Romanticism, romantics, romantic poetry, romantic comedy, new romantics.
What comes to mind when one addresses the term romanticism? The word has become so infused with various meanings it is often very difficult to successfully define, dare I say deconstruct, the label. There are at least two different ways in which this task can be approached. The first is to deal with the term as a set of aesthetic principles, whether you wish to define romanticism as a literary movement prescribed by a certain time period or as a shared set of philosophical ideas. The second response is to investigate how romanticism has leaked into popular culture, how the ordinary civilian, for want of a better word, might understand it. It is to this later task which I wish to turn.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.’
These lines from Wordsworth’s famous poem Daffodils were the first interaction I had with any literary work I consciously considered a part of romanticism. Like many people of my age I was taught this poem in preparation for my intermediate certificate (junior cert for younger readers). Essential to this introduction to romanticism was one key idea that has been take by many causal observes to not only represent romanticism but by extension all poetry, namely the figure of the lonely isolated artist wandering through the countryside in communication with nature. It’s in these assumptions that the problems for romanticism begin.
Firstly romanticism, in the common consciousness concerning art, has been narrowed and refined into a stereotype. The figure of the romantic artist, alone, outside society, outside the city scribbling tortured lines inspired by clouds in a pale blue sky, has become a ubiquitous definition of a romantic poet, what Shelly in his famous essay, A Defence of Poetry, termed;
‘a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds’.
Which leads to the second problem, namely that poetry has become the only form identified with romanticism outside the academy. The visual arts as well as novels, drama and huge amounts of highly significant philosophical and political treatise have been ignored by the wider public. How many people when asked to name a piece of romantic literature would suggest Frankenstein? Most people still think it’s the name of the monster.
But it goes even further than that. Not only has the ideal figure of the romantic poet become the archetype for all artists of the romantic period, it has become the ideal archetype for all artists everywhere throughout history. The contemporary supposed idea of what its means to be an artist in the public sphere is almost completely based on the romantic poet model. From Byron to Jim Morrison artists are expected to be liberal, gregarious, expressive in behaviour, but dialectically prone to long walks in the lake district, extended periods of silence followed by impassioned didactic speeches on the importance of oak trees. Of course the truth is another matter with artists being as different from one another as all people engaged in any activity, as various as humanity itself.
The New Romantics – Stand and Deliver Adam & The Ants
So as we come to examine romanticism in the MA in Modernities I have to say I do so with a little trepidation. Despite all I have already suggested in the past I have found myself falling into the trap of reducing romanticism to this stereotype. Perhaps it was the influence of the New Romantics in 80s. It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this that I find myself much more drawn towards modernism and a rejection of this type of romanticism. In many ways it is easy to see why the modernists did react in such a way in an effort to ‘make it new’. It reminds me of how punks wanted to sweep away all the music that came before it, throwing the baby out with the bath water to coin a cliché. In my humble opinion If you don’t love Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon you shouldn’t be allowed listen to music but I digress. In a sense romanticism became too successful for its own long term health being reduced to a handful of traits which can then be caricatured and easily rejected by those who come next, who in turn ultimately lose out in the enriching process of dealing with the work of the period in a more nuanced way. I’m looking forward to approaching Romanticism with a pair of fresh, modernist, eyes. I am sure there’s a lot to discover.
Shelly, P.B. ‘A Defence of Poetry’. Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 1184-99. Print.
Wordsworth, William, ‘Daffodils’. Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 546. Print.
Adam & The Ants – Stand And Deliver. Youtube.com. 17 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.