The Influence Of Romanticism

In the nineteenth century Romanticism profoundly influenced the role of religion in society, particularly through broadening people's understanding of what counted as religious experience. The Romantic movement reminds us that spirituality is not confined within the limits of formal religion.

Romanticism was fed by an astonishingly diverse band of writers from whom flowed a torrent of poetry, novels, philosophy, theology and cultural criticism: people like Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Rousseau, Goethe, Schelling, Pushkin, Coleridge, Emerson and Thoreau. Romanticism emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century and was most influential around 1840, after which it slowly declined. It was a reaction against both the rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment and the dispiriting dreariness of industrialization. Romantics sought a new world in which the values of the heart would lead humankind forward and individualism would be prized. They stressed original genius, artistic creativity, and emotional depths (Furst 1979:26-8). The Enlightenment had esteemed the power of human rationality to comprehend and exploit the laws of science hidden within nature. By contrast, the Romantics sought a more harmonious way of life which would draw on the purity, dynamism and spontaneity of nature. Many Romantics believed that a life force flowed through the world and could be gasped intuitively. They therefore plunged into nature, to deepen their communion with the source of life within themselves and all beings. In a letter Coleridge describes his reaction to the beauties of nature:

My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great—something one

& indivisible—and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!—But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity.

(Quoted in Watson 1970:115).

Given the vast and sometimes contradictory nature of the Romantic movement, this brief account will focus on manifestations of Romanticism through Wordsworth and Emerson.

William Wordsworth

In Britain, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a leading figure of the Romantic movement and effectively popularized many of its ideas. Many Victorians found in his poetry 'a peculiar emotional and religious power' (Prickett 1976:89). Wordsworth typifies Romantic fascination with the mystical unity running through nature. In 'Tintern Abbey' he writes that looking on nature

I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought And rolls through all things.

In this poem Wordsworth also refers to nature as 'The guide, the guardian of my heart'. God is mentioned only indirectly, as 'a presence'. In his odyssey of faith Wordsworth moved from radicalism to nature mysticism and on to more conventional Christianity. Reardon suggests that Wordsworth's poetry appealed to Victorians by offering a non-theistic spirituality which consoled doubters for the loss of traditional convictions (Reardon 1971:361-3). Prickett sees the autobiographical element of the poems playing an analogous role. Wordsworth, in bringing spiritual crises into his nature poetry, 'enabled his readers to feel in "the language of nature" an emotional unity and sense of wholeness in face of the ambiguities and doubts of an increasingly fragmented and complex intellectual climate' (Prickett 1976:89).

Wordsworth's nature poetry appeals to the revelatory and revivifying power of nature, experienced through feeling. But this raises the question, inescapable in the Romantics, of whose feeling is being articulated. In the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1801) Wordsworth declares that his principal aim is 'to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them.the primary laws of our nature'. With this in mind he will draw from 'low and rustic life', with its plainer and more powerful language and its closeness to 'elementary feelings' (Wordsworth 1989:155). Yet he could also write of 'the lower orders accumulating in pestilential masses of ignorant population' (Quoted in Byatt 1989:125). Wordsworth was acutely aware of people's suffering through causes as diverse as agrarian pauperization and child labour in factories, and could depict these movingly (e.g. 'Michael', 'The Excursion'). But he saw such abuses in an existential light, illuminating a greater sadness that was part of the human condition. Moreover, as the years passed his Romantic fascination with the medieval evolved into a nostalgia which esteemed feudalstyle benevolence and respect, in which all classes would be linked in one organic whole (Byatt 1989:128, 155-6). This was in an England where the human experience was often of desperate poverty and pell-mell urbanization.

Against this background Wordsworth's nature mysticism, like that of much Romanticism, seems like a fuga mundi. While the poetry was about feeling, to many readers it must have been a safe category of feeling, in an age where poverty and uncertainty were all around. Certainly, Wordsworth and others like him made possible the expression of a broader religious sensibility which would otherwise have remained silent. The Romantics believed that each person could find, through communing with nature, a source of power and direction in which the physical and the spiritual could be reconciled (Taylor 1989:3703). But this expressive individualism, while it enlarged the understanding of religious experience, drifted away from the community of the suffering and the oppressed, and indeed was one further step in the developing Western understanding of seeing religious experience as essentially an individual affair.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Romanticism's ascription of a revelatory power to nature inevitably raised questions about historical revelation in Christianity. Some of the German Romantics, such as Schelling, were effectively pantheists, influenced by their reading of Spinoza. Among those carried towards a generic pantheism was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). Emerson was formed by New England Unitarianism, imbibing from it a strong sense of integrity and a selective attitude towards historical doctrine. Sydney Ahlstrom considers that the role Emerson took on himself was that of the poet as seer and prophet—the one who speaks of the life he sees surging within the universe (Ahlstrom 1985:38). This was certainly a typical trait of the Romantics—Schelling had believed that the artist was the one in whom the unconscious life of the universe comes to conscious expression. In Nature (1836) Emerson argued that the natural world was an incarnation of the divine spirit, expressing itself in the manifold life of nature and culminating in humankind. Human openness to divine influence meant that the divide between subject and object was reconciled, for in human perceptions of the world, God—the underlying unity of the world—was the perceiver also. In Nature Emerson writes:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith____Standing on the bare ground,—my heart bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

(Emerson 1981:11).

In 'The OversouP he expanded his account to argue that 'OversouP was the uniting and vivifying factor underlying all the expressions of nature. '[W]ithin man is the soul of the whole...the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.' Human beings see the world in discrete parts, 'but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul' (ibid.: 210-11).

Emerson considered that Christianity had taken a wrong turn into dogma: 'They will have Christ for a Lord but not for a brother. Christ preaches the greatness of man, but we hear only the greatness of Christ' (quoted in Ahlstrom 1985:50). Emerson believed in liberating human potential by harmonizing it with the operations of the universe, which could be seen, in the long run, to reward generous-spiritedness and to nullify selfishness (Emerson 1981:74). This not only required him to present an optimistic picture of the world, in which evil had no real existence but was simply the absence of good. It also required him to be a determinist. In his essay 'Fate' he wrote (ibid.: 373): 'Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity, which secures that all is made of one piece; that plaintiff and defendant, friend and enemy, animal and plant, food and eater are of one kind'—that is, being subsumed into a steadily evolving higher unity. Despite attempts to systematize Emerson (e.g. Gelpi 1991) much of what he wrote was intended to be spoken and to evoke a mood rather than to conduct a suasive argument. Catherine Albanese points out that sometimes he writes as if the material world is sacramental, sometimes he writes as if it is a trap and an illusion, to be transcended if we are to see true reality. The first approach will emphasize harmony with nature, the second will emphasize mastery over nature; she accuses Emerson of resolving this tension with deft rhetoric (Albanese 1991:81-5).

Emerson, in fact, had arrived at religion without theology. In this respect the Transcendentalists are a development of the Romantic stress on the heroic individual and the power of feeling. Religious experience is no longer that which grounds individuals linked in communities. Rather, religious experience is a personal communion with nature. Religion becomes the individual experience of transcendence felt by the self-reliant person, rather like those favoured by William James (see below). In this respect Emerson and his followers represent a further turn in the privatization of religious experience. Sometimes it is said that this inward turn diminished interest in American social institutions and debates in the crucial years before the Civil War. Yet Ann Rose argues that while the Transcendentalists turned aside from politics, they sought social reform through their immediate influence as individuals, as families and in co operative experiments. Among women in particular effective networks were established (Rose 1981:225, 174-84). We may note, too, that the pioneer American conservationist John Muir drew heavily on Emerson to create a kind of ideology for his work (Albanese 1991:93-105). On the other hand, Robert Bellah and his fellow writers say that American society today is characterized by an individualism so extreme as to weaken social cohesion. They point the finger at Emerson as one of those whose influence has created the impression that the interests of the individual and those of society are opposed to one another (Bellah 1986:55) They say, 'the dead end of radical individualism' has been 'inherited from Wordsworth, Emerson and other romantics'. The resulting language of radical individual autonomy has reduced people to 'arbitrary centers of volition' (ibid.: 81). This, of course, is not an exclusively American problem: Alasdair Maclntyre (1985) stimulated considerable debate with his suggestion that ethical discourse generally has become vitiated by sundering the individual from community and tradition.

The legacy of Romanticism

Whether these analyses are correct is open to debate. They do, however, indicate ongoing unease about the contemporary individualistic depiction of human nature. The concern about the role of the will is particularly significant, and points back to the role of Romanticism in creating present-day images. Romanticism sought to transcend polarities by an appeal to the power of feeling, which was intended to integrate subject and object, conscious mind and unconscious mind, human beings and nature. With this development religious experience was effectively deinstitutionalized. Spirituality now became for many an aspect of the pursuit of beauty or the appreciation of nature. Richard Tarnas comments that '[A]rt itself- music, literature, drama, painting— now took on a virtually religious status for the Romantic sensibility...for many modern intellectuals disillusioned with orthodox religion, art became the chief spiritual outlet and medium' (Tarnas 1993:373). With its more subtle sensibilities, Romanticism broadened the category of religious experience. Paradoxically it also foreshortened the horizons of religious experience. Religion was increasingly how individuals expressed their identity and found individual fulfilment, rather than a shared understanding in communal or social life (cf. Taylor 1992: ch. 21). Such individuals were attuned to nature, and thus in theory in harmony with it. And yet, the Romantic stereotype was the person of genius, of originality, of courage, in whom the unconscious creativity of nature burst into conscious understanding and action. This led easily to an esteem of strength of will in developing human gifts and visions, and to a view of human beings as separate from and even dominating nature. Romanticism did not transcend polarities in the way that it had first hoped.

One stream of Romantic influence carried on through the churches and sought a new mystagogy. The clear windows and interlocking proportions of eighteenth-century churches, with their delight in rationality, gave way to neo-gothic architecture. Sacredness and mystery were evoked by decoration, interplay of light and shade and the separation of sacred space by means of altars and sanctuaries. The sacraments, like nature as a whole, were seen as imbued with mystery and divine self-disclosure. They could only yield their secrets to those with respect for the mystery. There was a stress on Church and ministry as divinely willed. Prayer and worship focused anew on the mystery of the incarnation. A second stream rolled away from the churches into a gnostic nature religion. A divine presence is seen in nature, and salvation is to be found in recovery of harmony with nature and thus with the ground of being. Some spirituality associated with ecology is the heir of this stream today. A third stream of Romantic influence helped create the nascent discipline of psychology, by drawing attention to the inexhaustible and complex depths of human nature.

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