In Praise of Romanticism

In Praise of Romanticism

My early childhood memories are of me running barefoot on a farm in South Africa. My grandparents had a small piece of land where we milked cows by hand, raised our own chickens, and grew our own corn. Whenever I visit a dairy farm, the scent of fresh cow dung always transports me back to those early years on the farm, running barefoot and free with very little care in the world. There is another memory that stands out for me, and that is watching American shows dubbed into my native language on an old black-and-white television. The reason this memory stands out so strongly is because I can still remember watching my very first undubbed show in color. It was one of my favorites, The A-Team. You cannot imagine what color adds to explosive scenes when all you are used to is black and white! Furthermore, the actual voice of Mr. T. versus a dubbed, fake Afrikaans version. I was enthralled.

A few years later, probably around grade 8 or 9, television would, once again, transform my black-and-white imagination and fill it with color. It was a movie that introduced me to a movement, a movement that has come to be accused of all sorts of evils in our present world, yet a movement through which I have come to appreciate my own humanity and the whole human experience. That movie was The Dead Poets Society (DPS) and the movement, you may have guessed, Romanticism.

DPS: A Gateway to the Romantics?

In the movie, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) opens the official meeting of “The Dead Poets Society” with an edited quote from the famous reflections of the 19th century American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. The quote, as cited in DPS, states:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life, and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.

Arguably, this may be the defining quote of the movie. It captured my imagination about living with purpose. Still, what it did more than anything was give me a love for literature. Though this love was hidden from my boyish peers who often didn’t share this notion, it planted the seeds of living in such a way that inspired me to “suck out all the marrow of life.” I wanted to live with passion and resolve.

Years later, the full quote came across my reading and I found in the words of Thoreau a perfect summary of the Romantic movement. The quote reads as follows:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.[1]

What is it about this quote that forms a perfect summary of the Romantics?

Nature: A Return to the Woods

Thoreau’s experiment captures the heart of the Romantic movement: a return to nature.[2] Certainly Thoreau’s experiment was radical solitariness, a return to a simple existence where one man seeks to live in balance with the natural world, whereas most Romantic writers and those who followed in their footsteps enjoyed privileges that came with living in city communities. Nonetheless, there was a deep appreciation for the natural world that was sparked in the writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge and echoed through those who followed them.

In order to understand this emphasis among the Romantic writers, we must understand a little of the context in which they wrote. Romanticism is commonly agreed upon to appear toward the end of the 18th century and reach its height around the mid 19th century, though arguably it is still a vibrant and influential force in our world today. In order to understand the rise of Romanticism and its clarion call to return to nature, one must place it at the peak of the Industrial Revolution. While it is dangerous to isolate a single cause for such a diverse movement, with proponents clearly having different reasons for promoting common ideals, the 18th and 19th century city is certainly a key catalyst that thrust many Romantic writers into the countryside and onto their pages with passion.[3] In many respects, the 18th and 19th century cities were awful places to live, unless you were among the wealthy few. This is hard to conceptualize for many of us who live in the 21st century Western city, which has largely been tidied and is a place of youth and beauty, with parks and greenery readily available. For those confronted with some of the evils dominating cities at the height of the Industrial Revolution, there would be sufficient cause to condemn the entire product as an anti-human, or rather, a dehumanizing machine! Cities were unsanitary, breeding places for all sorts of diseases and vermin. The worst vermin were the two-legged industrial despots who sought every opportunity to enlist the impoverished and “innocent” country folk, especially women and children, into their filthy factories. It is no surprise, then, that one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems is aimed at London, titled “London, 1802.” In the poem, Wordsworth laments the state of London and longs for the days of John Milton, one of England’s most celebrated writers, when London was a place of “manners, virtue, freedom, power.”[4] What these poets did was contrast this city-world with the life in the country, which in comparison certainly seemed far more ideal. In the country, communities were smaller. People knew each other by name, still helped each other, and lived far more sanitary lifestyles. The conclusion was easy: the simpler and more in touch with the natural world the lifestyle, the healthier the person or, rather, the more human the person. Certainly, life in the country had its challenges, but one’s humanity was not at risk of being mechanized as it was in the industrialized city. In the country, a criminal would be known and run out of town in a heartbeat. In the city, crime syndicates flourished and corrupted individuals. Two prominent novels of the period show these contrasts quite clearly: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. What the city does to Fantine and Oliver respectfully, taking an innocent mother and corrupting her into prostitution or an innocent orphaned boy and enslaving him into all sorts of evils, is what repulsed Romantic authors with the city. Of course, these writers and poets had their predecessor in the department of philosophy in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here is part of the reason so many find the Romantics distasteful. They look back on this infamous predecessor, whose criticism of society at large and love of nature clearly influenced the Romantic writers, and certainly some Romantics were influenced by his politics and lifestyles as well. But, once again, we in the West find it hard to imagine the awful circumstances many found themselves in in the 18th and 19th century cities. Consider modern city slums around the world with their sweat-shops and criminal underworld. We have to try to place ourselves in that sort of context to really appreciate such strong criticism from certain thinkers, especially thinkers who were wrestling with what authentic humanity is.

What was the Romantics’ antidote to this dehumanizing machine called the city or “society”? It was getting a firm grasp on the natural and the simple. Most Romantics didn’t withdraw from the city or society, but they did try to spend as much time as possible in the country and enjoy the simplicity of country lifestyles on occasions. These acts helped them pen words that brought natural beauty to the page for others’ imaginations to be captivated. Consider for a moment these words from Coleridge’s poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”:

Now, my friends emerge

Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.[5]

Notice in this stanza what a touch of nature could do to the “gentle-hearted Charles” who, it seems, had come under many misfortunes living in the city. The Romantics really believed we could recover portions of our humanity lost to the rise of the machine. In a sense, they advocated for a revolution that really only took root in the beginning of the 20th century and is now flowering all over more progressive cities, and that is the restoration of natural beauty among city dwellings and the preservation of natural landscapes for the enjoyment of all peoples. Dare I say that we may not have nature conservation in the way we know it today were it not for Romanticism? After all, even John Muir, whose influence on President Theodore Roosevelt became the catalyst to the preservation of the American National Parks, had his natural roots in Romanticism.[6]

And this is the world in which Charlotte Mason was writing an educational philosophy. It is no surprise, then, that a great emphasis in her writings includes human interaction with the natural environment. Mason lists a plethora of benefits a child may gain from lengthy periods spent in nature, from physical to mental health.[7] I can cite a myriad of quotations in reference, but a single quote will make the point. Consider this statement from Mason, especially in regard to what nature experiences can do for a person dwelling in the city:

But to enable them to swim with the stream is the least of the benefits this early training should confer on the children; a love of Nature, implanted so early that it will seem to them hereafter to have been born in them, will enrich their lives with pure interests, absorbing pursuits, health, and good humour. ‘I have seen,’ says [Kingsley], ‘the young man of fierce passions and uncontrollable daring expend healthily that energy which threatened daily to plunge him into recklessness, if not into sin, upon hunting out and collecting, through rock and bog, snow and tempest, every bird and egg of the neighbouring forest. … I have seen the young London beauty, amid all the excitement and temptation of luxury and flattery, with her heart pure, and her mind occupied in a boudoir full of shells and fossils, flowers and seaweeds, keeping herself unspotted from the world, by considering the lilies of the field, how they grow.’[8]

Being in nature is healthy for our bodies and minds, and this will lead us to the next thing I appreciate about the Romantics.

Being Human: To Suck Out All the Marrow of Life

The next emphasis of the Romantics, which is captured well in our quote from Thoreau, is to seek enjoyment in the entire human experience. True, DPS means something very different from Thoreau when referring to “[sucking] out all the marrow of life,” but both hint at something similar. For the Romantics, and here I include the broad range of authors, artists, and philosophers who exhibit the Romantic spirit, whether that be the characters in DPS or Thoreau, the quest for living life to the full was similar. The reason the Romantics loved getting out into nature is because it awoke the senses to the living world around them. I want to point you back to Coleridge’s poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” quoted above, and consider how his desire for his friend Charles, a city dweller, is to experience the beauty of the natural wonder through his senses:

Ah! slowly sink

Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.

For the Romantics, getting in touch with nature is awakening our senses to the living experience of being human, something the industrialized city with all its dullness and smoke had smothered. This, in part, is the tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel is, after all, an exploration of what it means to be fully human. The novel’s descriptions of the monster’s experiences in nature and subsequent desire to become part of a rural community are striking. The monster, educated through its senses, uses these powers of observation to learn language and culture from a shepherd’s family. But what it truly craves is friendship and companionship, yet its appearance is that of a monster and thus it becomes an outcast. Few novels cover the quest for authentic human experience as well as Shelley’s Frankenstein. It shows clearly that companionship lies at the heart of the human experience. Frankenstein’s monster, while being educated through nature, had to attempt a life in community. We cannot long survive isolated from other human beings. And thus the themes of friendship, love, and companionship are central to the human experience. But, even in Shelley’s Frankenstein, nature plays a pivotal role in cultivating feelings of joy and peace. Consider this single line from the monster’s own description to Victor Frankenstein:

I generally rested during the day, and travelled only when I was secured by night from the view of man. One morning, however, finding that my path lay through a deep wood, I ventured to continue my journey after the sun had risen; the day, which was one of the first of spring, cheered even me by the loveliness of its sunshine and the balminess of the air. I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure, that had long appeared dead, revive within me. Half surprised by the novelty of these sensations, I allowed myself to be borne away by them; and, forgetting my solitude and deformity, dared to be happy.[9]

And so, in Romantic literature, nature has a purpose. Nature helps educate our senses. A “return to nature” is to retreat from society in order to recover, through our sense experience, what it means to be human. Nature recalibrates us to our humanity. Yet, we cannot remain in isolation. We must be propelled back to community, to friendship and love, and become signposts to our fellow humans of humanity itself, of what it means to live free from the entrapments of industry. This exploration of what it means to be human, truly human, is a hallmark of the Romantic writers.

Charlotte Mason continues this theme in her educational philosophy. Consider this quote:

The consideration of out-of-door life, in developing a method of education, comes second in order; because my object is to show that the chief function of the child—his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life—is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavour of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being.[10]

But even for Mason, the end of nature-training is companionship. Just a few paragraphs later she writes:

That we all have the same instincts and appetites, we are prepared to allow, but that the principles of action which govern all men everywhere are primarily the same, is a little startling; that, for instance, the same desires stir in the breasts of savage and of sage alike; that the desire of knowledge, which shows itself in the child’s curiosity about things and his eager use of his eyes, is equally active everywhere; that the desire of society, which you may see in two babies presented to one another and all agog with glee and friendliness, is the cause, alike, of village communities amongst savage tribes and of the philosophical meetings of the learned; that everywhere is felt the desire of esteem—a wonderful power in the hands of the educator, making a word of praise or blame more powerful as a motive than any fear or hope of punishment or reward.[11]

For Mason, education is training up the entire human being for the entire human experience. Nature plays a crucial role in educating the senses, but it must produce the result that benefits that innermost human desire, the desire for community. In a sense, Shelley’s Frankenstein is an exploration of these grand themes upon which Mason builds her educational philosophy, continuing the typical Romantic search for the true essence of what it means to be human.

Religion: He Makes Spirits Perceive His Presence

Religion is certainly a thorny issue among the Romantics, much like it is among the Existentialists. In both of these movements, there are proponents on either side of the camp fiercely using common shared themes to come to vastly different conclusions. Most notably is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s own self-identification as “Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat.” These were the controversial words written in Greek by Shelley in the guest book of the popular Romantic destination, Hotel de Villes de Londres in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. For many religious adherents, Shelley’s form of Romanticism is what Romanticism is: immoral, anti-religious, and impulsive. In a recent influential critique, theologian and historian Carl Trueman has laid the blame for the decline of morals at the feet of the Romantics, painting the whole movement with the color of Shelley’s Romanticism.[12] But some have conjectured that Shelley was actually responding to a comment by Coleridge on his own poem, “Hymn Before Sun-Rise, In the Vale of Chamouni,” showing another side to the Romantics.[13] The comment was found in the original head note to the poem, stating, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders?” This brings me to my third appreciation of the Romantics, the recovery of the wonder of creation or, as the Romantics would put it, the experience of the sublime.

While not all Romantics were Christians, and some, such as Shelley, were notably anti-Christian, there was a common sense of the wonder of creation captured in their writings. In Romantic literature, this sense is captured by the term sublime. The term itself is quite elusive and is used in a variety of ways among the Romantics, but the essence of it is to capture what nature does within the one who contemplates its immensity. Most notable poems that capture the sense of the sublime are found in Shelley’s and Coleridge’s respective reflections on the peak of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. In both poems, written from contrasting points of religion, we see how the shared experiences of these two poets craft reflections that attempt to capture the sublime. Consider the reflections of Shelley in his poem, “Mont Blanc, Lines Written in the Vale of Charmouni”:

Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven.[14]

And then, Coleridge’s own reflections on the same scene are captured well in his poem, “Hymn Before Sun-Rise, In the Vale of Chamouni”:

Thou first and chief, sole sovereign of the Vale!
O struggling with the darkness all the night,
And visited all night by troops of stars,
Or when they climb the sky or when they sink:
Companion of the morning-star at dawn,
Thyself Earth’s rosy star, and of the dawn
Co-herald: wake, O wake, and utter praise!

In both poems, the majestic peak of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc calls the poet to reflect on the sublime, that experience of awe produced when confronted with something far greater than perception alone. It calls the poet to reflect on eternal principles, on existence itself. For Shelley, the reflection probed questions into the nature of life and death, of eternal existence as in a dream; and for Coleridge it called for a response through praise. The Romantics have shaped the way in which we look at the beauty of the created world. And as a Christian, when I read the Hebrew psalms or consider the creation narrative in Genesis, I see a world that depicts far more than mere facts or theology: it captures the sublime. The Romantics have given me the language, and perhaps the imagination, to see the emphasis in the Scriptures on the beauty of creation, whether that be in the design and building of the tabernacle and temple, which is decorated with symbols from creation, or in the sense of awe that probes my emotions when confronted with something far greater than myself. I cannot help but think that, without the Romantics’ imaginative aid, I would not have the full spectrum of colors to enjoy the language of Scripture as much as I do.

It is no strange thing that Charlotte Mason insists that a child’s first education experience, in fact the first seven years, be through the sensory experience of the natural world. Consider, for example, this counsel Mason gives on cultivating a sense of the beautiful in children:

There is no end to the store of common information, got in such a way that it will never be forgotten, with which an intelligent child may furnish himself before he begins his school career. The boy who can tell you off-hand where to find each of the half-dozen most graceful birches, the three or four finest ash trees in the neighbourhood of his home, has chances in life a dozen to one compared with the lower, slower intelligence that does not know an elm from an oak—not merely chances of success, but chances of a larger, happier life, for it is curious how certain feelings are linked with the mere observation of Nature and natural objects. ‘The æsthetic sense of the beautiful,’ says Dr Carpenter, ‘of the sublime, of the harmonious, seems in its most elementary form to connect itself immediately with the Perceptions which arise out of the contact of our minds with external Nature’; while he quotes Dr Morell, who says still more forcibly that ‘All those who have shown a remarkable appreciation of form and beauty date their first impressions from a period lying far behind the existence of definite ideas or verbal instruction.’[15]

Notice how Mason connects a child’s observation and understanding of nature with his inner feelings and, citing Dr. William Carpenter, connects these feelings with aesthetic beauty and the sublime, very key concepts in Romanticism. But one must not think that this confrontation with nature and the inner feelings that invoke the sublime are the result of an untrained mind. In order to reflect on the natural world to the degree that Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley did and then write epic poetic reflections takes dedication and discipline. And it is precisely this sort of discipline that Charlotte Mason is encouraging in her education. Children ought to be left to wander and observe with little interference, but it isn’t with no interference. A directive question here or a comment there, intended to assist the child to explore with greater depth, is encouraged.[16] Mason desires to cultivate students of nature, not mere casual observers. And for all the criticism the Romantics have received, the last thing they can be accused of is mental laziness. To be confronted with natural beauty to such a degree that it leads to the experience of the sublime takes remarkable effort and is a curiosity that is best cultivated in the early years of a child’s life, as Mason so aptly writes:

And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows? By-and-by he will be called upon to reflect, understand, reason; what material will he have, unless he has a magazine of facts to go upon?[17]

CM: A Romantic Educational Philosophy?

While this article’s purpose was to show three major contributions of the Romantics to the benefit of our human experience, the question may well be posed whether or not Charlotte Mason was part of the Romantic movement. In our era, especially with recent attacks on Romanticism from certain quarters, this may well be an important question for some. If Romanticism itself is the breeding grounds for many ills in society, should we as parents be concerned about an educational philosophy that embodies, in part, the Romantic spirit? Certainly, there are some who have indeed proposed that Charlotte Mason could be placed among the Romantic writers.[18] To this end, I may suggest some things from my personal reading that could be considered.

Firstly, as I have attempted to show, there are certain key ideas developed through the Romantics that we ought to appreciate. The clarion call for us to return to nature in order to recalibrate our senses so that we may properly perceive our humanity and also comprehend the sublime are things we should embrace as believers. God has created a world to be explored and enjoyed by all human beings. And so, to truly explore what makes us human and how we encounter the sublime is part of our privilege as rational creatures created in the image of God. There is no single people-group that has the monopoly on experience and joy. But the more we may have people slow down and observe the natural world, the better for everyone. Charlotte Mason’s great emphasis in studying nature to develop a person is clearly a Romantic notion. If it were to study nature merely to subdue it, that would be an Enlightenment notion. But her emphasis in studying nature is that it is good for the human being, both his physical and mental well-being. If this is what makes Charlotte Mason a Romantic, I welcome it. I believe her educational philosophy can be used by people of various convictions to great benefit, and this will train them to become better human beings and thus benefit society at large, even if they don’t share her religious convictions.

Secondly, Charlotte Mason certainly wrote her educational philosophy at the end of, if not after, the Romantic period. But to say that she wasn’t influenced when we have evidence of a plethora of ideas and quotations that suggest a great deal of influence is not to deal with the facts of the period in which she was writing nor with her writings itself.[19] Influence does not mean full agreement with all things that the movement stood for. Just because she uses Rousseau extensively doesn’t make her a socialist.[20] Just because she quotes from the Romantics extensively, and even incorporates key themes and elements into her writings, doesn’t make her a Romantic. But we can conclusively say that she lived and wrote during or right after the Romantic era. As a result, Romanticism was still very much the “atmosphere” in which Mason wrote her educational philosophy. I like to think that, at the very least, she imbibed the best of what the Romantics stood for to the great benefit of her readers.

Thirdly, if we may return to The Dead Poets Society and consider for a moment the contrasting education methods of Welton Academy, embodied by Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd) the president, and that of John Keating (Robin Williams). Welton, while an excellent preparatory school, had become mechanized, treating its students less like humans and more like machines. In a striking conversation between George McAllister (Leon Pownall) and John Keating, McAllister balks at the notion that Welton’s students could be free-thinking beings at their ages. While the movie may well portray some of the worst that Romanticism has to offer, it also makes us consider how students who are being “prepared” for the wider world ought to be treated. At Welton, it seems as if they are merely prepared for an already predetermined destiny, machine-like in its production of “respectable citizens.” But Mr. Keating treats them like human-beings, individuals who are able to think for themselves and ought to. One of the key concepts found in Charlotte Masons is the fundamental principle that children are “born persons.” A whole essay could explore this single theme in Charlotte Mason’s writings in comparison with the Romantics, but I find some of her methods more in line with Mr. Keating while her convictions still uphold the beauty of tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence, the four pillars of Welton. While Charlotte Mason is not entirely a Mr. Keating, she certainly is not a Mr. Nolan. Her educational philosophy embodies some of the best of the Romantic ideals while avoiding the worst of the movement’s pitfalls. It most definitely seeks to avoid a mechanized approach to education. For Charlotte Mason, education is the development of a person. And all people are born persons and ought to be treated as such, regardless of their age. And part of being a person, the essence of being human, is the ability to think for oneself. While education certainly involves training, it doesn’t do so to the detriment of the individual personhood of the student. Rather, education serves the person. And nature plays a crucial role in the development of the person in Mason’s educational philosophy, which, I would argue, is a dominant theme among the Romantics.

While I am in no position to make a judgment on placing Charlotte Mason’s writings in a particular category, these three reflections from my own reading of Mason, and my broader reading in Romantic literature, bring me to conclude that she was at least influenced significantly by Romanticism. Her educational philosophy represents the best of the Romantic ideals and therefore, could place her among the Romantics in certain respects. However, I would not want to limit her to a single category. What I admire about Charlotte Mason is her ability to use, to great effect, the positives of a person or movement without necessarily being conformed to all that the person or movement stood for. We can see this in her use of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and also Romanticism at large. And this is likely where I remain with my own view on her work.


I am grateful for my early years spent on my grandparents’ farm. In many respects, I had the ideal childhood. I lived out in the countryside where there was an abundance of fresh air and many curiosities that kept my young childhood mind active. My grandparents’ philosophy was that a boy ought to be outdoors most of his day, except for mealtimes. And so, I was raised in an ideal Romantic and Mason-like atmosphere.

But it wasn’t until later years that my imagination was enraptured by the beauty of the natural world through the writings of the Romantics. I don’t know if I ever truly appreciated nature, or my own humanity, before I was introduced to the Romantics. The Romantics gave me imaginative tools to help grasp the depth of the sublime. And, as a Christian, it helped me see the richness of the beauty of creation in the Scriptures. In reading Charlotte Mason, I have come to appreciate these important themes threaded into the fabric of her educational philosophy. Here we find the method of Mr. Keating flourishing within the values of Welton Academy. Through Mason’s educational tools, the best of the Romantic enterprise is set forth while avoiding the worst of its pitfalls. It is the development of the whole person, beginning with the school of nature and climaxing with the complexities of arithmetic, yet all set in an educational atmosphere where ideas and concepts seek to grow the human person. For Mason, education is not the mere download of information, machine-like, into a brain. Rather it is the feeding of the intelligent and rational human person with living ideas built on a foundation of the natural sublime. And to me, this is the heart of the Romantic spirit.

Morné Marais is a carpenter by trade and a theologian by training. Having obtained degrees in theology, he daily finds himself working with 2×4’s while having his mind riveted by all the audiobooks he cannot find the time to read. Speaking of time, he is the father of three young children and the husband to Molly, through whom Morné was introduced to the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. Morné and Molly reside in a sweet little town in Michigan with their children, where they enjoy the beauty of all that Michigan’s natural surroundings have to offer for most of the year.


[1] Thoreau, D.H. Walden, p. 95.

[2] Notable novels of this period that describe humans striving to live in balance with nature are: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719), The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wys (1812), and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (1875), among others. However, these novels generally depict the strength of man to dominate the natural world through knowledge of science, a key hallmark of Enlightenment writing. Robinson Crusoe, however, is an intensely religious book showing how the natural world helped Crusoe reflect on his finitude before an infinite Creator. Hence, the self-reflective religious aspect of Crusoe in nature can be seen as forerunning themes among some of the Romantic writers, even though the novel itself isn’t Romantic by classification. Crusoe does reflect the sublime as Crusoe becomes intensely religious through his experience on the island. These are not necessarily the case with The Mysterious Island or Swiss Family Robinson, which are strictly enlightenment novels and not Romantic in the same way Robinson Crusoe could be.

[3] See Trott, N. “Coleridge’s City” for an excellent treatment of this topic.

[4] See Wordsworth, W. “London, 1802.”

[5] Coleridge, S.T. Poems. David Campbell Publishers LTD, 1991 p. 119.

[6] See Simonson, H. P. The Tempered Romanticism (Western American Literature Vol. 13, No. 3, FALL 1978), pp. 227–241.

[7] Large sections of Part I and II of Home Education are dedicated to why children should spend outdoors and especially in the countryside.

[8] Mason, C. Home Education, pp. 71–72.

[9] Shelley, M. Frankenstein, p. 169.

[10] Mason, Home Education, pp. 96–97.

[11] Mason, Home Education, pp. 100–101.

[12] See Trueman, C. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 129ff.

[13]Henderson, Graham. “Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat.”

[14] Shelley, P. B.

[15] Mason, C. Home Education: p. 68.

[16] Mason, Home Education, pp. 45–46: “By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition—Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson.”

[17] Mason, Home Education, p. 66.

[18] See M. E. Sadler, In Memoriam (1923), “Through Ruskin and Thomas Arnold of Rugby, she was in direct succession from Wordsworth…”

[19] Once again, just because the Romantic era has a defined ending around the 1850s doesn’t mean its influence doesn’t continue long after the official era has ended. I would argue that Romanticism is still very much alive in our own time. A case could be made that Charlotte Mason was actually writing during the end of the Romantic era, which places her Home Education (1886) within the Romantic period, making it a Romantic era publication at the very least.

[20] See Mason’s use and criticism of Rousseau in “Two Educational Ideals.”

©2023 Morné Marais

2 Replies to “In Praise of Romanticism”

  1. I enjoyed this article, thank you. I do think Trueman makes a valid case that some unintended and very problematic things have come out of Romanticism, but perhaps he overstated the case. It reminds me somewhat of Charles Taylor crediting modernity and our current secular age to the Protestant Reformation. As a solid Protestant, I naturally disagree with Taylor on many things, yet I can see his point that the Reformation had a hand in modern secularity. Thanks again for these thoughts!

    1. MKS, thank you for your comment. I am glad you enjoyed the article and appreciate your reflection. I, for one, tremendously enjoy Trueman’s writings and thoroughly enjoyed the book I cited. However, I had some concerns with his treatment of the Romantics as a whole. For a scholar of his brilliance with a book of such academic rigor, I would expect the author to be more careful in his assessment. Statements such as Wordsworth leading directly to Hugh Hefner and Kim Kardashian are unfortunately not careful enough. Romanticism itself is a broad movement much like Existentialism with examples to be avoided and examples to be commended. One can probably say this of any movement that becomes broadly influential, whether that be the Reformation, Medieval Monasticism, Pietism, etc. I mention these three influential spiritual movements because, much like Romanticism, they all tended toward introspection. The Reformation was sparked with Luther’s introspective conscience; Medieval Monasticism was a meditation on the inner life; and Pietism, flowing out from both the Reformation and Medieval Monasticism, was a Protestant version of a concentration on the inner life. But Trueman won’t blame these movements for the results of Hefner and Kardashian, or should he? To isolate common threads of emphasis in a movement, in this case the quest for the authentic inner human being, and citing these as the cause of a degenerate world is quite a difficult task. Yes, it sounds compelling to the untrained eye. But to anyone who has been immersed in the poetry of Wordsworth or Coleridge and knows something of their lives, reasons for writing, and love of the world around them, the mere suggestion that Wordsworth leads to Hefner and Kardashian isn’t just an overstatement, it is a dangerous misrepresentation of the sources. And no historian with such excellent credentials should get a pass on that sort of handling of the sources. Now, to be certain, there were Romantics that took the inner-impulse to its most base form and certainly sexualized the movement. Traditional morals were being reviewed all over the academic post-enlightenment world. This wasn’t just true among the Romantics, but among much of the increasingly secularizing of society at large. The Romantics are just easier to blame because they connected their actions with their feelings and emotions. And in our emotive over psychoanalyzed culture we find in the Romantics a scapegoat to blame all of our societal sins on. But if we are to listen to many of the Romantics themselves, ESPECIALLY Wordsworth and to a degree Coleridge, we may find in their warning of the industrialized city and its dehumanizing forms far more prophetic foresight to the loss of who we truly are as human beings in our most natural state. That is, after all, the question Trueman is trying to answer. How did we get to this state we are presently in where what was once considered natural is now at a loss? Perhaps the rise of science and the city contributes more to the complexities Trueman accuses the Romantics of than he acknowledges? I do know that for Wordsworth particularly, the antidote to what the city was doing to our humanity was being conditioned with the simplicity of country living and being in touch with our natural environment. And if I continue to analyze the world through Wordsworth, I do see the city giving rise to many ideologies and moralities that remain taboo in rural communities (Now, I must add, I am a city lover myself, even though I was raised in a rural life and now live in a ruralish environment. I love the vibrancy of cities!). All this is to say that, yes, Trueman makes a point. But, no, he gets Wordsworth in particular very, very wrong. If Wordsworth were to observe to what degree we are losing our humanity in our 21st Century world, he would, I believe, be even MORE urgent about rural living and nature loving to recalibrate our inner human experience with our outer human existence.