The Romantic Movement began as a response to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It, like every other pervasive cultural movement, had its own way of explaining the way the world works. In order to understand the roots of the Romantic period it is necessary to go back to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who disagreed with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on civilization as the solution to all society’s problems. Instead, Mr. Rousseau believed nature contains a ‘betterment’ element that benefits every member of society. Nature is preferable to the ills and evils of civilization. This gave rise to Mr. Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage, a romanticized version of prelapsarian man. A man who lives outside the burdens of society, Mr. Rousseau believed, will prosper and flourish more fully than those living under the burdens placed upon them by civilized living.
The essential spirit of the Romantic Movement was one of revolt against established laws, traditions, dogmas, and formulas. It praised creativity over reason, emotions over logic, nature over society, and intuition over science. This idealistic focus cleared the way for a vast body of literature of great sensibility and passion. In their choice of heroes, the Romantic writers replaced the protagonists of classical, eighteenth-century literature with a more complex being: the Romantic hero. This hero is portrayed as a master of his own fate: a man who storms the heavens and lives to tell the tale. This exceptional figure wanders, unburdened by society, making his own path through the world. The Romantic writer focused on his character’s passions and inner struggles, emphasizing the examination of human personality, its moods, and mental possibilities.
Though Romanticism rejects traditional religion, it turns to nature as a type of religion in itself—to shape, guide, and inspire the Romantic artist. There is a great deal of personal expression in art, but there is also an expression of something outside oneself. When the artist reaches beyond himself to grasp the great force that animates the world, his writing can truly transcend barriers and become compelling for all men.
Edgar Allan Poe, an archetype of the Romantic writer, was one of the first American writers to become a major figure in world literature. Born in 1809, he played a key role in the development of Romantic literature, especially the short story and detective fiction. His life’s work, not only as an author of novels, but as a literary critic and magazine writer, had a profound impact on American and world literature. Mr. Poe focused mainly on the effect the style of the piece had on its readers. By replacing the technical side to the written word, Mr. Poe became the forerunner of the notion of art for art’s sake.
Mr. Poe’s stormy writing style was not always popular. During his lifetime he made his living as America’s first great literary critic and theoretician. It was during his years in New York and Philadelphia, fifteen years before his death, that he finally established himself as a poet, a short-story writer, and an editor. Mr. Poe is important to the history of Romantic ideas because of his contributions to the literary field such as: The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher; The Tell-Tale Heart; and Eleonora. From his three mystery stories, Murders of the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter and The Mystery of Marie Roget, Mr. Poe became widely recognized as the inventor of the modern detective story. The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and Eureka solidified his place as an innovator in the geneaology of the science fiction genre.
In his critical theories and through his writings, Edgar Allan Poe asserted that didactic and intellectual elements held no place in his art. For a Romantic writer, the subject matter of art should deal with the emotions of the character and the reader, and the greatest art was that which had a direct effect on the emotions. As Mr. Poe reasoned, man felt and sensed an event before he thought about it; his writings went on to reflect this dictum. Even his most intellectual characters, such as the detective M. Dupin (The Purloined Letter, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, etc.), rely more on intuition than on rationality. As one examines M. Dupin, one notes that he solves his crimes by intuitively placing himself in the mind of the criminal. Rather than placing himself within the confines of what rationality would tell him, the detective is then able to enter the state of mind of another human being, providing him with a unique insight into the events of the mystery.
Throughout Mr. Poe’s works, his characters are usually dominated by their emotions. This characterization explains much of the erratic behavior of the characters in his stories. Roderick Usher’s emotions are overwrought; Ligeia and the narrator of that eponymous story both exist in the world of emotions; the behaviors of the narrators of The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat are irrational from the start; in The Cask of Amontillado, Montresor’s hatred of Fortunato exceeds all rational explanation,leading to his half-thought out actions in bricking up an alcove in his basement. Throughout Mr. Poe’s fiction, the behavior of his characters must be viewed through the prism of the Romantic style he embraced.
Just as the setting of Romantic stories was typically the distant past, Mr. Poe set his stories in fantastical worlds. This was done so as not to distract his readers with contemporary references. He spun worlds full of obscurities to pull the reader away from the actual world and push him towards the ideal and the beautiful. The setting of The Fall of the House of Usher is a romantic castle on the Rhine, and in Eleonora, an imaginary spirit valley; both settings elevate the reader to a plane beyond reality. Mr. Poe despised literature that dealt with mundane subjects. Such banal happenings, he believed, could be seen every day. For Mr. Poe, the purpose of art was to choose subjects that could affect the reader in a manner that he would not encounter in everyday life. Thus, the subject matter of many of his tales dealt with living corpses, with frightening experiences, with horrors to startle the reader, and with situations that no one had ever imagined before.
The seemingly puzzling elements to Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, such as an unexpected ending or an unanticipated event, are not puzzling if one remembers that the fictions he created were a result of his writing in the Romantic tradition. The Romantic writer emphasizes the strange, the bizarre, the unusual, and the unexpected in his or her writing. The Romantic writer does not incorporate the common or the ordinary into the realm of art. While Mr. Poe’s tales can be read as mere “stories,” they take on further significance as superb examples of the Romantic literary tradition.
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