying to draw the threads together of Brontë and Keats, since that is where I began, medieval verse romances, such as Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, the Romantic period in classical music, including Beethoven and Schubert and above all Wagner, the German philologists of the late 19th century, Marxism, Nazism, the play (and film) Cabaret, and the modern obsession with Vampires, which functions in a totally different way from the modern horror-trope of zombies and other undead. I want also to consider romantic views of science and history, and the connection all this has to ‘romance’, which from time to time is declared dead, only to rise again from the merely erotic.

If Wikipedia had existed when I wrote my original essay, I would probably have gone to the Wikipedia article onRomanticism. I would, I think, have been just as misled as I was by the half-dozen or so books on Romanticism that I read when preparing for it. 1 The Wikipedia position — at the time of writing, and it will no doubt evolve — is that Romanticism was a movement or an era which began in the second half of the 18th century.

I would have been misled by this because, to establish whether Brontë was a romantic, it would have only been necessary to place her in the history of ideas. But people are still writing romantic literature now — Mills and Boon continue to do a roaring trade — and many people consider themselves to be more or less ‘romantic’ without committing themselves to any particular movement of literature or art. More importantly, romanticism of the kind that exists now existed long before the Romantic Era, and draws its name from the medieval verse romances, of which the most famous was the Roman de la Rose. A movement in its own time, perhaps, romance transcends modern genres. There is romantic science-fiction, for example Dune or Rocannon’s World, and science-fiction which is absolutely not romantic, such as the original Foundation Trilogy. There are romantic detective novels, such as Murder Must Advertise, and anti-romantic detectives, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. We have romantic fantasy, of which Tolkien’sSilmarillion is as good an example as any, and, by the same author, the entirely unromantic Farmer Giles of Ham. Romantic Comedy is such a staple of summer and Christmas film releases that it has its own name: Rom-Com. There are romantic thrillers of which the James Bond series are probably the best known, and utterly unromantic, such asTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, although alert readers might consider that The Honourable Schoolboywas a romantic thriller. But, going back, it would be hard to make the case that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was not in some sense romantic, and even more so for Romeo and Juliet, whereas Richard III clearly is not. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contain stories which are clearly romantic — the Franklin’s Tale, for example — whereas others, such as the Miller’s Tale, are clearly as far from romance as is possible to get.

I could explore exhaustively all the characteristics of all the things which are referred to as ‘romantic’ or ‘examples of romanticism’, but, again, I would still be misled. This kind of ‘literary criticism by numbers’, now substantially aided by the internet, does not get us very far.

Ultimately, ‘romantic’ and ‘romanticism’ are words which communicate more or less what we mean. But, no matter how much the literati and the art-historians would like to control the term, ‘romantic’ is a word in common use, and, well, we know it when we see it. Perhaps my biggest problem in writing the original essay was that I failed to take into account that our own intuitive sense of what the word means is more important than any screeds someone else has written about it.

But, in coming to terms with this, I would like to suggest that my other original instinct was perhaps not so far wrong, because it seems to me now, considering political, scientific, literary, historiographical, theological, philosophical, musical and art-historical forms of romanticism, that it was Keats who more or less nailed it in one:

[Referring to a Greek vase, in Ode on a Grecian urn]:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 2

It is the equation of truth and beauty — though we will need to look a little more closely at what is ‘beauty’ to unpack this — which is at the heart of romanticism, at the heart of what we call ‘romantic’, and at the heart of some of the catastrophically bad consequences of taking romanticism from the realm of art into the realm of politics.

The German Romantics considered their movement to be about ‘Sturm und Drang’ — Storm and Pressure. By this they (I believe) meant that their movement was about the things which excite the greatest emotions. You have only to listen to the music of Wagner, or, indeed, to Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata to hear composers attempting to create the maximum level of emotion through music. There are no ‘nice tunes’ in the Pathétique, but it is hard to listen to it without being sucked into its emotional tide. In this sense, not only Mahler, but also Stravinsky are romantic composers. Indeed, the first performance of Stravinsky’s Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) created so much Sturm und Drang that it caused a riot. This is by strong contrast with the impressionist, or we might perhaps say symbolist writing of Debussy in Chansons de Bilitis, a similarly pagan-inspired theme, but written laconically, like a dream, something which he takes further in the hauntingly disorientating Syrinx.

I would like to suggest that beauty of the kind Keats described is not only ‘Sturm und Drang’, but anything which creates a feeling of beauty in the unobserved observer. It is this mediation through the unobserved observer which is essential to romanticism. Life, as a general rule, is not beautiful in the sense the romantics would talk about it. Even when it is not cruel, apparently meaningless, trivial, boring or spiteful, it is simply not organised enough around what we would most like to see to make it ‘beautiful’. Once a day we get a sunrise and a sunset, and, because they organise everything into a world of different colours, strong, long shadows and the centrality of the sun at the horizon, we generally do regard them as beautiful. Online stock photography sites state in their guidelines that they are not interested in pictures of sunsets. Why not? Because almost everyone who has a camera has at some point tried to photograph one, and, generally speaking, these pictures look ‘nicer’ than the run of the mill disorganised shots which most photographers take.

In one of my other lives as a teacher of photography, the thing I most struggle with is helping people to choose the point of view, and subsequently the crop, which lends the most organisation to the picture, so that it moves from being ‘life-like’, which most photography is, to ‘beautiful’, which most photographs are not, even when they are pictures of things most people regard as beautiful (cats, flowers, sunsets).

An interest in beauty, though, is not unique to Romantics, any more than Sturm und Drang is. If anyone wants to see an entirely unromantic example of both Sturm and Drang, they need look no further than Hieronymous Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross. This extraordinary painting, which you might mistake as being the product of a modernist art movement, though it was made in 1490, has both storm and pressure in abundance, but no-one looking at it would consider it remotely ‘romantic’. Nor, perhaps, would the people who use the word in the way Keats used it consider it ‘beautiful’. It is, in a certain sense, a very beautiful painting. I used to live in Ghent and visited the museum of fine arts fairly frequently. T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is full of Sturm und Drang, but it is not remotely a romantic poem, and, again, it’s unlikely that Keats would have described it as beautiful.

The kind of beauty Keats was referring to is a scene which, by being depicted and framed, and thus making us the unobserved observer, is complete, organised, and speaks to the emotions in a way which gives a sense of infinity, as we say in photography. This is the ephemeral quality he is trying to grasp in Ode on a Grecian Urn, where, because they are static, the lover is never quite able to catch hold of his beloved, and therefore remains forever in an ecstasy of chase without capture. The original life behind the scene may not have been beautiful at all — it may have been sordid, or violent, or merely a deep disappointment. But once captured for ever and depicted, it becomes beauty.

Let me broaden this, lest I fall into the trap of talking about Keats at the expense of the rest of romanticism. Essentially, I am arguing that romanticism is what you get when the artist, in whatever medium, organises the internal reality of the work of art to coincide with that which is most beautiful (be it beautifully sad, tragically wasteful, joyous, exalting, or whatever other kind of beauty appeals). Some stories are implicitly very beautiful. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, which has been reworked many times in many centuries, is implicitly so, and it’s very hard to do anything to it which stops it being thus. There is no way of portraying Orpheus descending to the underworld to rewin his wife by the power of music, only to be thwarted because he fails in the prohibition to not look back, as something cynical, tawdry, sordid, commonplace or coincidental. Other stories, however, cannot be made romantic without making them mawkish, sentimental  or twee. It was Oscar Wilde, reflecting how tastes had changed in just  a few years, who said: “you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh” at the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl is another example, as is — though many readers will dislike this — the murder of Alec by Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy needs to have Tess put to death ‘by society’ in order to achieve the particular ordering of life which he is presenting, which forms the substance of the ‘beauty’ of the story, that a pure woman is persecuted by society and eventually put to death, through no real fault of her own. Aside from the murder and execution, Hardy’s account is fairly compelling. A beautiful but naive girl from a poor family is preyed on relentlessly by Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, and mistreated and insulted by those around her, either from jealousy or (in Hardy’s view) priggishness. It would be hard to believe that these things didn’t happen, and hard not to shed a tear for all of the girls misused in this way, and who then bore the consequences of them. But Hardy is looking for the ‘final-blow’, as Mahler might have put it, and this must be death, if his character is to be raised to the tragic heights of a Macbeth, a Hamlet, a King Lear or an Othello. Unfortunately, the British legal system of the time, with all its faults, did not allow for a woman to be executed simply because she was naive, had been seduced, or had had more than one lover. 3. The only crime for which Tess could be executed which would not also demean her with its pettiness would be murder, and Alec was, as the saying goes, asking for it. But the character of Tess which Hardy has taken many pains to present to us would have been entirely incapable of any such deed and, if she had done such a thing, would have gone through many crises of conscience afterwards. Hardy’s romanticism gets the better of him, and we have the casual triumph of ‘beauty’ over ‘truth’ which is the dark side of the romantic movement: when the truth is not beautiful, the truth is altered.

Romantic writing, when used for fiction, in the hands of a master writer, has produced some of the greatest literature in the world. Ultimately, for a novel to be satisfying, we want the threads tied together, we want the good to be victorious and the wicked punished, and we want other characters to know that the good character was good all along. We want love to be fulfilled, even if this is beyond the grave (Wuthering Heights, to return to where we began), and profound to displace the commonplace while Platonic concepts such as love, honour, heroism are shown to be written into the underlying laws of the universe. We want this all the more in fiction because we rarely see it in real life. This fits naturally in with what romanticism is about, though that is not to say that a-romantic writing cannot organise these things equally well, and to equal satisfaction.

In the hands of a lesser writer, we see the fingerprints of romanticism when characters go out of character for the sake of plot symmetry, when things which are possible but unlikely (to go against Aristotle’s famous dictum) happen to make the story work, and when symbols get confused with real objects, and the relationship between the two is left unclear.

In the hand of a poor writer, we either get so much sturm and drang that the pages become choked with it, or the story does become hackneyed, mawkish, sentimental or simply predictable.

If these things are kept only within the realms of literature, painting or music, then no harm is really done (though realism may well have been damaged).

However, the close of the German romantic movement really did result in a fatal confusion of what was beautiful and what was true. At the start of the stage musical Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood’s character Cliff Bradshaw is told by the border guards that he will find Germany a very beautiful place. The story goes on to point out the constant dichotomy between what is beautiful and what is real, right up to the point of Bradshaw’s departure, where the border guard asks him if he found Germany beautiful.

This is all very well as the musical of the play of the novel by a young homosexual man who experienced Nazi Germany first hand, but Isherwood’s instincts in describing the roots of Nazism are not simply a response to the way in which Nazis viewed unconventional sexual orientation. Hitler’s philosophy grew directly from his interest in Wagner, and from the writings of Nietzche, though this is not remotely to suggest that Nietzche would ever have approved of where Hitler took them. In desiring beauty, Hitler was drawn to the beauty of Teutonic mythology, and to developing his own myth of the beautiful Aryan. From there, it is a short step to the superiority of the Aryan over other races, and from there to the superiority of the beautiful Nordic-looking Aryan — tall, blonde-hair, blue-eyes — and a hatred for those factors which might corrupt it. Coupled with a romantic view of science, which enabled Hitler and his followers to imagine they could take enormous shortcuts in the evolutionary process, they were left with a mandate for eugenics and what would now be termed ethnic cleansing.

I am not remotely suggesting that Romanticism leads inevitably (or even frequently) to anti-Semitism, totalitarianism or any such thing. But the equation of beauty and truth — the world as organised by the shaping, unobserved observer versus the world as it actually is — leads us into a world of false steps if we take it from fiction into reality.

Let us return for a moment to Emily Brontë. Was she a romantic realist? Of course she was. The characters drawn in Wuthering Heights are extreme, violent,  dangerous, mad. But there is no essential improbability in their actions once you accept the premise that so many people of such passion and violence, or at least vindictiveness, should be inhabiting such a small part of the country. The realism is made more patent by the inclusion of the drab narrator Lockwood, and his fussy narrator the nurse, both distancing us from the extraordinary characters, and presenting two layers of unobserved observer, though even Lockwood is eventually dragged into the story, albeit in only a transitory fashion. The romanticism is obvious in the way that the entire tale and its characters are constructed to unleash a maximum of passion and have things taken all the way to their logical (from a plot point of view) conclusion.

But this gives us an important counter-example to the notion that romanticism and realism are opposites. True, much romantic literature is unrealistic, but much unromantic literature is also unrealistic.  Romanticism is really the opposite of the world-weary cynicism which we see in most of le Carré, Raymond Chandler, the early TS Eliot, William Golding and the author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Romanticism is one antidote to the claim that everything is meaningless. In Romanticism, the answer is that the world is shot through with meaning, and that meaning is linked to what stirs the emotions when observed. It is not the only antidote. The world can also be seen as shot through with ironic purpose, with spiritual purpose, with moral purpose, bound together by a social contract, or held together by immutable scientific laws. Romanticism is just one of the many meta-narratives — things which explain everything — which the post-modernists have been trying to escape from.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. I am not criticising Wikipedia here — to me, the encyclopedia which we make ourselves is one of the best things about the internet, part of my GWAFFTEY (Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, eBay and YouTube which defines the majority Web 2.0 experience). However, it is a summary of what has been written, not a place to find insight or understanding. It is this fatal misprision which has misled many students who, up against deadlines, believed they would find in Wikipedia what they failed to glean in proper research.
  2. Keats is quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds in this
  3. Dorothy L Sayers solves this problem rather better in Strong Poison, and perhaps Hardy would have been wise to pay more attention to the then brand-new writings of Arthur Conan Doyle on a certain Mr Sherlock Holmes

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