What Is Romanticism?

Historian Tim Blanning’s new book argues that Romanticism was as much a revolution as the French or the Industrial. Jimmy So on the difficulty in defining the ethereal movement.

Obsession with celebrity did not begin with News of the World. In 1745, Louis XV took as mistress one of the most notorious celebrities in all of Europe, the Marquise de Pompadour. The Bourbon monarch housed her in a large suite of rooms at the center of the Palace of Versailles, which scandalized the aristocracy. Extramarital sexual activity had long been a habit for the kings of France, including XV’s predecessor, but unfortunately for this Louis, public opinion had lately turned on royal extravagances, and the people vilified not only the king’s mistress but the king himself. “Unclean monarch, your days are numbered!” one proclamation read. Concurrent with the public’s newfound distaste was its growing appetite for news. The result was an explosion in the number of periodicals and pamphlets (and even erotica) in mid-18th century France. The modern tabloid era had arrived.

It is no accident that at the same time the audience for art and music increased a hundredfold, and from a void left by a declining church and a decaying monarchy rose a middle class driven by public opinion. As early as 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had bemoaned that “neither reason nor virtue nor the laws will subjugate public opinion.” As late as 1816, Samuel Coleridge had noticed that “we have now a READING PUBLIC,” the capitalization all his. These literary monarchs of the Romantic age did not have a very high opinion of public opinion. But ironically, it was the advent of the public sphere that made the Romantic revolution possible, and likewise allowed artists to be sacralized and worshipped for expressing nothing but their inner selves. Romanticism was a revolution of scale and not so much of kind. Its ideas had existed for centuries and millennia, if they weren’t natural within us already. Eugene Delacroix, for example, wrote: “If by Romanticism one understands the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my aversion to models copied in schools, and my loathing for accordance to formula, I must confess that not only was I Romantic, but I was so at the age of fifteen.”

Here we are, some 200 years later, and historian Tim Blanning has for most of his career been trying to convince us that Romanticism was indeed something new. The Romantic Revolution should help his case, as he asserts that the movement was a revolution, one as enduring as the French or Industrial versions. “If it had no starting point as clear-cut as the Declaration of Independence or the fall of the Bastille, contemporaries were well aware that a monumental upheaval in the cultural world was under way.”

It was the advent of the public sphere that made Romanticism possible, and for artists to be sacralized and worshipped for expressing nothing but their inner selves.

Blanning places the starting point of Romanticism at Rousseau’s “conversion” on the road to Vincennes in 1749, a moment, the philosopher later claimed, of utter clarity that compelled him to reject the agenda of the Enlightenment with disdain and vengeance. “I am commencing an undertaking hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator,” Rousseau writes in his Confessions, and no one would accuse him of modesty. “I desire to set before my fellow the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man is myself. Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in the whole world. If I am not better, at least I am different.”

Here was the essence of Romanticism: inwardness (Innigkeit), one’s uniqueness, self-realization, seeking one’s “genius.” But while no one will argue against Rousseau’s influence, neither would they argue that he singlehandedly invented Romanticism. The movement was amorphous and contradictory. The real question, and one that Blanning seems unwilling to answer in his new book, is where this movement came from—although he had pretty much done so in previous works like The Triumph of Music and The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture, two intellectual histories that chart the rise of the Romantic artist-hero through the perils of the public sphere, the Habermas theory of which Blanning is such an expert advocate. The Romantic Revolution, on the other hand, doesn’t give us much on the movement’s socioeconomic foundations.

It is unfair to fault a writer for not accomplishing what he did not set out to do. Unlike his earlier historical texts that are academically dense and packed with rich details, The Romantic Revolution is short, light, and takes off from the very beginning, flitting about at a frantic pace, from Diderot to Rousseau, Wagner to Goya, Wordsworth to Napoleon. The middle section even takes you to “The Dark Side of the Moon,” as Blanning sketches the map of a Romantic mind, from the sublime highs of a Paganini caprice to those dark shadows in Fuseli’s dreamscapes. In Blanning’s own words, “What is needed is a willingness to enter the world of the Romantics by the routes they chose themselves, however shifting the sands on which that world rests and however ethereal the atmosphere … It is through sounds and images, dreams and visions, that the gate to understanding can be opened.”

Yet, surely Blanning should have seen the problem from miles away: how do you compete with the sounds of Beethoven or the words of Shelley? We expect a history book to tell a story. What Blanning offers is a medley. At times it reads like a series of blogs stitched together into a book.

The thing is, Romanticism has always been a slippery thing with legs. It’s not simply a historical term, like “medieval.” It has a historical center, but not everything that happens between 1780 and 1825 is Romantic. Its heart is in the French Revolution, but so is the guillotine. Byron and Wordsworth couldn’t be more different, and they loathed one another, yet both are Romantic, each in a different way. Coleridge, but not Crabbe. Keats, but not Jane Austen. Romanticism is historical fact, but more than that: a cultural feeling, an aesthetic idea. You can find it in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, but it’s most explosively unleashed in music. It’s easy to spot but hard to define. And it had a very, very long tail.

So, what is Romanticism? It is a feeling that things changed after 1789, though we are not very sure how. The Romantics prized the beautiful, but mostly when the beautiful was sprung to the sublime (“a light that dwells nearer to the skies”). The Romantics liked the light, but they found the darkness alluring, too. They were revolutionaries, but were crushed by the disappointment of the revolution—revolutionaries, too, who by Wagner’s time were more powerful than kings. They looked inward, but had unprecedented public persona. So it is that Romanticism is a basket of ideas, many of them contradictory. The question of what Romanticism is will never be put to rest with a single answer. But if you get the chance, go listen to a good singer perform Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. It will tell you more about Romanticism than 100 books can say.