Poldark - a prime example of romanticism

Wed, 17/05/2017 - 10:37 -- James Oakley

To give credit where credit is due, some readers may spot echoes of the late Mike Ovey's CD1.1 lecture course in the pen portrait of romanticism below. They'd spot that with good reason. The section is included as a summary, and for the benefit of those not fortunate enough to have taken that course, before turning to the illustrative material which is my own contribution.


Romanticism is a wide-ranging movement from (mainly) the first half of the nineteenth century. It influenced literature, art, architecture, philosophy, theology, politics and more.

It cannot be summarised without risk of over-simplifying: The Wikipedia article is very helpful.

Sometimes I, and others, need to explain the effects that rationalism had on Christian thought, and in particular on how people believe we can know things about God.

The Wikipedia article (accessed 11th April 2017) starts thus:

Defining the nature of Romanticism may be approached from the starting point of the primary importance of the free expression of the feelings of the artist. The importance the Romantics placed on emotion is summed up in the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich that "the artist's feeling is his law"

In terms of how we know things, and in particular how we know things about God, romanticism followed hot on the heels of rationalism. If rationalism said that we know what we know by pure reason, romanticism counters that you need to find out what the "real you" wants. Rational thought can actually prevent you from knowing your true self, as you reason away what the real you feels.

Romanticism is not the only movement to critique rationalism in that way; mysticism would be another. Romanticism had a big influence on British culture; its stress is on the heart, and on feelings. Romanticism tells you to "follow your heart".

That has big implications for ethics, and also for theology — how do we know what God is like? Some readers may recall the hymn, "I Serve a Risen Saviour", with its chorus:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.

Illustrating Romanticism

At this point, we might want to reach for other illustrations of classical romanticism. The trouble is, many modern people are unfamiliar with authors, artists or composers from the romantic period: Not everyone today reads Jane Austen. (Although television adaptations of Austen's novels are rich ground for illustrating how romanticism works.)

However we don't need to reach back into the romantic era for examples. Romanticism has had a deep and lasting influence on our culture, so there are contemporary examples, too.

Such as Poldark.

Poldark is a series of novels written by the author Winston Graham about a Cornish community in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century. I've not read the novels, but I have enjoyed the most recent (2015ff) television version. As such, I can't comment on whether the novels are classically romantic, but the television series certainly is.

So here are your illustrations, if you want them. With the necessary spoiler alert, here are two scenes from series 2, episode 10 (italicised emphasis added):

Scene 1

In this scene, Demelza is discussing with Verity (a relative) the difficulty she's having forgiving Ross, her husband, for his unfaithfulness.

Verity Blamey: What has he done? Are you most troubled by the thing itself, or something more?

Demelza Poldark: It is the thing itself. No, no, it is more. It is the running away from it, hiding from what’s past, the refusal to look it in the face and stand the consequence.

Verity Blamey: But, isn’t that what you are doing, even now?

Demelza Poldark: What would you have me do?

Verity Blamey: Demelza, I cannot instruct you. I do not even know the deed. But reason cannot guide you. Only the heart, and sometimes what the heart dictates makes no sense at all. But it must be followed.

Scene 2

This scene takes place after Ross Poldark has managed to persuade Caroline to return to Dwight Enys, Ross's longstanding doctor friend, whom she had loved but had left Cornwall after deciding not to marry him.

Ross Poldark: Believe me, I do not lightly meddle in other people’s affairs. That’s been Demelza’s way and often I’ve chided her for it, but lately I’ve come round to her way of thinking. She would say that if two people love each other, then the obstacles which keep them apart must be substantial, else they lack the courage of their conviction. She would also say that life holds very few things which are genuinely worth having, and if you possess them then nothing else matters. And if you don’t possess them then, everything else is worthless.

Caroline Penvenen: And yet, to gamble on the unknown…?

Dwight Enys: Is not all life a gamble, and does the gambler always come off worst? I suspect that those who suffer most are the ones who ignore their heart’s desires and spend the rest of their life regretting it.

Postscript: Gaining the whole world, but losing your life

Just before I go, that last quotation from Ross brings to mind a verse from the Bible:

“She would also say that life holds very few things which are genuinely worth having, and if you possess them then nothing else matters. And if you don’t possess them then, everything else is worthless.” (Ross Poldark, BBC Poldark 2016, Series 2, Episode 10, 38:46)

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Mark 8:35-38)

Blog Category: 

Add new comment

Additional Terms