The First Romantics

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From Aeon:

In September 1798, one day after their poem collection Lyrical Ballads was published, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth sailed from Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast, to Hamburg in the far north of the German states. Coleridge had spent the previous few months preparing for what he called ‘my German expedition’. The realisation of the scheme, he explained to a friend, was of the highest importance to ‘my intellectual utility; and of course to my moral happiness’. He wanted to master the German language and meet the thinkers and writers who lived in Jena, a small university town, southwest of Berlin. On Thomas Poole’s advice, his motto had been: ‘Speak nothing but German. Live with Germans. Read in German. Think in German.’

After a few days in Hamburg, Coleridge realised he didn’t have enough money to travel the 300 miles south to Jena and Weimar, and instead he spent almost five months in nearby Ratzeburg, then studied for several months in Göttingen. He soon spoke German. Though he deemed his pronunciation ‘hideous’, his knowledge of the language was so good that he would later translate Friedrich Schiller’s drama Wallenstein (1800) and Goethe’s Faust (1808). Those 10 months in Germany marked a turning point in Coleridge’s life. He had left England as a poet but returned with the mind of a philosopher – and a trunk full of philosophical books. ‘No man was ever yet a great poet,’ Coleridge later wrote, ‘without being at the same time a profound philosopher.’ Though Coleridge never made it to Jena, the ideas that came out of this small town were vitally important for his thinking – from Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s philosophy of the self to Friedrich Schelling’s ideas on the unity of mind and nature. ‘There is no doubt,’ one of his friends later said, ‘that Coleridge’s mind is much more German than English.’

Few in the English-speaking world will have heard of this little German town, but what happened in Jena in the last decade of the 18th century has shaped us. The Jena group’s emphasis on individual experience, their description of nature as a living organism, their insistence that art was the unifying bond between mind and the external world, and their concept of the unity of humankind and nature became popular themes in the works of artists, writers, poets and musicians across Europe and the United States. They were the first to proclaim these ideas, which rippled out into the wider world, influencing not only the English Romantics but also American writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Many learned German to understand the works of the young Romantics in Jena in the original; others studied translations or read books about them. They were all fascinated by what Emerson called ‘this strange genial poetic comprehensive philosophy’. In the decades that followed, the Jena Set’s works were read in Italy, Russia, France, Spain, Denmark and Poland. Everybody was suffering from ‘Germanomania’, as Adam Mickiewicz, one of Poland’s leading poets, said. ‘If we cannot be original,’ Maurycy Mochnacki, one of the founders of Polish Romanticism, wrote, ‘we better imitate the great Romantic poetry of the Germans and decisively reject French models.’

This was not a fashionable craze, but a profound shift in thinking, away from Isaac Newton’s mechanistic model of nature. Despite what many people might think today, the young Romantics didn’t turn against the sciences or reason, but lamented what Coleridge described as the absence of ‘connective powers of the understanding’. The focus on rational thought and empiricism in the Enlightenment, the friends in Jena believed, had robbed nature of awe and wonder. Since the late 17th century, scientists had tried to erase anything subjective, irrational and emotional from their disciplines and methods. Everything had to be measurable, repeatable and classifiable. Many of those who were inspired by the ideas coming out of Jena felt that they lived in a world ruled by division and fragmentation – they bemoaned the loss of unity. The problem, they believed, lay with Cartesian philosophers who had divided the world into mind and matter, or the Linnaeun thinking that had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting and classification. Coleridge called these philosophers the ‘Little-ists’. This ‘philosophy of mechanism’, he wrote to Wordsworth, ‘strikes Death’. Thinkers, poets and writers in the US and across Europe were enthralled by the ideas that developed in Jena, which fought the increasing materialism and mechanical clanking of the world.

So, what was going on in Jena? And why was Coleridge so keen to visit this small town in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar that had become a ‘Kingdom of Philosophy’? Jena looked unassuming and, with around 4,500 inhabitants, it was decidedly small. It was compact and square within its crumbling medieval town walls, and it took less than 10 minutes on foot to cross. At its centre was an open market square, and its cobbled streets were lined with houses of different heights and styles. There was a university, a library with 50,000 books, book binders, printers, a botanical garden and plenty of shops. Students rushed through the streets to their lectures or discussed the latest philosophical ideas in the town’s many taverns. Tucked into a wide valley and surrounded by gentle hills and fields, Jena was lovingly called ‘little Switzerland’ by the Swiss students.

Back in the 18th century, Jena and its university had been part of the Electorate of Saxony but, because of complicated inheritance rules, the state had been divided up and the university was nominally controlled by no fewer than four different Saxon dukes. In practice, it meant that no one was really in charge, allowing professors to teach and explore revolutionary ideas. ‘Here we have complete freedom to think, to teach and to write,’ one professor said. Censorship was less strict compared with elsewhere, and the scope of subjects that could be taught was broad. ‘The professors in Jena are almost entirely independent,’ Jena’s most famous inhabitant, the playwright Friedrich Schiller, explained. Thinkers, writers and poets in trouble with the authorities in their home states came to Jena, drawn by the openness and relative freedoms. Schiller himself had arrived after he had been arrested for his revolutionary play The Robbers (1781) in his home state, the Duchy of Württemberg.

On a lucky day at the end of the 18th century, you might have seen more famous writers, poets and philosophers in Jena’s streets than in a larger city in an entire century. There was the tall, gaunt-looking Schiller (who could only write with a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk), the stubborn philosopher Fichte, who put the self at the centre of his work, and the young scientist Alexander von Humboldt – the first to predict harmful human-induced climate change. The brilliant Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and August Wilhelm, both of them writers and critics with pens as sharp as the French guillotines, lived in Jena, as did the young philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who redefined the relationship between the individual and nature, and G W F Hegel, who would become one of the most influential philosophers in the Western world.

Link to the rest at Aeon

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