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?