Romanticism: Periodization and Teaching

A Professor working outside of the period that scholars have come to call Romantic recently said to me, “You identify as a Romanticist? Cool.” Yes, it is indeed cool. The language that he chose to use, however, raised several questions in my mind. Defining Romanticism is a difficult task that has been productively addressed by numerous scholars. For a current and thought provoking definition, here is Michael Ferber’s “Romanticism” from the aptly titled Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction.

“Romanticism was a European cultural movement, or set of kindred movements, which found in a symbolic and internalized romance plot a vehicle for exploring one’s self and its relationship to others and to nature, which privileged the imagination as a faculty higher and more inclusive than reason, which sought solace in or reconciliation with the natural world, which ‘detranscendentalized’ religion by taking God or the divine as inherent in nature or in the soul and replaced theological doctrine with metaphor and feeling, which honored poetry and all the arts as the highest human creations, and which rebelled against the established canons of neoclassical aesthetics and against both aristocratic and bourgeois social and political norms in favor of values more individual, inward, and emotional.”

This definition is indeed a very useful one. I encourage my compatriots to engage with, laud, and/or put pressure on this definition.

For the purpose of this post, I want to examine the two important implications that loom behind defining Romanticism. The debate over what Romanticism means has clear implications for those of us who “identify” as “Romanticists.” In other words, locating the definition of the era/period/movement/ -ism changes what it means when I assert with confidence that I am Romanticist. What is a Romanticist an expert in?

For those pursuing graduate degrees, there is a bizarre bifurcation taking place. In my own work, in conversations with colleagues, and in response to contemporary critics, I often put pressure on Romanticism and the Romantic. When I teach, however, Romanticism is something with clear temporal, aesthetic, and political boundaries. To what extent should our scholarly debates influence the manner in which we teach Romanticism? Do we not participate in the debate when we choose to teach Romanticism in a certain way?

In order to get the conversation started, I have included a few charts that I use to teach Romanticism. Are these images similar to / different from / at odds with the way you have taught Romanticism?

Romanticism Charts


2 thoughts on “Romanticism: Periodization and Teaching”

  1. Thanks Randie. I had never taken a look at Ferber’s Very Short Introduction. But his definition fits very well with me. However, I think his ideas regarding Neoclassicism and Romanticism are a bit off. Blake’s art (of course) is Romantic in its ideas and relentless drive towards establishing the imaginative faculty as the privileged vehicle of individual and cultural transformation. Stylistically, however, it’s very Neoclassical with an emphasis on line that’s straight outta Flaxman. Byron’s poetry (at least in my mind) operates similarly, and while I’m not up on Byron crit at all, his poetry’s always struck me as that of a much more decadent and interesting Alexander Pope. As a result, I’m much more inclined to go with the delineation of an art historian like Robert Rosenblum on this, who argues for a “Romantic Neoclassicism.” He doesn’t get the ideas of Romantic thought in the same nuanced way as someone like Ferber or Abrams though.

    That said, I’m wondering what’s at stake in trying to establish clear boundaries for the field. In order to justify ourselves to other scholars working on other things, do we have to cage ourselves by making Romanticism/Romantic studies adhere to set of clear parameters? The modern/contemporary people in my department push me on this constantly, so it strikes close to home. Maybe I’m missing the point, here–but I’m also starting some work on a contemporary architect who I’m defining as “Post-Romantic” for an ICR session. I like the idea that the horizon of Romanticism really continues and in ways that can consistently avoid anachronism. Claudia Moscovici’s written some good stuff on this.

    Ultimately, for me, Romanticism’s really an “uncontrollable” phenomenon, and the space it occupies in something like the Norton anthology (granted there’s political reasons for that) and the way new students seem to passionately respond to it in lit and art surveys seems like a good enough justification not to justify in and of itself to me–if that makes sense.

    Thanks for contributing such thought provoking posts!

Comments are closed.