Ode to The Romantics


Photo by Laurén Du Bignon
By Paige J Mader

The word romantic is generally only used one way in conversation today and that is to describe actions or feelings associated with a very specific brand of love. Such as: the asking of a question that also involves the presentation of a ring, or a two-person meal lit by candles and shared at an overpriced restaurant, or that person who brings you flowers and chocolates on the 14th of February. We often associate romantic poetry the same way; with verse that confesses love, or mourns the loss of love, and is given to you on the 14th of February in a little card that came with the flowers and chocolates. What we sometimes forget to acknowledge is that romantic and romanticism can also refer to an entire movement of art, music, philosophy, and, of course, literature. 

            In the late 18th to early 19th centuries romantic poetry was not all roses, and comparing people to various things in nature, and I will love you for all eternity. The characteristics of romantic writing go much deeper than that. In fact, the Romantic Movement was largely responsible for forging the concept of imagination the way we think about it today. During the period that preceded the Romantic Era, that is, the years in the 17th and 18th centuries referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, imagination was regarded more as a tool of rationality, or a process of thinking that was used to form connections between all the pieces of information the mind obtained. The Romantics enhanced this concept of imagination by associating it with creativity, giving us what is referred to as the creative imagination.

            In Romantic terms creativity is closely associated with transformation. Dissimilar to the Age of Enlightenment, in which imagination was merely the recollection of information, the creative imagination transformed the information it recalled. There were religious connotations with the concept of creativity as well. Until that point humans were regarded as fixed beings in the image of God. The suggestion that human beings were creative was a suggestion that humans possessed an ability that before was wielded only by God Himself. This could either give artists the sense that they were closer to God, or that they were on the same level as Him. Torquato Tasso, an Italian poet of the 16th century (well before the time of the Romantics) is quoted as saying, “Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta,” meaning: None but God and the poet deserve the name of Creator. It is a bold statement to put oneself on a tier with God, perhaps too bold. But, if the Romantics didn’t see themselves on an equal level with God, the certainly saw the craft of poetry as “indeed something divine,” as Percy B Shelley put it in his essay A Defense of Poetry. Many of the Romantics, including Shelley, believed that prophecy was an attribute of poetry and that the imagination had a healing puissance that could enable people to transcend difficult circumstances.

            Despite a, perhaps, somewhat inflated idea of the power and influence of their craft, the Romantics did possess other inspired beliefs. For instance, a recurring theme in many Romantic poems is that of the sublime, which encompassed an extreme reverence for the natural world. Many saw nature as wild, untamable, and filled with infinite possibility and equated it with liberty and freedom from political and social orders. They had a similar regard for children, best noted in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The child’s perspective was admired, even sought after to some degree for it’s innocent and uncorrupted quality. Because of this quality children were considered to have a special connection with nature. Some believed that the entire world could be revitalized if it could return to this childlike perspective.

            The Romantics may not have revitalized the world, exactly, but they did leave us with many concepts that are still relevant to us today. Coming out of the Age of Enlightenment they challenged old ideas of rationality and offered a new outlook on the world that was deeply concerned with humanism and prioritized imagination and creativity and perhaps most importantly they believed in the power of their craft. If we were to take anything from the creators of this time I think it should be that art really can change the world. And, so, consider this my ode to the Romantics; a profound thank you for the foundation that they lay for the way that many of us engage with creativity today. And with that, please, allow me to leave you with a few of my favourite lines of Romantic poetry from John Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn:

            Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
            Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on…

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