- Stages of European Romanticism: Cultural Sychronicity across the Arts, 1798–1848 by Theodore Ziolkowski
It would seem inherent in the nature of romanticism that we regularly discover it to be quite different from what we had hitherto believed it to be. This habit of discovery shows more persistence and resilience than the more recent enterprise of brushing new history against the grain. The grain in question with romanticism is a longstanding conceptual tangle and the impulse to comb it out into an elaborate "synchronicity" springs more from convictions about necessities of historical order than the best attention to the individual character of creative work. On the one hand, we have this word, "romanticism," and on the other, history and its actual vagaries. The difference has been moving opinions to and fro for quite some time. Erwin Kircher noted in his Philosophie der Romantik, published posthumously in 1906, "Diese Romantiker wollten gerade das ,Romantische' von sich abhalten – wie man es damals und heute versteht."
Somehow nothing seems to have much effect on the pattern of astonishment that has left its mark here. "Damals und Heute" rule over Theodore Ziolkowski's Stages of European Romanticism much as they had in the generation on which Kircher cast his critical light of surprise. The problem seems to have embedded itself like a burr under the saddle of history in the way that words do when they find no loyal attachment to their function as names. The discomfort that disturbs an orderly ride just keeps coming back. Although representatives of a new generation in Germany writing at the close of the 18th century probably did not realize the troublemaking potential of the word they adopted to name their group and their movement, the ironic playfulness in the way Friedrich Schlegel used language to flummox his contemporaries suggests perhaps they really did. After all, he did invent a style of coining terms that he called "mystische Terminologie" to describe phrases like "transzendentaler Standpunkt" that conjured up an inherent contradiction.
Ziolkowski shows an admirable breadth of scholarship in many national traditions, covering the period he identifies as romantic across the full half century from 1798 to 1848, and moving with good authority across various literary genres. To this he adds his confidence in analyzing painting and musical composition. In each of his sections he alights at ten-year intervals across that period to identify the works he considers most vividly representative of each stage, and concluding each of these chapters with "Findings." This gives his study a highly ordered feeling, though perhaps Ziolkowski's methodical progress could strike one as a little slicked down when measured against what one knows about the ragged edges of the event in question. One can follow his exploration of this territory across Europe and to the New World with considerable pleasure as long as one is ready to accept his outermost expansion of the term "romantic."
It is unfortunate that the cover designer chose to use an image that represents the lowest point of absurdity and decay of "romanticism" at its last gasp: Carl Spitzweg's 1848 "Gnom, Eisenbahn betrachtend." Pursuing the period to such a late date exposes its saddest and silliest remnant. That is unfortunate because it reinforces those prejudices to which Erwin Kircher adverts among those who had absorbed their superficial [End Page 161] impression of romanticism and "das Romantische." A gnome contemplating a railway from a cave? That was clearly far from the sensibility that stirred William Wordsworth's poetry of nature and common life in England in 1798. It was far also from the speculative and rebellious innovations in poetry, philosophy, and criticism in Germany that Ziolkowski likewise invokes in his chapter on 1798. Do we uncover more, or do we bury individual distinctions when we look for general correspondences here?
What would connect the sensibility of William Wordsworth in the poems he collected with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their volume Lyrical Ballads that year with Friedrich Schlegel and those boldly philosophical...