Romanticism as a Transition to Modernity

The Romantic Period in Literature as a Transitional Phase

Term Paper 2014 10 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Romanticism as Transition to Modernity

“Though traditionally defined as a relatively brief time period – typically the half century of 1780–1830 – what is called the “Romantic era” arguably constitutes a crucial, indeed unique, transitional phase” (Pfau, 2010, p.267).


This essay aims to show in how far the Romantic period in German and English literature can be seen as a transitional phase from the Enlightenment and to the point of Modernity. Given the fact that all consecutive literary periods cannot be divided by mere points in time and certain general features, it is going to be shown that the given eras melt into each other; that earlier periods, in this case first of all Romanticism, but also the Enlightenment, the Classical era, established characteristics which would then be absorbed, redefined or rejected by the succeeding ones, namely Romanticism and Modernity. The main focus will be to differentiate between, as well as to equalise certain features of Romanticism and Modernity, which must include a deeper look at the past they emerged from. To do so, it will also be necessary to include a high amount of literary criticism, all dealing with the relevant periods and to exemplify the evidences provided by referring to primarily Frankenstein, Die Räuber, Die Verlobung in St. Domingo, and Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte. It will finally be argued that Romanticism had a crucial impact on the emergence of Modernity as a literary phase and on the “modern mind” in general, arguing against certain tendencies that represent mainly or almost only the Enlightenment as the origin of Modernity. But before starting a detailed account of any literary period a brief categorisation of the given periods must be given.


One might first of all try to establish a systematic tabulation of common features of Romanticism: medievalism; imagination; the cult of strong emotions/feelings; subjectivism; interest in nature; the supernatural; death; Weltschmerz; metaphor; the internal against the external; solitude; rethoric; and so forth. While acknowledging that these features are found in the work of many, or maybe even most Romantic writers, it is still hidden how Romanticism could be described as an entire concept. One could lengthen the list indefinitely, adding more and more common features, without coming close to solving the problem (Löwy, 2001, p.5). According to Baldick and Murray, the Romantics main objective was to free the individual´s self-expression, “replacing the decorous imitations of classical models” by “sincerity, spontaneity, and originality”, finding the “traditional precedent and ancient rules impossibly limiting” (Baldick, 2008 & Murray, 1978, p.100). They rejected “the ordered rationality of the Enlightenment as mechanical, impersonal, and artificial” and “turned to the emotional directness of personal experience and to the boundlessness of individual imagination and aspiration”, “restrained balance […] was abandoned in favour of emotional intensity, often taken to extremes of rapture, nostalgia (for childhood or the past), horror, melancholy, or sentimentality” (Baldick, 2008). Consequentially, art was not to be “learned and mastered” anymore, because from then on “[t]he world […] was not the world of man in his social aspect but of the inner self”, says Murray (1978, p.100-1). But artists did not only overcome social restrains on a personal level, but also became “active agent[s] in the regeneration of mankind” (p.101).


On a very basic level, two major shifts that lead to the emergence of Modernity can be found. On the historical level, Modernity begins as early as the seventeenth century, producing new forms of capitalist organizations, social relations, government and technology, accompanied by the development of a scientific world view (Braddick, 2000). On a philosophical level, Modernity is also deeply connected with the beginning of secularisation, “the rise in the Enlightenment of a discourse which actively promotes the modern against the inherited: the discourse of rationalization, progress and autonomy; the abolition of superstition and the mastery of nature” (Armstrong, 2005, p.2). As already mentioned, the Enlightenment has therefore widely been cited as being the origin of modernity. Also Foster states that modernity was “formulated [...] by the philosophers of the Enlightenment” (1985, p. 9). Göran Therborn wrote in European Modernity and Beyond that “modernity has distinguished itself by its ‘enlightenment’, its attempt at [a] grounding [...] in reason, rather than in divine prescription or in inherited tradition” (1995, p. 15). But only because the Enlightenment saw the first major movements towards the separation of knowledge and theology, which in the end is of course a major feature of Modernity, this basic new implement should not be overrated by overlooking those features resulting from this new mindset, and which, in the end, made a crucial impact on both, individual and society, to result in a concept which we now call `Modernity´ The central argument here is not going to be that the Enlightenment was not the origin of Modernity, which can hardly be denied, but that the foundation of secularisation is too rudimental and the period itself too distant from Modernity, to give a coherent explanation of important features of Modernity, especially concerning modern world literature; which is finally why this essay argues that a closer look has to be drawn on Romanticism as the period to which Modernity is finally the closest. To do so, it is now necessary to show some crucial concepts that will not only display connections between the two periods, but also establish a link between to the Enlightenment and the Romantics.

“Undoubtedly one of the key concepts entwined with modernity, and uniquely inflected during the Romantic period, is secularization [,] […] [w]herever one may choose to locate the `beginning´ of that process – say, in early fourteenth century Nominalism, the rise of Renaissance Humanism, or in the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century […].” (Pfau, 2010, p.269)

Besides the pure fact that Pfau sets the origin of secularisation much earlier than the Enlightenment, which will not be of any specific relevance during this essay, he points out that it was not a certain point in time that enabled the individual to define itself from within instead of being defined externally, but that it was a “process”, that began long before the age of Enlightenment. If we assume, hypothetically (since this process is still progressing), that this process reached a peak point with the beginning of Modernity, then it is only logical to assume that Romanticism, leading right into, even overlapping with the Modern, was the last step towards this peak. Taking the constantly ongoing “process” of secularisation into account, a process that “uniquely inflected […] the Romantic period”, as Pfau argues, it has to be noted that the Romantic Movement did not completely “break with the eighteenth century” (Murray, 1978, p.103): the Enlightenment, the Classic era and the upcoming Modernity, all, beside other things, representing a certain devotion to reason, good sense and progress, collide with “the Romantic emphasis on imagination and `sensibility´”, “the Romantic exaltation of the individual and of individual liberty, the rejection of restrictive rules and conventions” (p.105) and vice versa, finally displaying the collective, ever ongoing struggle between the rational and the irrational, the objective and the subjective, the internal and the external, maybe most strongly represented within the era of Romanticism, which carried it into Modernity.

Following this aspect, Giddens noted that “[one] of the distinctive features of modernity, in fact, is an increasing interconnection between the two ‘extremes’ of extensionality and intentionality, globalising influences on the one hand and personal dispositions on the other” (Giddens, A., 1991, p.1). Even though the Romantics have at least partly been aiming to free the internal from the external, one of their main themes was the struggle to reach this personal freedom; characters like Karl Moor, Peter Schlemihl, the Creature, or Toni and Gustav try to find a way to become independent individuals, but all of them eventually fail. The crucial forces of social restrains, as well as their own defectiveness keep being a limitation that cannot be overcome. This “interconnection”, as Giddens calls it, becomes “the distinctive features of modernity”. The aspect of globality on the other hand is first of all a very modern feature, but global tendencies, especially connected to science and progress, can already be found in Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, Die Verlobung von St. Domingo and Frankenstein, all sending their protagonists, or at least some of them, on a global journey, which will not help them to develop a more satisfying connection between their internal and external factors; Frankenstein becomes even less connected to reality during his pursuit; Gustav keeps dragging the corpse of his past with him; Peter, even though one might argue that the Siebenmeilenstiefel help him to find peace by using them for scientific research, keeps being isolated from society.

According to Pfau, “[…] if Romantic-era science secularizes, it does so not by doing away with, but rather by refiguring divine agency, `locating it anew in a post-covenantal yet non-negotiable dimension, one that makes human flourishing radically uncertain´.” (2010, p.271) Pfau here refers to the rise of geological science during the Romantic era, discovering that the earth is much older than men and that therefore God might not be responsible for its creation. Pfau´s argument contains two very important facts: first, that due to the geological discovery secularisation got a major boost during the Romantic period, the becoming individual was partly freed from an external belief system. Secondly and consequentially, man was also forced to reinterpret his or her complete mindset, suddenly uncertain of divine salvation.

According to Löwy, it is wrong “to reduce Romantic culture to irrationalism” by “overlooking the Romantic currents that spring directly from the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment” (2001, p.41) Adding to this, Keen argues that Romantic and Enlightenment “can be either progressive or reactionary (or, more likely, simultaneously both) depending on how they are deployed. Both also tend to contain greater aspects of the other than this sort of binary suggests” (Keen, 1999, p.18), “the simple opposition between [the two] is not convincing” (Löwy, 2001, p.8). Following this approach, the old and the new become equal, since both are not only created by the artist at the same time, but also morph into each other. It must therefore be argued towards a specific Romantic rationality that developed out of its past and is shaped by its own time.

The Rise and Fall of the Individual

The Romantic rationality is very well displayed by the Creature, during his time living close to the De Lacey family, finding out about “the strange system of human society” (Shelley, 2008, p.96):

“I learnt that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-Creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these acquisitions; but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for profit of the chosen few. And what was I?” (Shelley, 2008, p.96)

Lacking a higher belief system, the Creature is forced to realise that society is to a high degree based on the possession of prestige and money, indicating an early stage of modern capitalism. In opposition to the Creature the reader finds Victor, representing the other part of the process of secularisation, being irrational and driven by an external force: “Oh! When will my guiding spirit, in conducting me to the daemon, allow me the rest I so much desire; or must I die, and he yet live?” (p.177).



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Romanticism Transition Die Räuber Frankenstein Die Verlobung in St. Domingo Deutsch Englisch Modernity



Title: Romanticism as a Transition to Modernity