Germany, a Companion to German Studies

By Jethro Bithell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX

GERMAN LITERATURE FROM 1805 TO 1880

THE word Romantic was imported from England to the Continent with the sentimental novel of Sterne and Richardson. It was thus applied to the prodigality of feeling and extravagance of language which aroused the hostility of the Aufklärung and made it, in its origin, a term of contempt. But under the influence of Rousseau, who wrote of the 'romantic' Alps, its meaning was gradually modified into admiration for wild, natural scenery, for ruined castles and picturesque cities, until 'romantic' was applied indiscriminately to situations and persons, travels and memoirs, pictures and music. It thus acquired the 'universal significance' which seemed to Friedrich Schlegel the chief characteristic of the new art. It was first used by Novalis as a label for the school of criticism and poetry which arose in Jena in the early 'nineties of the eighteenth century. Through the agency of the Athenäum and the critical lectures of the brothers Schlegel, Romanticism became a catchword of European importance.

Romanticism was in its origin not inimical to Classicism: Goethe, with Wilhelm Meister, Kant with his critical idealism were the progenitors of the movement. Even Schiller gave it an unexpected fillip with his 'romantic' drama Die Jung frau von Orleans. But where Goethe had learned from Kant to accept the ultimate world of reality as unknowable to the senses, the Romanticists sought to attain to its mysteries with the help of the transcendental philosophy of Fichte and Schelling. Classicism was concerned primarily with man in his social setting, Romanticism with nature in which man was but one link. Classicism had learned the lesson of renunciation and moderation in this circumscribed world of reality; Romanticism longed for reunion with the ultimate cosmic forces of the universe.

In art and poetry the Romanticists returned in theory to Herder's thesis of historical development, in practice to the irrationalism and intemperance of the Sturm und Drang. Hence, on the one hand, their burning interest in the artistic' products of other peoples, be they Greeks, Latins, or English -- on the other, the mysticism and formlessness of much of their imaginative

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