Romanticism


Romanticism represents a rebellion against Enlightenment thinking. It replaces a faith in reason with feeling as the stronger expression of what we are. It is restless with practical reality and prefers visionary longing and excitement to the complacency of everyday reality. In its more radical phases-- Blake, for example -- Romanticism sees reason itself as a shadow cast by the power system that rules society, a regime hostile to our sanity. Though less radical, Wordsworth shares Blake\'s distrust of the commercial city, and with it, the apportionment of roles and sentiments that hide us from our deeper selves. Only a return to nature and the freedom of our childhoods can save us from the exhausting routines of what is called reality. Whitman, our American Romantic, is a poet of great visionary power. He imagines great unities in a grand architecture of time. His constructive Romanticism breaks every familiar category of reason and good sense.


It is helpful to take these three poets as representing three movements within Romanticism:


(1) protest,


(2) the world within, and


(3) the visionary.


The Romanticism of social protest reflects the revolutionary fervor on the Continent and especially in France in the last decade of the Eighteenth Century. There, every certainty was overturned and every institution uprooted. Unlike the American Revolution, which was primarily political, the French Revolution aspired to give birth to a new society, purged of the evils of the past. Even the calendar was replaced, with the year one being 1789 and the months renamed. The French Revolution inspired many people to look at their societies as temporary and unnatural -- indeed, nothing had the force of necessity other than the urgent need for ultimate liberation from an Old Order that had ceased to mean anything at all.


Blake looks through the surfaces of supposed good sense and orderliness and discovers instead cruelty and injustice. Poems like "London" and "The Chimney Sweeper" are meant to unsettle the confidence of the complacent Middle Class reader by forcing him to recognize the evils at the heart of the Imperial city. When you look at the splendor of the King\'s Palace, you need to see the blood of young men dripping down the palace walls, young men who die daily to extend the Empire in far corners of the world. The conjunction of these shockingly divergent images provides a stinging recognition of reality, as does the grandeur of the Church darkened by the suffering of abused working children (for what had Christ taught about disregarding the misery of children?!). Blake\'s outlook is political and moral and entirely hostile to the endorsed reality of things. To be free, people must cleanse the doors of perception in order to know the world and themselves as they really are and are meant to be. Like Socrates, Blake believes that everything we know is wrong, mere confused shadows; unlike Socrates and the Enlightenment thinkers, however, he asserts that feelings and great leaps of perspective reveal the secrets of our being.


Wordsworth is similarly at war not only with the way things are in society but also within himself. He is weary of the bland self society has constructed for him, especially of the routines of the commercial city, where everything has a purpose measured by time and money. He knew his true self in childhood and in the vibrant bond with nature of his youth. He experiences what we have come to call alienation, a severe doubleness in which the social self is opposed to an original self that comes from God and is measureless and immortal. For Wordsworth, Nature represents a Divinity, a source of energy that can return him to his true self, now eclipsed by everyday routines. Like Blake, Wordsworth invites us to see beneath the surface reality and reason and replace it with feeling and emotion, a more original and authentic version of ourselves. The world within offers us peace and richness of being that is lost to us in everyday petty affairs.


Whitman represents visionary Romanticism. Here again the conventional world is a sad illusion. True being rests in our capacity to realize the energies of life all around us. Whitman celebrates the glory of everyday activity, the grandeur of work, the stupendous miracle of our body and its pleasures in