The Quest of the Absolute: What Was and What Is Romanticism?

Because of the overwhelming variety of form and content in a multiplicity of artistic, poetic, religious, and philosophical expressions, often conflicting with one another, some scholars have concluded that it is vain to search for a definition of Romanticism. Nevertheless, despite their irreducible differences, all Romantics shared an awareness of living at the start of a new cultural epoch.

Provisional Description

In a series of lectures posthumously published under the title The Roots of Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin called Romanticism the largest recent movement to transform the lives and thoughts of the West. Indeed, it acted as a catalyst of all earlier changes of the modern epoch. The Enlightenment has reached later generations through the critical mediation of Romanticism. The French Revolution derived most of its ideas from the Enlightenment. Yet its explosive power blew fresh air into those ideas and transmitted them to us with a new emphasis. The Enlightenment owes much of its appeal to its practical impact on the French Revolution and the post-revolutionary period. Without the Revolution, the Enlightenment’s promise of progress would have remained unfulfilled. Remarkably enough, France, which had occasioned the awakening of European Romanticism, had its “Romantic Movement” well after those of Germany and England. The rapid succession of political events in France had left no time for reflection.

The Revolution intimated that history had taken a decisive turn. The high expectations built on that event, however, rapidly declined after the massacres of 1792. The hope for a social emancipation only briefly revived when Napoleon converted certain revolutionary ideals into political realities. Great Britain, France’s natural rival in the struggle for hegemony over Europe, had not shared the initial outburst of sympathy for the Revolution. Having watched events with growing concern, in 1792 she declared war on France. The English showed little taste for a similar break with tradition. They had experienced their own political emancipation in 1688. At first, only a few educated Englishmen, such as Wordsworth (who had visited France at the outbreak of the Revolution) and Coleridge, regarded the French Revolution as the dawn of a more liberal political system, and they found little sympathy among their neighbors. Thomas De Quincey, who lived in the same area as Wordsworth for a time, reports that his famous neighbor was probably the most hated inhabitant of the Lake District. In England, the political situation sheds little light on what critics later came to call English Romanticism.

The Germans had originally nourished great hopes for the achievement of their own emancipatory ideals, particularly when Napoleon started exporting his political ideas across Europe. But once he occupied Prussia, they learned that little good was to be expected from an invader. A movement of national liberation, which the French Revolution had awakened and encouraged, turned into a front of opposition to the French occupier. During the occupation of Berlin, Fichte delivered his fiery Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die deutsche Nation) (1807–8), while Schleiermacher’s weekly sermons exhorted his congregation to seek a spiritual German identity. A factor that thereby played a major role in the movement of national liberation was the philosophy of Kant, the very thinker who had given the moral ideas of the Enlightenment their final form in his Critique of Practical Reason. There, he had described freedom as real only when it is unencumbered by external influences. This was a personal as well as a social ideal in a divided and politically impotent Germany.

Some Romantics, impatient to implement the modern ideal of freedom, turned to distant places where they saw an opportunity to realize it. Greece, the country where that ideal had originated, had risen to defend it against the Turkish occupation. Byron joined the war, only to discover that modern Greece was no longer ancient Hellas. Hölderlin expressed the hopes and disappointments caused by that war in his novel Hyperion. Others turned their eyes to the one country where a revolution had succeeded, the United States. Chateaubriand’s Romantic travel reports created a mirage of America as a Promised Land, which had preserved freedom, innocence, and simplicity. Yet others, disappointed by political events in Europe, cultivated nostalgic dreams of a return to nature and the quiet, traditional life that Goethe had depicted in Hermann und Dorothea, or to a memory of the past, as Walter Scott had done in his Waverley novels. For Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin, the utopian dream included an idealized version of ancient Greece. In various ways, all early Romantic poets experienced a desire, a Sehnsucht, for an unreachable ideal. The term infinite, so often used as a predicate of the unattainable object of those aspirations, betrays both its surpassing and its indefinite nature.

What justifies the inclusion of a variety of literary styles and artistic expressions as well as different philosophies and ethical, political, and religious beliefs under a common denominator? A number of answers have been given to this question, most of them insufficiently comprehensive. Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre have described Romanticism as a worldview, born out of modernity yet protesting against it. The inclusive term worldview or world picture captures a typically modern conception of reality. It implies that the world receives its meaning entirely from the viewer: the human subject is the source as well as the limit of its reality. The term worldview itself, with its strong assertion of the primacy of the subject, was introduced in reaction to the rationalist objectivism of the eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, Löwy and Sayre shrink the comprehensiveness inherent in the term worldview by narrowing it down to an alleged opposition to the modern capitalist system, understood in the Hegelian-Marxist sense. Romanticism obviously involved more than the question of the existence of a particular economic system. In the following pages, I treat it as an essentially positive worldview that, moving beyond the limits of a rational culture, inspired a relentless and obviously impossible drive to overcome the finitude of the human condition. Its reach for an absolute appears in poetry, in art, in politics, in philosophy, and in religion.

Some scholars dismiss Romanticism altogether, as no more than a temporary deviation from the course of intellectual and practical progress taken at the beginning of the modern age. They conceive of the Enlightenment as the “true” destiny of modernity, and of Romanticism as a negligible interruption of an essentially rational development. This interruption may have been inevitable, perhaps even beneficial, but now that it has passed, they argue, we may continue what the Enlightenment had so auspiciously begun. Contrary to the view that Romanticism was a minor obstruction, however, I regard it as an important conclusion that follows from earlier premises. Romanticism incorporates what the Enlightenment had acquired while also transforming its meaning. The desire for political, social, and religious emancipation, to which it gave voice, had existed through most of the eighteenth century, but the Romantics extended it to a vision of an ideal that beckoned but remained forever beyond reach.

Modern culture had begun with a linguistic-philological movement. Humanism had aimed at restoring the classical languages, primarily Latin, to their ancient purity. Under the influence of this classicism, later writers attempted to fit their unruly vernacular tongues within a tight-fitting form, patterned after an ancient grammar. This attention to language led to more profound investigations of the nature of speech and writing. A number of essays appeared on the origin of language; among the most influential were those written by Rousseau and Herder. Herder in particular, reacting against the paralyzing effect of the dominant French influence on German literature, achieved a renewal of German letters, which contributed to the rise of a nationalist movement. Herder, Hamann, and Goethe expected that a literature liberated from classicist French rules would introduce a national awareness among the politically divided Germans. Other nations were to follow. In an address to the Prussian Academy, Jacob Grimm (1785–1863), a philologist who had studied the formation of Germanic languages, showed that the language one speaks defines one’s cultural identity: “Our language is our history.” Romantic poets considered the use of the indigenous language indispensable to authentic expression. Novalis, in a fragment posthumously published as “Monolog,” wrote: “One cannot help but be astonished at the absurd, wholly erroneous assumption people make, that their talk is about things. No one knows what is most distinctive about language, namely, that it is concerned solely with itself.” Novalis, as well as all other major Romantic poets, understood that words constitute a universe by themselves. Poetry discloses some of this mystery without fully revealing it. Even the poet is unable fully to “explain” the text that he or she has written. The more deeply a poet descends into the mystery of language, the richer the content of his words will be. Friedrich Schlegel wrote: “A classical text must never be entirely comprehensible. But those who are cultivated and who cultivate themselves must always want to learn from it” (Fr. 169).

The Romantic revaluation of vernacular languages led to a restoration of ancient forms of poetry, such as ballads and romances. The publication of “Leonore” by Gottfried August Bürger revived the use of the ballad in German poetry. In England, the language, a mixture of the Gallic tongue of the Norman nobility with the older Germanic speech of the Saxons and the Danes, had never been threatened or oppressed. As a result, the concern for saving the ancestral speech was less intense than the aesthetic and historical desire to explore ancient poetic traditions. Bishop Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews appeared in 1753, and Thomas Percy’s The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. During the 1740s poets had again begun to write odes, an ancient form that would become increasingly popular with the English Romantics.

The development of the term Romantic is a particularly confusing story, and I do not intend to repeat it here. The adjective, derived from Romance, the Latin vulgate spoken in southern France, referred in seventeenth-century England to compositions written in that language. Later it came to be applied more generically, first to ballads and then to all fictional literature. In German and in French a roman is still a prose work of fiction. Originally, the “fictional” quality had a pejorative connotation. It meant untrue, “unnatural,” or “disorderly.” Later the term assumed a neutral meaning, as referring to a particular literary genre. Two studies influenced this shift: Bishop Richard Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1759) and Thomas Warton’s On the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe (1774). Much earlier, English writers had also begun to apply the adjective romantic to a scenic prospect or landscape, as a slightly more subjective equivalent of picturesque. Thus, in 1666 Samuel Pepys describes Windsor Castle as “the most romantique castle that is in the world.” Shaftesbury made this subjective use of the term popular, and he stretched its meaning to include any vision or creation ruled by the imagination. Via Rousseau and Diderot, this denotation also began to color the French usage of the term. Thus, nineteenth-century French critics described James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) and Edward Young’s meditations on the transitoriness of human life as romantic. They also applied the term to such painters as Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, without reference to a particular period. The term continued to shift until, shortly before the turn of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schlegel and his older brother August Wilhelm linked it to a particular literary style.

Even if we restrict Romanticism to the sensitivity, ideas, and attitudes typical of the Romantic Movement, it would be difficult to set a precise starting date, for all these characteristics had existed before. Rousseau, who so profoundly influenced the French Revolution and inspired all later Romantic thought, died well before any Romantic Movement existed. Diderot, the editor of the Encyclopédie, the Bible of the French Enlightenment, felt, wrote, and often acted like a Romantic. Goethe and Schiller created Romantic dramas years before the beginning of the Romantic Movement in Germany. In England, time limits are even looser: Edward Young and Thomas Gray, poets with a distinctly Romantic sensitivity, wrote in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Still, the date 1789 holds a unique significance as a formal beginning. Friedrich Schlegel, who was responsible for shaping a vague term into a well-defined movement, wrote: “The French Revolution, Fichte’s Theory of Knowledge, and Goethe’s Meister [Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre] were the principal tendencies of the epoch” (Fr. 216, in Athenäum, 1798). A more pertinent question about the beginning would be: At what time did the so-called Romantic writers and artists begin to consider their epoch a distinct and relatively independent stage of modern culture?

An early effort to distinguish the new style from the older one was Schiller’s essay Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung (On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry) (1795). The term Romantic never appears in it. Naïve poetry, for Schiller, includes most of the ancient Greek poetry, of which Homer was the prototype. It differs from modern poetry, which he calls sentimental. In his On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (also published in 1795, but completed in 1793), Schiller had opposed the “natural” attitude of the ancients to the “reflective” one of the moderns. In the former, the mind remains united with nature; in the latter, it stands at a distance from nature and refers to the mind’s ideals. Schiller’s description does not further define Romantic art.

Schiller’s Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung laid the groundwork for what August Wilhelm Schlegel was to describe as distinctive of Romantic aesthetics. He felt that Schiller’s use of the term sentimental largely coincides with that of Romantic, except that, for him, sentimental is not bound to any historical period, as Romantic soon came to be. In the older poet’s view, there have been sentimental poets at every period of Western literature, even among the ancients, such as Euripides and Horace, while some of Schiller’s contemporaries still wrote in a naïve style, as Goethe did in Hermann und Dorothea. Still, Schiller recognized some link between literary qualities and a particular stage of culture. Naïve poetry directly responds to the immediate impressions of nature, which Schiller regards as typical of humans still at one with nature, as he thought most were even in the classical epoch. Sentimental poetry, then, shows how things ideally ought to be.

The sentimental poet is no longer exclusively absorbed by the subject of his poem, as was Homer, but rather mainly by his own feelings about it. For Friedrich Schlegel, that meant that Romantic poetry knows itself to be poetry. The naïve poet simply imitates nature, because he never moves beyond it. The sentimental poet creates an ideal world that surpasses nature. Greek poetry was plastic, that is, related to Greek sculpture and architecture. Modern poetry is primarily musical: it surpasses nature in sound. Romantic poets and artists live in a broken world, where the ideal is separated from the real. Through the creative imagination, the poet attempts to reunite them. Yet since the moral ideal is unlimited, he never fully succeeds in this goal. Sentimental art remains one of endless longing and striving. The artist never overcomes the discrepancy that separates him from his ideal. He is forced to raise an earthly image of a beloved woman into a spiritual ideal, far beyond the actual nature of Beatrice, Laura, or Lotte (Werther’s beloved). To the artist, the ideal seems more real, because it displays the essence of things—the way they ought to be. The notion of sentimental beauty, then, always has a utopian content: it projects what freedom aims at realizing, though will never attain.

Classical and Romantic

What was later called the Romantic Movement began in Jena around the journal Athenäum, founded in 1798 by the Schlegel brothers. A small group of like-minded intellectuals assembled with them and with August’s lively wife, Carolina. These included Friedrich Schelling, the brilliant young philosopher, and Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter Dorothea, who eventually came to live with Friedrich Schlegel. Other members of the original group were the gifted mine inspector and poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known by his pen name Novalis), Ludwig Tieck, a prolific writer of novels, fairy tales, and literary criticism, and the young theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schlegel’s housemate and a future translator of Plato. Their intention was not to start a new literary movement but to read and criticize existing literature (primarily Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller). In the beginning, it all seemed no more than a youthful reaction against the domination of French culture in German literature. Under the Napoleonic occupation, Germans expanded this literary nationalism into a political one, advocating a social and political emancipation and linking it to an ancient past. Eventually the discussions of the Jena group resulted in a new literary theory and increasingly moved in a philosophical direction.

Even before the founding of Athenäum, Friedrich Schlegel had been publishing his thoughts in the form of “Critical Fragments” in the Lycée des Beaux Arts (1797). In France this aphoristic style had been popular since Pascal’s Pensées and the eighteenth-century moralistes La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, and Vauvenargues. The French thereby continued an ancient moral tradition that had begun with the Stoics, Epicureans, and the Neoplatonist Plutarch. Schlegel’s aphorisms, however, served a different purpose: he considered them the appropriate medium for conveying his theory that truth, being infinite by nature, can be communicated only in partial form. Under his impulse, several members of the Jena group anonymously published a series of fragments in Athenäum (1798). One of them defended the new literary form as follows: “A fragment, like a small work of art, must be isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog” (Fr. 206).

A “fragment” is by definition broken off from a greater work. Yet without pretending to be exhaustive, it is nevertheless able to stand by itself. Its broken, incomplete character discloses the unfinished nature of thinking, as the Jena group understood it: essentially progressing toward a goal that forever remains beyond achievement. Unfinishable as the project of finding truth is, each fragment nevertheless possesses an organic completeness of its own. Even the heterogeneous character of a collection written by different authors, from different points of view, is an organic expression of an intrinsically coherent infinite truth. This Romantic striving for the unlimited has been marvelously analyzed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy in their L’absolu littéraire: Théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand. Although they have limited their work to the literary theory of early German Romanticism, their thesis concerning the search for the absolute holds for all Romantic literature.

Hitherto, the discussion in Athenäum had mainly turned around the distinction between ancient and modern literature. That changed with the final two issues (the fifth and sixth), both of which appeared in 1800. In the fifth issue, Friedrich Schlegel published more aphorisms under the title Ideen. Members of the group who earlier had published Fragmente (including Friedrich’s brother August) now objected to the loose format of aphoristic writings. In the Ideen, Friedrich, writing in his own name, attempted to overcome the formlessness of the Fragmente while still preserving the unsystematic character of his Romantic thinking. The term Ideen indicates a philosophical deepening of his thought.

In the “Discourse on Poetry,” published in the fifth and sixth issues of Athenäum, Friedrich Schlegel describes a series of debates and lectures that took place at meetings of the Jena group. In a first lecture, August addressed the group, stressing the inexhaustible, indeed absolute, character of genuine poetry, which defies any effort to define it. Nonetheless, August still attempted to impose some order on this limitless development by showing how literary genres “naturally” emerge from a prepoetic origin. As the “Discourse” recounts, none of the auditors were satisfied with August’s answer to the question, What is poetry?—least of all “Amalia” (the group’s name for Carolina), at the time still August’s wife. How could an artificial construction ever be an appropriate response to it? According to Carolina, August always wants to separate and divide, where only the undivided power of the whole satisfies.

Schelling’s lecture, as described in the “Discourse,” appears to address the very question that Carolina had raised. The real content of poetry, he argues, is mythology. The thesis made some sense to a group prepared to accept that poetry, whatever else it was, consisted in a symbolic raising of finite representations to an infinite meaning. Moreover, Schelling avoided reducing poetry to a theoretical source. Its content is indeed spiritual, he argues, but it is neither intellectual nor open to purely intellectual concepts. Poetry and religion have a common origin. To understand this origin, we must first turn to the remnants of ancient polytheistic mythology. Schelling still discerns a strong resemblance between Romantic, that is, all-embracing poetry and ancient myth in such poets as Cervantes and Shakespeare. Both display “an artfully ordered confusion, an exciting symmetry of contradictions, a wonderful constant alternative of enthusiasm and irony.” Unfortunately, he states, Christians no longer share a common mythology. Their religion has become based on historical claims rather than on mythical images. Great poets, such as Dante, succeed in creating their own mythology. Others, such as Tasso, continue to draw on classical mythology. Yet the content is becoming ever thinner. Our epoch is badly in need of a mythology. To assist us in finding one, Schelling concludes, we must explore other mythologies than the classical, the only one we know.

In his response, “Lothario” (the group’s name for Novalis) made a further move. Since all arts and sciences originated in poetic language, to fully understand them we need to refer them back to their source. Schelling argued, going even further, that poetry must reabsorb the arts and sciences that originated from it. In his Philosophy of Nature he singles out physics because here the universality of all sciences appears most clearly.

Friedrich Schlegel began his contribution to the “Discourse on Poetry” with a sharp response to Carolina (Amalia), who had objected that in August Schlegel’s theory, everything becomes poetry. Indeed, according to Schlegel, poetry consists in an overall symbolic vision of the world in which all things point at the absolute. Yet poetry is Romantic only when it presents a sentimental matter in a fantastic form. The term sentimental thereby refers to a subject in which feeling dominates. It distinguishes Romantic literature from classical literature but also from most modern poetry, which merely expresses affections caused by sensuous emotions. Lessing’s drama Emilia Galotti is modern, Schlegel claims, but not in the least Romantic. Great Romantic literature in the past was written only by great writers such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Ariosto, and some authors of medieval chivalry novels. Indeed, Romanticism was never wholly absent from the best post-classical writing. The stronger its presence, the less significant becomes the literary genre. Novel and drama, apparently so distinct, have often become mixed in Romantic writing: the best novels contain dramatic elements.

The Jena group of friends must have left their meetings in a state of great confusion. The questions stated at the beginning—What is poetry? How does Romantic poetry differ from classical poetry?—had received no clear answer. Yet one would soon be forthcoming. In a series of public lectures delivered from 1801 through 1803 to a large audience in Berlin, August Schlegel argued that the difference between modern and classical had resulted from the changes caused by the historical event of Christianity. “Ludoviko” (Schelling), in his lecture on mythology as reported in the “Discourse on Poetry,” had implied much of this distinction when he claimed that the essential difference between ancient literature and later, Christian literature is that the former was based on mythology and the latter on historical claims. Christianity had introduced a new world-view, next to which other cultural factors became insignificant. A perspective on the infinite had appeared, which determined both form and content. The Christian poet, explicitly or implicitly, aims at a goal that lies beyond a finite world.

At the same time, the Incarnation occurring in a single individual at a particular time had conveyed a new significance to the individual. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, generally known by his pen name Jean Paul, in his Vorschule der Ästhetik (Preschool of Aesthetics) (1804), also draws a firm line between classical and Christian art. Ancient art was object-oriented and universal in meaning. The Greek gods, who are clearly defined and presented in serene dignity, display few individual characteristics. By contrast, in Christian art the individual dominates. At the same time, because of the presence of the idea of the infinite, the work of art appears less circumscribed by limits of space or time. The wide-open landscapes of Claude Lorrain obviously originated in a different climate than the ones portrayed in the frescoes of Pompeii.

Yet Jean Paul’s aesthetics labors under the same ambiguity as that of the Schlegels. At times, he mentions Christianity as the factor that distinguishes Romantic from classical art. At other times, however, he attributes that distinction to the general difference between ancient and modern art. Christian aesthetics, however, is restricted neither to the “modern” age nor to Romantic art. Still, August Schlegel had not simply equated Romantic with Christian. Medieval Christian art is pre-Romantic and premodern. Moreover, not all Romantic art is Christian or even religious, as is obvious from the poems of Byron, Shelley, and Heine. What Schlegel meant was that Christianity had made Romantic thought possible: only the Romantics and certain great writers of the early modern age had become fully conscious of the significance of the Christian ethos.

Victor Hugo, in the preface to his early drama Cromwell (1827), adopted August Wilhelm Schlegel’s distinction between classical and Christian poetry, which had become known in France through Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne (1813). Yet he interpreted this distinction as if Christianity had brought “truthfulness” to art. By separating God from nature, he argued, Christianity had secularized nature as neither ideal nor imperishable. This insight, dogmatically formulated as original sin, had opened the eyes of Christian artists and poets to evil and imperfection. Their work thereby acquired an unprecedented complexity of light and darkness, of the sublime and the grotesque. The monstrous gargoyles in medieval cathedrals, the quaint figures in the stained glass windows, the devils and the damned in Last Judgment portals—all these reminded visitors of the oddness of the universe. Yet French dramas of the seventeenth century remained bound by “classical” rules and displayed less “truthfulness” than the Greek ones. Not until the appearance of Romantic drama did French theater overcome the classicist tradition and dare to display the oppositions inherent in life. Hugo added that, in order to stay closer to life, dramatic works should be written in prose rather than in verse. Whatever merits Hugo’s manifesto may possess, and they are many, its view of Romanticism is severely limited. The introduction of the grotesque and the deformed, typical of his own plays and novels, did indeed violate the rules of classicism, but was by no means an exclusive quality of Romantic art.

In France the distinction between classical and Romantic always retained a polemical edge. During the Restoration, critics disaffected by poetry associated with the excesses of the French Revolution advocated a return to the “classics.” Romanticism, in their judgment, had led to disorder and was responsible for social disturbances and moral confusion, while “classicism” had established, in seventeenth-century France, a canon of good taste and safe doctrine. The ancient classics whom the writers of that era claimed to follow had not been Greek but Latin. France considered herself the true successor of Roman culture, the center of civilized living, which had succeeded in imposing its norms on the rest of Europe. The seventeenth-century French dispute between the ancients and the moderns, in the end, had favored the moderns. Nevertheless, the ancients continued to serve as models to imitate, as the French claimed to have done in their own classicism. Yet the terms classicism and classics, as used in France, were unfit to serve as defining characteristics of any particular period or style. Instead, they referred to the style and form of the great writers of the seventeenth century— Corneille, Racine, Bossuet, Molière, and La Fontaine. The cult of those “classics” had remained an essential part of general education. Through them, the schools educated the young on “how to become French.” The nineteenth-century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve was one of the first to loosen this necessary link between ancient and French classicism. For strictly literary purposes, he defined a classique as “un au-teur ancien, déjà consacré dans l’admiration et qui fait autorité dans son genre.” By this broad definition, the works of Romantic writers also could become “classics” after having been tested by time.

In Germany, Romanticism reacted against the domination of those French models. Its writers associated French “classicism” with a rigid formalism that had nothing in common with Greek art or literature. In contrast, German classicists of the late eighteenth century—Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller—had been inspired by Greek rather than by Roman sources. The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as Johann Winckelmann’s writings on Greek architecture and sculpture, had aroused considerable interest in Greek art and literature. In addition, the excellent departments of “philology” at the new German universities and Protestant theological seminaries had spurred a revival of the study of ancient Greek, a language that, since the Renaissance, had lain dormant in Europe. In this rediscovery of Hellenic culture, the Romantics saw a means to define their own distinct identity. Whereas French classicism had been static, opposed to change, and hostile to Romanticism, German classicism claimed to be dynamic and in no way opposed to the new poetry. In a conversation with Eckermann shortly before his death, Goethe returned for one last time to the question of the distinction between classical and Romantic, which had stirred up so much controversy:

The distinction between classical and Romantic poetry, which is now spread over the whole world and occasions so many quarrels and divisions, came originally from Schiller and me. I laid down the maxim that the literary content ought to be treated objectively and allowed no other. But Schiller, who worked in a quite subjective way, deemed his own fashion right and, to defend himself against me, wrote his treatise on Naïve and Sentimental Poetry. He proved to me that I, against my will, had been a Romantic and that my Iphigenie, through the predominance of sentiment, was by no means so classical and so much in the ancient spirit as some people supposed. The Schlegels took up this idea and carried it further, so that it has now been diffused over the whole world; and everybody talks about classicism and Romanticism—of which nobody thought fifty years ago.

In another conversation with Eckermann a few months earlier, Goethe had conceded that classical and Romantic elements appear side by side in the Helena episode of his Faust II and that both styles were equally good. In his early years Goethe had gone through a “classicist” period. During his first Italian journey (1786–88) he had written Iphigenie and Römische Elegien (published in 1795). Yet in contrast to British and French artists and poets traveling to Italy, Goethe mentions no ancient sites or classical events. “His elegies describe the effect of Italy on his own life, his intoxication by the happiness conveyed by the beautiful sky. He reports his pleasures, even the more vulgar ones, after the manner of Propertius.” For Goethe, as for Schiller, classical culture provided ideals and models for their thoroughly modern project of self-building. It was not an end in itself but rather formed an integral part of a new humanism. In this modern perspective, the terms classical and Romantic lost much of their former opposition: they become universal terms, where each classical period of balance is followed by a Romantic one of rebellion. The present study will not pursue this generalization. For me, the term Romantic refers to a historical period, as indicated at the beginning of this chapter.

The Romantic Idea

An atmosphere of existential unrest hangs over Romantic literature, which contrasts with the Enlightenment’s ideal of rational harmony. A strange, eschatological anxiety appears to keep the Romantic mind constantly on edge. Sensitive men and women, who felt that they were living at the end of an era, were weariedly waiting for the next. In The Romantic Agony (1933), Mario Praz describes melancholy as a typical Romantic mood. Yet had an undefined sadness not been a frequent theme since Tasso or even Petrarch? The real question is why and how this mood was different at the end of the eighteenth century. Praz fails to distinguish similar experiences at different times, an error against which he had cautioned in the introduction to his own study. Nor should a critic rely on what artists and poets say about their own work, since they often lack the perspective needed for a balanced assessment.

The French poet Alfred de Musset captured the downcast Romantic mood when he wrote, “L’homme est un dieu tombé qui se souvient des cieux” (Man is a fallen god who remembers heaven). What caused it? A loss of the past? Or of the unity with nature? Or of the presence of God? All these causes appear in Romantic literature, and all point at the loss of an original, ideal state of being. Occasionally, in dreams or dreamlike states, flashes of recognition seem to restore these privileged times to the mind. Romantic poets and artists tried, through legends and fairy tales, to recapture what they lost and to return to a never actually experienced happiness. Imagination bridged the separate moments and construed them into a new virtual world. German poets and artists went the furthest in conveying a transcendent meaning to those flashes of light. Early German Romantics, such as the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the philosopher Schelling, and the theologian Schleiermacher, interpreted them as revelations from a divine source.

Most remarkably, even those French Romantics who had been prejudiced against the religious opponents of the Revolution often surrounded their radical secularization project with a religious halo. Jules Michelet, the fiercely anti-clerical historian, interpreted the Revolution as an event of more radically religious significance than traditional Christianity had ever been, namely, one that would at last implement the Christian principles of social justice so long neglected by the Catholic Church. Heinrich Heine, who had immigrated to France, wrote satirically: “The French are the chosen people of the new religion, its first gospels and dogmas have been drawn up in their language; Paris is the New Jerusalem, and the Rhine is the Jordan which divides the consecrated land of freedom from the land of the Philistines.”

Nevertheless, whatever the differences among schools, for all Romantic writers, former images and symbols had become inadequate for expressing the anxieties and expectations of the epoch. They found new ones in such previously neglected experiences as presentiments, or emotional encounters with the unexpected, the deformed, or the excessive. The preternatural and the fantastic, common in the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Théophile Gautier and appealing to unconscious fears, exuded a poetic intensity that the “Gothic novels” of Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole had never attained. What in the eighteenth-century canon had been at the margins of the aesthetic consciousness now moved to the center, as we see in poems such as “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Romantic painters, such as John Martin, Théodore Géricault, and Joseph Turner, aimed at the sublime rather than at the pleasing or the beautiful.

In Heinrich Heine’s Die romantische Schule (1833) we hear the voice of a very critical observer of his former fellow Romantics. The author of this polemical writing shows great admiration for the German classics, Goethe and Schiller, some respect for those who fought the drab reality of German political life, and little more than contempt for those who had initiated the Romantic Movement, such as Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, and, as the worst of the lot, the Schlegel brothers. He dismisses the turn of Clemens Brentano, Joseph Goerres, and Joseph von Eichendorff toward medieval subjects as social conservatism. Although he admired the popular ballads and folk songs collected in Brentano’s and Achim von Arnim’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, he despised what he considered to be efforts to revive the medieval piety that had inspired them. He regarded the conversions to Catholicism of a number of German Romantics as misguided attempts to reverse history. He remembers how in his youth he had loved the Romantic songs of Ludwig Uhland, which he later came to dislike. He still admired the minor poet, but this was primarily because Uhland had abandoned literature to devote himself to political action.

British Romantics, suspicious of general categories, wrote no “manifestoes,” and for a long time they altogether avoided the use of the term Romantic to refer to a style or a literary movement. Later, it retrospectively came to denote poets who had written around the turn of the nineteenth century, and even eighteenth-century writers, such as Gray, Young, and William Collins. In the preface to the second edition of his and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth describes what they had attempted to achieve in their poems. Without mentioning any movement or establishing any formal rules, he simply explains the principles that had guided them. Yet this modest preface teaches more about the nature of Romantic writing than the German or French manifestoes. As a primary characteristic of his poetry, Wordsworth mentions his habit of describing incidents and situations taken from ordinary life “in a language really used by men” yet colored by the imagination. The feeling expressed in these poems differs from that of popular poetry in that “it gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling.” Most memorably, he defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” whereby tranquillity in turn excites new emotion. Others in England cast their net wider than Wordsworth, but none, except occasionally Coleridge, attained greater depth or precision. Thomas De Quincey wrote his Recollections of the Lake Poets in 1848, years after he had lived in the vicinity of these two poets, yet little in his memoir contributes to a better understanding of English Romanticism. Nor is much to be learned from William Hazlitt’s essays on these poets in his The Spirit of the Age (1825).

In Germany, philosophy strongly influenced Romantic poetry. Kant’s idea of freedom, further developed by Fichte and Schelling, became a seminal concept. But no philosophy played a more decisive role in early Romanticism than Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s idealist interpretation of Kant’s theory. In his view, Kant had failed to draw the necessary conclusions from his idealist intuition when he continued to accept the existence of external objects as an indispensable external cause of knowledge. For Fichte, the mind itself must find the source of knowledge entirely within itself. The young Schelling extended Fichte’s Idealism to include nature. The mind was merely the culminating point of a development that had begun on the inorganic, geological level. Most significant in that process is the aesthetic experience, in which the mind recognizes itself in the objective beauty of nature. Schelling was the Romantic philosopher par excellence, who had participated in the early discussions with Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Tieck.

Through Schelling, Romanticism also affected the young Hegel (1770–1831), although he never actively participated in the Romantic Movement and later turned against it. His early Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit) (1807) contains a profound philosophical assessment of Romantic thought as well as a gigantic attempt to overcome its tensions and contradictions. With Schelling and Hölderlin, his roommates at the Tübinger Stift, Hegel had welcomed the French Revolution as the dawn of a long-expected political and spiritual liberation from outdated political structures and modes of thinking. Like his friends, he had been horrified by the Terreur of 1793. Napoleon had briefly revived Hegel’s faith in the ideals of the Revolution, until the emperor defeated Prussia and occupied parts of its territory. Hegel brought his overdue manuscript of the Phenomenology to the printer during the very month, October 1806, of the decisive battle in the conquest of Prussia that took place near his own city of Jena. The bulky, opaque, and strangely structured study was not quite ready to be printed. Even so, it was the work of a genius. Josiah Royce read it as an intellectual Bildungsroman in the tradition of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, one of the founding texts of German Romanticism. Some have recognized in it various key figures of Romantic literature, or at least critical encounters with their ideas. The Phenomenology was a Romantic voyage of homecoming, a homecoming of the mind in the Spirit.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from The Quest of the Absolute: Birth and Decline of European Romanticism. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, 1817; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Louis Dupré

Louis Dupré (1925-2022) was the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy of Religion at Yale University and a leading philosopher of religion.

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