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 on Romanticism. 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’s Silmarillion 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 as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, although alert readers might consider that The Honourable Schoolboy was 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
Help Haiti

Help Haiti

Child victim of Haiti earthquake 2010, image courtesy WorldVision

Tens of thousands have been killed and more than three million people have been devastated by the massive earthquake that has rocked Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries. The Disasters Emergency Committee website is This is an umbrella group for key aid agencies, and is coordinating UK giving to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

The impact of an earthquake of magnitude seven is almost impossible to imagine.

Two years ago I went with World Vision, one of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) partners, to Armenia, scene of the devastating 1988 earthquake. Even after twenty years, and hundreds of millions of pounds of international aid, Armenia, previously one of the wealthiest Soviet states, is still in poverty, with much of the infrastructure unreliable, unsafe (to Western eyes), or incomplete. The landscape was littered with derelict factories and abandoned buildings. People I talked to told me that they had simply abandoned the last twenty years, and their hopes were that their children would one day be able to live the kinds of lives they had lived before the quake.

Haiti was, by contrast, already one of the poorest states in the world before the earthquake struck. It has for long been one of the least able to organise even ordinary levels of nutrition, housing and sanitation.

Clearly, everyone must make their own mind up about what they want to do, and each is in a different position financially. However, I want to put my weight behind the call to donate to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal. All the monies through DEC will be handled by well known, well trusted charities, including Oxfam, tearfund, actionaid, WorldVision, the British Red Cross, CAFOD and Christian Aid. It’s simple to donate online, or by phone to 0370 60 60 900, or by cheque payable to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE and sent it to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE, PO BOX 999, LONDON, EC3A 3AA.

Definitely. Maybe. Perhaps. We hope so

“Recognising marriage in the tax system is something I feel very strongly about and something we will definitely do in the next parliament. We will set out exactly how in due course,” was Cameron’s conclusion to a day of confusion, when he had earlier said: “It is something we want to do, something we believe we can do, it’s something, within a parliament, I’ll definitely hope to do. I am not today able to make that promise because we face this vast budget deficit – it is a clear and present danger to our economy. The public understand we cannot make all these promises up front. I think that is a very straightforward and honest way of explaining it.”

Nobody should hold politicians to dogma: after all, do we want them to do the things which are best for the nation, or do we want to make them jump summersaults to uphold the letter of words spoken perhaps a year or five years before? However: Cameron’s dithering all came on the same day.

But what should we really be doing about marriage and the tax system? Shortly after returning to the UK after almost ten years working in Belgium for international Christian youth charity Operation Mobilisation (OM), my wife and I were hit with a double-whammy: Gordon Brown abolished MIRAS, which had just about made our mortgage affordable (OM was and is a voluntary organisation, that doesn’t pay salaries — you’re actually responsible to raise your own funds to be there), and also abolished the married person’s tax allowance. Instead, he put the money into working families tax-credits. As we don’t have children, we didn’t get any of that, and our income for a while dipped below the basics of mortgage and utility bills. Those were not comfortable days!

Did we deserve MIRAS and the married person’s allowance in the first place?

It’s fair to say that MIRAS, or ‘mortgage interest relief at source’ was a tax-break for people wealthy enough to be able to afford to buy their own homes. Although it was a struggle at the time, we’ve certainly benefited from the rising market since then. If we had been paying rent rather than mortgage, we would have had nothing to show for it all more than thirteen years later. From a strictly ethical point of view, it would be hard to make the case that we ‘deserved’ MIRAS, when there were people over the road who worked just as hard for less pay, and would end up with nothing to show for it.

Did we deserve a tax allowance for being married? I firmly believe that marriage is the back-bone of society, and that the life-chances of children from stable homes where both parents are married are better. This is a simple matter of statistical evidence, and all the indicators point in the same way. But those indicators point the same way whether or not there is a particular tax-break for married couples. On the one hand, is it not good to encourage marriage with a tax-break? On the other hand, why should we reward the people with extra money who will have better life-chances for themselves and their children, when we should really be investing in those who have poor life chances? Again, we should look to the evidence: there is nothing to indicate that marriage as an institution dipped as a result of withdrawing the married-person’s allowance, or that its original introduction made people more likely to marry. We could perhaps point to the disincentive to divorce which losing the allowance would mean. But divorce is vastly more costly than that, and the amount is insignificant. And, again, do we really want to penalise people who are trapped in abusive marriages by taking away money they rely on?

The real issue was that, whether we deserved it or not, we relied on it. The adjustment was painful, and could have been devastating.

Brown and Cameron need to be much more aware of the impact their pronouncements have on people who are at tipping points. Take £100 a month away from someone who earns £50,000, and they will dislike you for it, but they are unlikely to notice it much. Take £40 away from someone who earns £20,000, and who is teetering on the brink of paying for a mortgage taken out during the housing boom, and you may tip them over into serious difficulties. It is irrelevant to ask whether they deserve the money, and whether society should be rewarding the £50,000 people for their hard work and higher contribution in taxes. Government does not exist to pass judgement about how people live their lives, but to organise society so that all benefit.

Perhaps Cameron recognised a little of that today, which led him to rock to and fro on the issue.

But that’s another thing a true leader cannot afford to do: dithering by leaders leaves the land in chaos. Those who dither, simply, should not be leaders.

Peace and Goodwill

Peace and Goodwill

At twilight, a frog rests on wet tarmac between the cliff and the Avon, Marlcliff

Believing is not in fashion. I have, during the last ten years, sat in countless meetings where people have tried to hammer home their point that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you don’t act on it. But, at the end of a decade of doubt, it turns out that we did want our politicians to act out of principle rather than greed, and that Americans, if no-one else, were prepared to vote for the hope of change, rather than more of the same cynicism.

You can read the Christmas story in different ways. I read it (and I will argue with anyone, any time, pretty much anywhere that this is the correct way) as a record of events which happened, at a particular point in time, and a particular place in space.

But if you’re not prepared to engage with it in that way, there is still a lot to be read, and understood. Shepherds on the hillside choose to believe, rather than to doubt. But their belief is exercised not in remaining on the hillside saying “that’s great, now we believe — there’s no point going to look”, but rather in going to the stable. Equally, the wise men, astrologers from the East, people whose own belief-system was almost certainly at odds with the nation they were visiting. They believed, and they went. Angels in the sky, announcing a new deal: “peace and good will”.

I expect the usual flurry of emails telling me that the effect of Christianity over the centuries has not always been peace and goodwill. Again, if you want to pick the time and the place, I’m happy to have the discussion with you. But it’s fair to say that, in all of our best endeavours, we only achieve a part of what we seek.

Nonetheless, the belief which puts itself into action, getting to grips with the peace and goodwill, in all of the messy, three steps forwards and two steps back, complicated, difficult and fractious world in which we live, is infinitely preferable to the cynicism which says: “I always knew they were all crooks — why bother anyway?” or “it probably won’t happen in my life time. Why change my ways now?”

Over the past ten years, and more likely the last forty, we have increasingly put our faith in doubt. We would prefer to not believe and not be disappointed, than to believe and act on that belief. I could add a list of all the social ills that stem from that, but you can probably make up your own list, and not have to put up with mine.

I want to wish everyone who reads these pages peace and goodwill this Christmas. But my wish for you — for everyone — is that we can begin to put aside our faith in doubt, and start on the active belief that leads us to change our world. Because it does need to change.

Peace and goodwill, then.

And a happy Christmas.

Back to Top