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With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution – its clanking machines, angry steam engines, unhealthy factories, and grime – there was a sense that the human relationship with the natural world was out of control. People who had never travelled faster than the speed of a cantering horse now watched in apprehension as giant iron beasts thundered through rural countryside belching smoke and fire.

For many people this was not the inevitable path of progress and technological development but reckless humanity hell-bent on self-destruction. They yearned for the certainties of past times, clinging to a vision of sublime and untamed nature, its picturesque splendour untainted by the filth and clamour of the new rapacious man-made industry that was invading the land.

Painting Above the Fog by Caspar Friedrich

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Caspar David Friedrich – 1774-1840

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Age of Enlightenment extended through the 17th and 18th centuries but by the time the colony of New South Wales was on its feet a new intellectual movement was underway in Europe – Romanticism. Unfolding at the start of the 18th century Romanticism gathered momentum to be at its most popular from about 1800 to 1850.

The Industrial Revolution

Rapid social change in the 18th and 19th centuries did not appeal to everyone. By 1800 coal was Britain’s foremost industry and as, in the Victorian era, Britain produced more coal than any other country. A whole industrial and mining ethos was created in the north of England where one in ten men were miners with lives that found some respite in pigeon racing and breeding, greyhounds, brass bands, creative hobbeys, garden allotments and self-education.

Cotton was the other major industrial resource. Imported from India, America and Africa cities like Manchester were able to use half of the world cotton production making money from a resource without needing the land on which it was grown. Vast mills were the largest buildings seen in England apart from cathedrals and churches. Construction of canals, railways and improved roads announced the curtailing of distance and the general acceleration of communication and life.

Wet emotion replaces dry reason

Romanticism was, in part, an expression of disillusionment with the promise of the Enlightenment and the expectation of what could be achieved by the cold calculating precision of reason alone; it was a reaction to aristocratic social values, the scientific perception of nature, and the negative impacts of the Industrial Revolution. Though most evident in the visual arts, music, and literature its repercussions were felt much more widely.

Looking at the world with a cold, dispassionate scientific eye seemed to lack the much-needed warmth of ‘humanity’. For many the much-anticipated benefits of science, technology, and social reform promised by the Enlightenment had failed to materialise. The French Revolution had produced the chaos and bloodshed of the ‘reign of terror’, and from science and technology had come factories, filth, smoke, coal, and mind-numbing industry as people moved out of the country into the cities which had now become breeding grounds for crime, squalour, and exploitation. Working with the clatter of dangerous machines for long hours under the close eye of cruel employers in ‘dark, Satanic mills‘ was hardly an improvement on the steady seasonal rhythm of the former pastoral life of England’s ‘green and pleasant land‘.

Romantics were acutely aware of the dark side of the Industrial Revolution and the aspects of the Enlightenment that were lacking: they wanted ‘wet’ emotion, not ‘dry’ reason; they wanted to escape the machinery by reinstating sublime and picturesque nature, simple living, and handicrafts. Musicians and artists admired the uncontrolled and unpredictable turbulence of nature, rather than the neat order imposed on it by taxonomy and science; they considered nature’s vicissitudes a reflection of the true human spirit – a true expression (not repression) of the emotions; it was engagement rather than detachment; it was intuition, impulsiveness and passion, not restraint. The Romantics admired heroic individuals like Napolean and abhorred the strict rules of the herd (like the stultifying rules enforced at the art academies), and regarded the artistic (rather than scientific) community as a vehicle for change in society.

Advocates of Romanticism included the famous English Romantic Poets: Colerdige, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Byron several ‘escaping’ the city to work in the natural beauty of England’s Lake District. Among the painters were also Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner. It was a movement experienced strongly through the arts and it was not confined to Britain. On the continent there were sympathisers like the artists Delacroix and Goya. In music it was Germany that lead the way as Mozart’s (1756-1791) classicism with its deep respect for order, ‘not one note out of place’ was replaced by the heroic and highly individualistic, startling, unpredictable and emotionally tempestuous works of the later Beethoven (1770-1827).

Romanticism, plants and nature

The Industrial Revolution had begun in Britain in the mid 18th century spreading to the Continent in the early 19th century. Plants, nature and the picturesque environment were as much a part of Romanticism as they were part of the natural history of the Enlightenment. Romanticism found resonances in the exoticism of distant exotic foreign lands, folk art and the replacement of racial arrogance with an idealized vision of the untainted noble savage.[Cook’s quote] Though a highly influential botanical advocate of the late 18th century Rousseau had anticipated the thrust of Romanticism, avaoiding scientific aspects of the subject, preferring the side of botany that had greatest public appeal – the fresh-air nature rambles in benign landscapes. He also later questioned whether science had made people happier, possibly even making them more corrupt and distanced from nature, views that he expressed in his acclaimed Discourse Concerning the Arts and Sciences (1750).[3]

Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Lake District, Cumbria

Haunt of William Wordsworth and the English Romantic Poets – a ‘place for simple living and high thinking

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Harking back to a former agricultural era a French economic movement, physiocracy, maintained that true economic value derives only from the cultivation of the land, all other economic activity being artificial and devoid of natural virtue.[1]


Romanticism was at its most powerful in Germany, where it was seen as a counterbalance to excessive French rationalism and British materialism.[2] The movement was not so much a negation of science but a challenge to what it perceived as an incomplete and one-sided vision of the universe. The sentiments of Romanticism were a mistrust of technology, science and scientists, and a view of the universe as being more ‘organic’ than ‘mechanical’ in its overall processes. The rigid inflexibility of scientific laws were countered by a desire for personal freedom to express creative spontaneity and explore intuition, to enjoy simple living, along with a preference for life in the country rather than the hustle and bustle of life in cities . . . all these sentiments have continued to echo through the years into the present.

Plant people can identify with the world of the Romantics. Plants, it seems, were receiving a last hurrah from humanity as ornamental plants from round the world filled nurseries and arable land in temperate climes of the Earth were converted to European-style agricultural landscapes. New economic plants were delighting their consumers.

Humans may have begun their inexorable migration from the countryside into the cities but both coal and cotton were still plant-based resources.

Media Gallery

This School of Life video urges a blending of the ideas of Modernity with those of Romanticism to unleash an Age of Maturity.

HISTORY OF IDEAS – Romanticism

The School of Life – 9:43


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 6 October 2020

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