Essay: A Study of the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the literary world witnessed the birth of the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods. There were similarities as well as very notable differences between the two. There were also two prominent voices that gained notoriety during each of these two periods. Voltaire is considered to be the pioneer of the power of reason and Rousseau is looked upon as a legendary figure of nineteenth-century Romanticism. This analysis will evaluate the two eras, both writers and a literary piece.

The Enlightenment Era gave way to an age of reasoning. During this time, the writers were regarded as philosophers. They came up with diverse theories and possessed different points of view. Never the less, the philosophers were amalgamated on the basis of worldly, civilisation, broad-based, and self-determination. (Gay, 3) The Enlightenment liberties were free of capricious authority, allowed free expression and exchange, consented to the fulfilment of individual aptitudes, permitted artistic reactions, and endorsed man’s right to self-determination. (Gay, 3)

Another recurring theme of The Enlightenment was happiness. Happiness was considered the most important factor of The Enlightenment deliberations. It was happiness in the present and nothing outside of that moment. Happiness was viewed as an entitlement that all men were privileged to have and only ignorance along with peripheral barriers could refute them. (Anderson, 367) 

Lastly, church and government were also two foundations that served as ethical conductors for human manners during the Enlightenment Era. These foundations helped to restrain people’s ignoble proclivity. In other words, rules and guidance were needed to keep people on the right path, otherwise, they were bound to behave immorally. 

Romanticism was an era when writers and poets strayed away from reasoning or rational thinking. The focus is now shifted to individualism, emotions, and nature. (James 485) These themes provided new ideas and different means to interpret and understand the world in a whole new light. Reasoning was no longer the most important concept that guided society’s way of looking at the world. 

During the Romantic Era, the individual became more important than in the past. According to J.M. Cohen, this era encouraged people to look at themselves not as fragments extending from heaven to the natural world but as inimitable entities eminent in their own authenticity. (Cohen, 7) This idea indicates that man is a distinct being entitled to explore and express his own feelings and thoughts. Simply put, examine the man as an individual and not as a unit. 

The Romantic Era was a period of that examined emotions and put them into words. Romantics abandoned the logical traditional Western World thought which believed that intelligence was the method used to understand the world. However, the Romantics opted to espouse imagination and feelings as a veritable approach to empathise the world. (James ,488)

Lastly, the Romantic Era blended human emotions with nature. The interfacing of emotion and nature was emblematic of Romantic poetry, whether it engrossed the idea of bequeathing human emotions to an innate article like a river or connecting the scenery to the temperament of the writer. (James, 491) This kind of beauty that is portrayed in the world may not actually exist; however, it is evoked from personal acuity and passion as seen through the eyes of the poet.

When comparing The Enlightenment to Romanticism, there were two similar characteristics. First, they were both rebellions. The Enlightenment was a revolution against religion. The previous period placed more emphasis on God and the natural order of the universe as opposed to rationalism. (James, 1) On the other hand, Romanticism was a revolution against The Enlightenment. Romantics felt that every occurrence in the world could not be determined by logic and that beauty as well as imagination was an important aspect of life. The two periods also presented thoughts on individualism. The Enlightenment looked at the individual based on their personal reasoning while Romantics focused on individual feelings. Although their basic idea on the individual was different, both periods emphasised the personal right to power of their own person.

The Enlightenment differed from Romanticism in many ways. First, The Enlightenment placed immense importance on thoughts and reasoning while Romantics focused on emotions and self- experience. The Enlightenment poets were dexterous in using true-life events to create realistic works depicting an illusory individual. Unlike The Enlightenment, Romantic poetics constructed elegiac pieces that exhibited personal feelings. The Enlightenment writers devised poetry that allowed readers to see the other person from the poet’s perspective while Romantics permitted readers to see the poet in the leading role. One last difference is that The Enlightenment writers used human beings as their principal focus in poetry while Romantics used nature.

Voltaire was a writer during The Enlightenment period and was known as one of the dominant philosophers in his era. His literary form was displayed by characteristics of tradition and heroism. The literary mode he presented was satiric and filled with reasoning. His reality was based on principles of experience and observation. The plot in his compositions was motivated by consequence, knowledge, and logic. The characters were fictional common individuals. He also felt that man should be happy regardless of his confinements. 

Rousseau composed literary compositions during the Romantic Period and unlike Voltaire, he wrote from a very different perspective. Rousseau was considered to be an iconic figure for the Romantic Era. The literary forms that his stories took on were novel and unique. The literary modes displayed in his compositions were full of personal accounts and emotions. His reality was internal because the focus took an account of his personal feelings. The plots assigned to his compositions were inspired by the character, feelings, passion, and poignant conclusions. His characters were rebels, outcasts, and distinctive. Also, he felt that man was born innately moral but was corrupted by unscrupulous environments.

Candide is a literary piece written by Voltaire that uses irony and sarcasm to critique imperfections. In this composition, Voltaire uses fictional characters to represent the world as he sees it. Candide is presented as the hero in the story. The events and journeys provided knowledge and discussed many ideas. For instance, Voltaire used the idea of a garden to discuss thoughts about happiness. Candide found happiness by returning to a simple life where he worked hard and supported himself through that process. The principles of experience and observation are displayed throughout the story; one example would be the existence of Eldorado. Eldorado represented the idea that better opportunities could exist if man was in tune with the temperament of the world and God. Candide had suffered so many terrible events and now he sees life in a different perspective. The plot in Candide is that he loses the love of his life and travels all over the world to find her; however, he gains knowledge and wisdom in the process. 

The Confessions is an autobiography written by Rousseau. In this literary opus, Rousseau focuses on his individual emotions and experiences to express his own personal point of view. The plot in this work was driven by him along with his passions and emotions. In the Confessions, Rousseau uses his feelings and desires as the focal point of his writings. Since the Confessions are part of the Romantic period, it depicts the espousing of imagination and feelings as a veritable way of interpreting the world. In the Confessions, Rousseau paints himself as a non-conformist. He has little respect for discipline and lacks patience which is evident in his writings. Also in the Confessions, Rousseau shares his thoughts about the nature of human beings. He indicates that man is born inherently honest but is sullied by debauched establishments. 

In conclusion, The Enlightenment and Romantic periods were based on very different perspectives. Intellect and reasoning rule The Enlightenment while feelings and emotions reigned over The Romantic period. Despite the differences, they both originated from a revolutionary form. Voltaire and Rousseau were phenomenal writers from two different literary worlds. However, they prompted people to open their minds and explore the world from opposing standpoints.


Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition. London: Oxford U. P., 1953.

Anderson, M. S. Europe in the Eighteenth Century 1713-1783. 2nd edition, 1976. in the series, A General History of Europe, ed. Denys Hay. London: Longman, 1961.

Ayer, Alfred Jules. Voltaire. New York: Random House, 1986.

Cohen, J. M. A History of Western Literature. Baltimore: Penguin, 1956.

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism. N.Y.: Vintage, 1968.

James, Lawall, Patterson, Spacks, Thalman. The Norton Anthology Western Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

Mason, Hadyn. European Masters: Voltaire. London: Hutchinson, 1975.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Confessions--1765 - 1770. Penguin: published posthumously in 1781, trans. J. M. Cohen, 1956.