The Enlightenment and Romanticism in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’

In The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Engels is extremely critical of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and the indifference of the middle and upper classes to their suffering.  His outlook and writing are rooted in both aspects of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

For one, Engels greatly values “experiencing” the problems and conditions faced by the poor more so than simply reading about them and he is particularly critical of the middle class for isolating the poor and isolating themselves from the poor.  For example, on page 1102 Engels writes, “He can only realise the price that has been paid for all this magnificence after he has tramped the pavements of the main streets of London for some days.”  Romanticism places greater value on direct experience and Engels utilizes this to encourage the individual to actively seek to better understand the plight of the poor.  In a similar manner, Engels appeals to the senses, utilizing the sense of smell in particular to generate sympathy and to encourage an emotional and physical reaction from the reader.  This utilizes the Romantic emphasis on emotion and the senses.  Engels also makes a point to directly criticize the Enlightenment view of the self as having value as an economic unit.  On page 1102 he writes, “Here men regard their fellows not as human beings, but as pawns…everyone exploits his neighbor.”  Romanticism criticized this view of humanity as well, placing greater emphasis on the individual.

At the same time, Engels does employ aspects of the Enlightenment as well.  The clearest example of this is Engels emphasis on reason and his attempts at appealing to one’s sense of reason (so greatly prized by the Enlightenment).  On pages 1106 and 1107, he criticizes the illogical city-planning and construction, describing it as “unplanned” and “chaotic.”  In this way Engels argues that not only has the Industrial Revolution led to the poor’s suffering but that it has not always progressed with attention to reason, overlooking certain areas and leading to serious problems within English society.

The Sublime in Mont Blanc

Percy Shelley’s writing reflects Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime in a few ways. A common theme of the poem is the infinite, eternal aspects of nature. In line 9, Shelley wrote, “Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, / Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river / Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.” He went on to write of winds that “come and ever came” in line 22. Edmund Burke does not provide much explanation other than saying that Infinity fills the mind “with a sort of delightful horror” which he also shares is the “truest test of the sublime.” Much of the writing in Mont Blanc reflects this infinite and vast idea of nature. “The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams, / Ocean, and all the living things that dwell (84).” Shelley’s writing exaggerates this notion that nature is eternal and infinite, but man is finite; man cannot comprehend infinity, but nature is and always will be infinity.

“Mont Blanc” by Percy Shelley

     Edmund Burke defines the sublime as something that is provoked by a feeling of great astonishment, which is linked, in a way, to horror : “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, […] is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful). In his poem, entitled “Mont Blanc”, Percey Shelley puts this definition into practise. Indeed, the narrator of the poem is facing the natural element that is the Mont Blanc, that is to say the highest mountain in Europe. This simple contemplation turns itself into a huge flow of emotions and reflexion. Shelley defines his contemplation as a “trance sublime and strange” (L35). He uses here the word “sublime” itself, and associates it to the word “strange”. The latter is related, in a way, to fear, because it is unexplainable and unknown. Yet, it appears that, according to Burke, fear is one of the feelings that one needs to feel in order to reach the sublime. We can thus affirm that the poet is having the experience of the sublime.

     In this way, the one way in which Shelley’s poem exemplifies Burke’s ideas on the sublime that stroke me the most is the one of infinity. Indeed, Burke writes that infinity “has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delighful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime”. In this poem, infinity is indeed omnipresent: infinity of space and of time. We can read from the first line : “The everlasting universe of things”. Firstly, the word “universe” itself connotes the idea of infinity, both infinity of time and space. Secondly, the adjective “everlasting” insists on the idea of infinity of time. Moreover, this theme of infinity comes again and again all along the poem : “for ever” (L9); “eternity” (L29); “unremifting interchange” (L39); “the infinite sky” (L60); “perpetual stream” (L109) …  So, when the poet faces the Mont Blanc and the ravine of Arve (which is the spokesperson of the poem’s narrator), he becomes aware of the infinity of nature, and then experiences the sublime, as it is defined by Edmund Burke. And this engenders terror in the poet’s mind – as it is supposed to be, according to Burke’s theory. We can indeed read line 15 that the landscape is characterized as an “awful scene”. Plus, this terror is linled to a kind of malevolant spirit (an entity related to infinity, as immortal) who came to spread it on earth. So we can say that here, sublime is characterized by the paradoxal feelings engendered by the infinity of nature : at the same time marvel and terror.

      Other elements of the sublime as defined by Burke can be found in this extract. Some of them are directly related to the idea of infinity, such as power – a word we can find written with a capital letter line 16, as if it was a deity, which insists on his strength. We can also find the theme of vastness, thanks to the Mont Blanc; or even the theme of obscurity. So as a conclusion, I will say that Shelley’s poem is a good example of Burke’s ideas of sublime, because it uses many of his definitions and allows the reader himself to reach the sublime.



“Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In his poem “Mont Blanc”, Shelley is in awe of the nature surrounding him. He describes numerous aspects of nature, particularly Mont Blanc, as vast and imposing. According to Burke, the portrayal of nature as large, deep, or incomprehensible lends a sense of danger, and a major proponent of the sublime is that it should strike terror into the observer’s soul. The “broad vales” and “unfathomable deeps” (778) show just how small and insignificant human existence is in comparison to the rest of the natural world, and, for many people, coming face to face with the brevity and triviality of life is astonishing and terrifying. Similarly, the vastness and incomprehensibility of the “everlasting universe of things” (776) are illustrated to contrast the human mind, which is small and limited in the grand scheme of things. However, Shelley believes that humility before the sublimity of nature is beneficial to all parties involved; the “primaeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind”(778-79) and expand mankind’s understanding. On the other hand, although nature is much more powerful and lasting than mankind, nature still needs humans to observe its majesty, as evinced by the lines “And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind’s imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?” (780). If no one is able to admire the sublimity of nature, can it still even be considered sublime? Shelley’s emphasis on the overwhelming grandeur of nature proves that we are not the masters of the natural world–as many industrialists of the time would choose to believe–but by living with nature instead of subjugating it, we can still play an important role in making it divine.

Mont Blanc

According to Burke, sublime things are those that are capable of evoking a strong emotion or passion. The strongest emotion that can be brought on by a sublime image is astonishment. The source of this astonishment is most often nature. This is where Shelley’s piece “Mont Blanc” excels at exemplifying the ability of nature to be sublime. Shelley wonders how the human mind can compare to the greatness of Mont Blanc and the nature it signifies. In fact, Shelley is so astonished by the magnificence of Mont Blanc he doubts the ability of man, as is seen in the following quote: “The race of man, flies far dread; his work and dwelling vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream, and their place is not known”. The mountain is so large and powerful that it cannot be comprehended all at once; it is a mystery that commands nature’s power. Shelley is not only convinced nature goes beyond the scope of the human mind, but he takes it a step further by noting how nature is “teaching the adverting mind” of man. “Mont Blanc” is an ode to the greatness and majesty of nature, without the power and astonishment that comes from the sublime, this poem would lack any major substance.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman seems to be both an Enlightenment and a Romantic argument. Just like the French feminist Valentine de Saint-Point (Manifeste de la femme futuriste, 1912) who answered to a misogynistic author, Wollstonecraft quickly responds to Milton’s Paradise Lost to tell him her thoughts about the conditions of women. Thus, the reflection Wollstonecraft is giving us is both based upon her feelings and her reason.

On one hand, she shows the features of the Enlightenment by basing her on reason and on the role of women in the society, that is to say considered as inferior to men. This is, for her, caused by education since men and women aren’t taught the same things, p.292 “I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heat (…) are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness”, p.293 “Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence”. She clearly shows her feminism and tries to make understand people that this, the different educations given, is not normal. Even if she said that she did this not in a good way, her reflection is presented as something organized and logical. We can see that what she says is made with reason p.288 “arguments conclusive”, the repetition of the word “reason/reasoning” p.293, “because intellect will always govern” same page, “facts”, “I reason” p.298. She also often uses “useless/useful”, consequence of the industriousness. Religion takes a huge place too in this book since there is always a reference to God by saying “Providence”, “God”etc. She ends her chapter 2 talking about Him.

On the other hand, there is also a few features of Romanticism, such as the repetition of “nature/natural” in almost every page which is one of the main characteristics of Romanticism, and “mixing with society” p.297. Her arguments are combined with reason and feelings p.296 “led by their senses”, “the emotions” p.303, “feeling, experience” p.303, “sublime” p.301,303, “love”,”passion” and “desire” are also used to express what she thinks about the woman trying to be perfect for her husband, and describes the feelings as something natural since “To endeavor to reason love out of the world, would be to out Quixote Cervantes” that is to say something impossible. That’s why she tries to make understand women not to be this way anymore (1st paragraph). By basing herself on reasoning, she in fact is responding to something she lived, a direct experience. P.297 we can see a mixture of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism “confidently assert that they (women) have been drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not by an endeavor to acquire masculine qualities…it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power, which they obtain, by degrading themselves, is a curse, and that they must return to nature and equality”. Here she clearly says that the education they had is no good, and to find a good place is society they must be heard and connected to Nature.

As a conclusion, we can say that Wollstonecraft combines arguments based on characteristics of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism.



A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

While reading “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” I kept going back and forth over whether it was primarily an Enlightenment or Romantic argument. Even now I could not say for sure whether it was one or the other but believe that there are elements of both. Throughout the introduction and first two chapters Wollstonecraft uses the argument of reason which is primarily an Enlightenment idea. She refers several times to woman’s lack of education and the view that they are animals instead of rational human beings. She says, “the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched,” (290) conveying that she believes education to be a source of power and if women had it they would be seen with more equality. They would “cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect” (291). Wollstonecraft also points out how men don’t see women as “human creatures” but view them as “in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (292). Furthermore Wollstonecraft ends her introduction saying that, “intellect will always govern,” which once again is an Enlightenment idea.  In contrast to reason she often brings up the concept of morals and love and also uses flowery language even though she claimed she wouldn’t. For example she says, “to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation” (296). She appeals to nature and love in chapter 2, “the course of nature.-Friendship or indifference inevitable succeeds love,”(300). Wollstonecraft uses manly arguments like this which tend to be of Romantic sentimentality.  Also the opening line of the introduction Wollstonecraft wonders whether the inequality seen in her time comes from nature or civilization which I think foreshadows the use of both in her arguments. Therefore I can only conclude that Enlightenment and Romantic arguments are used equally.