We're All Romantics!

Wanderer Above Sea Fog, Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderer Above Sea Fog, Caspar David Friedrich

What if I told you were were all romantics?

I don’t mean that we all like grand romantic gestures, chocolates, roses and romcoms, but rather that we are all fundamentally impacted by a historic movement that shapes the art, industry, and psychology of our present day. In his excellent book Poetic Theology, William Dyrness writes “Romanticism developed a discourse and a register of feeling that has come to define the modern self.” If Dyrness is right, and Romanticism shapes how we live and think in the modern world, then it is important to understand what this enigmatic movement is all about.

So this week, I will give a brief introduction to Romanticism through the art, literature, and music created in the height of its existence. I hope that in doing so, we will gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world, and perhaps correct some of the more deleterious aspects of this powerful movement.

So, join me!

Listen to the podcast at the following link, and then follow along in the notes below….

What is Romanticism?

Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and intellectual tradition responding to the rapidly changing cultural scene of the late 18th and early 19th century. In a world increasingly ruled by strident rationalism and industrialism, the Romantics sought to reclaim the value of beauty, nature, and imagination. Charles Taylor writes…

... a rebellion against the construction of neoclassical norms in art and especially literature. Against the classical stress on rationalism, tradition and formal harmony, the Romantics affirmed the rights of the individual of the imaginative, and of feeling.
— Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self

Specifically, Romanticism was responding to these historic changes…

  • The Industrial Revolution (1820-1845):

    Around this time, a huge boon in mechanical inventions changed the face of production and transportation. In 1825, the Stockton and Darlington Railway first began operations. What quickly followed was a landscape changed by railroads and industry. Textiles (like cotton) which used to be spun in homes by lifelong spinners grew exponentially when the work could be done on machines, one wikipedia article notes: “In 1781 cotton spun amounted to 5.1 million pounds, which increased to 56 million pounds by 1800.” This caused a huge exodus from agrarian lifestyles, and a huge influx of suburband workers, along with unprecedented pollution and poverty.

  • Emphasis on Rationalism (1600-1800):

    Rationalism is the view that reason is the chief source of our ability to know. Important figures in the development of rationalism, particularly enlightenment rationalism, are Reneé Descartes (1596-1650) who famously said “I think therefore I am”, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), and Immanuel Kant 1724-1804). Romantics felt increasingly frustrated with the haughtiness and self-assurance of the Enlightenment rationalists. They thought of intuition, imagination, and desire as more inclusive and expansive human capacities for understanding human existence.

  • Neoclassicism (1760-1850-ish):

    Neoclassicism is basically the artistic expression of an emphasis on rationalism (though it can differ within and without religious circles). This artistic movement emphasized order, reason, and proportionality. It also harkened back to classical subjects (i.e. Roman and Greek stories) because that was seen as the height of secular reasoning… thanks Plato!

This video is a great little summary of the ethos behind romanticism…

  1. Literary — William Wordsworth

A Different Kind of Salvation…

In his excellent book Poetic Theology (2011), William Dyrness writes that the Romantics were trying to recover a sense of the beautiful and transcendent that had been lost in both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In a desire to cut off what was perceived as the idolatry of the gaudy medieval churches, the baby was thrown out with the aesthetic bathwater, and churches were whitewashed, stained glass crushed, and only monosyllabic hymns allowed to be sung. On the other hand, the more secular force of the enlightenment threw out the rich theology of desire and what desire could teach us, instead insisting on a intellect only approach. Dyrness writes that the Romantics weren’t trying to invent something new, but to recover what was lost. He writes…

Romanticism developed a discourse and a register of feeling that has come to define the modern self. But I don’t want to suggest that what these writers and poets were saying was altogether new. In an important sense, Romantic authors were simply retrieving (and elaborating) a tradition of feeling and associated practices that were indebted to the German Pietists, and beyond these, to the medieval mystics.
— William Dyrnesss, Poetic Theology

And so they tried to recover the emotional register of the pietists (think Bach!) and medieval mystics except one problem: they, for the most part, rejected religion. So they attempted to recover the emotions while rejecting the beliefs, which ended up with an odd kind of pseudo-religion that looks something like this…

God = Nature

Cross = Death

Union with God = Union with Nature

Desire for Union with God = Desire for harmony with Nature

Recognition of the Image of God within and Reconciliation with God Through Christ = Recognition of the “Natural” man which must be unearthed and released through reconciliation with nature and beauty


Lines Written in Early Spring

William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;                         
And ‘tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.                              

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Just for giggles and grins (even though it’s not in the podcast…) I love this poem as well…


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

2. Musical — Romanticism in Composition



Beethoven is considered by many to be a proto-Romantic when it comes to music. With the tragic story of his blindness, and his almost miraculous persistence, his life embodied the ideal of the artist who gives himself to his work and triumphs. It should be noted that “Ode to Joy,” one of his most famous pieces emerging from this period was written by one of the philosophic fathers of Romanticism: Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805).

If you want an inside peak into the ideas behind Romanticism, read Schiller’s Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794).


During this era, people begin to idealize the sensitive, suicidal artist who gives all that they are to their art.

This ideal is embodied in the lives of many artists who died young, often by their own hand, and the trope lives in on in the way we idealize sensitive artists now. It is not a healthy trope. We should want artists to be healthy and whole. But to do that, we would need to recognize that there is life outside of art, and that art is not the end all be all.

But in this era, art becomes the end all be all. And the artist becomes the Christ figure. The results are heart breaking.

But not all artists were self centred nihilists, and not all Romantic art was forgetful of its religious roots…

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897

In Brahm’s German Requiem (1868), Brahm’s explores the hiddenness of Christ when we experience grief, and beautifully encapsulates the longing for resurrection.

3. Visual — Pre-Raphaelites in the Past and Present

The Lady of Shallot, John William Waterhouse, 1888.

The Lady of Shallot, John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Boreas, John William Waterhouse, 1903

Boreas, John William Waterhouse, 1903

The Soul of the Rose, 1908

The Soul of the Rose, 1908

Miranda, John William Waterhouse, 1875

Miranda, John William Waterhouse, 1875

Notice how differently he paints this same scene 41 years later… the Romantic, and particularly the Medieval elements are increased ten fold.

Miranda, John William Waterhouse, 1916.

Miranda, John William Waterhouse, 1916.

Pre-Raphaelites in the Present Day…

Lord of the Rings, a case study


In many ways, the Romantics were wise ahead of their time.

They saw the danger of regarding the world as a machine to exploited for profit. They knew that humans naturally longed for union with something far greater than themselves. They saw the Divine reflection in radiant loveliness of creation. But the longing they identified is one with infinite depths. Depths, it seems, that can only be satisfactorily filled by an infinite God. Without an animating principle, a good creator, Nature has no fond feelings towards us. Without a sense of rootedness and propriety, boundless pursuit of desire can lead toward destruction and pain. Without the cross, death is only death. And so, in our world as we reckon with the listlessness of Romanticism, we must learn to follow desire to its final source: an infinite, loving God.

It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from C.S. Lewis, who, it must be said, had a strong Romantic tendency…

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
— C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory

So there you have it! I hope you’ve enjoy this week’s episode. Here are a few things to take from what we’ve learned…

  • A deeper understanding of our own world and the ways it is shaped by romanticism.

  • An awareness of the danger that can come from an unhealthy pursuit of desires without an foundation of morality.

  • A sense of hope, because as long as people open to beauty, they can be open to love, to faith, and to redemption.

Resources from this episode…

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