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Over many years, the concept of Romanticism has been given various definitions, with none commanding universal agreement. This is because the expression of Romanticism embraces many different faucets, such as literature, politics, history, philosophy and the arts, and it has been difficult for scholars to define it as just one particular notion. There are however, characteristics that in my opinion are dominant and give identity to this era. Firstly, Nature was of great importance to the Romantics and was portrayed in many different lights. Nature was regarded by the Romantics as a healing power, a place where one could take refuge from the artificial constructs of civilisation and enjoy a connection with it. A second characteristic that shaped the Romantic ideology of many writers is the upheavals in political, social and economic traditions. The early Romantic period coincides with what is often called the 'age of revolutions'. The first being the Industrial Revolution, which is what first encouraged people to fight for their 'rights'. With an awakened sense of self-determination, this inevitably led to the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789. Revolutionary energy was at the heart of writers' works and although being surrounded by upheaval and conflicts, the Romantics merely became passionately engaged with it. A third characteristic is the elevated status of the imagination. The Romantics believed that ultimately, the imagination is a tool that gives us the creative power to create art and also being a means for us humans to constitute reality. Finally, is the concept of emotion, which for the Romantics, was the idea of giving into one's powerful feelings. By placing emphasis on your intuitions, instincts and feelings, this allowed for one to achieve logical reasoning, hereby opening your mind to new ideas that might actually be in conflict with society. Two writers of this period that had exhibited these characteristics in their works were that of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Percy Shelley.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan philosopher and novelist, was a major contributor to the Enlightenment period and a central influence on the concept of sensibility as it developed in 18th Century Britain. His writings secured him a reputation as 'a defender of a simpler, manly, republican virtue against a corrupt and effeminate aristocratic culture' (McCalman, 1999). A key theme in Rousseau's work was the necessity of freedom. His work revolved around revolutionary energy and believed that man is only physically free when he is first not constrained by a repressive state or dominated by fellow men, and secondly, is only spiritually free when not enslaved to artificial needs that characterises modern society. Following this, he had the idea that a good government would allow the individual freedom of all its citizens and that there were certain principles, if enacted, which could afford the members of a society a level of freedom. Rousseau addresses these ideas in his work The Social Contract. He begins it with his famous line 'man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains'. What Rousseau refers to in this line is that man is born in a natural state. However the 'chains' he mentions, is the constraints placed on freedom by society. The aim of this book is to determine whether there can be legitimate political authority. Rousseau suggests that it is possible with the formation of a 'social contract' which is agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual benefit. According to Rousseau, all laws must ensure liberty and equality and that there should be a death penalty for whoever violates the contract. Yet, Rousseau does identify a flaw in the social contract theory, which is that it cannot exist under an absolute monarchy. His reasons are that by surrendering their freedom to their monarch, people surrender the liberty and authority to consent to a social contract, thereby making any contract with their monarch void. Furthermore, it has to be noted that Rousseau's ideas of freedom and inequality were major contributions in addressing social discontent and were inspirations for both the American and French Revolutions (Sparknotes, 2011).
Another dominant characteristic featured in Rousseau's work was nature. He believed that societal institution and structures, such as property, law and moral inequality, contradicted man's natural goodness and freedom and modern society was unfavourable in comparison to being in a 'state of nature'. One of Rousseau's works that emphasises the benefits of living in a state of nature is Julie or the New Heloise. In describing the Swiss Alps, he stresses that being high in the mountains where 'the air is pure and subtle, one breathes more freely, one feels lighter in the body, more serene of mind' (Julie or the New Heloise, 1997, p.64). Rousseau highlights the physical benefits of living in these mountains has on a human, which includes being in a healthier state in both mind and body. In addition, he describes the inhabitants as being 'happy through freedom from pain' and having a 'zeal for hospitality towards all strangers' (Julie or the New Heloise, 1997, p.65). According to Rousseau, in living in the mountains, the inhabitants are satisfied with their lives and have been uncorrupted by society, which has allowed them to realise their natural goodness. It is for this reason why they are even more willing to bestow generosity onto strangers as they are a people whose hospitality is based on not 'trying to make a profit from it' (Julie or the New Heloise, 1997, p.66). Rousseau also provides a contrast between the customs of the people living in the mountains and those who live closer to the cities where many travellers passing through are 'held to ransom'. The reasons being that nearer to the cities, people are 'solely occupied by their trade and gain' (Julie or the New Heloise, 1997, p.66). Here, Rousseau presents a vision of a natural community that is essentially democratic. In being uncivilised, the people live content lives because they are uncorrupted by civilisation. This gives the idea that the sublime produces natural societies that are both democratic and idyllic.
Percy Shelley, an English Romantic and philosopher, was a radical who rebelled against English politics and conservative values. His radical ideas and revolutionary optimism are very much a part of his work, but also the characteristics of nature, the power of the imagination and the idea of expressing powerful emotions and feelings. For Shelley, the natural world held a sublime power over his imagination, which he believed derived from a strange mystical place and provided him the inspiration to write. However, at the same time, Shelley also felt that his imagination had creative power over nature as ultimately, it is our imagination alone that allows us to conjure up different and unique ways of describing the appearance of nature and how it exists. These ideas are presented in his poem 'Mont Blanc' where Shelley has a religious reaction to the mountains which he identifies as the grandeur of God. He addresses the mountain in its sublime majesty as the 'still and solemn power of many sights' (line 128). He states that by simply observing nature, you gain the 'everlasting universe of things' (line 1). And, besides describing the beauty of nature in this poem, Shelley also writes about the destructive force of nature. As the river flows down the mountain, its volatile strength and power destroys everything in its path, so that 'the limits of the dead and living world, never to be reclaimed' (lines 113-114). Shelley communicates the notion that destruction in one place is important as it allows the benefits to be felt elsewhere. Thus, a price has to be paid in order for change to occur. In the last stanza, Shelley questions what nature could be, without the 'human mind's imaginings' (line 143) which allows us to perceive nature in various aspects. Thus, the mind and imagination are needed in order to achieve a higher understanding of the sublime.
As mentioned previously, Shelley very much expressed his radical ideas and revolutionary thinking in his work and one example of this is 'England in 1819'. Shelley denounces the tyranny and power of the English monarchy and directly attacks the King and his successor, his son. Shelley argues of the inequality in the country where the labour of the lower classes is needed to provide for the ruling classes. Shelley refers to the ruling classes as 'leach-like' (line 5), who drain the lower classes of money and resources and are merely parasites on the people. In other words, there is currently a divorce between the ruling class and the lower class. Shelley condemns the main institutions of the country and his disgust is emphasised further in his use of imagery and metaphor: 'dregs,' 'muddy,' 'leeches,' 'blood,' and 'sanguine'. It is clear in the last two lines, that Shelley hopes a revolution will take place and a 'glorious phantom may burst, to illuminate our tempestuous day' (lines 13-14). Shelley considers nature to be a status quo, and therefore it will resolve itself on the basis of there being political violence, but it is essentially what is required in order for greatness to be restored back into the country.
In conclusion, in my opinion alone, the most important characteristics of the Romantic period are that of nature, revolutionary energy, imagination and emotion as they are concepts at the heart of many works of Romantic writers. In some shape or form, they have a role to play in a writer's work, and I consider these concepts to be the ones in particular that truly appeal and form a connection with the reader.