Romanticism as a movement is important to me. This 19th Century ideal influenced every aspect of culture art and society with its rejection of mechanised and industrialised modernism and a turning to a utopian ideal of an idealised rural past and inspired by myth and legend and the natural world. It is led by thinkers and poets such as William Morris, John Ruskin and artists like the Pre-Raphaelites and those who shaped the arts and crafts movement.
It continues to influence our culture, and some of the values will seem very contemporary and familiar, particularly when it comes to our ideals about ourselves. So a romantic ideal of humanity would suggest that we need to find our way to the essence of who we are, strip away all the constraints and impositions of society and get back to our authentic self. It suggests that somewhere at the core of my being is a purer me. Discover who I really am, I find myself by ridding myself of so much that I have learned, and getting in touch with nature.
It is of course a starkly different view of nature than had been held before. Up until that time nature was seen as something threatening, something wild and untamed and dangerous. It was cities that offered safety, order and civilisation. But the industrial revolution, with the mass migration of rural populations to urban slums shattered those ideals about the city, and the loss of a (perhaps never-existent) rural idyll sent the wealthy victorians out to discover nature. The Alps.
There is much in romanticism to be celebrated. It’s valuing of the natural world, it’s scepticism about the human progress, its latent environmentalism. It lay the foundations for many of the things we value in our society, like the presevation of ancient buildings, and the National Trust.
But two areas it has permeated our culture that are far less positive. One is the romantic ideal of love.
And secondly is a naivety about the human condition. Christianity recognises much of the idealism – human beings made in the image of God, imbued with an original beauty and purpose, and the potential for creativity, relationships and sacrifice. But the other side of the human condition is our experience of fallenness. That image is broken, marred by sin, and deep at the heart of the human experience we find the same complex contradictions of beauty and brokenness, selfishness, pride and ego.
We find our true selves not in stripping away the accretions of society but in a turning away from self. It is in losing our lives that we find them.