The Romantic Individual

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

The Romantic Individual

The critical landscape in the 18th century was animated by the division between classicism* and Romanticism, although, as we will see, the neat split between these movements is oversimplified. The theories of German philosopher, Friedrich von Schlegel (1772—1829) were popularized by a French woman of letters, known as Mme de Staël (1766—1817), in her book De l’Allemagne (1813).

In his early writings, Schlegel set out a Romantic poetics and ethics grounded in a radical individualism, which laid the philosophical basis for the Romantic celebration of imagination and originality, going against the classicists’ emphasis on reason.


Criticism is not to judge works by a general ideal, but is to search out the individual ideal of every work.

Friedrich von Schiller (1759—1805) published an influential series of letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), in which the aesthetic is figured as a model of human freedom: the individual’s creative imagination is seen as the faculty that unites sense, perception and understanding.


The road of aesthetics must be pursued, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom.

Schiller also looked to the supposedly organic (naturally occurring) wholeness of the ancient Greek polis as an ideal model of human society, set against the fragmented nature of modern existence.

Looking backwards for idealized models of social organization influenced Romantic writers in England. It is particularly noticeable in Shelley’s “Preface” to his verse-drama Prometheus Unbound (1820, 1839). Although Romanticism can generally be viewed as a part of broad reaction against following neoclassical rules and stylistic strictures, Shelley’s idealization of “institutions not more perfect than those of Athens” shows an overlap with classicism.

The conflict between classicism and Romanticism is often presented as a division between authority (of precedents and conventions) and originality (of the artistic imagination).

There are no rules or models.

Victor Hugo (1802—85)


Every great poet must inevitably innovate … on the example of his predecessors.

An important factor in distinguishing between these two movements is their different approach to subjectivity. As we saw with Pope, neoclassicists stressed the objective nature of the external, material world (objectivism*).

For subjectivists, such as Johann Fichte (1762—1814), consciousness is inseparable from the external world, rather than a mere perceptual apparatus — refusing to acknowledge a distinction between noumena (things in themselves) and phenomena (things as they appear).


It is impossible to view the material world objectively because knowledge of the external world is, in effect, an extension of self-consciousness.

In 1800, another Friedrich — Friedrich Schelling (1775—1854) — sought to reconcile subjectivism* and objectivism in his System of Transcendental Idealism.

Romantic theory, which had its origins in the philosophy of Schelling, emphasized the formative role of consciousness and individual creativity.

The subjectivist position had been anticipated by Bishop Berkeley (1685—1753), who proposed immaterialism, or subjective idealism — arguing that things do not exist concretely but are “ideal”, created within the individual’s consciousness. For this reason, Berkeley has sometimes been described as the “father of idealism”. Dr Johnson, a staunch classicist and objectivist, famously disagreed.


Though we are satisfied Bishop Berkeley’s doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it.

I refute it thus.

Johnson was also a key figure in the construction of a canon* of English literature (works regarded as especially influential or important), through his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779—81) and his prefaces to Shakespeare’s plays.