To be European, specifically French or British, in the late 1700s meant one’s mind was going to be pulled in all kinds of directions regarding the meaning of life, purpose and change. Two very contradictory ideas emerge during this time period, one being Enlightenment the other Romanticism. The Enlightenment Era was brought about when the Europeans began searching for reason and facts to explain the elements surrounding them, whereas Romanticism encouraged people to look inward at one’s feelings, emotions and imagination.
Though quite opposite, there are some similarities between the two, like the rebellion from the traditional European past.
The Enlightenment era, also known as “The Age of Reason,” ignited a flame that would forever change Europe. It all took place in the late 18th century, when some radical thinkers began to question the current state of Europe. They questioned the norm and pushed for changed, they pushed for reason and sense. The Age of Reason, caused Europeans to explore.
People demanded answers, people didn’t want to be stagnant anymore. Multiple revolutions like the Scientific, Industrial, French and American took place during this era, which changed Europe from being an agrarian society to one of industry. Those inspired by reason criticized faith, they didn’t want to believe in something they couldn’t see, they were very evidence based. From one side, the Era of Enlightenment seems like a very positive event, bringing about change and innovation, but on the other side, there are quite a few negatives.
In an article written by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the author speaks more in depth about the negative attributes regarding Enlightenment, “The Enlightenment is often associated with its political revolutions and ideals, especially the French Revolution of 1789. The energy created and expressed by the intellectual foment of Enlightenment thinkers contributes to the growing wave of social unrest in France in the eighteenth century. The social unrest comes to a head in the violent political upheaval which sweeps away the traditionally and hierarchically structured ancien régime.” Though a very dark and turmoil filled aspect, it did produce the European pursuit of Romanticism, which went on to shape the minds of the Europeans.
The French Revolution was a short period of time that created a lot of civil unrest within France. It began in 1789 and was led by Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution gave rise to wars and the series of events titled “the Reign of Terror.” The Reign of Terror was a time where those inspired by enlightenment tried to purge France of Christianity and old tradition, causing more issues and turmoil within France. And in turn drove many away from Enlightenment and toward the new era of Romanticism.
Romanticism emerged as a result of the Napoleonic wars and “the Reign of Terror” that troubled France. Opposite of enlightenment, Romanticism put a light on the individual and the emotions that come with, it was a time of powerful feelings. Emotion, realness, expression, nature, are all key components of the ideas Romanticism revolved around, they believed the soul of the universe was inspired by God, and that everything surrounding the world was divine. They believed that “reason” wasn’t all you could believe in, they believed that people needed to use their imaginations. Many of the writers inspired by Romanticism incorporated nature, relating their stories to the elements like the sky, wind, plants and animals and relating them to human emotions. Authors like Percy Shelley and John Keats wrote several Romantic poems filled with the beauty of nature. In the poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy writes:
Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean… (Shelley 1796).
Shelley would pour his heart out, relating the wind to the feelings of the heart, incorporating nature at every possible opportunity in order to get the audience to use their imagination and allow them to really feel.
The Romantics took after the Dark Ages, stories of castles, noble knights and princess’ awaiting their prince, very romantic, very emotional and mystical. Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, author of “Revenge,” writes about an ex-lover and the anger that follows, it’s a anger unheard of from women during the time. She writes:
But this fitting punishment,
To live and love in vain,-
Oh my wrung heat, be thou content,
And feed upon his pain” (Landon).
A very violent, but true representation of the emotions and feelings within her heart that the reader will be able to feel.
Though very different, there are some similarities between Romanticism and Enlightenment. Both groups strive to have an explanation for the way humans should think and believe. A strive to have a definition for the meaning of life. Both the Enlightenment and the era of Romanticism’s main goal was to break free from the traditional and old fashion mindset of Europe and create radical new ideas. As stated in the article written by Nicole Smith, “When considering three major movements in world civilization and history; Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and the Renaissance, one theme that runs throughout is that of rebellion. More specifically, this rebellion in all three movements was against past traditions and each of these periods in history was geared toward eradicating old ways of thinking. While the reasons for rebelling against the old social and artistic order vary for each of these movements, the fact remains that all three were successful at changing many aspects of society and all each movement has had an enormous impact on history and artistic expression.” The drive to find a new way of thinking brings the Romantic era and the Enlightenment era together.
In conclusion, the late 1700s was quite the time to be alive, a time provoking deep thought and wonder. Romanticism an ideology based around nature, rawness, emotions, intuition and inspired by the love stories of the Dark Ages, encouraged many writers to incorporate nature into their poems and other writings. On the other side of the spectrum is the Enlightenment era, which precedes the Romantic era, is composed on facts, truth, reason along with industry and progress. Both so different, but similar in the fight to find the meaning of life and how our souls and minds should behave.