Romantic beliefs

A reaction to the Enlightenment

Keats not only built upon - but also reacted against - prevailing orthodoxies, like all the Romantic poets. They saw the limitations of the Enlightenment, whose artists and thinkers had imagined themselves as breaking free from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new era illuminated by reason, science and a respect for humanity. 
Ultimately, there was a reaction against the dominance of reason, which was expressed through two literary genres: 

European romanticism

Romanticism developed in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and was associated with the work of people such as Goethe, Schiller and Klinger in Germany and the first and second generation of Romantic poets in England.
Klinger's play Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) gave its name to a movement in which:
  • The struggle for self-realisation of the artistic ‘genius' was central
  • The power of creative imagination was given priority over the power of reason
  • The poet was perceived as a seer or prophet. His/her genius (guiding spirit) enabled him/her to enter into the realities of existence. This higher ‘truth' was closed to those who relied on reason and on surface observation.
For the Romantics, imagination was not an ability to conjure up a world which wasn't ‘real' or didn't exist. Instead it referred to a capacity to penetrate reality, to have vision or insight into the inner reality of the world.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason 

Immanuel KantA major source of philosophical inspiration for the Romantics was Immanuel Kant whose Critique of Pure Reason (1781) became a fundamental text. He argued that all knowledge derives from experience yet is dependent on a priori or ‘transcendental’ structures in the mind, such as the concepts of time and space. Kant also argued that notions such as God, freedom and eternity were similarly part of this transcendental realm, unknowable (because they cannot be experienced directly) but nevertheless necessary for humans to make sense of reality. 

The significance of the imagination

To Keats, as to all the Romantics, Kant’s philosophy was attractive, since it gave an active and creative role to the mind in the formulation of human knowledge. Importantly, Kant gave a central role to the artistic imagination when it came to understanding experience. According to Kant, ‘aesthetic imagination’ is free of the laws which govern the understanding and works through symbols – a concept that pervades, for instance, Keats’ Odes.
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