The Failure of Romanticism

The Failure of Romanticism

The Voyage of Life Old Age, by Thomas Cole (1839)

Colin Wilson, whom I have written much about on this blog, was an existentialist philosopher, but not in the sense of a Sartre or Camus. His existentialism, as he says, “covers a broader field than what Kierkegaard or Heidegger or Sartre means by it; my existentialism is closer to Goethe’s idea of Bildung.” 1 The literary climate of the existentialist is the “Bildungsroman,” the so-called coming-of-age novel or play, where the protagonist’s psychological and moral development is the focus. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and Hesse’s Demian are all good examples of this style. Wilson tells us, “In the 20th century the only serious form of literary art is the Bildungsroman. 2

Goethe was really the one who initiated the Romantic era. In his very important work, Romanticism Comes of Age, Owen Barfield states

From [Rudolf] Steiner . . . I learned for the first time that a serious attempt to obtain exact results with the help of a perceptive faculty developed through controlled imagination had been made more than a hundred years ago, and by no means without success, by that uncrowned king of Romantics, Goethe. 3

Of course, Rudolf Steiner had been an editor of the Goethe archives in Weimar, Germany for about eight years at the beginning of his career. He knew his Goethe. I’ll come back to Steiner in future articles, as he is a very important figure in 20th century thought.

Wilson points out that the Romantic movement ends in failure in the early part of the 19th century. Whatever the source of its inspiration toward the end of the 18th century, Romanticism turned to existential despair by the time of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.

. . . Why did so many of the poets and artists of the 19th century fall into depression and die tragically, or commit suicide? It all began so optimistically, with Rousseau’s conviction that the human mind was about to throw off its chains, echoed in Blake’s fragment on the French Revolution and in Wordsworth’s comment “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. Yet by the time Shelley and Byron died in the 1820s, gloom had descended like a yellow London fog, and the age of optimism was over. . . 4

The movement that began talking about Man’s absolute freedom and potentiality realized Man is nothing without a link to the Source from whence he came. Wilson claims the failure of Romanticism is the same failure we see in Goethe’s Faust, when

Faust has suddenly become aware that all the knowledge in the world will not free man from his limitations; that, in a fundamental sense, we can know nothing. And when Mephistopheles places his magic powers at Faust’s disposal, Faust only uses them to slip into Gretchen’s bed. The man who began by demanding: Why am I not a god? ends by accepting the forgetfulness of a peasant girl’s body.5

This was the state of the Romantic movement at its climax. Its dismal end (among other factors) became a catalyst for Existentialism in the 20th century.

Language had much to do with the disillusionment of Romanticism. This is partly why language became the focal point of philosophical discourse in the 20th century. Words are symbols that, eventually, lose their “magical” power. After a time, and after much abuse, words become empty and meaningless. This is probably part of what Nietzsche meant when he declared the death of God. Wilson says the Romantics overused certain worlds, like “ecstasy” and “rapture” until they became devoid of meaning and force. He says, “. . . romantic language collapsed under the weight of its verbal imprecision.”6

There are powerful truths in some of the thinking of the Romantic era. Some of these will become crucial for the next stage of the evolution of human thought. The failure we’ve seen will be the seeds from which mighty trees of success will come forth from the earth. In the next installment, we will examine an example of where they went wrong.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Romanticism Comes of Age. Anthroposophical Publishing: London, 1944.

Wilson, Colin. Whitehead As Existentialist. Philosophy Now: Issue 64, 2007. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.

Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.

Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.

Wilson, Colin. Beyond the Outsider. Carrol and Graf: New York, 1965.

  1. Wilson, The Outsider, 282
  2. Wilson, Religion and the Rebel, 246
  3. Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 11; brackets mine
  4. Wilson, Whitehead as Existentialist
  5. Wilson, Beyond the Outsider, 40
  6. ibid.

3 thoughts on “The Failure of Romanticism

  1. Great to see a new post! I sometimes think, like Faust if I obtained Mephistopheles’ magic powers I too would simply use it to get laid or perhaps get a better car… Man, for all his power of thought, logic & figuring things out is still an animal who cares mostly about satisfying his base desires… IMO of course…

  2. Very true. Perhaps once in a blue moon, a saint would come along who would use those powers wisely, but this would be extremely rare, one would think. Tragic.

  3. If you really want to understand the Romantics and the complexity of their varying perspectives on imagination*, then I urge you to consider a more comprehensive and sophisticated approach than that of Owen Barfield or [shudder] Colin Wilson. James Engell’s study *The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism* would be a good place to start. Engell at least is not constrained by conservative Inkling Christianity. And by the way, Keats asked the question of what is true in imagination very clearly.

    *Romanticism was not a monolithic movement, and it’s ridiculous to suggest that “the Romantics” failed.

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