We are now pleased to share a third episode from the television program The Romantic Spirit,
a portion of which constitutes the zenith of the series as a whole.
The title of this episode, "The Golden Age," refers to one of the central themes of Romanticism: the cherished notion of a prelapsarian paradise against which the Romantics could contrast the baseness of the modern world and conceive of a better reality--an ideal world that existed once, in time and space, and could exist once more.
The initial portions of this episode cover various Romantic conceptions of a golden age, such as childhood and Classical Antiquity. However, the most extraordinary portion of the program begins at 29:45. In this section, the episode offers what may be the only sympathetic and politically untainted view of German Romanticism ever broadcast on English-language television.
In Germany, Romanticism flourished as nowhere else and could verily be described as embodying the soul of the people. The German Romantic conception of a Golden Age harkened back to the Medieval Era, a time when all of the Deutsch
-speaking peoples were united in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, before the Reformation and the Thirty Years War atomized the land into hundreds of tiny principalities.
This Romantic desire to revive the golden age of Medieval Europe spurred noble 19th-century restorations of the most emblematic structures of the Middle Ages: castles and cathedrals. As this episode explains, the cathedral of the city of Cologne (about which we have written before
) provides the most vivid example of how Romantics made their desire to revive the past a tangible reality:
NARRATOR: Around the middle of the 13th century, the city [of Köln] had begun work on a vast cathedral, which, in the following centuries, could not be completed. It remained a fragment until the Romantic Era. In an ambitious work, Sulpiz Boisserée published the original plans, thus engendering the impetus to complete it. Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia became enthused by the idea. The state promised financial support, and following the confusions of the Napoleonic Era, the prince viewed its completion as a significant national task.
The Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, uttered these memorable words at the laying of the foundation stone in 1842: "I pray to God that this cathedral of Köln will soar above this city, and above Germany, until the end of days."
The secular equivalent of the cathedral, and fully equal to it as a symbol of the imaginative greatness of the past, is the castle, steeped as it is in the lore of fairy-tale and fable. The castles of the Middle Ages were also recalled to life thanks to the noble yearnings of the Romantics, as described in a passage that begins at 44:29 in the video:
NARRATOR: The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who had laid the foundation stone at the Cologne Cathedral, instructs his architect Friedrich Schinkel to rebuild the castle of Stolzenfels on the Rhine, which had been completely destroyed by the French in the 17th century.
On September 14th, 1842, the king led a torchlight procession up to the castle, with his retinue dressed in old German costume.
On the orders of the king, Schnorr von Carolsfeld paints the myths of the Germanic heroes on the walls of the royal residence.
The Romantics looked to the past for their future. They too believed that they would experience a Golden Age, once they had found a way of uniting the past with the present.
The last comment indicates how our discussions of Romanticism are not, in fact, off-topic themes, but tie in directly with the subject of this forum. We too look back upon a Golden Age of the past (which for our purposes comprises every age prior to the 20th century, from Classical Antiquity down to the Romantic Era itself), during which periods the timeless beauty aesthetic held sway in Western culture, and with it the appreciation of full-figured femininity.
We invoke this grand history as a vibrant alternative to the modernist "aesthetics of guilt" that fetter our own era, and conceive of a nobler culture governed by an appreciation of true beauty. In dreaming of such an aesthetic restoration, we can make the return of that superior reality a genuine, tangible possibility.
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The Kölner Dom stood as a mere fragment for centuries, while Schloß Stolzenfels was nothing more than a ruin for generations after the destruction wrought upon it during a philistine era. Yet when the Romantic spirit reasserted itself, these sublime edifices rose once more, and the élan of the people with them.
We need not despair at seeing Western culture crumbling all around us, living as we are in a similarly ignoble century. So long as there are Romantics in this world, so long as there remain a few unbowed individuals with Prussian blood in their veins, the possibility of a cultural renewal is ever just around the corner.