Sentimentality in Literature and Sentimental Philosophy

Sentimentality in literature and sentimental philosophy was a move away from the importance the Enlightenment placed on reason and logic. While the Enlightenment believed in the use of rationality to reach truth, sentimental philosophy stressed on emotions and feelings as a means to attain truth. Sentimental philosophy is mostly associated with Romanticism, mainly because Romanticism is seen as a movement which arose in opposition to the ideas associated with the Enlightenment. Sentimentality is stressed in most Romantic literature, and is evident in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron etc., and also in the sentimental novel which developed during that period.

Marshall Brown in his essay, Enlightenment and Romanticism, gives certain characteristics of the Romantic period which in turn influenced sentimentality in literature and developed sentimental philosophy. One of the characteristics of the Romantic period was a developed sense of historical sensibility. This meant that a great importance was placed on how the present relates to the past, instead of a mere understanding of what the past was. When the Romanticist celebrated the present moment, he or she was also acknowledging the past which has shaped the present. This is unlike the Enlightenment movement, which was seen as an exit from the Dark Ages, a light which appeared out of nowhere to educate and illuminate. Brown feels that this was one of the major weaknesses of the Enlightenment, which discarded the past in order to glorify the present. Romanticism can also be seen to disregard the Enlightenment. It attacked “classicizing, conformist rationalism in recognition of unstated emotions and unconscious instincts” (Brown 26). Blake criticized the canons of 18th century art and dismissed Lockean empiricism. Wordsworth rebelled against the strict rules of 18th century poetry. The Romantic novel promoted “supernatural sensationalism” (Brown 27). Romantic philosophy was transcendental and idealist. However, this is a rather simplistic reading of Romanticism.

Brown complicates the idea of sentimentality being associated only with Romanticism as he explains how sentimental literature often existed as a counter current to Enlightenment works, and developed especially in the transition period between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, a time which some critics call post-Enlightenment or pre-Romanticism.

In Romanticism, Enlightenment ideas are accommodated along with Romanticist ideals; and this is where Romanticism succeeds where Enlightenment fails. It creates a balance between sentimentality and reason. Voltaire’s ideal of reason is reflected in the works of Shelley, Schlegel and French revolutionary thinkers. Popean satire influences the writings of Byron, Blake, Shelley and some of Keats. Neoclassicism, one of the most important ideas associated with the Enlightenment, can also be seen in the works of Shelley, Byron, Keats, French revolutionary artists, Schiller etc.

Sentimental philosophy does not try to vanquish the evil past with the good present. Instead, it transcends the good-evil dichotomy. The past, with all its flaws and mistakes, is accommodated with the present. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey is an example of this. This coming-to-consciousness is the “ground on which Romantics arrived at their often conflicting assessments of the world they experienced”. Through reason, Romanticism aimed at knowing the light through knowing the dark and the present by means of the past. For this, the Romanticists employ sentimental philosophy.

The Romantics also shared a consciousness of revolution. This wasn’t limited to a political revolution, but a revolution of ideas, feelings, behaviour, and philosophy. Sentimental literature was a by-product of this consciousness. Romanticism was a revolutionary reawakening of the Enlightenment, a looking back at everything the Enlightenment had ignored to look into the present.

Works Cited

Brown, Marshall. “Romanticism and Enlightenment”. Ed. Curran, Susan. The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.

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