Romanticism: An introduction
Coach Jay Adams
Dr. Ian Johnston
The Birth of Movements
• People do not simultaneously decide “We need a new
• Movements (political, religious, artistic, or literary) arise as a
natural process to correct what are perceived as the errors of the
current system (which arose from a previous movement).
• It sounds Marxist, because it is: this is a phenomenon that Marx
observed and identified correctly as being part of the process of
being a human society
Romanticism displaced the
• The Enlightenment, of course, sought to correct the errors seen in the Reformation
and the years of internecine religious and political struggle that ensued.
• Characteristics of Enlightenment thought (some still current):
• Nature, society, politics, justice, and religion should all be subservient to human
• Science is the extension of our reason, and the preferred method of analyzing and
shaping the world around us.
• Government is only valid when it hinges on the consent of the governed.
• Independence is supreme, education is how we get there, and equality as a
concept requires a public that is equally free to pursue education.
• Diversity of religion requires tolerance and a separation between political
government and religious government
• We obey positions rather than people
• By the birth of the 18th century, significant thinkers had
identified some problems with strict Enlightenment thought.
– A strict adherence to science results in a materialistic worldview and
the objectification of people and the denigration of the abstract
• We now lump these thinkers and authors together into “The
Romantic Movement,” which is generally defined as lasting from
1798 to about 1840.
• It is nearly impossible to define Romanticism. By 1924, over
11,000 books had been written on the topic.
A short definition
• According to Dr. Ian Johnston, the primary definition of a
Romantic mindset can be summed up as follows:
– “it marked for many people (although not for all) the abandonment of
the idea that there was a given order in nature; it posited the notion
that order was something not discovered in nature but created by the
human mind. In words of John Adams: Chaos is the law of nature;
order the dream of man. “
This is a big idea:
• For all of Western history, the human race had operated upon
the idea that the universe contained an order that was placed
within it from without (God). The goal of human history, and
any human life, consisted in discovering that order and operating
• The Romantic mindset, then, declared that existence was by its
nature orderless, and that any order in the universe must be
imposed on it from within (man).
• Order, then, is a creative act, rather than hinging on a process of
Natural consequences of this
The most important faculty we have at our disposal is not reason but
– Education, then, should not aim at transmission of information but at
development of this imagination
– Intellectual freedom is much more important than political or economic
• Whatever stimulates the imagination has intrinsic value
– Thus, the Romantic obsession with monsters, castles, vaults, caves…
– Nature is an eternal source of wonder, and deserves our focus
• Being true to ourselves involves creating a self-concept and then
having the freedom and courage to fulfill it, regardless of social
– Therefore, the artist who “dies too young” becomes a mythic hero
More Romantic ideals
• Originality of thought, experience, or expression is more important
than skill in the transmission of ideas
– Before now, the ideal was to “perfect” an already accepted form of
– Romantic heroes were “passionately individualistic.” Remember Heathcliff?
• If originality, rather than submission to order, is important, then the
“top-down” literary model is obsolete.
– All of a sudden, common man, with his variety of experiences, became a
suitable subject for art
– Also, things once considered taboo also reached near-idol status.
The Birth of a Movement
• 1798: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
collaborate on a book of poetry titled Lyrical Ballads.
• In the preface, they offer two ideas that have been crucial to the
development of literary theory and Romantic sensibility:
– Wordsworth defined poetry as “The spontaneous overflow of powerful
emotions recollected in tranquility.”
– Coleridge offered the idea that all art hinges on the viewer’s “willing
suspension of disbelief.”