From the Enlightenment…
As we already know, at the ending of the 18th century an age of revolutions started, which changed Europe politically and economically. All these revolutions had been animated by the ideals spread by the Enlightenment, which characterized the whole century.
The changes introduced by these revolutions, particularly by the Industrial one, allowed men to discover new farming techniques and to invent new machines thanks to the development of progress and technology as a consequence of the experimental and rational approach. During this period reason was considered from the Enlightenment thinkers the best way we can choose to overcome difficulties and solve our problems.
However, the industrial society that developed at the end of the 18th century implicated advantages only for a small part of the people, while most of the population continued living in poverty; indeed, in some cases the condition of workers got worse, because they were usually exploited by the owners of factories, who wanted to increase their benefits.
For these reasons, a lot of thinkers started believing that probably reason didn’t improve the society, instead it created an even crueler one. Therefore they criticized reason and decided to look at reality from a new point of view, or rather the sensitive one; so at the end of the 18th century a new cultural movement was born: it was called Romanticism and it characterized the European culture of the half of next century.
The regret for the past
One of the main features of Romanticism is the regret for the past: Romantics didn’t recognize themselves in the society of that time and saw the past as something whose values have been lost, so they looked at it with a deep sense of nostalgia.
They realized that reason hadn’t been able to improve the society, and believed that probably people lived better in the past, because they respected nature that, according to their thought, was the mirror of God; that’s why nature is seen as a model of balance, harmony and perfection where opposites –like the beautiful and the sublime– are reconciled: some natural phenomena are beautiful, but some other ones are terrifying because of their destructive power, which men cannot contrast; nevertheless both types of phenomena are part of the same nature: in fact, it’s perfect, and what might seem opposite from our point of view, actually is complementary: for this reason, men shouldn’t try to change the balance of nature, established by God.
We can see how in nature opposites are reconciled also simply looking at life and death, two opposite realities that are complementary to each other, whereby one of them can’t exist without the other.
Sometimes men try to change some aspects of nature for their needs, without respecting God’s will; according to Romantics, men are a part of nature, but they aren’t masters of nature: so it’s very dangerous to interfere with its balance, and men should respect its laws.
Imagination versus reason
Finally, the last but not the least important aspect of Romanticism is the clash between reason and emotion (or imagination): Romantics thought (that) reason only allows us to know the appearance of things, while sensibility permits to go beyond the external aspects of things overcoming what a rational mind cannot overcome. So reason isn’t considered the main instrument of men anymore, because a man who only uses reason is not a balanced man: as Swift had already taught us, humans have to use both their minds and their hearts.
From the literary point of view, during the Romantic period authors saw reality from their subjective point of view and often described as protagonists of their works humble people, because they were men who followed the rules of nature as everybody should do: in fact, they didn’t use reason to change nature, but they realized (that) it’s more powerful than us, so it’s better to use sensibility instead of reason.
Therefore Romantic writers wanted to teach us we shouldn’t suppress our sensibility, which is an effective instrument of knowledge that we possess from our birth that allows us to catch the real essence of things going beyond appearance.
A new concept of childhood was born: maybe adults should learn from children, who are closer to God because of their uncorrupted sensibility that adults lost due to civilization, which teaches to be selfish and disrespectful of nature and our fellows.
Previously, authors thought (that) they were different from the rest of people; instead, Romantic poets and writers considered themselves as men among men: they weren’t better than other people, but simply they had been able to preserve their sensibility, as all men should do because reason alone isn’t able to lead humans.