the old romantics

Since Saturday is Valentine’s Day, let’s talk romance, shall we?

turner had a thing for turbulent seas and turbulent landscapes sprinkled with a few idylls, just for confusion's sake

turner had a thing for turbulent seas and turbulent landscapes, sprinkled with a few idylls, just for confusion’s sake

Romance as in the period of Romanticism in philosophy and art that came about out of the French Revolution and Industrialization. Yes, the French Revolution and Industrialization. I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know much of anything about Romantic art and literature, only that it involved Keats and the Shelleys and Turner and, apparently, Goya? None of which appeal to me, so I had little reason to explore it. However. I came across a three-part documentary on the Romantic period (1800 – 1850), and found it completely fascinating. It’s called, funnily enough, The Romantics, and the three parts are Liberty, Nature, Eternity. It’s written and presented by Peter Ackroyd, a well-known critic of English history and culture. Oh, and includes some very good looking actors playing the roles of Keats and Shelley, and David Tennant is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who shows up first and was a big plus for me. He’s what kept me watching for those first few minutes, and by the time his role was finished, I was completely sucked in.

And now I come to the part in which I’m asking myself why the hell I’m writing about a documentary on the Romantics, apart from the flimsy excuse of Valentine’s Day? Well, because I love it when something unexpected shows up to pull at me and interest me in something I previously gave little thought to. True love, that is. Because everything is so much more complex than it may seem on the surface, and finding that out is fun. I found out The Romantics weren’t just some flopsy poets and painters fluttering by, leaving soppy poems and strange paintings in their wake. It’s an entire movement, which, for the time, was completely radical. Dangerously so, to the powers that be. Atheism, cynicism, protest and drug experimentation and free love – it’s all here, and it all stems from huge changes that were happening in Europe, Britain, and yes, the United States, too. It was a sort of domino effect brought on by the masses being fed up to the eyeballs by the gentry, and taking matters into their own hands, for good and ill, along with and followed up by advances in science and technology and a whole new aesthetic. The jail sentences for daring to think differently, and simultaneously for the inherent guilt of privileged birth; the slaughter of thousands by the very convenient and efficient new toy, the guillotine; the renewed appreciation for nature brought on by industrialization, the sorrows of child labour and people used as cogs in the machines – it’s all pretty intense, and it begets some intense responses from the thinkers and artists of the period.

goya just freaks me the fuck out

goya just freaks me the fuck out

I joked about the actors, but really, they play a helpful role in enhancing all of these things for the audience, not through tepidly role-played days in the life, which doesn’t happen, thank god (or rather thank Ackroyd) but by offering quotations from the words and thoughts of the time. Romantics are kind of tittered at today, foisted off as fodder for adolescents in the throes of hormone rages, but it just isn’t so. Wordsworth and Coleridge and Blake and Diderot pointed out some pretty egregious pitfalls in the roads mankind were taking, and thanks be to them for it. Who else but the thinkers and poets and painters do such a thorough and graphic job of reflecting back the failings of human nature? And the triumphs, too, because of course it wasn’t all blood in the streets and soot covered children. It was progression.

This is a most brilliantly done exploration of a time that abruptly and sometimes violently pushed society forward, right into the place we now find ourselves. It’s helpful to know how we got here, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of, or at least an inkling about, where we’re headed.

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