Art is the Tree of LIFE. SCIENCE is the Tree of Death.
With these words the 18th century poet and fantastical artist William Blake helps to usher in the Romantic Era. Wordsworth would describe Blake as mad, and perhaps the entire 19th century could be considered “mad” as well with its break from rationalism and embrace of subjective reality, the Gothic and the spirit of the imagination.The Age of Enlightenment rose up from the roots of the Renaissance: Isaac Newton is knighted and Rene Descartes declares, “Je pense, donc je suis.” Baruch Spinoza declares, “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” Politically, Enlightenment ideology is firmly established after the Glorious Revolution in England, which gave Parliament authority over the sovereignty of monarchs. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke expound on human equality, on governments that serve the people, and declare that all people should have the agency of self-determination and freedoms of religion, speech and thought – the very ideals Jefferson declares so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence. But while the American Revolution and the establishment of a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" was perhaps the pinnacle of Enlightenment spirit, the bloodbath caused by the uprising of the peasantry in the French Revolution would mark an end to an idealization of human nature as something moved solely by intellect and order.
And in fact, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a plea that the very democracy “of the people,” created in the optimism of Enlightenment ideology, should not “perish from this earth” as the horror and hypocrisy of slavery seriously challenges the righteous ideals of equality during the Civil War.Many historians point to July 14, 1789 as the beginning of the Romantic era – of course it is fairly silly to pin an entire transformation of Western ideology on the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, as the French Revolution begins. Many factors are at play: The Industrial Revolution, which replaces feudal manors with factories; the spreading British Empire, which brings new ideas – and opium – from the Far East; the continued prosperity and rise of the middle class with an increasingly global mercantile exchange; the global displacement of people whose roots once went back centuries in the same land; the questioning of objective reality. The philosopher Immanuel Kant proposes that our own perceptions shape our reality; the famous German writer, poet and philosopher Goethe re-examines the story of Faust, questioning if human passions should be tamed by rationalism. Later in the 19th century, the philosopher Nietzsche will ask the same questions. Indeed, the qualities of human greed and lust, the corruption of power, and the ultimate failure of philosophy and rationalism are predicted in Voltaire’s famous Enlightenment satire, Candide, which is wryly subtitled Optimism.
In America, socials movements that include free love societies, the Transcendentalists, religious revivals, the abolition movement, the brutal institution of slavery – and a brutally bloody Civil War to end it – shape the passion of Romanticism. The expansive and often brutal wilderness of the West is conquered through further bloodshed in the Indian Wars. God is equated with nature, and the powerful, indifferent and unpredictable forces of nature mirror our own.
The elements that define all historical movements can be seen everywhere. They infuse the arts of the era as well. In class, we compared neoclassical music and paintings to those of the Romantic era, and examined the differences between odes: Thomas Gray’s Ode to the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes and John Keats’ To Autumn. We will be reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which incorporates both Enlightenment and Romantic ideology, and Mary Shelley’s astounding masterpiece, Frankenstein. Students are also at work on a Romantic poetry research paper, due at the end of February.
From the perspective of the Romantic era, personal experience and subjective reality eclipse a notion of objective truth. There is an idealization of peasants and common people, and a hearkening back to the mysticism present in medieval times. Indeed the name “Romantic” is a derivation of medieval romances, the stories of knights on quests to discover spiritual truths. Movements against social injustices caused by slavery, colonialism and industrialization gain traction, and moral relativism takes a stand in works such as Huckleberry Finn, as Huck questions and opposes a law that declares that a black man is property. The nature of evil is questioned as Gothic works such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights and the works of Edgar Allen Poe create monsters and ghosts that reveal dark psychological desires within. Passion trumps rationalism, people seek to extend their reality through impassioned religious practices, now including Hindu and Buddhism, or through use of opium. And all this during a time also known as the Victorian Era, which often has a veneer of being prim and stuffy. But appearances are often deceptive.