How did the Romantics envision the idea of "love" and how did they express it in their works?
In "A Defense of Poetry," the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote,
The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature. . . . A man, to be greatly good . . . must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of the species must become his own.
The Romantic movement was the first to focus on motivating people to care about one another, to take upon oneself the inner quest to find higher spirtuality. Three novels that are considered the most Romantic works of art are Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In these three great works, the inhumanity of man to man is exposed, and the beauties of friendship and love are elevated to the spiritual. The friendship of two men was exalted as the highest form of love because it was purely spiritual in nature. The friendship of Henry Clerval and Victor Frankenstein, exemplifies this concept as Henry makes every sacrifice he can for his friend. When Victor becomes gravely ill after having created his monster, Henry comes to the aid of Victor, who narrates that "Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval, whom he tells,
"It gives me the greatest delight to see you...Dearest Clerval...how kind, how very good you are to me....I feel the greatest remorse for the disappointment of which I have been the occsion; but you will forgive me."
Further, Clerval tells Victor,
How could you suppose that my first thoughts would not fly towards those dear, dear friends whom I love, and who are so deserving of my love."
That friendship is the highest form of love is underscored in Victor's father's letter of Chapter 7 in which he calls his son "my friend" as he urges Victor to return home after the death of Victor's younger brother William.
Certainly love as defined by the Romantic poet Shelley is exalted and exemplified Mrs. Shelley's novel, just as it is in Hugo's Les Miserables as the self-sacrificing Jean Valjean, who finally escapes prison, where he has been unjustly sent for having stolen some food for his starving family, risks discovery of his identity by lifting a heavy cart in order to save someone; later, he confesses his identity in order to prevent a prisoner from being mistaken for him; near the end of the novel, he carries Marius to safety after the young man is injured in a street revolt despite his having been identified by his archenemy M. Javert. Valjean even saves the life of Javert, who has pursued him for many years.
Love for the Romantics is a highly spiritual emotion, selfless and pure, the truest source of knowledge and feeling.