Reactions to rationality

Ultimately, there was a reaction against the dominance of reason, which was expressed through two literary genres.

Sentimental and gothic literature

‘Sentimentalism' developed as a reaction to rationalism in philosophy and to Calvinism in religion:

  • The Enlightenment encouraged distrust of feelings, whilst Calvinism taught that the human heart was intrinsically evil
  • ‘Sentimentalism' emphasised the central importance of feelings and the essential goodness of the human heart.

A sentimental approach can be found in novels like Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson. It is also highlighted in the debate between reason and sentiment in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

The genre of the gothic-horror novel such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is also related to this reaction against the emphasis on reason. The gothic novel represents a world that is not totally controlled by, and accessible to, human reason. It is aware of deeper psychological and sexual impulses beyond the realm of reason. (See Aspects of literature > Aspects of the gothic.)

European romanticism

Reaction to rationality was also expressed by the rise of European romanticism. This was associated with the work of people such as Goethe, Schiller and Klinger in Germany and Wordsworth and Coleridge in England.

Klinger's play Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) gave its name to a movement in which:

  • The struggle for self-realization 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.

Blake's romanticism

Other early European Romantics such as Novalis were Christians. They believed that dreaming and imagining were ways of participating in the life of God. They understood that the ‘real' world is not the world of surface material reality, but a world infused with the divine. This could be perceived by using imagination.

These views echo Blake's philosophy (see Religious / philosophical background > Attitudes to man and God in the Age of Reason > Blake's opposition to Locke).

Blake is often seen as the first English Romantic poet because of:

  • His insistence on imagination as the means of apprehending the reality of the universe
  • His opposition to rationalism.
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