New American Songbook: Romanticism

Feb 12, 2018

We don’t often associate the Romantic period of literature and art with the sounds of factories or machines, but there’s a good case to be made that despite our insistence on realism and modernism, we’ve never really left Romanticism behind. Liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin complained that Romanticism led to the "melting away of the very notion of objective truth," which could conversely be a point in its favor.

Where the old Romantics left off, much of hip hop has picked up, returning to the quest to discover the self within the world that it inhabits.

Compare poet John Keats’ lines in "Ode to a Nightengale" with rapper Vince Staples’ words from "Crabs in a Bucket." Keats writes:

I have been half in love with easeful Death,
   Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
   To take into the air my quiet breath;
   Now more than ever seems it rich to die

Vince Staples updates the sentiment, giving Keats’ death drive a desperate turn:

Where’s your moxie? Ain’t you from Poppy?
   Young man, you not actin’ too cocky
   Prolly cause I’m feelin’ like the world gon’ crash
   Read a hundred somethin’ on the E-class dash

This continued relevance of Romantic themes suggests that there’s still wilderness to explore in the world and in ourselves.

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