A People’s Voice
by John Claiborne Isbell
We all know the Romantic hero: solitary, brooding, out of the ordinary, Byronic. There is a disconnect between that hero and the society which they renounce, and that is well and good. There is a space, after all, for misfits in this world.
I argue however that talk of solipsism fundamentally misses the point of Romantic art: it is, in fact, exactly half the Romantic equation. From Moscow to Montevideo, 1776-1848 – quintessentially the Romantic age – this art was created amid nation-building and revolution. All mainland America south of Canada became nations in the half-century 1776-1826. In Eastern Europe, countries from Greece to Poland reappeared on the map; the French Revolution swept over Europe, felling thrones, creating republics, till Waterloo and the return of the kings; Italy and Germany became nations, not only geographical concepts. This was an age of wild-eyed revolutionaries, from Garibaldi to Thomas Paine: France for instance had three revolutions, two republics, an empire and two monarchies between 1789 and 1848. It seems reasonable to suggest that an art produced in this era might reflect such world-shaking events, and I argue that Romantic art does just that. It is, like the United States Congress of 1787, like Bolívar or Garibaldi in South America or Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, the people’s voice.
In 1996, my rare books catalogue published at Indiana University made this case: The People’s Voice: A Romantic Civilization, 1776-1848. It covers nine languages and stretches from Wordsworth to Bolivia, combining revolutions in art, music, and politics. But catalogues are piecemeal enterprises. This new monograph, An Outline of Romanticism in the West, narrates Romantic art from 1776-1848 and across the Western world, embedding it in its revolutionary and nation-building context. The thesis here is twofold. First, that an implicit contract lies at the heart of Romantic art throughout this vast terrain, one between the silent nation and the exceptional individual who represents it. “Poets,” writes Percy Shelley, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The nation credits this individual with its authentic and popular voice: the Romantic hero thus embodies the nation, and Wordsworth or Byron, Hugo or Mme de Staël, Goethe or Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen thus resemble Washington or Bonaparte. This is in essence an economic argument. It is credit theory, on which the modern world of paper money and representative democracy is anchored. Second, that the originary act behind Romantic art, the electric bond proposed between Romantic creator and solitary reader, is one of compassion: for the outcast, the oppressed, the disinherited and the forgotten. For Heathcliff or Quasimodo. For Toussaint Louverture in his Pyrenean prison. For Schiller’s robber, Karl Moor. For Wordsworth’s Idiot Boy or Blake’s chimney sweep. For Jane Eyre or Rochester, Yevgeniy Onegin or Pechorin, that Hero of Our Time. It is not coincidence that this age held its truths to be self-evident, proposed the Rights of Man and of Woman, and ended the Atlantic slave trade.
What is, then, perhaps unique to Romanticism is the bond established between the outcast – the misfit – and the nation for which they speak. In this lies the weight of their authenticity; that weight is more than a novelty, it is revolutionary and as such, a major threat to Old Regime Europe. Metternich’s Austria exiled or imprisoned the Italian Romantics in 1820-1821, with reason: the threat to Austria was real and realized forty years later when Garibaldi completed the expulsion of Austria from the entire peninsula. A new nation was formed. Nationalism has its own checkered history, but here at its birth – the word international dates from this period – it dreamed of an end to thrones and empires, of silent nations being given voice, of representative democracy for all of history’s lost and excluded. That is, I believe, a good thing, and the achievements of these dreamers were both real and, in some ways, absolute. It was France’s First Republic in 1794, amid the Terror, that abolished slavery throughout French territories. Napoleon then restored it, much as Restoration Europe restored a king to Belgium after their revolution in 1830; and it was France’s Second Republic that abolished slavery again and forever in 1848. The nations of the West were born in a dream of freedom, and that is Romanticism’s beating heart.
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