Short History of Romanticism In France and Germany

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Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, taking its Orientalist subject from a play by Lord Byron

Romanticism was influenced by writers, musicians, artists, and philosophers throughout Germany and France; focusing on “individual liberties” and unity.

Romanticisms beginnings are questionable. According to Fredrich Schlegal, “three factors” influenced romanticism; “in this order, Fichte’s theory of knowledge, the French Revolution, and Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister.”

“Fichte’s Theory of Knowledge”

First of all, there were many philosophers, artists, writers, musicians, and people who participated in the creation of romanticism. It would be unfair to say “Fichte’s theory of knowledge” was the only theory that developed this movement. Men such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Godwin, F.W. J. Schelling, Novalis and women such as Mary Wollstonecroft and Madame de Stael produced theories, which changed the way people viewed government, and pushed romantic ideals. Even so, Fichte’s theory, a bit confusing to say the least, seems to be:

The ‘I,’ the ‘self’ in that sense of the word, is not the same as ‘me.’

In other words, the ‘me’ is what a person thinks they are, the ‘I’ is discovered through resistance or situations, and the ‘self’ and the ‘not-self’ are discovered through resistance. Discovering the ‘self’ and ‘not-self’ seem to be Fichte’s theory which elevated romanticism (Isaiah Berlin, “Unbridled Romanticism,” in The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Wilhelm Meister

Another influence was Wilhelm Meister written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe did not think of his work as inspiring romanticism. However, the story is about a man finding his way in life and making something of himself. Perhaps romantics related this story to Fichte’s theory of the “self,” which is why this story became so popular, or maybe it was the way the story flowed from one point to another making it different from stories in the past. Even though, many Germans influenced this time period, France is often given much credit for their influence due to The French Revolution.

The French Revolution

Many believe the French Revolution was where romanticism began, but it is important to remember romanticism began through theories and with time, not as a direct result of revolution. Like all periods in history, there has to be a thought or an ideal to which people can relate or grasp. It seems like romanticism sparked the revolution. When looking at the cause and effect of the Revolution, there is no doubt the people wanted to be liberated and given a government which would actually do something for the people. Building on Fichte’s theory, “one finds the true self through situation,” the French Revolution was about people finding a place in their government and uniting to liberate themselves from a nonworking monarch.

The French Revolution gave way to the Jacobin Terror, then “republicanism of the Directory,” to Napoleon Bonaparte, and finally to the restoration of the monarch. Even though the French Revolution ignited romanticism in France, French romanticism peaked between 1820 to 1830, maybe even to 1848.

French Romanticism

Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael could easily be the reason why French Romanticism started. It was their interest in politics and style of writing that encouraged the “French Restoration.” These two people were spokesmen for “individual liberty.” Even though Madame de Stael died in 1817, she left a legacy which would carry out the quest for liberty and form a group known as the “Doctrinaires” in hope of securing “individual liberties.”

Romanticism in France was literary and political and instead of fighting for a National identity, France fought for individuality. Perhaps the best illustration of Romanticism in France can be found in Victor Hugo. He and his followers believed poetry to be “the guardian of the vitality of beliefs and institutions.” Therefore, all literature and art reflected life in some way and could be responsible for helping or hurting values and traditions.

In order to understand how literature in France influenced unity, “individual liberties,” and romanticism here are several excerpts by various authors:

“When the common people fancy that they hear the voices of the dead in the winds, when they talk of nocturnal apparitions, when they undertake pilgrimages to obtain relief from their afflictions, it is evident that these opinions are only affecting relations between certain scenes of nature, certain sacred doctrines, and the sorrows of our hearts. Hence it follows that the more of these popular devotions a religion embraces, the poetical it must be; since poetry is founded on the emotions of the soul and the accidents of nature rendered mysterious by the invention of religious ideas (Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity, 1802).”

“The greatest service we can render literature is to transport the masterpieces of the human intellect from one language to another (Anne-Louise-Germaine De Stael, The Spirit of Translation, 1816).”

“For true poetry, complete poetry, consists in the harmony of contraries. Hence it is time to say aloud….that everything that exists in nature exists in art (Victor Hugo, Preface to “Cromwell,” 1827).”

Drawing a conclusion from these three quotes, France romanticism meant restoration. Chateaubriand went from liberalism to religion and through his works he encouraged the restoration of the Bourbon Monarch, and finding oneself through religion. Madame de Stael continued to support romantic ideals of unity through literature and a government which would support individuality. Hugo became one of the most influential French writers during this time, and between 1820 and1830, he stood his ground declaring ‘art reflects life.’ Unfortunately as the 1820s came to an end, French Romanticism was on the decline as poor working conditions and poor wages contributed to the rise of revolution. In a sense, unity played a key part in French Romanticism, and towards the end of the Romantic period the French were uniting to fight for ‘individual liberty.’

Romanticism In Germany

If the height of French Romanticism was unity through restoration or unity through poetry; what was Romanticism like in other countries? The French Revolution may be credited with launching Romanticism, but Germany should be credited with creating Romanticism. After all, Fichte, Goethe and Schlegal were German and Fichte’s theory ( “The ‘I,’ the ‘self’ in that sense of the word, is not the same as ‘me’)” was set in place before the French Revolution.

German Romanticism was different from France in that it did strive to create Nationalism. Germany also used art and literature to influence this movement, but with it they included history, science, music, religion and all aspects of life. Perhaps one of the most unique facts about German Romanticism was the use of science and medicine.

Romantic Science, as it came to be known, was unique in that no other country claimed science and medicine as part of their Romantic influence. Romantic scientists focused on unity of nature and its effect on history and society. This is not a subject that will be emphasized, but it is important to note that Germany used everything in life in order to find answers to questions in society, in nature, about individual freedoms, and how to help individuals prosper in a struggling world (Dietrich Von Engelhardt, “Romanticism in Germany,” in Romanticism In National Context, ed. Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Why would these scientists try to find answers to questions on unity? Once again, the theme in Germany, as it was in France, and as it was in most European countries was unity. Men such as H. Steffens, believed science could shed light on history of the past, present, and future. Through science, the study of human and nature in history, unity could somehow be achieved.

Therefore, Romanticism began as a theory, and eventually led to a revolution of sorts. Even so, the overall theme of Romanticism, was “unity” and “individual liberty.” All those who influenced this time period fought for individuality, individual rights, and unity.