Romanticism – Privileging Emotion over Reason

Romanticism – Privileging Emotion over Reason

The philosophical literary, cultural, and artistic era of Romanticism was developed in the mid-18th century as a reaction to the prevailing enlightenment ideals of that time. This happened as more emotional, natural and artistic themes were favored by Romantics. This influenced poetry in a great deal. A new form of poetry stressing on intuition over reason was actively being created. Proponents of this kind of poetry preferred the pastoral over the urban life. Efforts were made to use more colloquial language by often eschewing consciously poetic language.

By privileging emotion over reason, Romantic poets cultivated physical and emotional passion, individualism, idealism, reverence for nature, and an interest in the supernatural. They set themselves in opposition to the order. They strongly opposed the classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom in their art and politics. Such poets included German’s Johann Wolfgang van Goethe and Fredrich Schiller, Britain’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and John Keats, who were instrumental in propelling the romanticism movement in England. Others included Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan to mention just but a few. As opposed to the poems themselves, the poets’ discourses and manifestos on human beings nature achieved through creative expression perhaps stand out as the most profound writings of the period of Romanticism. Such include Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.

In his and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads Preface, Wordsworth himself defined good poetry to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth and Coleridge IV).  He goes on to make a clarification of this statement in the same sentence by asserting that nevertheless any poem of good quality must be composed by a man “possessed with more than usual organic sensibility who has thought long and deeply” (Wordsworth and Coleridge IV). This marked a turning point in literary history.

Although the notion of spontaneity in Romantic poetry has been stressed by many people, the Romantic poets were more concerned with the struggle of composition and translation of these emotive responses into poetic form. The dominant theme of Romantic poetry is reflected in such an attitude. It involves the creation of art by filtering through the human mind’s natural emotion, coupled with an awareness of the duality thus created. Indeed, art is the mediator between, and reconciler of nature and man (Coleridge 5). Romantic poets emphasized greatly on the activity of imagination and the significance of intuition, instincts, and feelings. They generally called for attention to supplementing purely logical reason with emotions. A very significant shift of focus occurred when this emphasis was applied in poetry creation.

They stressed the ultimate source of poetry to be an individual artist and reversed the age-old tradition of valuing art mainly for its mimetic qualities; the ability to imitate human life. There was a shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation in poetry. It should be noted that this indeed applied to all literature. Emotion was indeed privileged over reason. This was evident in the Romantics’ ambivalence toward the ‘real’ social world they were living in. They were politically and socially active, but they simultaneously began to keep a low profile and distance themselves from the general public. Despite this, note should be taken that they had formed the habit of interpreting things around them through emotions. These emotions included political and social awareness, as one would expect at a time marked by revolutions, as more people in the world reacted strongly to oppression and injustice. As it were, artists sometimes took stands publicly. Their written works contained socially and politically informed subject matter. Interestingly, another trend emerged. The Romantic poets withdrew more and more from what they mostly viewed as the limiting boundaries of bourgeois life. They asserted their individuality and differences in ways that were of intense interest to the middle class, though sometimes shocking. An inheritor of Romantic tendencies, Oscar Wilde, enjoyed surprising the bourgeois, both in his life and literal styles. He wrote, “Nothing succeeds like excess” (Wilde 21). The gap between the artists and their sometimes uncomprehending audience widened. This made some artists experience ambivalence to a high degree.

Standing out as a primary characteristic of Romanticism was the notion that relationships and emotions were not only very important, but were also the currency of life. Shelley argued, “The great secret of mortals is love…..and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that exists in thought, action or person, not our own” (Shelley 8).

In Book one of his confessions, Rousseau claims, “An infinity of sensations were familiar with me, without possessing any precise ideas of the objects to which they  related…I had conceived nothing… I had felt the whole. This confused succession of emotions did not retard the future efforts of my understanding, though they added an extravagant, romantic notion of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to eradicate (Rousseau 9).

Other schools of thought had the notion of Romanticism as a “healthy-resting revival for the instinctual life” (Bloom and Trilling 11). Rather than trust in scientifically-based progress, industry, and machines, the Romantic poets encouraged people to look inwardly and trust themselves and their intuition. They argued it would become possible for people to understand themselves and the world better if they paid all their attention to nature, observe and celebrate all organic processes and learn lessons from them. The emphasis was on emotion, not reason.

In conclusion, Romanticism occupied a central stage in people’s lives and was observed to spread to other artistic genres like music and visual arts. It spread to countries where it was unknown before and was used in defining and expressing unique phenomena. Being inherently creative and imaginative, it offered a platform for possibilities not imagined before. Thus, the value of the arts, the individual and emotional expression regained a place in practice and thought, replacing the logic-bound tendencies of science with the shifting philosophical emotions.

Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Raleigh, N.C: Alex Catalogue, 1990. Internet resource.

Shelley, Percy B. Defence of Poetry. Hoboken, N.J: Bibliobytes, 1990. Internet resource

Trilling, Lionel, and Harold Bloom. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. Print.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel T. Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads, 1798. London: Oxford U.P, 1969. Print

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