Romanticism and Goethe’s Prometheus

03 Dec

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

By Alex P. Vidal

IT is often said that Romanticism was a reflection against the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
And yet this interpretation does not provide a complete explanation of the movement.
For Romanticism was more than an anti-intellectual outburst; it was a general rebellion against the whole civilization of late 18th century Europe.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines Romanticism as an “attitude or intellectual orientation that characterized many works of literature, painting, music, architecture, criticism, and historiography in Western civilization over a period from the late 18th to the mid-19th century.”
Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular.
It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general.
Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.


Although the positive view of the Romantics were often quite divergent and sometimes even contradictory, almost without exception the Romantics shared a desire to escape from the immediate historical situation in which they found themselves.
The escape routes varied.
Some Romantics, like the novelists Hugo and Scott, immersed themselves in the medieval past; some, like the philosopher Hegel, identified themselves with a supernatural Reality transcending the vicissitudes of time and space; some, like the political theorist De Maistre, found refuge in the traditions and authority of the Church; some, like the poet Wordsworth, sought communion with an idyllic Nature, itself soon to be despoiled by the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution, according to John Louis Beatty and Oliver A. Johnson of the Heritage of Civilization.


“Prometheus” (1774) is written by German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was too broad in his interests and attitudes to be classified as a Romantic.
Indeed he has been called the last uomo-universale in Western civilization.

Cover your heavens
In cloud-mists, Zeus,
And like a boy
Beheading thistles, go practice
On oaks and mountain tops!
Still you’ll have to
Leave me my earth,
The hut you did not build,
And the hearth,
Whose fire
You envy me.

I know nothing under the sun
Less enviable than you gods!
Your majesty,
Wretchedly nourished
On exacted sacrifice
And breath of prayer,
Would famish were not
Children and beggars
Hopeful fools.

While yet a child,
Knowing no other way,
Lost, I turned my face
To the sun, as if up there
Some ear might hear my lamentation,
Some heart like mine
Pity my affection.

Who helped me
Resist Titanic arrogance?
Who rescued me from death,
From slavery?
Didn’t you accomplish it yourself,
High impassioned heart?
And yet, youthfully passionate and good,
You gave deluded thanks for rescue
To the slumberer above.

Why should I honor you?
Did you ever soothe the pain
Of the oppressed?
Or still the tears
Of anguish, ever?
Wasn’t I forged a man
By everlasting fate
And time omnipotent,
My lords and yours?

Did you suppose
I’d come to hate life,
Escape to deserts,
Because not all
Dreams blossomed?

Here I sit and create men
After my own image,
A race like myself,
To suffer, to weep,
To relish, to rejoice,
And to ignore you,
As do I?

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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in EDUCATION


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