If one term can be used to describe the forces that have shaped the modern world, it is Romanticism. So potent has Romanticism been since the late 18th century that one author has called it “the profoundest cultural transformation in human history since the invention of the city.” Romanticism was not a movement; it was a series of movements that had dynamic impacts on art, literature, science, religion, economics, politics, and the individual’s understanding of self. Not all streams of Romanticism were the same. Some, in fact, were almost completely the opposite in their results from others. Nor was the impact the same at all times. Romanticism progressed in stages, each of which had its own emphasis.
Attempting a Definition
There is no single commonly accepted definition of Romanticism, but it has some features upon which there is general agreement. First of all, it was a rejection of the Enlightenment and the emphasis upon human reason. The Enlightenment thinkers asserted that the world of nature is rationally ordered and that human reason, therefore, can analyze, understand, and use it. On the basis of this understanding a rational society can be constructed (see Enlightenment).
Romanticism exalted intuition, feeling, inspiration, and the genius of human creativity. It took delight in the exotic?the sights, sounds, and stories of foreign lands, other cultures, and the fantasy world of the imagination. It looked on nature not as a world of objects to be manipulated and dissected but as something to be experienced. Romantics regarded nature, in an almost mystical way, as the opposite of the drabness of industrial civilization. One early Romantic, William Wordsworth, expressed this disenchantment with reason in his poem, ‘The Tables Turned’ (1798):
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things?
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.