Romanticism is often seen as a reaction against the Enlightenment. Louis Dupre thinks that’s too simplistic (The Quest of the Absolute: Birth and Decline of European Romanticism, 4-5). Rather, Romanticism transforms the values of the Enlightenment by turning them into a sublime.

Dupre writes, “Romanticism incorporates what the Enlightenment had acquired while also transforming its meaning. The desire for political, social, and religious emancipation, to which it gave voice, had existed through most of the eighteenth century, but the Romantics extended it to a vision of an ideal that beckoned but remained forever beyond reach.”

Language was a central concern and illustrates the continuity between Renaissance Humanism, Enlightenment, and Romanticism.

Humanism was a “linguistic-philological movement” that attempted to restore language to its ancient purity. Though they tried to force “unruly vernacular tongues” into “tight-fitting form, patterned after an ancient grammar,” the Humanists inspired deeper thinking about language in general. During the Enlightenment writers tried to probe the origins of language as such.In Herder and other Germans, language came to be viewed as an expression of national character: “Romantic poets considered the use of the indigenous language indispensable to authentic expression.”

But poetry wasn’t just an expression of national character. Language came to be regarded as a mystery in itself, and as a key to the mysteries of human experience. Words disclose but without fully revealing something. Friedrich Schlegel expressed the Romantic vision when he claimed that “A classical text must never be entirely comprehensible.” The Humanist interest in language was transformed into an exemplification of the sublime - language was expressive only by hinting tantalizingly at depths that beckoned from beyond the veil of language.

Romantic politics also exemplifies the continuity between Enlightenment and Romanticism. Enlightenment writers laid out detailed plans for transformed social orders, utopian schemes that would embody Enlightened freedom. Romantics were simultaneously more modest and more ambitious: The complete freedom that humans longed for surpassed anything that might be achieved in reality; freedom’s inaccessibility kept everyone striving for it, but the effort was saturated with the sweet melancholy of inevitable failure. True human freedom cannot be achieved by any constitutional order, no matter how rational.

For the Romantics, this sublime was Christianity’s contribution to the world. According to August Schlegel, modern and classical differed because of the intervention of Christianity, which introduced the reality of the infinite: “A perspective on the infinite appeared, which determined both form and content” - form because Christians recognized that no fixed poetic form could capture the infinite. In short, “The Christian poet, explicitly or implicitly, aims at a goal that lies beyond a finite world” (11). It took centuries for Christianity to have its full impact on poetry; Romanticism is Christian poetics and aesthetics come of age.

It was this transformation of the Enlightenment that gave Romanticism its distinctive art, sensibility, politics. And it was this transformation of the Enlightenment that convinced the Romantics that they were living in a new stage of cultural history.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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