Chapter 21 - Reaction, Revolution, and Revolution

Culture in an Age of Reaction and Revolution: The Mood of Romanticism

At the end of the eighteenth century, a new intellectual movement known as Romanticism emerged to challenge the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with reason in discovering truth. The Romantics tried to balance the use of reason by stressing the importance of intuition, feeling, emotion, and imagination as sources of knowing. As one German Romantic put it, “It was my heart that counseled me to do it, and my heart cannot err.”

The Characteristics of Romanticism

Romantic writers emphasized emotion, sentiment, and inner feelings in their works. An important model for Romantics was the tragic figure in The Sorrows of the Young Werther, a novel by the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (yoh-HAHN VULF-gahnk fun GUR-tuh) (1749-1832), who later rejected Romanticism in favor of Classicism. Werther was a Romantic figure who sought freedom in order to fulfill himself. Misunderstood and rejected by society, he continued to believe in his own worth through his inner feelings, but his deep love for a girl who did not love him finally led him to commit suicide. After Goethe’s Sorrows of the Young Werther, numerous novels and plays appeared whose plots revolved around young maidens tragically carried off at an early age (twenty-three was most common) by disease (usually tuberculosis, at that time a protracted disease that was usually fatal) to the sorrow and despair of their male lovers.

Another important characteristic of Romanticism was individualism, an interest in the unique traits of each person. The Romantics’ desire to follow their inner drives led them to rebel against middle-class conventions. Long hair, beards, and outrageous clothes served to reinforce the individualism that young Romantics were trying to express.

Sentiment and individualism came together in the Romantics’ stress on the heroic. The Romantic hero was a solitary genius who was ready to defy the world and sacrifice his life for a great cause. In the hands of the British writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), however, the Romantic hero did not destroy himself in ineffective protests against society but transformed society instead. In his historical works, Carlyle stressed that historical events were largely determined by the deeds of such heroes.

Many Romantics possessed a passionate interest in the past. This historical focus was manifested in many ways. In Germany, the Grimm brothers collected and published local fairy tales, as did Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark. The revival of medieval Gothic architecture left European country-sides adorned with pseudo-medieval castles and cities bedecked with grandiose cathedrals, city halls, parliamentary buildings, and even railway stations. Literature, too, reflected this historical consciousness. The novels of Walter Scott (1771-1832) became European best-sellers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Ivanhoe, in which Scott tried to evoke the clash between Saxon and Norman knights in medieval England, became one of his most popular works.

To the history-mindedness of the Romantics could be added an attraction to the bizarre and unusual. In an exaggerated form, this preoccupation gave rise to so-called Gothic literature (see the box on p. 651), chillingly evident in the short stories of horror by the American Edgar Allan Poe (1808-1849) and in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Shelley’s novel was the story of a mad scientist who brings into being a humanlike monster who goes berserk. Some Romantics even sought the unusual in their own lives by pursuing extraordinary states of experience in dreams, nightmares, frenzies, and suicidal depression or by experimenting with cocaine, opium, and hashish to produce altered states of consciousness.

Romantic Poets

To the Romantics, poetry ranked above all other literary forms because they believed it was the direct expression of one’s soul. The Romantic poets were viewed as seers who could reveal the invisible world to others. Their incredible sense of drama made some of them the most colorful figures of their era, living intense but short lives. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), expelled from school for advocating atheism, set out to reform the world. His Prometheus Unboun, completed in 1820, is a portrait of the revolt of human beings against the laws and customs that oppress them. He drowned in a storm in the Mediterranean. Lord Byron (1788-1824) dramatized himself as the melancholy Romantic hero that he had described in his work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He participated in the movement for Greek independence and died in Greece fighting the Ottomans.

LOVE of NATURE Romantic poetry gave full expression to one of the most important characteristics of Romanticism: love of nature, especially evident in the works of William Wordsworth (1770-1850). His experience of nature was almost mystical as he claimed to receive “authentic tidings of invisible things”:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man, of
Moral Evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

To Wordsworth, nature contained a mysterious force that the poet could perceive and learn from. Nature served as a mirror into which humans could look to learn about themselves. Nature was, in fact, alive and sacred:

To every natural form, rock, fruit or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the high-way,
I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,
Or link’d them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld, respired with inward meaning.

Other Romantics carried this worship of nature further into pantheism by identifying the great force in nature with God. The Romantics would have nothing to do with the deist God of the Enlightenment, the remote creator of the world-machine. As the German Romantic poet Friedrich Novalis (FREED-rikh noh-VAH-lis) said, “Anyone seeking God will find him anywhere. “

CRITIQUE of SCIENCE The worship of nature also led Wordsworth and other Romantic poets to critique the mechanistic materialism of eighteenth-century science, which, they believed, had reduced nature to a cold object of study. Against that view of the natural world, Wordsworth offered his own vivid and concrete experience. To him, the scientists’ dry, mathematical approach left no room for the imagination or for the human soul. The poet who left to the world “one single moral precept, one single affecting sentiment,” Wordsworth said, did more for the world than scientists who were soon forgotten. The monster created by Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel symbolized well the danger of science when it tries to conquer nature. Many Romantics were convinced that the emerging industrialization would cause people to become alienated from their inner selves and the natural world around them.

Romanticism in Art

Like the literary arts, the visual arts were also deeply affected by Romanticism. Although their works varied widely, Romantic artists shared at least two fundamental characteristics. All artistic expression to them was a reflection of the artist’s inner feelings; a painting should mirror the artist’s vision of the world and be the instrument of his own imagination. Moreover, Romantic artists deliberately rejected the principles of Classicism. Beauty was not a timeless thing; its expression depended on one’s culture and one’s age. The Romantics abandoned classical restraint for warmth, emotion, and movement. Through an examination of three painters, we can see how Romanticism influenced the visual arts.

FRIEDRICH The early life experiences of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (kass-PAR dah-VEET FREED-rikh) (1774-1840) left him with a lifelong preoccupation with God and nature. Friedrich painted landscapes with an interest that transcended the mere presentation of natural details. His portrayal of mountains shrouded in mist, gnarled trees bathed in moonlight, and the stark ruins of monasteries surrounded by withered trees all conveyed a feeling of mystery and mysticism. For Friedrich, nature was a manifestation of divine life, as is evident in The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. To Friedrich, the artistic process depended on one’s inner vision. He advised artists, “Shut your physical eye and look first at your picture with your spiritual eye; then bring to the light of day what you have seen in the darkness.”

TURNER Another artist who dwelt on nature and made landscape his major subject was the Englishman Joseph Malford William Turner (1775-1851). Turner was an incredibly prolific artist who produced more than 20,000 paintings, drawings, and watercolors. Turner’s concern with nature manifested itself in innumerable landscapes and seascapes, sunrises and sunsets. He did not idealize nature or reproduce it with realistic accuracy, however. He sought instead to convey its moods by using a skilled interplay of light and color to suggest natural effects. In allowing his objects to melt into their surroundings, he anticipated the Impressionist painters of the second half of the nineteenth century (see Chapter 24). John Constable, a contemporary English Romantic painter, described Turner’s paintings as “airy visions, painted with tinted steam.”

DELACROIX Eugène Delacroix (oo-ZHEN duh-lah-KRWAH) (1798-1863) was the most famous French Romantic artist. Largely self-taught, he was fascinated by the exotic and had a passion for color. Both characteristics are visible in The Death of Sardanapalus. Significant for its use of light and its patches of interrelated color, this portrayal of the world of the last Assyrian king was criticized at the time for its garishness. Delacroix rejoiced in combining theatricality and movement with a daring use of color. Many of his works reflect his own belief that “a painting should be a feast to the eye.”

Romanticism in Music

To many Romantics, music was the most Romantic of the arts because it enabled the composer to probe deeply into human emotions. One Romantic writer noted, “It has been rightly said that the object of music is the awakening of emotion. No other art can so sublimely arouse human sentiments in the innermost heart of man.” Although music historians have called the eighteenth century the age of Classicism and the nineteenth the era of Romanticism, there was much carryover of classical forms from one century to the next. One of the greatest composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven (BAY-toh-vun), served as a bridge between Classicism and Romanticism.

BEETHOVEN Beethoven (1770-1827) is one of the few composers to singlehandedly transform the art of music. Set ablaze by the events in France, a revolutionary mood burned brightly across Europe, and Beethoven, like other creative personalities, yearned to communicate his cherished beliefs. He said, “I must write, for what weighs on my heart, I must express.” For Beethoven, music had to reflect his deepest inner feelings .

Born in Bonn, Beethoven came from a family of musicians who worked for the electors of Cologne. He became an assistant organist at the court by the age of thirteen and soon made his way to Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, where he studied briefly under Haydn. Beginning in 1792, this city became his permanent residence.

During his first major period of composing (1792-1800), his work was largely within the classical framework of the eighteenth century, and the influences of Haydn and Mozart are apparent. But with the composition of the Third Symphony (1804), also called the Eroica, which was originally intended for Napoleon, Beethoven broke through to the elements of Romanticism in his use of uncontrolled rhythms to create dramatic struggle and uplifted resolutions. E.T.A. Hoffman, a contemporary composer and writer, said, “Beethoven’s music opens the flood gates of fear, of terror, of horror, of pain, and arouses that longing for the eternal which is the essence of Romanticism. He is thus a pure Romantic composer.” Beethoven went on to write a vast quantity of works, but in the midst of this productivity and growing fame, he was more and more burdened by his growing deafness. One of the most moving pieces of music of all time, the chorale finale of his Ninth Symphony, was composed when Beethoven was totally deaf.

BERLIOZ Beethoven served as a bridge from the classical era to Romanticism; after him came a number of musical geniuses who composed in the Romantic style. The Frenchman Hector Berlioz (ek-TOR BAYR-lee-ohz) (1803-1869) was one of the most outstanding. His father, a doctor in Grenoble, intended that his son should also study medicine. The young Berlioz eventually rebelled, however, maintaining to his father’s disgust that he would be “no doctor or apothecary but a great composer.” Berlioz managed to fulfill his own expectations, achieving fame in Germany, Russia, and Britain, although the originality of his work kept him from receiving much recognition in his native France.

Berlioz was one of the founders of program music, which was an attempt to use the moods and sound effects of instrumental music to depict the actions and emotions inherent in a story, an event, or even a personal experience. This development of program music was evident in his most famous piece, the first complete program symphony, known as the Symphonie Fantastique. In this work, Berlioz used music to evoke the passionate emotions of a tortured love affair, including a fifth movement in which he musically creates an opium-induced nightmare of a witches’ gathering.

The Revival of Religion in the Age of Romanticism

After 1815, Christianity experienced a revival. In the eighteenth century, Catholicism had lost its attraction for many of the educated elite as even the European nobility flirted with the ideas of the Enlightenment. The restoration of the nobility brought a new appreciation for the Catholic faith as a force for order in society. This appreciation was greatly reinforced by the Romantic movement. The Romantics’ attraction to the Middle Ages and their emphasis on emotion led them to their own widespread revival of Christianity.

CATHOLICISM Catholicism, in particular, benefited from this Romantic enthusiasm for religion. Especially among German Romantics, there were many conversions to the Catholic faith. One of the most popular expressions of this Romantic revival of Catholicism occurred in the work of the Frenchman François-René de Chateaubriand (frahnh-SWAH-ruh-NAY duh shah-TOH-bree-AHNH) (1768-1848). His book Genius of Christianity, published in 1802, was soon labeled the “Bible of Romanticism.” His defense of Catholicism was based not on historical, theological, or even rational grounds but largely on Romantic sentiment. As a faith, Catholicism echoed the harmony of all things. Its cathedrals brought one into the very presence of God; according to Chateaubriand, “You could not enter a Gothic church without feeling a kind of awe and a vague sentiment of the Divinity.… Every thing in a Gothic church reminds you of the labyrinths of a wood; every thing excites a feeling of religious awe, of mystery, and of the Divinity.”

PROTESTANTISM Protestantism also experienced a revival. That “awakening,” as it was called, had already begun in the eighteenth century with the enthusiastic emotional experiences of Methodism in Britain and Pietism in Germany (see Chapter 17). Methodist missionaries from England and Scotland carried their messages of sin and redemption to liberal Protestant churches in France and Switzerland, winning converts to their strongly evangelical message. Germany, too, witnessed a Protestant awakening as enthusiastic evangelical preachers found that their messages of hellfire and their methods of emotional conversion evoked a ready response among people alienated by the highly educated establishment clergy of the state churches.

Chapter Summary

In 1815, a conservative order was reestablished throughout Europe at the Congress of Vienna, which made peace at the end of the Napoleonic wars and tried to restore Europe’s “legitimate” rulers. The great powers, whose cooperation was embodied in the Concert of Europe, attempted to ensure the durability of the new conservative order by intervening to uphold conservative governments. Great Britain, however, seeking new markets, opposed intervention when the Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal declared their independence. Within the European countries, conservative rulers worked to reestablish the old order.

But the revolutionary waves of the 1820s and 1830s made it clear that the ideologies of liberalism and nationalism, first unleashed by the French Revolution and now reinforced by the spread of the Industrial Revolution, were still alive and active. Liberalism favored freedom both in politics and in economics. Natural rights and representative government were essential, but most liberals favored limiting the right to vote to male property owners. Nationalism, with its belief in a community with common traditions, language, and customs, threatened the status quo in divided Germany and Italy and the multiethnic Austrian Empire. The forces of liberalism and nationalism, however, faced enormous difficulties as failed revolutions in Poland, Russia, Italy, and Germany all testify. At the same time, reform legislation in Britain and successful revolutions in Greece, France, and Belgium demonstrated the continuing strength of these forces for change. In 1848, they erupted once more as revolutions broke out all across Europe. A republic with universal manhood suffrage was established in France, but conflict emerged between socialist demands and the republican political agenda. The Frankfurt Assembly worked to create a unified Germany, but it also failed. In Austria, the liberal demands of Hungarians and other nationalities were eventually put down. In Italy, too, uprisings against Austrian rule failed when conservatives regained control. Although they failed, both liberalism and nationalism would succeed in the second half of the nineteenth century but in ways not foreseen by the idealistic liberals and nationalists. The disorder of the age also led European states to create civilian police forces.

Efforts at reform had a cultural side as well in the movement of Romanticism. Romantics reacted against what they viewed as the Enlightenment’s excessive emphasis on reason. They favored intuition, feeling, and emotion, which became evident in the medieval fantasies of Walter Scott, the poetry of William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Gothic literature of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Eugene Delacroix, and the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Hector Berlioz. Romanticism also brought a revival of religion evident in a renewed interest in Catholicism’s medieval heritage and in a Protestant “awakening.”