Revolution and Romance
ROMANTICISM has been so variously defined that it has come to mean anything the critic wants it to mean, from Heinrich Heine's "the reawakening of the Middle Ages" to Walter Pater's "the addition of strangeness to beauty." But as the term is commonly used today, romanticism primarily implies a reaction from rationalism. Stressing emotion rather than reason, instinct rather than experience, the romantic writers of the nineteenth century emphasized self and sensibility. Echoing Rousseau, who maintained that man was corrupted by civilized society, they turned the common man into a Noble Savage, glorified Nature as Divine Healer, and struggled to establish liberty in the ever-sharpening conflict between materialism and idealism.
The destruction of the Bastille in 1789 spread the spirit of revolution and romance. Insurgence leaped the Channel, and its challenge was answered by such ardent young men as Coleridge, Southey, Landor, and Hazlitt. Wordsworth, leading them all in enthusiasm, envisioned the rescue of mankind and declared in his FRENCH REVOLUTION:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!