Sunday, November 29, 2009


[Above is the Goethe and Schiller monument at Weimar.]

For a recent Observer article on Schiller, see here.

Romanticism emerged in the last decades of the eighteenth century and dominated the first four decades of the nineteenth century. It challenged the predominant classicism of the 18th century in literature, politics and music. Its prominent characteristics were:
  • An emphasis on feeling and impulse
  • An attraction to the spiritual, the obscure and the unknown
  • A recognition of nature as an autonomous and dynamic force.
  • A love of wild scenery
  • Individualism
  • An exalted concept of the hero
  • A preference for the Gothic and the medieval over the classical

The theory of Romanticism became widely known with the publication of Madame de Stäel’s On Germany (1813). Of course, Romantic works of art were known long before this.

The Origins of Romanticism
Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been seen as the last of the philosophes and the first of the Romantics. In his Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) he appealed to emotion and to ‘sensibility’. He despised cities and urban life and his love for the Swiss Alps contributed to a change in attitudes to wild nature. At the same time the Scottish schoolteacher James Macpherson (1736-96) pulled off an audacious literary forgery with his purported translations from the Gaelic bard, Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) and Fingal (1761). Napoleon took Ossian with him on his campaigns.

German Romanticism
Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Stress’) was a movement in German literature and music that emphasized the volatile emotional life of the individual. It is most commonly viewed as occurring in the years 1767-85, but sometimes 1769-86 or 1765-95. The name was derived from a
play by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger. The chief exponents of Sturm und Drang were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and his friend and collaborator Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Chief Sturm und Drang works are Goethe's historical play Götz von Berlichingen, his sensationally successful epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (right) and the poem ‘Prometheus’.
In the German states of the 1790s educated young men were excluded from careers that were monopolized by the nobility. They initially welcomed the French Revolution but became disillusioned.

Why did Romanticism begin in Germany?
The first phase of Romanticism in German literature, centred in the eastern city of Jena from about 1798 to 1804. The Jena circle included Schiller and the brothers Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich. In 1798 they issued their journal, the Athenaeum. In it they argued that art was the way of expressing man’s spiritual dimension. They valued the Middle Ages as the great period of Christian civilization and Gothic architecture as the purest expression of this civilization.

Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller
His play The Robbers (Die Räuber, on January 13, 1782 in Mannheim, is considered by many critics to be the first European melodrama. The play pits two brothers against each other in alternating scenes as one quests for money and power, while the other attempts to create a revolutionary anarchy in the Bohemian Forest. The play strongly critiques the hypocrisy of class and religion, the economic inequities of German society, and conducts a complicated inquiry into the nature of evil. The language of The Robbers is highly emotional and the depiction of physical violence in the play marks it as part of the Sturm und Drang movement.
You can read Schiller's Ode to Joy (1785) in German and English.

Schiller wrote the play William Tell in 1803-4, after encouragement from Goethe. Tell, who might not even have existed, had become a hero of the French Revolution in the wake of the 1766 play by Antoine-Marin Lemierre. As the revolutionary armies overran Switzerland, he became the symbol of the short-lived Helvetic Republic. The play had its debut performance on March 17, 1804, in Weimar. Gioacchino Rossini in turn used it as the basis for his 1829 opera William Tell.

Romanticism in Britain
In 1798 William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. In the preface to the 1800 edition Wordsworth defined poetry as
‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.
In 1802 Walter Scott published The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) and The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). His publication of Waverley in 1814 brought the historical novel to Britain. In order to pay off his debts he later turned to medieval pot-boilers. In 1826 Rossini composed his opera Ivanhoe.

Turner used light and colour to suggest the effects of nature. The essayist, William Hazlitt (1816):
‘The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world. … All is without form and void.’
Romanticism in France
Chateaubriand's The Genius of Christianity (1802) showed a royalist conservative, Christian romanticism.
Eugène Delacroix' s 'Liberty leading the People' depicted the July Revolution of 1830 in terms of radical romantic nationalism.

His sojourn in Algiers inspired him to paint exotically oriental scenes. For more on Delacroix, see this very interesting site.

Géricault's, 'The Raft of the Medusa' (1819) was based on the story of a shipwreck and showed the extremes of human emotion.