What comes of reason?

This is my review of The Romantic Revolution by Prof. Tim Blanning.

Although “by its nature, romanticism does not lend itself to precise definition”, this is a coherent and very readable introduction. Blanning even manages to interest a reader like me who finds romantic poetry and art too full of mawkish sentimentality and overblown emotion. My initial aim was simply to understand how romanticism arose as a backlash against the “cold and sterile” rationality of the C18 Enlightenment, which Blanning admits is an over-simplification.

Rousseau with his originality and “insistence on doing everything from the inside”, the “Sturm und Drang” movement in Germany and English poets like Blake and Coleridge all in their various ways attacked the Enlightenment developments of philosophy, science and mathematics as being too concerned with what could be measured and proved. Coleridge criticised rationally educated people who “were marked by a microscopic acuteness, but when they looked at great things, all became blank and they saw nothing”. He suggested that the souls of five hundred Newtons would go to the making up of one Shakespeare or Milton.

John Locke in particular was condemned for maintaining that at birth, the human mind was “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas”. This seemed to put too much importance on development through the senses, involving social engineering, as opposed to Baudelaire’s view that romanticism lies “in a way of feeling”. It was also a focus on individual creativity from the inside out, which would give free rein to geniuses like “the romantic hero” Beethoven, or more arguably Wagner, who maintained, “Only religion and art can educate a nation – what use is science which analyses everything and explains nothing?”

The Enlightenment was also seen as hostile to history, a clear example of this being the French Revolution with its violence and imposition of a new order, treating society like a system for which the past could be erased.

With the downgrading of organised religion in the C18, art in its various forms could fill the gap, and the exploration of this forms the bulk of the book. Blanning writes of the composers who became the “high priests” of art; the poetic imagination which knows “how like a dream imagination is, how it loves nights, and solitude”, the same being applicable to writers and painters. The fascination with insanity, linked to the idea of “the mad genius” and the interest in folk art, folk dancing and folk songs are also covered. Even landscapes could become romantic, such as the Rhine and the Alps. It is easy to see how all this could feed the nationalism of German or Italian unification, fed by myths of past heroes.

In a final chapter linking to the present, Blanning shows how the force of technological change eventually forced romanticism to cede to modernism, giving the Enlightenment “the last laugh” – yet suggests in a somewhat rushed conclusion that there is now a renewed reaction to the culture of reason.

My only minor criticism is that the author makes too great a demand on the reader by flitting between examples without making the chronology clear. I like his heavy use of well-chosen quotations which create a vivid sense of romanticism in its varied aspects.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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