The Romantic Revolution
Does the world need another book about romanticism? Romanticism, we surely know (and the current Tate exhibition Romantics reminds us), was a 19th-century artistic movement that highlighted individual expressiveness, replacing the more formal, hierarchical Enlightenment certainties of the 18th. Inspired by the libertarian ideals of the French Revolution and kick-started by the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, romanticism was embodied in the life and work of radical, left-leaning musicians, painters and poets. Right? Well, not quite says Tim Blanning, whose latest book provides an important corrective to the popular view.
For a start, Blanning traces the early stirrings of romanticism back to the mid-18th century, pointing to Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse and Confessions as well as the Sturm und Drang of Goethe and his contemporaries and Horace Walpole’s Gothicism. If romanticism began earlier than is commonly believed, it also ended earlier, fading away (except in music) by the mid- 19th century, ceding ground to the social realism of Dostoevsky, Courbet and Zola. As for the knee-jerk political radicalism of the romantic artist, Blanning shows how Goya, Wordsworth and others became profoundly disturbed by the inhumanity displayed by forces purporting to speak in the name of liberty, while most German romantics ‘rejected the Revolution and all its works’, preferring to seek nourishment in a mythologised past.
Blanning is one of those rare historians whose formidable scholarship is harnessed to an exemplary ability to communicate to audiences far beyond the bounds of academe. Some of what he has to say, for example about the ‘sacralisation’ of art or the idea of ‘genius’, will be familiar to those who know his previous writings (and the new volume itself may induce a sense of déjà vu as one reads, twice, that La Nouvelle Héloïse was the century’s ‘biggest bestseller’, or that Wagner was ‘bowled over’ – a strange metaphor to attach to Wagner! – on first hearing a Beethoven symphony).
But occasional cutting and pasting notwithstanding, Blanning is a stimulating intellectual companion, his expertise ranging across not only the artistic but also the political and social history of much of Europe over the past 300 years or so. Thus, when outlining the erosion of the romantic vision in the mid-19th century, the contributory causes he cites include rapid urbanisation, the growth of literacy and the arrival of the railway and one is as likely to encounter Frederick the Great, Talleyrand and Metternich in his pages as the romantic dreams and nightmares of Hoffmann, Fuseli or Berlioz.
Romanticism did not die, Blanning concludes, but is only resting (like Frederick Barbarossa in the Kyffhäuser mountain) and he hints that our own cultural confusions may be succeeded by a new, updated romanticism redivivus. In which case, bliss will it be in that dawn to be alive!