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).