Although itappears Romanticism is a complete contrast to the Enlightenment values that comesbefore it, such as the importance of objective thought, the necessity to thinkwith reason and logic and more. However, upon further study of the literatureand ideas that Romanticism portrays, I would argue that it is more of adevelopment of the Enlightenment rather than an anti-thesis of it, as I believethat the issues Romanticism explores are similar to the issues explored byEnlightenment thinkers. To keep my argument concise, I will refer mainly to theliterary works of William Blake, namely his songs of Innocence and Experience asbackground and confirmation of the points I aim to explore in this essay. I aimto provide an understanding of the nature of Romantic literature throughexamples of common Romantic themes, such as innocence and nature. Meanwhile, exploringthe development of Romanticism further through Blake’s Songs of Experience, toshow the juxtaposition of the Idealist versus the Realist and demonstrate some ofthe similarities between Enlightenment and Romanticism, such as the criticismof religion and state, to further verify that Romanticism is in fact adevelopment of its predecessor. The birth ofRomanticism is widely regarded as a reaction to the period of Enlightenment inwhich ideas surrounding life, human nature, freedom and the nature of the statewere developed, by thinkers such as Hobbes, Smith and Rousseau.
Birthed out ofthe Scientific Revolution, the period of Enlightenment saw great historical eventssuch as the American, French and Haitian revolutions, inspired by ideas such as’Life, Liberty and Property’ (Locke and Ward 2016) 1.Although obsessed with logic and reason, ethics and virtues, the period of Enlightenmentwas full of hypocrisy, bloodshed and disillusion. Romanticism is a reactionthen, to this disillusionment and pretence that Enlightenment brings.
The romantic artwork is a play on the importance ofpassion and emotion instead of reason, and reflected the romantic rebellionagainst industrial and scientific modernity (Murphy and Roberts 2004)2. Arguably,the nature of the Romantic approach is birthed from an antipathy towards Enlightenmentvalues. As William J Long explains ‘Romanticism was marked, and is always marked,by a strong reaction and protest against the bondage of rule and custom, which,in science and theology, as well as in literature, generally tend to fetter thefree human spirit’ (Long 2013)3. It iseasy to confuse the reaction of Romanticism as a complete reaction to everyaspect of Enlightenment society, but this is not the case, one should becareful not to paint a picture of Romantic thinkers, as a group of oblivious,apathetic, overexcited characters. Romantics such as Blake were very aware ofthe hardships of life, they were politically involved, and able to use theirreason to create their own moral codes, which, of course Enlightenment logicprovided. The break between the two comes from the fact that Romantics saw animportance of reverting back to nature to overcome social issues, unlikeEnlightenment which focused on logic and science.One of the most recognisable elements of Romanticism isits use of nature and imagery of innocence within the literate form Blake’spoems in ‘Songs of Innocence’ are examples of the stereotypical imagery ofRomanticism, poems such as ‘The Echoing Green’ ‘A Cradle Song’ and ‘Infant Joy’are just a few works that develop on the idea of reverting back to nature, thebeauty of the natural and the child’s innocence.
In ‘The Echoing Green’ Blake’suse of pastoral imagery creates a world filled with wisdom, youth and beauty. Heaims to show the contrast between the polluted, corrupted city life and the ‘natural’cycle of life in the village on the echoing green. Blake celebrates thepastoral from the beginning of the poem (Blake and Johnson, n.d.)4; arguablyclaiming that we need this image of the natural for our own happiness (Punter1998)5. British Romantics often imagined children in poetry asthey saw the child as close to nature.
The child had access to a uniqueworldview, solely because a child has not yet rationalised and assimilated the natureof society the way an adult has, i.e. the child has not yet been corrupted byEnlightenment understanding. There is a crossover here however betweenRomantics and the Enlightenment thinkers; Rousseau, one of the fathers of theperiod was one of the first to represent the child as an individual entity (Metz2012)6. Poemsin the Songs of innocence focus on protecting children from danger or sorrow; frompoverty in ‘Holy Thursday’7, totheir nurse’s demand to come into dinner from their playing in ‘Nurse’s Song’8, Blake’schildren are both simple, and immune from, human ‘wisdom’.
Blake makes acomment on the corruption that knowledge brings to society, however he is notclaiming that the process of enlightenment is negative and should be avoided9, disputablythe opposite- he is making the statement that this painful process ofunderstanding is a stage which we must pass to achieve an even higher truth10. Thisshows, that there wasn’t this aggressive rejection of the Enlightenment, as issometimes perceived, and shouldn’t be explored in such contrasting, black-and-whitemanner. 1 In his Two Treatise, Locke explains thatevery man has the right to Life Liberty and Property, as natural rights. ThomasJefferson later took Locke’s idea when drafting the American Declaration ofIndependence, declaring the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit ofhappiness”. Locke,John, and Lee Ward. 2016. Two Treatises Of Government. MA: HackettPublishing Company, Incorporated.
2 Murphy, Peter, andDavid Roberts. 2004. Dialectics Of Romanticism. 2nd ed. New York:Bloomsbury, 30.3 Long, William Joseph. 2013. EnglishLiterature Its History And Its Significance For The Life Of The EnglishSpeaking World – The Original Classic Edition.
Emereo Publishing, 3064 ‘The sun does arise, make happythe skies’ This personification of nature gives ‘Mother Nature’ a voice, remarkingon the true importance of nature Blake, William, and WillJohnson. n.d. Songs Of Innocence And Experience. Marston Gate:Amazon, 8. 5 Punter, David.
1998. York Notes Advanced: Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience WilliamBlake. 12th ed. London: York Press.6Metz, Stephanie. 2012.
“Romanticism And TheChild: Inventing Innocence”. Web.Utk.Edu.
http://web.utk.edu/~gerard/romanticpolitics/childhood.html.7 In Holy Thursday Blake makesa remark on the poverty of children in the church using nature; ‘their sun doesnever shine’ along with ‘eternal winter’ the protagonist of the poem isexclaiming the lack of hope for the poor children.
Blake, William, and Will Johnson. n.d. SongsOf Innocence And Experience. Marston Gate: Amazon, 23.8 add quotation+analysis9 Blake himself was part of various radical circles He did the illustrations for MaryWollstonecraft’s first two books, both didactic texts for children, alsoillustrating a travel-book, John Gabriel Steedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’Expedition “Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam” (1796), which dealt graphicallywith the brutality of slavery.