Isn’t it Romantic?

Peter Batten has Romantic thoughts…

Do you know that beautiful song from the 1930s? It always reminds me of those years in the 1950s when I was learning to play jazz. There were certain songs that I wanted to be able to play and this song was high on the list. It also reminds me that by the 20th century the word ‘Romantic’ had become meaningless. Anything could be ‘Romantic’: a perfume, a view, a novel, a dinner by candlelight, a song, a picture…

But the word does have one meaning which is very significant. During the 18th century an important change in the culture of Europe and North America began to emerge. Eventually the word ‘Romantic’ began to be used and the new artistic movement was dubbed ‘Romanticism’. By the middle of the 19th century the movement was considered to be dying. Not everyone agreed, but after World War I many critics began to use the term, ‘Modernism’ to describe a new cultural movement which, they felt, had replaced Romanticism. But has the era of Romanticism really passed? In my literature teaching in recent years I have found myself frequently involved in discussions of this question. My belief is that we are still in that era.

Let me try to persuade you. Fundamental to the change which took place in the 18th century was a growing interest in the irrational and unconscious elements of human behaviour and experience. As we move into the 21st century that interest remains undiminished. In fact, we are becoming ever more aware of the unconscious choices and irrational feelings which influence our daily behaviour. Romanticism placed a high value on ecstatic experiences and revelations of every kind. While I am writing this article the newspapers carry reports of deaths from ‘Legal Highs’. Those who experiment with these dangerous substances are seeking ecstatic experiences which will enhance their lives. And, of course, there is the continuing use of drugs. Even more significant is Music. The rise of Romanticism saw Music become the most important of the Arts. Why? Because Music speaks directly to the unconscious mind, almost entirely avoiding the attempts of the conscious mind to interpret or explain. Everywhere I go, in the street, on the bus or train, I am surrounded by people with plugs in their ears, listening to Music.

thetygerblakeOne final point. Romanticism gave us a preoccupation with symbols and stories which the conscious mind cannot explain. In fact, many influential thinkers of the past 200 years, like the great analytical psychologist Carl Jung, have suggested that we should not attempt to explain them. We should, in some sense, just ‘receive’ them. At school you probably read a great poem written over 200 years ago as Romanticism was beginning: ‘The Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. What did it mean? Over the years, hundreds of interpretations of this poem have been proposed. None of them are satisfactory. The poem emerged from the unconscious mind of the poet and should be allowed to speak to your unconscious mind, without attempts at explanation. You probably also read William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”, and may even have seen it as illustrated by Blake (pictured). It is another example of a ‘Romantic’ symbol – to be accepted and enjoyed without interpretation.

The examples I have quoted – unconscious motivation, the search for ecstasy, the preoccupation with music, the mystery of symbols – are all important influences on our daily lives. We still live in the era of Romanticism.


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