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The Defining Ideas of Romanticism


The Romantic period of history, lasting from the late-18th to mid-19th century, affected the perceptions of Europeans and Americans in the areas of music, literature, art and philosophy. Romantic ideas emphasized a strong perception of self, reliance upon one's imaginative faculties and the investment of Nature with symbolic and quasi-religious significance. The Romantic movement also opposed the Industrial Revolution's mechanistic influence on society.

Imagination

The Romantics believed that man's highest, most spiritual attribute was his imagination. For the Romantics, it is through the imagination that man can access not only his most creative thoughts, but also his connection to the divine. Poetry and other literature of the time encouraged the reader to use the words as a way to access his own imaginative faculties, thereby connecting with his own personal sense of the divine. Artists and musicians of the Romantic period also used the visual and aural aspects of their works as an inducement to the viewer or listener to access his personal imaginative powers.

Nature

For the romantic writers, nature was imbued with the divine. Everyday natural elements such as flowers, stones, sunlight and the weather were described as though they carried a bit of God within them. In keeping with the move away from rational thinking towards reliance upon the imagination, Romanticism encouraged a view of nature that encouraged artists of the time to use their own subjective perception when rendering the sights and sounds they found in the natural world. Art, in this way, moved away from the rational compositions of the Classical and Baroque and towards the subjective qualities found in the paintings of the Impressionists and symphonies of 19th-century composers.

View of Self

Romantics venerated self-directed action and stepping to the beat of one's personal drummer. The Romantic human ideal was the artist, creator or thinker who took a stand for personal opinion and belief at the risk of social ostracism. For Romantics, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. The notions of self-esteem and self-expression, revered today as two of our most valuable human birthrights, are handed down to us from the ideals of the Romantic period. Romantics saw the human being as born pure and divine -- a direct contrast to the "born in sin" concept of many previous Christian teachings.

Rejection of Modern LIfe

As the world moved into the Industrial age of factory labor and machines, the Romantics reacted by resolving to live more simply, more closely connected with the natural world. As the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century took hold, Romantics clung more strongly to their reverence of the importance of the individual's creative life and dignity. The American thinker and writer Henry David Thoreau provides an example of the Romantic rejection of modern society's industrialism through his commitment to simple living (and recording his perceptions) at Walden Pond. Thoreau was also one of many Romantics to reject modern society's laws through acts of civil disobedience that emphasized the rights of the individual over the laws of the government.

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