As time moves forward, we distance ourselves further away from past ideologies and lifestyles. Intellectual movements become preserved in textbooks, and their products end up framed in museums. Values of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modernism are scrutinized and criticized by students aiming to submit provoking essays and theses to tough professors. While we have progressed with new inventions and discoveries, we are facing new problems that popular figures in the past never had to contend with: the negative sides of technology, the rapid-fire consequences of fake news, and the serious and harsh truth of climate change. All of these require innovative approaches to find solutions. However, if we look to the past and take a hint from the Romantics, we might be able to assist in the fight against climate change.
The Romantic Movement arose towards the end of the 18th century. Often seen as a reaction to the Enlightenment — a movement very much driven by rationalism and classicism — Romanticism placed value on imagination and creativity. Its key players, such as Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Victor Hugo, embraced individualism, which was reflected in their work that defied traditional conventions and structures. Percy Bysshe Shelley, another Romantic figure, famously penned ‘A Defence of Poetry’, which celebrated poets. Aside from becoming more open-minded towards the foreign and tapping into our emotions in art, we owe our current ways of turning attention to oppression, social emancipation, and the obligation of serving a community to the Romantic Movement. As with all movements, Romanticism was complex. One side of Romanticism that merits a closer look, given the state of our environment, is the nature-appreciating and degradation-rejecting side of the Romantics.
Simply put, the Romantics revered nature. Visual artists and poets turned to the environment to inspire them, producing defining artworks of the movement such as Vernet’s The Shipwreck and Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea. The Romantics’ feelings of simultaneous awe and terror towards nature were not ill-founded, though — they comprised half of what the Romantics considered to be the ‘sublime’. The sublime was essentially the interaction of emotional and natural worlds, and the latter was, of course, the wondrous environmental landscapes that surrounded the Romantics. This foundational appreciation for the environment — and its strong connection with one’s emotions — is something we can try channeling nowadays.
With so much of Earth’s wilderness already destroyed, we should strive to tap into our inner Romantic. Let us rekindle our love and fear of nature and the power it holds.
Aside from seeing the beauty of nature, Romantics also understood the humanistic need for the environment, alongside the interdependence of various species on Earth. William Wordsworth, a famous Romantic poet, drew inspiration from the rural parts of Wales and the English Lake District. Being away from the constant stimulation of cities allowed artists to pay genuine attention to landscapes. The Romantics considered nature to be an essential aspect of human life since it was a ‘spiritual source of renewal’ amidst the turbulence of a changing society. In today’s world, one steeped in so much confusion and complexity, we can harness the Romantic mindset and pause from our busy lives to remember the undeniable importance and gifts of nature.
These realizations prompted Romantics to be critical of industrialization and reject its adverse effects. Romanticism is positioned close to the Industrial Revolution, a time when rapid migration to metropolitan areas, manufacturing of goods, and the spread of pollution occurred. Environmentalists were angered by the degradation they were witnessing, and soon enough, conservation groups such as the Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty were formed. The Romantics, who were passionate about the environment and sensitive to its suffering, used their art to raise awareness on the loss of wildlife, soil erosion, and dirtied air and bodies of water. With many convenient and efficient technological outlets to provoke interest and attention towards causes, we can gain inspiration from the Romantics and use our creative abilities to make the fragile state of nature, and the importance of taking action, known.
As we barrel towards an uncertain future due to climate change, let us borrow a page or two from the Romantics’ book. While all historical movements have their flaws — and the Romantic Movement is not exempt from this — their clear appreciation for the environment is a strength that stands out like a shining beacon in today’s day and age. It is a strength that we should embrace, as it has paved the way for us to unabashedly express our love for the environment and our outrage towards the injustices being committed towards it.