5. Romanticism





5.1. Romanticism in Germany

5.2. William Wordsworth

5.3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

5.4. The Peacock / Shelley debate

5.5. Other critics











5.1. Romanticism in Germany


5.1.1. The Romantic Perspective

5.1.2. The Kantian Heritage

5.1.3. G. W. F. Hegel





5.1.1. The Romantic Perspective Introduction Historicism Classicism and Romanticism Creative Imagination





The focus of critical activity had been located in england in the mid-eighteenth century, when the English empirical philosophy was at the avant-garde of European thought. Indeed, many Romantic theories derive from the English aestheticians of the previous century: only they are magnified, unified in a system and have had metaphysical overtones added. In the late 18th century it shifts to Germany; and idealism, not empiricism, is its philosophical basis; an idealism which descends from the work of Kant as interpreted by Fichte, and which is developed by Schelling and Hegel.


In the second half of the eighteenth century, aesthetic thought in Germany is divided between the classical tendency represented by Winckelmann, Gottsched and Lessing, and the influence of English empiricism (on Breitingen and Bodmer). Of course, many of the ideas of these thinkers are already on the way to Romanticism. It is characteristic of German Romanticism that it had a strong Classical flavour, and is linked to a strong revival of classical Greek influence.



Anyway, the first thinker whom we can call clearly romantic is Herder. In his Fragmente zur deutschen Litteratur (1767), Causes of the Decline of Taste in Different nations, and Kritische Wälder (1769) he will relate poetry to race, geography and history. Herder is interested in creativity and the role of symbolism in literature and language, as well as in the study of comparative literature. Friedrich Schlegel will call poetry the most specifically human energy, and the central document of any culture. These ideas will become quickly diffused. Much of the discourse of nationalism derives from Romantic conceptions: the idea of the collective spirit of a people, or a nation, the notion that civilizations are organic beings with a development, youth, maturity and old age.


Historicism is in direct opposition to neoclassicism. Herder's historicism had some precedents in Giambattista Vico (Principii d'una Scienza Nuova, 1725) as well as in the incipient Renaissance appreciation of "gothicism", but the latter will become obscured during the age of French influence, and Vico was unknown outside Italy until the 19th. Anyway, Shakespeare had always been appreciated in England and his popularity extends to France an Germany in the late eighteenth century. And there had already been some moves towards a revaluation of medieval literature in England, f. i. in Dryden's comments on Chaucer, in Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1763), or in the work of Thomas Warton (Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser, 1754; History of English Poetry, 1774-8). and of primitivism and mythical thinking (Ossian). The eighteenth century had also witnessed the gradual development of antiquarianism and philology, which were the indispensable tools to effect the revival of the national literary tradition.


Some of the most popular theories of literary history are born in this age. Friedrich Wolf's Prolegomena in Homerum (1795) will put forward the thesis that the Homeric epics were put together from a number of pre-existing, smaller oral poems. We recognise here the Romantic notion of the epic as the collective creation of a nation. This theory will be applied to epic in general (Chanson de Roland, Cantar de Mío Cid) during the nineteenth century, in which the interest in literary history is the predominant kind of literary study. Among the best known historians of literature who address the issue of "traditionalism" we may mention Gaston Paris, Menéndez Pidal or Joseph Bédier.
 Classicism vs. Romanticism



This difference originates in the German romantics themselves (Schlegel, Schiller and Goethe). Romantic had been for some time a pejorative term, but it soon became an honorific one, as is usually the case with avant-garde movements. In his Lectures on Dramatic art and Literature (1808) A.W. Schlegel opposed the neoclassical exclusiveness and decorum, and further specifies the opposition between classicism and romanticism:


classicism romanticism


old new

beauty energy

universal individual

ideal characteristic

closed open

static progressive.


But this conception took some time to develop, even among the romantics themselves. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a strongly classical spirit, had called "romantic" all that was weak and morbid in literature, works permeated by an excess of subjective feeling and the egotism of the author. On the other hand, everything fresh and healthy was to be called "classic," irrespective of its age. But in general, "[t]he German critics conceived Classical art to be a direct, objective and happily unsophisticated communion with nature, and romantic (or modern) art to be a view of nature complicated, somewhat unhappily, by various phases of reflexiveness and subjectivity" (Wimsatt and Brooks 368). Goethe had to accept in the end that he was a "romantic" writer like all the other moderns. There is in the romantic writers a feeling that man has lost the unity with the world that he had in classical times, that the personality of modern man is fragmented, that thought and reflection have somehow broken the harmony between man and the world. The nostalgia for the lost unity is projected to nature, which becomes then the companion and confident of the poet's soul, feeling his emotions. A variant of this idea of man's estrangement from the world gives us Hegel's distinction of the three ages of art: oriental, classic and romantic.


The opposition between "classics" and "romantics" is quickly popularized in the rest of Europe, above all by Mme. de Staël's De l'Allemagne ; in England, Coleridge will be an important introducer and continuator of German ideas; he will use the term "romantic" in its new, self-conscious sense from 1811 on.
 The poetic imagination



Poetry is seen as a force which will renew the spiritual energies of mankind, exhausted after the scientifically centered thought of the previous century. Poetic imagination is then seen as the counterpart of logical and scientific thought. The poet, Goethe or Schlegel affirm, thinks like a primitive, not with concepts but with symbols, allegories, metaphors. His thought reinforces the links of man and nature. Conceptual thought estranges man from nature; the role of poetry is to effect the reconciliation, to make man one with himself and with the universe once more. Novalis believes that science turns

the infinite creative music of the universe into the dull clappering of a gigantic mill driven by the stream of chance and floating upon it, a mill, without architect and without miller, grinding itself to pieces, in fact a perpetuum mobile.

Poetic imagination, Schelling and Schlegel believe, is to provide modern man with a new mythology. They believe that the modern age has lost its link to the universe, its mythology, and that only poetry can restore it. Poetry conceived in this way would be a kind of philosophy, the highest philosophy, because it would be a creative one. Novalis will identify poetry and reality: "The more poetical, the more true."


At the same time, however, poetry is being linked to the most unconscious processes of the human mind, dreams: Jean-Paul Richter sees poetry as creative dreaming, and dreaming as involuntary poetry.


The emphasis on poetic imagination is linked to a double emphasis in the personality of the poet and in the lyrical genre. The highest poetical enterprise is not the relatively "objective" and communal epic poem, but the subjective and individualistic lyrical poetry. The interest has turned from the external world to the knowing and expressing self. The poetic word is seen as the "direct energy of the soul". Poetry works by no sense, Herder says as he opposes Lessing's distinctions in Laocoon ; rather, it acts directly on the soul. The poetic word is not an imitation of created objects, Herder continues, but of the creative act of God. This creative act is common to all artistic activities. The romantics will favour any assimilations of the arts. In the words of Schlegel,

we should try to bring the arts closer together and seek for transitions from one to the others. Statues perhaps may quicken into pictures, pictures become poems, poems music, and (who knows?) in like maner stately church music may once more rise heavenward as a cathedral."

Schopenhauer sees music as "the fullest revelation of will," as the most spiritual and perfect of all the arts: it is their ideal, all arts aspire to reach the purity of music. In literature, the lyrical genre is closest to music.


There is also a critical revaluation of the comic and the grotesque, which had been comparatively neglected by neoclassical theory. One concept is especially relevant: irony, as defined by Friedrich Schlegel and K.W.F. Solger. This romantic irony , as we shall call it, is a kind of irony directed towards the poetic subject himself, and towards his techniques and attitudes. It does not set the poet above one character, but rather one aspect of the poet's soul against another. Schlegel sees irony as a play between phases of our own stupidity and shrewdness, and sees in it a means to stimulate the evolution of the self. The poet, asserting the essential independence of his creative spirit above the links it has formed with objects and ideas, mocks his own ideals, making them clash with reality and parodying himself. Solger sees irony as co-extensive with poetry: it is the best expression of the poetic imagination breaking the limits of the matter, represented here by the ideals and media of the poet himself. Poems written in this fashion, such as Heine's, are a series of indulgings in sentiment followed by irony. However, romantic irony is not as self-destructive as it seems: often it is there as a disclaimer, a mere means to justify the previous overflow of sentiment, which is after all more significant.


All this insistence on subjectivity will also bear on critical thought. F. Schlegel sees in criticism something near to poetry: it must in a like manner be guided by metaphorical and intuitive thought, rather than by discursive reasoning. "Poetry can only be criticized by poetry." This is the theoretical basis for the wave of impressionistic criticism which will be predominant in the nineteenth-century.






5.1.2. The Kantian heritage Friedrich Schiller Friedrich Schelling Arthur Schopenhauer Friedrich Schiller



Schiller believes that in Classical time the human spirit had a wholeness which has been lost in modern times. Human nature is no longer a unified force: it has been divided into two opposed principles: the sensual or material drive and the formal drive . The first links man to matter and temporality, to his phenomenal existence. The second tries to harmonize human diversity, to annul space and time; it has to do with morals and with the noumenal existence of man. But there exists the possibility of harmonizing these two impulses in a third, the "play-drive," which is the basis of art. The play-drive annuls time within time, reconciling man's existence as a phenomenon with absolute being, and change with eternity, the world of sense and the world of ideas. "Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays." Beauty accomplishes no particular result whatever, intellectual or moral, but it restores the wholeness and freedom of man, the unity of his intellect and his morals. Art, Schiller believes, is the proof that that moral freedom is possible for man in spite of his physical existence. The purity of the aesthetic effect is never complete: in any work there is a certain amount of arbitrarity and chance which is alien to beauty. Music is the purest kind of art; poetry joins the purity of music with the plastic quality of the other arts.

 Friedrich Schelling



In his treatise On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature Schelling saw man's creativity as analogous of the unconscious creativity of nature. Conversely, the processes of nature are an unconscious artistic activity: nature follows an ideal pattern without knowing it. He also saw art as the conciliation of our subjectivity with the external world. Art will reproduce in itself the steps which nature effects in its elevation towards spiritualty. It conciliates natural forms to the shape of ideas, universalizing them. For Schelling, this is not effected through allegory, which posits a dead nature and a mechanical relationship between world and ideas; the conciliation comes through symbol, which is not a generality, but, paradoxically, a particular which contains a generality in itself, an individual turned into a prototype. That is, beauty does not come from the subjection of art to the imitation of nature, nor from the subjection of nature to art (classical idealization). Beauty comes through symbol, when the spirit captures what is naturally characteristic in the natural form. This portrayal of the characteristic is only a first step, corresponding to the level of physical bodies in nature. Then will come the harmony of form and idea (grace) found in classical sculpture. But the highest spiritualization of art comes with the portrayal of the human soul, best effected in painting, whose development is linked to that of christianity.


Schelling was also a pioneer in the comparative studies of literature, myth and religion. His influence on later thinkers is considerable: it is enormous in Coleridge, who copied whole passages from Schelling and presented them as his own. Schelling's analogies between the development of art and the elevation of nature towards spirituality will be developed by Hegel in his Philosophy of Fine Art.
 Arthur Schopenhauer



The well-known opposition between the two irreducible sides of human existence (the phenomenal and the noumenal in Kant) appears in Schopenhauer as the opposition between the world as representation and the world as will. Only through art, Schopenhauer believes, is the mind completely free from space, time, logic and the principle of causality, the laws which govern the (phenomenal) world as representation; only then is pure will manifested. Art is the "objectification of will." This objectification may occur at higher or lower grades. Music is the purest manifestation of the will, at the greatest level of subjectivity. Poetry is a more objectified kind of art, but some genres are more subjective than others.


For instance, in poetry, Schopenhauer believes, tragedy represents a higher degree of objectivity of will than lyric poetry. Lyric poetry is an essentially subjective literary genre: its subject is the intense feeling of our will as volition or frustration. It is not wholly objective, because perception and desire are mingled. The will imparts its influence to the objective surroundings described, and vice-versa. Tragedy, on the other hand, represents the highest grade of objectivity of the will. The will realizes that it is at strife with itself in its objectivization, and there is a catharsis which consists in the resignation of the will to live. Art provides in this way a kind of release from material existence, but it is only temporary.







5.1.3. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)





Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is the most accomplished and influential representative of German idealism. "Like Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas before him, Hegel tried to develop a system of philosophy in which all the contributions of his major predecessors would be integrated." Hegel's approach is the summit of the new historical approach of the Romantic age. The novelty of his system is that in it the historical approach and the conceptual approach are one and the same:

He did not view different philosophies as so many alternatives among which one might shop to find a congenial one. Instead, he considered the historical sequence of philosophical ideas as crucial. He believed that various systems represent succesive phases in the development of the human spirit. Hegel, more than anyone else, established the history of philosophy as an important field of study. He felt that his own philosophy was superor mainly because it was more comprehensive and did justice to the insights of his predecessors. (Kaufmann).

According to Hegel, culture and philosophy are nothing but the latest phases in a process by which the Absolute Spirit, the origin and end of reality (God or the Universe) comes to know itself throught an act of consciousness. Philosophy, abstract thought, is the ultimate reflection by which the Spirit comes to know itself. Each phase in the development of the human spirit cannot help but produce a philosophical image of the world that mirrors its own state of development. Hegel traced the evolution of human conscience in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807). In the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817) he gave a full outline of his system, in which every aspect of human activity, every science or institution, is interpreted as the representative of a moment in the development of the spirit. Hegel's spirit moves with the sun, from East to West: the dawn of civilization is in the East, but according to Hegel the eastern peoples lie at present in stagnation, having been unable to follow the development of the spirit through its later phases. That was the privilege, he believes, of the Greeks first, and of the Germans (above all Hegel) in our age. This pro-Western, pro-German attitude is chauvinistic enough, but it is easier to criticize it than to think without the teleological perspective on cultural history which we owe to Hegel.


Other important works by Hegel include the Logic and the Philosophy of Right.. After his death, his students published their notes his lectures, which consist of a philosophical approach to many different subjects (religion, history, history of philosophy, and art).


His Aesthetics or Philosophy of Fine Art undertakes the study of art considered as a major phase in the development of the spirit, as a means by which we become conscious of the most sublime spiritual ideas. Art was the hightest expression of the Idea in the Classical age, until it was replaced by religion in the Christian era. Art lingers on today (like religion, or any other cultural manifestation) although the period when it was the highest expression of the Spirit is long over: philosophy is now a more adequate expression of the Idea than art. But art nevertheless mirrors in its own development the development of Spirit itselfÊearly art (Oriental or Symbolic art) was akin to religion; after a classical age of harmony (where art, we might say, is art and nothing but art) contemporary (Romantic) art is somewhat contaminated by the philosophical spirit, and is abstract and reflexive.


"By 'symbolic art' Hegel means something very much like what many romantic critics call allegory. It is an art in which objects represented are made to have arbitrary meanings, in which the relation of object to meaning is abstract" (Adams 517). These critics (e. g. Coleridge) oppose allegory to symbol (which in their system is a characteristic of romantic art. Hegel defines classical art as a phase of balance and harmony between the idea and the form which represents it. This balance is lost in Romantic art in favour of the idea. Romantic art cannibalizes itself, and art becomes the subject matter of art: "Art becomes its own domain, the release of Spirit into Art itself, not merely into objects represented in art . . . . Romantic art is realized by painting, music and poetry in ascending order of freedom" (Adams 517). Romantic art is more spiritual than either symbolic or classical art, but it is still inferior to religion and philosophy as a manifestation of the Idea.


Each phase of the developent of art manifests itself best in a particular art: therefore, the summit of Oriental art is architecture (massive, abstract and linked to religious or political power); in the Classical age, the harmony between artistic form and content finds its natural expression in the representation of the human figure through sculpture; in the Romantic age, more spiritual arts, such as painting, music, and poetry, are the most representative. His age, therefore, is for Hegel one of reflexive literature. In the quintessential Romantic arts, music and poetry, the original medium of artistic representation, the space of architecture, sculpture or painting, has become subjective: these arts are temporal, like consciousness itself, rather than spatial.


Hegel's aim in his Philosophy of Fine Art is to study the concept of the beautiful and the spiritual capacity of each art and artistic style in themselves, in an abstract way: it is not the role of philosophy, he argues, to deal with specific objects (that is, philosophy is concerned with the theory of literature or of the other arts, not with criticism). The critical activity may be conceptual (and therefore abstract), which is its highes manifestation, or it may consist in a concrete and superficial judgement of taste, where there is no possibility of argument. The former activity is the highest, and only it will allow us to appreciate the hightest manifestations of art: "Taste recoils and disappears in the presence of genius" (76). Hegel sees the critical and theorical activity as the fulfillment of the possibilities of art. Art is, like philosophy, a conceptual activity; only the concept is not wholly present to itself. Art is essentially an alienation of the Idea in a sensory form: the conceptual activity which examines art therefore in a way restores the Idea to itself. This fact is above all a characteristic of our late, or Romantic, way of experiencing art: "Art itself, as it is nowadays, is destined to become the object of thought." Hegel is perhaps the first theorist to announce the death of art, a death which has constantly been with us since the Romantic age: "Art is for us, as far as its supreme aim is concerned, a thing of the past" (38).


The philosophy of Hegel gives a new expression to Classical and Romantic themes such as the necessity of idealization in art, its moralizing virtues, the arbitrariness of taste, historicism, the nature of imagination or the aim of criticism. In his own terms, we could say that in his aesthetics these classical themes are sublated (aufgehoben ), they become the component parts of a new and wider theory of art which is a part of a theory of reality. This theory was soon contested from many angles (by the existentialists, the pragmatists, Marx or Nietzsche). Anyway, Hegel would perhaps be satisfied to see that in the work of his best critics his thought was not rejected, but sublated.