There is an ordered correlation between the various trends of our cultural history; the various periods succeed one another in a pattern of action and reaction. The German word “zeitgeist” (spirit of the time) refers to the dominating cultural attitude over a particular span of time.
After the scientific and factual approach that characterised culture during the Enlightenment the pendulum swings again. The period from the late 18th century until around 1850 has, somewhat misleadingly, been labelled the Romantic Period; misleading because what we today associate with the word “romantic” will be representative for only a small part of the culture of that era. The Romantic period was much more than what we may think is “romantic”.
Philosophy and Culture
The scientists and philosophers have always been the trendsetters. The ideas and theories fronted by thinkers and intellectuals often caused debate and controversy, and would eventually catch on with artists after a maturing process over time. Accordingly, the cultural expressions from painters and writers who were inspired by these new theories would usually appear half a century or so later. For example, the culture of the Enlightenment was inspired by scientific innovations and theories from the 17th century, and likewise the trendsetting ideas for the artists of the Romantic era were launched mainly during the first half of the 18th century. The most significant philosopher was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who in 1741 came to Paris and joined the Encyclopaedists, but soon after broke with their rigid and mathematical approach to the understanding of man and his universe. In his works he postulates that man is initially good, but has been corrupted by his surroundings and has to find his way back to his natural and original qualities to restore his balance and well-being.
Literary Themes and Genres
For German and English writers and poets the agenda was to praise the beauty of nature and to incite love and longing for what was natural. Love is a key word – love of nature, of one’s country, of the simple life, and of course love between man and woman, often unfulfilled, but absorbingly passionate. Suffering was also seen as a romantic ideal. Goethe’s “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (1774) is the prime example. The book was actually banned in Denmark – Norway since poor Werther committed suicide at the end, and the authorities were concerned about the possible contagious effect. Other literary projects during the Romantic zeitgeist would revive medieval ideals such as chivalry and bravery with heroes who relentlessly fought for their country or for the love of a woman. The German playwright Friedrich von Schiller and Scottish Sir Walter Scott represent this approach. Other sources of inspiration were myths and legends and old folklore traditions. The longing for the natural and simple life brought on literature that idealised the simple people, the outcast or the misfit and turned its back on aristocratic and academic values. The poets would clearly prefer the innocent countryside child to the urban and sophisticated man or woman. The style and language they used may today seem both sentimental and pompous, but sentimentality was seen as an essential and necessary part of romantic expression.
Many, in fact most of the romantic writers, expressed themselves through poetry. Since poetry traditionally is seen as an adequate way to express feelings, poetry became the genuine voice of romanticism. John Keats, William Wordsworth, Percy B. Shelley, Lord Byron are all prominent English poets of this period. The poetry could be expressing love and praise of nature, or it could be an inflammatory political appeal; many of the romantic poets were political activists. But it was not only poetry; drama and prose were also ways of expressing romantic ideals. American James Fennimore Cooper’s stories of the Native Americans are good examples of romantic prose, as are Sir Walter Scott’s and Jane Austen’s novels. Another genre was the mystery tale with ingredients like monsters, occult forces, and magic. Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley (“Frankenstein”) represent this trend. Some writers took this further (Ann Radcliffe) and created what we refer to as the gothic tale, where we find supernatural and dream-like events going on in abandoned castles with ghosts and vampires.
The painters of this era followed up with their idyllic images of untouched nature in a somewhat overexposed style. They painted beautiful scenery and landscapes with simple people in ordinary everyday situations. The artists would often take the liberty to include details that would enhance the romantic atmosphere, for example, by putting some grazing cattle in a field or a little white church on a hill, details which were not there originally. Some painters also pursued the gothic tendency and depicted mysterious castles or ruins on windswept moors with elements of occultism and other creepy and dark symbolic references.
The Age of Revolution
If we look at the political effects of the ideas of the Romantic period - these are stormy times. The belief in man’s natural freedom and independence opened up for radical interpretations and spurred revolutionary movements. This aspect was particularly predominant in France. Monarchs and Emperors were seen as figures with a self-bestowed position which had no legitimacy in a natural concept of life. The great revolutions during this period were inspired by the romantic ideals of liberty and the rights of ordinary people. Even Norway was influenced by this during the process that culminated in 1814.