From left to right: Jonathan Bate and Tim Blanning (Photo: Eliza Beveridge)
Daniel Johnson: I thought we might begin at the end. In the last sentence of your book (The Romantic Revolution, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £14.99), Tim, you say, "The Romantic revolution is not over yet." What is the significance of Romanticism now, how useful an idea is it and in what sense is it a persistent force in our culture?
Tim Blanning: Oh dear, it was meant to be a smart way to end the book. You come to the conclusion and you're desperately trying to find a way to end the beastly thing and that's what popped into my head. But there is sense in it too. Once the Romantic revolution had taken place, and an expressive aesthetic had been established, there was really no going back. Taking another revolution, the industrial revolution, once the division of labour had been established as a principle of economic activity, it was never going to go away. Similarly with the Romantic revolution, once the idea of an expressive aesthetic is established then it is never going to go away.
DJ: Jonathan, do you agree with Tim that Romanticism is a useful term to use, not just for the narrow period around 1800?
Jonathan Bate: I agree with Tim and indeed some of his predecessors who have written about the movement that it is the most enduring change of cultural attitude and perception in the history of the modern West. The ways in which Romanticism is still alive today are actually much more to do with cultural attitudes in general, rather than artistic forms in particular. There aren't actually that many Romantic painters or Romantic poets, as such, around today. But you just have to look at our fascination with biography, the way every week you'll open your Sunday newspaper and among the major reviews is a biography. Related to that, the cult of celebrity is something that really takes off in the late 18th century — it's to do with the development of the press, developments in the theatre and, above all, in the idea of "the individual" as the starting point when thinking about art and creativity. But all sorts of other aspects of modern life still seem to be absolutely infused with Romanticism. I'm a great beach person and the notion that the seaside is a place that you go for health, for relaxation for your holidays, was an innovation of the Romantic period. John Keats's residence in Margate and then on the Isle of Wight was crucial to his development. Equally, the idea of walking in the mountains, taking a sense of spiritual sustenance from the sublime, is something that emerges with Romanticism. That then leads into one of the things I'm particularly interested in, the ways in which modern attitudes to do with the relationship between society and the environment are so strongly shaped by Romanticism. If you think of the Lake District as a phenomenon, most of the land is owned by the National Trust, and the Lake District is defined — in terms of planning — as a National Park. You can trace the origins of both the National Trust and the National Parks system directly back to Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes.
DJ: But nearly all the things you've just mentioned as "Romantic" had existed before. Let's take biography — we have Dr Johnson on poetry or Vasari on painters. There is a long tradition of biography and specifically of biography of genius that goes back long before Romanticism. Similarly with attitudes to nature and the sublime, we can go back to Burke and beyond. How original were the Romantics since most of these themes had been touched on before?
TB: What emerges is not just biography but autobiography — and that is something that I think does come out of Romanticism. There had been autobiographies before, St Augustine's Confessions for a start, but once Rousseau had written his Confessions then a whole new world had opened up. Famously, Goethe said that all his publications — and his collected works run to 147 enormous volumes — should be viewed as one great "confession". Rousseau has an incredible amount of credit or blame, whichever way you look at it, to be ascribed here. Rousseau's style of "confession" is really something quite different — truly revolutionary.
JB: I agree with that. The term autobiography is new in the Romantic period. Yes, there had been biographies before but there is a fascinating distinction between the kind of biography that Dr Johnson wrote in his Lives of the Poets, which he was working on in the 1770s, and the biography of Johnson that James Boswell wrote, just a decade later. Johnson is interested in moral lives or exemplary lives, whereas Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is an idiosyncratic, quirky, fragmented text. I see it as a Romantic text. Boswell is a Romantic in a way that Johnson isn't.
TB: True, and it's warts and all. Of course Boswell wrote an autobiography, including his very interesting and active sex life.
JB: Rousseau's Confessions are not confessions in the Augustinian spiritual sense, but confessions in the sense of revelations of the inner life — as Tim says — warts and all. Then you get a series of English texts, of which the most famous is Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, where the idea of the writer revealing their full self, including that sense of them as a subversive or transgressive self, is new and in a way damaging. The illusion that rebellion for its own sake and drug-taking are somehow an essential part of being human, that's something that really begins with the Romantics. You can trace a lot of the damaging indulgences of modern culture back to that.
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