The Romantics and The Modern

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By Rachel Giuliani and Allison Girvan

In 1759, Adam Smith made reference to how people feel and experience sympathy in Theory of Moral Sentiments. He explained that, “That’s what is involved in pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others…The sorrow of others often makes us sad…The greatest ruffian, the most hardened criminal feels something of it” (Smith 1). This statement shows that in 1759, people felt the same way about sympathy that we continue to feel today. If we see someone experiencing pain or sorrow, we often tend to sympathize with those people. Smith goes on to explain that we often tend to think about how we would feel if we were in their situation, which is an idea that is still used today. We try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes in an attempt to understand what they are feeling. Smith continues by saying, “A smiling face is a cheerful object to everyone who sees it, and a sorrowful face is a melancholy one” (Smith 2). When we approach someone who seems to be upset, we may ask what is the cause for them feeling that way. In this way, we are feeling sympathy for the other person, but in a slightly different way, since the upsetting “event” did not happen to us.

However, something that provides an escape for some people is nature. In Sonnet IV: To the Moon (1784), Charlotte Smith explains that the moon can be an escape, using the moon as an escape to Heaven. In the sonnet, she is speaking directly to the moon. “Forget in thee, their cup of sorrow here. Oh! that I soon may reach thy world serene…” (Damrosch 86). She feels peace and calmness in “being” with the moon. In today’s society, some people feel connected to nature. This is a similar feeling to what Smith could be feeling when talking about the moon. Smith also explains, “Alone and pensive…watch thy shadow trembling in the stream…and while I gaze, thy mild and placid light sheds a soft calm upon my troubled breast” (Damrosch 86). Watching the moon’s shadow in the stream calms Smith and makes her feel more engaged with the moon and the natural world around her. Today, nature may make people feel connected to the people around them. They know that if they are away from someone important to them, they are always looking at the same sky.

François René de Chateaubriand, once said from The Genius of Christianity (1802), that “The world is not the object of his wishes, for he knows that the days of man are few, and that this object would speedily escape from his grasp” (Chateaubriand 323). He explains how it is human nature to want more than just superficial things, and we can avoid the superficial by finding passions in life. Chateaubriand goes on to say that as a result of having passions in life, a man will have a “solitary heart”. Without finding someone or something to connect to them, there is a loneliness that is inevitable in life. This resonates with the past and the present because it is human nature to want more out of life than simply going through the motions. Feeling more and discovering passions is an essential part of life so that each day is not wasted.

These examples show that the past can connect to activities and feelings that we still experience to this day. Sympathy, connections and nature, and passions all had a specific meaning when these authors published them, and they still hold similar meanings to this day. This shows that, like Chateaubriand said, some feelings are just a part of human nature.

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