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About the Big Ideas (English)
Enlightenment thinkers attempted to find reason and order in the world. Many Enlightenment thinkers wanted to understand the root causes of things and speculated about what humans in a “state of nature” might be like. The reaction against Enlightenment views became known as Romanticism.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, believed that humans were born naturally good and curious, and were content with satisfying their basic needs. He also thought society could corrupt people into caring only about status and luxury. Children should receive a “natural” education, he believed, so they could grow up to be model citizens with confidence in their own abilities. Rousseau’s ideas influenced the new generation of Romantic writers.
Romantics turned away from Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and replaced it with a form of sympathetic feeling, or “sensibility.” While doctors focused on the physiological aspects of blood circulating through the heart, Romantics treated the heart as the origin of emotion. Physical reactions such as blushing, turning pale, and fainting were turned into symbols for inner moral sympathy and virtue.
Enlightenment thinkers tended to dismiss imagination in the name of logic and experimentation. On the other hand, Romantic writers embraced the irrational ecstasies and horrors spurred by the imagination. Poet William Blake was among those who embraced imagination over science in his works.
Writers including Blake, Thomas Gray, and Robert Burns were known as Pre-Romantics. The works of these writers blended elements of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
The William Blake Archive
Enlightenment and Romantic writers profoundly disagreed about nature. Enlightenment
thinkers believed that nature could be made more productive, rational, and beautiful
with human intervention. A few generations later, the face of nature changed
when cities, towns, railroads, and factories began to appear. Enlightenment
thinkers were then left wondering whether human intervention had positively
or negatively affected nature.
Writers of the period also became interested in the lives of common people, whose culture had not been distorted by civilized values. These new ideas were reflected in a book called Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written as folk ballads or hymns, the poems used simple verse and informal vocabulary. The subjects were drawn from the lives of uneducated people.
Many Romantic writers were skeptical of the benefits promised by science and, as a result, became interested in subjects that science could not explain. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a gothic novel that indicted science for its ability to deform nature. Romantic writers embraced the full spectrum of human emotions by focusing on the dark, irrational, and unnatural.
Wordsworth and Coleridge as Romantic Nature Poets
Romantic Nature 1830–1860
Big Idea 3: The Quest for Truth and Beauty
The Romantics sought the deepest human experiences by falling in love, writing poetry, and fighting for causes they believed in. The French Revolution in 1789 presented young people with an opportunity to demonstrate their spirit. The works of Wordsworth and Coleridge showed their enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause. This enthusiasm was tempered, however, by the bloody excesses of the Reign of Terror. The next generation of Romantics, among them Percy Bysshe Shelley, held on to their radical beliefs and continued to support revolt at home and abroad.
The Romantic interest in folk culture impacted influenced politics as well as literature. Many English Romantics were affected by the Greeks’ struggle to win independence from Turkey. Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, funded the Greek cause and died en route to fight on the country’s behalf.
To Romantics, the cultures of foreign lands were glamorous and mysterious. Literature with exotic settings was very popular with Romantic writers and audiences. The highlands of Scotland and the Swiss and Italian Alps provided the settings for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Some Romantics, including Horace Walpole, returned to earlier, darker, more mysterious periods. The use of medieval settings, with their strange landscapes and haunted castles, brought about another literary form, the gothic novel.
During this period, poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley wrote manifestos declaring the supremacy of poetry. Others wrote allegorical works about poets’ search for truth and beauty. Many sonnets written by John Keats are known for their Romantic concept of imagination.
The Romantic Poets
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