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  There were two kinds of romanticism in Europe. The first, in the 16th and 17th centuries, was an almost exclusively literary phenomenon. ‘Romantick’ writers and their readers were fascinated by the exotic and the supernatural. The Odyssey, the Arabian Nights, Ovid\'s Metamorphoses and Apuleius\' The Golden Ass were particularly potent influences. Most thoroughgoing Romantick works are long forgotten, but elements of the style can still be seen, for example in Shakespeare (heroes and heroines shipwrecked on the coasts of magic countries; statues that come to life; enchanted woods; ghosts) and in the masques and operas of many nations. In the 18th century the Romantick style survived principally in puppet-plays (where ‘Turks’ and ‘genies’ were favourite characters) and in operas (for example, Mozart\'s The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute), and its subsequent manifestations were in children\'s literature (the folk tales collected by the Grimm brothers are full of it) and in music hall and pantomime.

The second, and more significant, kind of European romanticism began midway through the 18th century and ran wildfire until the rise of modernism some 150 years later; indeed, in such manifestations as neo-romanticism, it still persists today. This was a philosophical and intellectual movement—or rather, since it was not confined to the arts, a climate of opinion—based on the ideas of individual freedom and self-expression. Thinkers of the Enlightenment had proclaimed that humankind could shake off the darkness of superstitious ignorance thanks to a kind of mass awakening produced by universal education. The Romantic view was that each person possessed individual freedom, and would find it by being true to his or her own individuality. Assertion of self would open the individual to a kind of transcendental reality, the sublimity (not necessarily religious) which is all round us and of which we aspire to be part.

These ideas led to a vast upsurge of libertarian theory and activity. The period from the 1770s onwards saw philosophers grappling with the ideas of individual identity and responsibility, with concepts of freedom, the nature and duties of the state, and the implications of all such matters for ethics and morality. In religion, ‘free-thinking’ Christian sects burgeoned. There was discussion, if not much actual movement, towards true democracy and the emancipation of women. Agitation began for prison reform and the end of slavery. In science, the consensus was increasingly challenged, and individual thinkers, from Hutton to Linnaeus, from Berzelius to Darwin, from Lamarck to Mendel, produced radical new ideas in every field, so that this period, even more than the time of Galileo and Newton, is where ‘modern’ science starts. ‘New’ intellectual disciplines burgeoned based on the scientific model: anthropology, archaeology, sociology all sharing the premise that every human experience was valid, and that ‘modern’ people were the point to which all human history had been laboriously progressing.

In the arts, romanticism was a convulsive force. Until the end of the 18th century, the prevailing European view was that of the Middle Ages: that artists were craftsmen and that what they did floated on an enormous raft of tradition and experience. You might extend or redefine the rules, apply individual genius, but in every case tradition was what validated present practice. (To take examples at random: neither opera nor the novel, two of the most significant ‘new’ artistic forms of the post-Renaissance era in Europe, sprang fully-formed from nowhere. Each grew gradually, as creator after creator worked on previous ideas. The origins of opera lie in attempts to re-create the style of ancient Greek tragedy; the origins of the novel are the romances of medieval chivalry on the one hand, and on the other the character-rich, moralizing or ironical narratives of such people as Boccaccio and Chaucer, who were inspired in turn by writers of the more distant past.) By the 1780s, practitioners of all the arts were beginning to assert individuality, the claims of their own creativity. Artists were increasingly rebelling against the demands of patronage, taking the money but kicking against the servant status their patrons often assigned to them, and against the need to produce the kinds of work their employers preferred as opposed to the kinds their own individual inspiration prompted. When, in the early 19th century, a new bourgeois market arose for works of art, large numbers of artists abandoned their aristocratic patrons altogether, producing instead for mass publication, public performance, civic commissions and the marketplace at large. This in turn fostered the view of the artist as some kind of creative paladin, storming the bastions of convention and struggling heroically to impose his (more rarely her) will on recalcitrant material.

In fine art, Romanticism rejected the universalizing rules of classicism in favour of an emphasis on the imagination, the expression of emotion, the relationship of the individual to the cosmos and a profoundly subjective approach to beauty. Romantic artists showed a taste for, and identifaction with, the wilder manifestations of Nature and natural disaster. In Turner\'s painting Hannibal Crossing the Alps an Alpine storm threatens to rout Hannibal\'s army. In Caspar David Friedrich\'s Arctic Shipwreck a ship is implacably crushed by great ice floes. Such paintings represent a break with the ideal landscapes of classicism, in which humanity is seen to be in harmony with Nature, in favour of a model where the individual and the environment are in conflict. Another disaster, that of a shipwreck, allowed Géricault to make an association between the individual\'s conflict with Nature and political conflict: his Raft of the Medusa depicts the story of the ship Méduse, wrecked with tragically high loss of life due to the incompetence of a Royalist captain. Likewise Delacroix represents conflict, this time revolution, in Liberty Leading the People, while Goya\'s Third of May 1808 portrays the suffering shared by all victims of unrest.

In literature, artists were happy to develop existing forms, particularly the novel and the various kinds of lyric poetry. In poetry, a favourite idea was, in Blake\'s phrase, to show ‘the World in a Grain of Sand’—a version of the earlier concern of Metaphysical poets to draw out ‘sublime’ resonances in commonplace experience. Fascination with Nature (often as a metaphor for the Sublime), combined with concentration on individual feeling, meant that it was often a human being who was seen as Blake\'s grain of sand, a focus for the surrounding, inarticulate immensity. The 19th century also saw a rise in poetry about character: exposition or revelation of personality being used in an anecdotal way. Lyric poems in particular were often an emotional equivalent of snapshots (this period also saw the beginning of photography): fleeting moments, thoughts or feelings frozen on the page, and given resonance (like photographs) because of the feeling that here was an instant of reality, forever captured.

In novels, writers focused their work on individual ‘cases’ (or, in late-Romantic, post-Freudian times, ‘case-studies’): individuals whose existence was not just interesting in itself (as, for example, Tom Jones\' existence is in Richardson\'s quintessentially pre-Romantic novel), but was also emblematic of wider concerns. Goethe showed individual characters experiencing and reacting to all kinds of emotional, philosophical, social and above all intellectual ideas current at the time; Dickens and Zola showed characters against the background of the social conditions about which they (the authors) had urgent opinions to impart; Tolstoy and Flaubert were concerned, in a kind of literary pointillism, with building up pictures of real life (both external and emotional) from a myriad of tiny incidents, meticulously described. As the 19th century progressed, psychological and social themes began to predominate in character-drawing and the invention of incident respectively. This was the case at least in more ambitious fiction, though genre novels returned to the superficial swashbuckle (emotional or physical) of pre-Romantic forms. Any collection of quintessential novels of the Romantic age would include Oliver Twist, Madame Bovary, Goethe\'s ‘Wilhelm Meister’ novels, Wuthering Heights (also notable for its stylistic experimentation—neurotic emotional states rendered in dislocated or allusive prose), Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In music, one of the main innovations of Romanticism was the rise of the virtuoso—whether as performer (Liszt, Melba, Paganini) or composer-genius (Beethoven, Wagner). Concert music broke away from 18th-century decorum, either by exploding previous notions about form, harmony and scoring or by innovation. When Mendelssohn writes a symphony, it is only superficially ‘like’ those of Haydn or Mozart: intellectual rigour is replaced by mood-painting and a slightly self-conscious feeling of ‘beauty’ as some kind of existential force. When Berlioz writes a ‘symphony’, it is entirely unintellectual and subjective, showing dream-states induced by Romantic passion and by opium (in the Symphonie fantastique) or a human being reacting to the immensity of Nature (in Harold in Italy). Beethoven worked largely with traditional forms, but gave them a grandeur, a spacious interiority, which is not less powerful for being indefinable. Liszt and Wagner tirelessly redefined every aspect of music, inventing new forms (symphonic poem; music drama), new organizational techniques (block construction; leitmotif), radically new ways of managing harmony and counterpoint, new ways of performing (Liszt makes demands, and not only on pianists, unprecedented in earlier music), new ways of scoring (vastly increased demands on such ‘Cinderella’ instruments as harp, viola, piccolo and timpani; newly-invented instruments such as the ‘Wagner’ tuba). Naivety in music became a ploy, not (as previously) a product of genuine freshness and genuine simplicity. When an 18th-century composer uses a folk tune, for example, it is usually unaffected and charming, but when a 19th-century composer does the same, it is usually with irony (for example Berlioz or Mahler), or as part of some nationalist or other overtly idealistic programme. There are very few genuinely unaffected romantic musicians and those there are (such as Dvořák and Wolf) are partly interesting because they cut (or in Wolf\'s case struggled) so much against the spirit of their times.

To give an impression of the Romantic attitude to buildings one can quote the well-known passage from Goethe, who wrote of his sensations as he stood before the medieval cathedral at Strasbourg in 1772: ‘It rises like a most sublime, wide arching tree of God who with a thousand boughs, a million of twigs and leafage like the sands of the sea, tells forth to the neighbourhood the glory of the Lord, His Master…’. In this passage Goethe refers to qualities not recognized as in the classical canon for the critical judgement of beauty in architecture. In the Romantic mind what is held uppermost is the appeal to the senses, and to the emotions. PD MG JM KMcL

Further reading M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp; , H. Honour, Romanticism; , H.G.A.V. Shenk, The Mind of the European Romantics.



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