From popular revolt to the obsession with the self, even to modern nationalism, Simon Schama explores the enduring and powerful legacy the romantics have left on our modern world.
Ch1. Passions of the People
With contributions from Harriet Walter, Christopher Eccleston, hip-hop artist Testament and French street artist P-Boy, Simon Schama explores the elixir of rebellion and the idea – so powerful in the words and images of William Blake – that imaginative passion can conquer mechanical logic and create an art for the people.
Simon starts by looking at the great icon of popular revolt created by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People. Painted after the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris, which finally brought an end to the Bourbon monarchy in France, Simon unpacks the legacy of this universal image of popular revolt across the ages.
The idea of faith in the power of art and the human imagination began with one of the forefathers of romanticism, the visionary poet and artist William Blake, so Simon follows his trail in his native city of London. Looking at his work from the early 1790s, Simon and hip-hop artist Testament explore how Blake’s ideas continue to resonate in our own times.
Simon then retraces the steps of Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris, and Dame Harriet Walter performs extracts from her moving letters, written at the height of the violence. Eventually returning to England, Simon explores how the Terror had enormous consequences for the revolutionary cause as the Tory government waged their own war of terror on revolutionary sympathisers for the next 40 years.
The last part of the film tells the stories of two artists in the next generation of romantics to take up the revolutionary cause – Percy Bysshe Shelley in England and Theodore Gericault in France. At a time when both France and Britain were turning their backs on the Revolution, the artists – fuelled by injustice and rage – created two of the greatest achievements of romantic art.
Ch2. The Chambers of the Mind
With contributions from Tobias Menzies, Peter Doherty, Piotr Anderszewski and Sir David Attenborough, Simon tells the story of how the romantics – fuelled by the failures of the French Revolution and horrors of the industrial revolution – retreated from the tragic uproar of public life to take a journey into their own minds. Here, long before the invention of modern psychology, they discovered the subconscious, something that would have a profound effect on our modern world.
The film starts with the story of one of France’s most celebrated novelists and poets, Victor Hugo. After falling foul of the French emperor, Louis Napoleon, Hugo fled to the island of Guernsey. Here, he created some of the most haunting images of the romantic age, thousands of drawings plucked from his restless, melancholy mind.
Long before Sigmund Freud and the invention of modern psychoanalysis, it is often forgotten that it was the romantics who became the first intrepid explorers of the deepest, darkest corners of the human mind. At the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Simon traces the origins of this revolution to the prints of Giambattista Piranesi. His series of Imaginary Prisons are the first images of the inner visions of the mind, and they have had a long-lasting influence in our modern world – not least in modern cinema.
Among those inspired by Piranesi’s images was poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, later, one of his disciples, journalist, writer and wannabe-poet Thomas de Quincey. Both of them used opium to open up ‘the apocalypse of the world within’. Simon tells the story of how both artists changed the way we think about the human mind.
Simon then looks at how the romantics changed the way we think about madness. In their craving for deeper experiences, very few romantics – at one stage or other – didn’t think they were going mad.
One, however, found a way to avoid the fate of so many his colleagues and friends: William Wordsworth. He was equally interested in the mapping and exploration of his own mind, but he also realised that it was by attaching it to something bigger that he could escape the irrational forces of darkness and self-obsession that threatened to overwhelm him. Meeting Sir David Attenborough, who also reads lines from Tintern Abbey and Wordsworth’s The Tables Turned, Simon asks whether we need to heed the lessons of the romantics before it is too late.
Simon Schama explores the genesis of modern nationalism – its romantic roots in a new idea of nature and homeland, the ‘discovery’ of native folklore and above all the part played by music – especially Frederic Chopin’s mazurkas – in generating the emotion of national belonging.
But where did this feverish passion for homeland begin? For many romantics, it began in 17th-century Switzerland with the diagnosis of a familiar, all-too-human emotion by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer – nostalgia. Hofer believed that it was a lethal malady that was triggered by anything that reminded Swiss soldiers serving abroad of home.
In Scotland, Simon looks at the work of Robert Burns, who grew up in Ayrshire in the 1770s. Speaking to singer-songwriter Eddi Reader, who performs A Red, Red Rose, Simon explores how Burns created authentically Scottish poetry and music that could hold its own against the oncoming tide of English culture.
Simon then travels to Germany to explore how Napoleon’s invasion of the German lands in the early 1800s also kickstarted a group of German romantics to begin their own ‘campaign of national belonging’ – with dark consequences.
In the last section of the film, Simon travels to Poland and Paris to look at how Polish romantic artists and musicians, in particular Frederic Chopin, created a ‘Poland of the imagination’ in their art after Poland had not just been defeated but been completely wiped off the map.
When the Nazis invaded Poland once again during the Second World War, Chopin’s music was banned, his statues (and scores) across the country were destroyed, and an extraordinary battle was waged over the relic of his actual heart, and so, visiting the Last Night of the Proms in London to hear our own national anthems, Simon asks some profound questions about the resurgence of populist, nationalist movements across the world.