Gerald N Izenberg. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Romanticism is perhaps the richest and certainly the most vexed of the “isms.” At the most general level, the term denotes a set of common tendencies in European art and thought from about 1797 to 1848. Ultimately those tendencies influenced the arts, especially literature, in virtually every country from Spain to Russia, but their acknowledged origins and centers were Britain, France, and Germany. Until the late twentieth century, there was even wide critical and historical agreement on the canonical names and the succession of Romantic generations in these countries. In literature, criticism, and philosophy, it was standard to regard William Blake (1757-1827), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in England as constituting the first generation of major Romantic poets and Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and John Keats (1795-1821) the second, with Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) the lone novelist; Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) often figured as a later Romantic sui generis. In Germany, “early Romanticism” (Frühromanti) meant the Jena Circle of Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845), Novalis (pseudonym for Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenburg [1772-1801]), and Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853)—the first self-conscious Romantic “movement,” though without the name—along with Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773-1798), Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), the philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). The younger writers of the second “War of Liberation” generation included the folklorists and writers Achim von Arnim (1781-1831), Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), the brothers Grimm (Jakob [1785-1863] and Wilhelm [1786-1859]), Jean Paul (1763-1825), and the more problematic Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811). Romanticism in France arguably lasted longer, though it started a little later, and could be divided into four generations, both chronological and ideological—François René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), and Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) (the lone woman considered in her own right) in the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods; the cénacles around Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle [1783-1842]) in the 1820s; the Jeune France (Young France) Romantics of the Revolution of 1830 and the following decade, including Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), Alfred Vigny (1811-1872), Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), and Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855); and finally the so-called Social Romantics led by the poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), whose ideas triumphed, then foundered in the failed Revolution of 1848, finally taking Romanticism with them.
The sheer number, diversity and chronological spread of these writers suggest the difficulty of generalization, and the list does not include all the putative Romantic writers and critics, let alone painters and composers. Nonetheless literary critics and historians through the 1960s did identify a number of characteristics that, even if not all shared by every Romantic, seemed to capture a distinctive Romantic style, indeed a whole ethos. Central to it was a validation of both unique human particularity or individuality and the human sense for the infinite, as well as the effort to reconcile the two. The Romantic idea of individuality involved a heightened awareness and legitimization of the emotions and the irrational, against what it took to be the arid rationalism and the narrow, destructive analytic spirit of the eighteenth century. The crucial faculty of the expanded Romantic self was the imagination, which through the emotions and the unconscious could grasp and unite with the infinite in its various characterizations, whether a virtually deified Nature, a more abstract Absolute, or a more traditionally theistic divinity. As to the origins of these new concerns, as early as the 1820s contemporaries had identified a number of instigating factors: the revival of ballads and of medieval and Elizabethan “romance,” the rise of German Idealist philosophy, and the French Revolution.
M. H. Abram’s Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971) offered an elegant, powerful synthesis of British and German Romanticism whose range went beyond the narrowly literary implications of its title to include Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel as well as such later figures as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence, whom Abrams also claimed for Romanticism. Abrams saw Romanticism as profoundly philosophical, a “metaphysics of integration” whose key was “the ‘reconciliation,’ or synthesis, of whatever is divided, opposed and conflicting.” Its central literary trope was the circuitous journey, in which the visionary writer, as prophetic representative of all humanity, falls from primal unity into individuated and conflicted existence but ultimately returns to a higher unity that restores the original harmony while preserving his fully separate identity. This trope was the secularized and naturalized transformation of Christian Neo-platonism, which posited a three-stage developmental history of Being as paradigmatic also for human development: primal cosmic unity and goodness, subsequent differentiation into multiplicity and particularity, equivalent to a fall into evil and suffering, and then a return to unity and goodness that yet retains individuation and differentiation.
Abrams explained the Romantic secularization of an originally religious metaphysics as the direct result of the French Revolution. The Revolution seemed to bring the prospect of heaven down to earth, holding out a this-worldly hope for radical individual freedom and complete social harmony, only to betray that hope by its murderous course and ultimate failure. The Romantics, initially caught up in revolutionary fervor, transferred their quest for liberation and reconciliation from political actions and forms to the spheres of aesthetics and philosophy. As Abrams put it, external means for transforming the world were replaced by internal means; the millennial faith in an apocalypse by revolution gave way to faith in an apocalypse by imagination or cognition.
The depth, coherence, and comprehensiveness of Abram’s synthesis meant that any new approach would inevitably, directly or implicitly, be directed against it. In the ensuing decades the “visionary” interpretation of Romanticism was subjected to three main sorts of criticism.
Even before Natural Supernaturalism was published, Geoffrey Hartmann’s groundbreaking work on William Wordsworth had undermined one of Romanticism’s fundamental premises: the idea of a Romantic reconciliation of individuality and infinity. The attack on reconciliation became the main thrust of deconstructionist criticism, drawing on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and led by the critic Paul de Man, whose first essays also predated Abrams. As he and others argued, Romantic writing consistently “deconstructed” the hoped-for unity of the mind with the objective Absolute through literary tropes and rhetorical disclaimers that unintentionally revealed the supposedly objective Romantic absolute as a wishful linguistic artifact of mind itself. Ultimately there was nothing but the human imagination, looking for, but in the nature of things unable to find, an external cocreator of the human experience of infinite wholeness. Romantic literature, as one critic put it, was a constant “dialogue between illusion and its deconstruction.”
A very different kind of criticism of the visionary approach implicated deconstruction as well: Both were radically unhistorical. Abrams’s interpretation was ostensibly historically-minded in its claim that Romanticism was a continuation of the project of the French Revolution by other means. In the following decades, however, historicist criticism, partly building on an earlier Marxism but using new techniques of reading derived from the critic Stephen Greenblatt’s application of Clifford Geertz’s anthropology, the work of Michel Foucault, and deconstruction itself, insisted that this claim obscured the true relationship between politics and Romanticism. By shifting the arena of freedom and reconciliation to the imaginative and aesthetic, the Romantics were in fact either occluding politics or retreating from it altogether. Jerome McGann (1983), for example, asserted that the poetry of Romanticism was everywhere marked by an extreme form of displacement, through which the actual human issues of liberation from hierarchy, oppression, and poverty and the political struggle to achieve a just and egalitarian society were resituated in a variety of idealized locales such as nature, agrarian utopias, or the visionary imagination of art. Only a sociohistorical method of reading even such ostensibly unhistorical poems as Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (1798) could demystify them by revealing the hidden conservative or outright antipolitics of a Romanticism that tried to transform concrete sociopolitical agenda into timeless ontological visions.
German historical criticism took a similar political tack, though it was less debunking in tone because there was never any doubt in the minds of critics that the original German Romantic impulse was inspired by the liberationist goals of the French Revolution or that the early Romantics themselves openly acknowledged this. As Frederick Beiser (1992) pointed out, what separated early from later German Romanticism was the distinction between the former’s relatively egalitarian ideal of community and the latter’s more authoritarian and paternalistic ideal of the state. The question for critics like him, therefore, was why the original radical thrust of German Romanticism, in which Friedrich Schlegel’s demand for a “universal poetry” shaped only by the poet’s sovereign will was initially linked with republican politics, not only dissipated but turned into its opposite.
The third line of dissent from the visionary hypothesis argued the limitations of an inherently masculine Romantic vision and its contemporary masculinist interpretation. Both, feminist critics claimed, entailed the ideological subordination of the feminine along with the simultaneous exclusion of real women from their purview. Feminist Romantic criticism undertook three distinct though connected initiatives. One worked at exposing the gendered character of the visionary synthesis. Ann Mellor (1988, 1993), for example, claimed that the Romantic poets endorsed a concept of the self as a power that gains control over and gives significance to nature, represented in their writings as female, thus legitimizing the continued repression of women. A second initiative focused on the women writers of the Romantic movement, both previously acknowledged if underestimated authors like de Staël and Mary Shelley, and those hitherto treated as little more than supernumeraries and handmaidens of the canonical Romantic writers, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Dorothea Schlegel, and Caroline Schelling. A third approach, the one potentially most disruptive of the previous synthesis, tested the Romantic canon by resurrecting the work of a number of late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century women writers such as Helen Maria Williams, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, and Maria Edgeworth, all well-known and well regarded in their own time but consigned by later critics to oblivion. Many of them could not be easily assimilated into the interpretive categories of visionary Romanticism.
In the face of the new diversity, there might be a temptation to return to Lovejoy’s radical nominalism. But a more helpful approach, one faithful to the spirit of the times, revises the earlier synthesis in the light of its challengers, maintaining the meaningfulness of the term Romanticism, while acknowledging that not everything written during the “age of Romanticism”—for example, the novels of Jane Austen—was Romantic. Such revision, furthermore, is able to include more of the conclusions of the new methodologies, and more of the new work they examine, than might initially be expected. The indispensability of the historical context for understanding the emergence and development of Romanticism strongly suggests that synthesis must take the form of a narrative, however necessarily simplified in a short article.
The First Generation in Britain and Germany
Romanticism in Britain and Germany did indeed begin in the late 1790s as the young intellectual generation’s response to the great hopes and correspondingly crushing disappointments of the French Revolution. The German Romantic poet Novalis wittily referred to the revolution, meaning his generation’s reaction to it, as a puberty crisis. But if it was, the Romantics unwittingly revolutionized Western adolescence by inventing a new ideal of the self, which would become the maturational ideal of truly free and fully self-aware moderns. The first Romantics comprised an actual demographic generation; all were born within a few years of 1770, all came of age around the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, all were its ardent partisans. They came to it out of personal motives of rebellion against hierarchical societies and paternalistic families on behalf of freedom of vocational choice and sexual self-expression. Implicitly already political and social, their rebellion found in the Revolution the larger framework of socio-political analysis and universal ideals that enabled them to generalize it into an ideological worldview.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven,” Wordsworth famously wrote of the Revolution. Heaven did not last long, but while it did, he and others pushed the Revolutionary ideal of freedom beyond anything the revolutionaries themselves had conceived, beyond freedom guided by reason to freedom that accepted no restraints from nature, history or any “general laws,” only the “light of circumstances / flashed / Upon an independent intellect.” In Germany the philosopher Fichte, explicitly generalizing from the political ideals of the Revolution, went beyond Kantian rational freedom to theorize the self as an infinitely striving subjectivity that in principle knows no boundaries except those of its own finitude, which it experiences as a goad to constant transcendence.
This vision of unbounded freedom could not survive either the dilemma of relativism that it generated or the perversions of tyranny and exploitation in both revolutionary politics and personal life that it seemed to produce. The first generation (with the exception of Hölderlin) turned away from radical politics while retaining the idea of infinite freedom in the sphere of the creative imagination. It was at this stage that August Wilhelm Schlegel, in Athenaeum Fragment 116, propounded his famous definition of romantic poetry. But even as an aesthetic doctrine, infinite freedom—Keats’s famous “egotistical sublime”—threatened anarchy and isolation. Recoiling from the imperial self, the young rebels created Romanticism by reconnecting the self with that which was greater than it, the infinite, embodied in an entity, whether nature, the beloved, or more abstractly, the Absolute, with which it could unite. As feminist critics noted, this entity was virtually always figured as feminine. But the Romantics’ relationship to the feminine infinite was not simply conquest and subordination, but a complex, and contradictory, mixture. On the one hand, the mind was dependent on the infinite, safely harbored in its sheltering matrix and, as in Wordsworth’s explicit metaphor of infant and mother, connected through its greater power to the rest of the world. On the other hand, nature was but mind’s partner and cocreator of the vision of the unity of all things, in Wordsworth’s words, the “genuine counterpart” of the “glorious faculty / Which higher minds bear with them as their own.” Thus the infinite was at once the mind’s external superior and mind’s own equal capacity; in Coleridge’s famous formulation, the poetic imagination was the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite “I am.” Another version of the Romantic paradox, Schleiermacher’s description of the self’s two basic but opposite urges, presented a different face of contradiction. On the one hand, he wrote in On Religion (1799, 1806), the self “longs to expand … outwards into the world, and so to permeate everything with itself … to penetrate everything and fill everything with reason and freedom.” On the other hand, “the opposing drive is the dread fear of standing as a single individual alone against the whole; it is the longing to surrender and be completely absorbed in it, to feel taken hold of and determined by it.” The Romantic self was driven at once by the desire for infinite self-assertion and the desire for complete subsumption into the infinite.
Before deconstruction, many Romantics were aware of the impossibility of this conjunction. Schlegel’s central concept of romantic irony was the expression of his insistence that every claim on the part of a Romantic work to totality was necessarily false because of the finitude of the self and of its creations. One strove to create knowing that one had to destroy the thing one loved in order to continue creating. And the German Romantic sense of infinite longing, Sehnsucht, epitomized in Novalis’s yearning poems of love Hymns to the Night (1800), testified to the awareness that haunted all of Romanticism, that the infinite was beyond human reach and could only be the achievement of wish-fulfilling dreams of eternal love.
The gendered contradictions in Romantic metaphysics between maternal symbiosis and partnership, and between surrender and penetrating mastery, parallel literary depictions of Romantic love as well as real relations among the Romantics. Friedrich Schlegel’s representative, quasi-autobiographical novel Lucinde (1799) describes a series of relationships with women that enable the male protagonist to mature into a centered, creative artist. His harmonious wholeness is achieved through the experience of being loved, and his unified personality in turn makes possible the organic form of his artistic work, which does not need to rely on classical rules for its unity. The relationship with Lucinde (a barely disguised if idealized version of the author’s lover and later wife, Dorothea Mendelsohn Veit) is described contradictorily both as reciprocal—”Only in the answer of its ‘you’ can every ‘I’ wholly feel its boundless unity”—and unequal: Lucinde, while an independent woman and an artist, is finally the mirror in which Julius sees his own unity and power reflected, the moon to his sun. Dorothy Wordsworth played an analogous role for William not only in life, but in poems like “Tintern Abbey,” where she serves as the guarantor for the poet’s vision of the unity of all things. While it was necessary for the feminine to be seen as independent, even omnipotent, to make possible the Romantic imagination of the unity of personality, it was precisely the exclusion of women from the public sphere, sparing them the conflicts and imperfections of striving, that made it plausible for the male Romantics to see the feminine as already achieved wholeness. The maternal role best symbolized feminine self-containment and selflessness, even as the male Romantics demanded that women be autonomous, indeed creative, intellectual companions.
The women of that first generation were, consciously at least, mostly content to fill the roles assigned them. Though Dorothy Wordsworth wrote poetry, she refused to think of herself as a poet, even referring to her poems as mere verses or rhymes. Conflicting assessments of her work suggest that it was either thwarted in its effort to follow her brother’s sense of the Romantic self by her felt exclusion from its masculine authority, or that it registered a different relation of self to community from that suggested by the visionary imagination, one in which the self had its place though not the privileged one of the male visionary. Her sense of community, however, was in fact no different from the ideal that William himself suggested in the chastened agrarian republicanism and later increasingly Burkean traditionalism of his post-revolutionary social vision. Visionary imagination and the celebration of the common life were not mutually exclusive in the poetics of Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1800), but were rather in fact mutually entailed. Dorothea Schlegel, unlike Dorothy Wordsworth, published the work she wrote, the novel Florentin (1801), but its hero was the questing young male Romantic seeking the ideal woman who could complete him.
There is no critical consensus as yet, however, about the women poets of the time whose work critics are rediscovering in the early twenty-first century. Some critics like Mellor and Marlon Ross (1989) see in it a distinct feminine sensibility that offers a countertradition to that of the egotistical sublime, one that emphasizes local experience and sensibility rather than vision. Yet, as Isobel Armstrong argues, women’s poetry shared with male Romantic writing the valorization of emotion and the language of the sense as well as the explicit self-consciousness about both long held to be one of Romanticism’s chief characteristics. What does seem clearly to be the case, as Stuart Curran and Gary Kelly point out, is that in the first decade of the nineteenth century at the height of the Napoleonic wars women writers like Hemans and Edgeworth moved like their male counterparts away from radicalism to a celebration of domesticity which entailed the negative representation of “excessive selfhood.” In this respect they participated in a consensual “discourse of Romanticism.”
The Second Generation in Britain and Germany
Romanticism in Britain and Germany diverged in the second generation as a result of very different political experiences during and after the Napoleonic wars. Freed from the climate of oppressive wartime fear, though not from the continuing repressive policies of the British government, Byron and Shelley felt it was time to revive the original radical impulse of the first generation, and sharply criticized Wordsworth for his frightened apostasy from the cause of liberty. Both, however, understood the legitimate reasons for his fearfulness: Freedom had been perverted during the Revolution, and its champions knew that they had to explore and exorcise the inner temptations that a fledging radical autonomy bred before it could be safely embraced. In his dramatic poems “Manfred” (1816) and “Cain” (1821), Byron wrestled with the problem of guilt over (possibly sexual) misuse of freedom and of the religious temptations of forgiveness and consolation at the cost of submission to authority, ultimately rejecting them for an affirmation of individual agency and moral responsibility. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), Shelley identified the tyrannical Zeus, who had punished the rebellious Prometheus, as an emblem of humanity’s own worst potential, the corruption of freedom and love into self-love and the lust for domination. Only when freedom recognized its own temptations to omnipotence and controlled them was it capable of the mutuality on which both true love and a free polity were based. But in the end their Romantic visions were quite different. Shelley celebrated love, earthly and divine, as the symbol of the fusion of the individual and the whole. The relentless satire and irony of the late masterpiece Don Juan (1819-1824) have seemed to some later critics un-Romantic, and certainly very different from the restless questing and world-weariness of the Byronic hero of the earlier Childe Harolde (1812-1818), but they were in fact the other side of Romanticism, a display of the “mobility” Byron ascribed to his most positive character in the epic, the ability to respond spontaneously to every new stimulus without false sentimentality. In his own time, “Byronism” was second only to the cult of Napoleon—which Byron himself helped promote—in mythifying one Romantic life model: life as an experiment without bounds, the infinite conquest of experience.
The fiction of Scott showed, however, that the Romantic dialectic could produce yet another kind of synthesis. In the Waverly novels (first published in 1814) and in medieval romances like Ivanhoe (1819), Scott, a modernizer but an anti-Jacobin fearful of the radical effects of revolutionary individualism, in effect extended the ideal of individuality from person to nation. In the increasingly conservative and patriotic vein of the postrevolutionary Wordsworth, he established the genre of the historical novel as a vehicle for the creation of national identity through (mythic) national history. From a very different vantage point Mary Shelley also offered a critique of Romantic—and modern scientific—hubris in her novel Frankenstein (1816-1818), which, as she herself wrote in a preface to the third edition, was intended as the story of a “human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” Contemporary feminist critics have pointed out that the creation of the “monster” was also a masculine attempt to usurp the feminine role in reproduction. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.
The transformation of individualism that Scott worked implicitly, the German Romantics of the second generation advanced programmatically. Most of the Jena Circle had by the late 1790s and early 1800s already become more conservative while striving to retain the forms of political freedom. In Belief and Love (1798), Novalis argued that the integration of monarchy and republic was the highest form of liberty. As inherently free egos, all men were in principle worthy of the throne. The legitimacy of the Prussian monarch derived from his being both incarnation of the Fichtean absolute ego—made possible, of course, only by the indispensable love of his queen; the purpose of his rule was to ultimately cancel out his own authority by preparing all men, through his example, for freedom in a polity of self-governing equals. The evolution of Friedrich Schlegel’s politics, preceded by his conversion to Catholicism, brought him to an idealization of the Holy Roman Empire’s universalism, whose unity under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church had made safely possible the harmonious flourishing of plural national individualities.
Adding to the chaos produced by the French Revolution, the humiliations inflicted on Germany by Napoleon intensified German Romantic conservatism. Yet even when it seemed to elevate the nation or the state to dominance, it never wholly surrendered individualistic ideals. The second generation devised a putatively unique German version of individuality that displaced that idea from the person onto the collective entity. True individuality was thus not incompatible with social solidarity, as was merely “French” or self-interested individualism; rather it was the salutary effect of identifying with the unique spirit of one’s collectivity. Many Romantics embarked on the construction of a unique “personality” for Germany out of its history, language, and folk culture, for example, in the folk songs collected (and composed) by Arnim and Brentano in The Boys Magic Horn (1808), or the folk tales assembled (and revised) by the brothers Grimm (1812). These celebrants of folk culture recognized the “higher reality” of magic and the supernatural as vehicles of the collective unconscious, as did the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann (1814, 1817), and thus as agencies of an expanded national individuality not constrained by the limits of universal rationality.
Paradoxically, given the role of the Revolution in fostering Romanticism, French Romanticism began a few years later than British and German, in part because French writers could be more directly involved in the politics than their European counterparts. Perhaps for this reason too it took a somewhat different course in the first generation; two of its main protagonists, de Staël and Constant, remained liberal, if chastened, revolutionaries. It was de Staël, in her extraordinarily influential Of Germany (1810), who brought German Romanticism to French, and wider European, notice.
But it was the young aristocrat Chateaubriand who first dazzled France with an indigenous version of Romanticism. Initially a supporter of the Revolution, he had left, disillusioned by its violence, for the United States to investigate the pristine republican virtue of the native “noble savages,” acclaimed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a generation of Enlightenment writers. It was in the wilderness, however, that he became aware of the dangers of le vague des passions, the passion for the indeterminate, which he came to believe had derailed revolutionary politics into self-deifying tyranny. In forced exile after a failed military venture in the royalist cause, he experienced a religious epiphany whose first fruits were the short stories “Atala” (1801) and “René,” included in the enormously influential Genius of Christianity (1802). The stories are cautionary tales about the dangers of the quest of the infinite in its most exalted interpersonal form, sexual love. Only in religious yearning, expressed in such earthly creations as the Gothic cathedral and in the heavenly vision of the fulfillment of Christ’s love in the afterlife, did passion have an adequate object that would never disappoint and the quest for which would never be destructive. Chateaubriand’s Romantic religiosity, like that of his German Protestant counterpart Schleiermacher, was quite untraditional. The “genius” of religion lay not in its dogmatic claims but in its unique ability to fulfill secular yearnings for ecstasy and to inspire human creativity. The same powerful residue of revolutionary individuality can be found in Chateaubriand’s later politics. A royalist out of reason, he said, he remained a republican by taste; only monarchy could preserve liberty because it was limited by divine law.
Unlike Chateaubriand, Constant’s revolutionary liberalism weathered the Terror, though it was through it that he understood the dangers both of centralized political power and of “enthusiasm” in politics. But his attitude toward enthusiasm was necessarily ambiguous. A defender of the modern liberty of rights against both traditional authority and the classical republican priority of the common good, Constant was also deeply suspicious of self-interest for political as well as existential reasons. The self-interest of the private sphere not only endangered public-mindedness, it was a corrosive sentiment that drained life of meaning by drying up passion, above all the passion for the infinite. It was his onetime mistress and political mentor de Staël who had taught him its importance in politics and life. But, like Chateaubriand, Constant had learned that passion had to be directed at the proper object. Politicized in the abstractions of virtue and the common good, it could put tyrannical power in the hands of any group who claimed superior knowledge of them. It was ultimately in religion and the arts that absolute passion could most fully and safely express itself, though devotion to the transcendent ideal of liberty was its indispensably activist, public dimension.
Like Chateaubriand too, Constant believed that love was not passion’s safest outlet, for love ran the same danger as politics of deifying the finite object of devotion. His novel Adolphe (1816) documented the insatiable need that continued to drive an erotic attachment that had outlived its initial frenzy, fully aware of the limitations of its object and of its own narcissistic tendency to exploit, yet unable to let go. Contemporaries and some later critics interpreted the novel as a roman à clef charting Constant’s tortured relationship with de Staël (and other mistresses), but Germaine, a prolific and established novelist long before Constant, had her own Romantic agenda. More committed than Constant to the expression of enthusiasm as romantic passion, she also knew that passion was particularly problematic for women. Women love men for their individuality, but women’s individuality is a hindrance to men’s love. In her novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807) talented women who aspire to creative achievement do not find the succor in men that men find in women; unable to hold a man’s love, and no longer nurtured by it, they either die or lose their creativity.
Under Chateaubriand’s influence, French Romanticism was predominantly royalist and Catholic during the Restoration, but there was a significant liberal coterie, under the leadership of Stendhal, that in the wake of aristocratic reaction in the late 1820s recruited former royalists like Hugo and Lamartine. In the preface to his play Hernani (1830), whose first production inspired an epoch-making riot in the theater between partisans of traditional neoclassical drama and the new Romantic ideas, Hugo called for a “July 14” of art and declared that liberty in art was the offspring of political liberty. Harmony, the goal of all art, could not be achieved by excluding the unique and the idiosyncratic or the ugly and grotesque. Rather the artistic challenge was to achieve formal unity and wholeness by including the infinite variety of life, and to do so not by following rigid rules but through the creative inspiration of the artist whose genius derived from being authentically him or herself. In his novels, particularly The Red and the Black (1830), Stendhal wittily explored the formidable obstacles to the Romantic ideals of authenticity and emotional sincerity in the way of an ambitious young man striving to achieve both in the post-Napoleonic era of restored authoritarian hierarchy in society and church.
The Revolution of 1830 promised at first to realize liberal Romantic hopes for extending political as well as artistic freedom, but the younger generation was severely disappointed by the political and cultural dominance of a commercial oligarchy under the “Bourgeois Monarchy.” The writers of the Young France movement abandoned politics once again for art, now aiming it explicitly against the sordid materialism of bourgeois society. Proclaiming the aesthetic doctrine of “art for art’s sake,” they in fact posed ideals of sensuality and beauty as a counter-culture to the ugliness of everyday bourgeois life. In his novel Mlle. de Maupin (1835), Théophile Gautier extended the idea of the boundaryless Romantic personality in the first literary exploration of the realities and potentialities of human bisexuality and the need to integrate it into the personality that would be genuinely whole. Beyond art, Romanticism became a lifestyle whose declared purpose was to “shock the bourgeoisie” by flouting its norms and acting out the infinity of the self in theatrically eccentric and bizarre behavior. The “Bohemia” of the countercultural artist was a reality before it was a novel—though the novel by Henri Murger (1849) that gave it its name was an unsparingly unsentimental view of its less respectable underside.
In the final cycle of French Romanticism, the implicitly political critique of 1830s aestheticism reasserted itself directly in the 1840s as a growing protest against the selfish narrowness of the political class and the social oppression and misery that marked the beginnings of the industrial revolution in France. “Social Romanticism” idealized “the people” as the new Romantic hero, the repository of spontaneity, goodness, and unity, and demanded that their liberty be realized not only in more democratic politics but in providing the poor with the material means that were the prerequisite for full self-realization. The literature of Social Romanticism ranged from the Parisian novels of Georges Sand to the histories of Jules Michelet, the chronicler of the people’s struggle for liberty. But its great moment seemed to come when its most prominent spokesman, the poet-politician Lamartine, become leader of the provisional republican government of France in the Revolution of 1848. Lamartine was by far not the first Romantic politician—a number of his European predecessors had held offices high and low—but for the first time in history, a Romantic literary figure seemed to be in a position to legislate a version of Romanticism into reality. When, however, in the tragic denouement of the June Days, Lamartine found himself directing the army to shoot down “the people” on the barricades of Paris, the vision of Social Romanticism, and with it the era of Romanticism, came to an end. Its legacy nevertheless remained not only in the revived “late Romanticism” of the fin-de-siècle but as a permanent dimension of contemporary art and of our understanding of the modern self.