Romanticism (c. 1785-1830)

"Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich


“Romanticism” was a movement in art and literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The German poet Friedrich Schlegel, who is given credit for first using the term romantic to describe literature, defined it as “literature depicting emotional matter in an imaginative form.” This is as accurate a general definition as can be accomplished, although Victor Hugo’s phrase “liberalism in literature” is also apt. Imagination, emotion, and freedom are certainly the focal points of romanticism. Any list of particular characteristics of the literature of romanticism includes an emphasis on individualism, spontaneity, freedom from rules, solitary life rather than life in society, the beliefs that imagination is superior to reason, devotion to beauty, love of and worship of nature, and fascination with the past, especially the myths and mysticism of the middle ages.

English poets: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats

Also associated with American poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman

The word romantic (ism) has a complex and interesting history. In the Middle Ages ‘romance’ denoted the new vernacular languages derived from Latin – in contradistinction to Latin itself, which was the language of learning. Enromancierromancarromanz meant to compose or translate books in the vernacular. The work produced was then called romanzromanromanzo and romance. A roman or romant came to be known as an imaginative work and a ‘courtly romance’. The terms also signified a ‘popular book.’ There are early suggestions that it was something new, different, divergent. By the 17th c. in Britain and France, ‘romance’ has acquired the derogatory connotations of fanciful, bizarre, exaggerated, chimerical, gothic. In France a distinction was made between romanesque (also derogatory) and romantique (which meant ‘tender,’ ‘gentle,’ ‘sentimental,’ and ‘sad’). It was used in the English form in these latter senses in the 18th c. In Germany the word romantisch was used in the 17th c. in the French sense of romanesque, and then, increasingly from the middle of the 18th c., in the English sense of ‘gentle,’ ‘melancholy.’

from Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads (1978)

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”

“What is a Poet? to whom does he address himself? and what language is to be expected from him?—He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. to these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events”

Storming of the Bastille, 1789

Storming of the Bastille, 1789

Context: Industrial and Political Revolutions

The American (1776) and French (1789-1799) revolutions loomed large in the social imagination of the times. Mary Wollstoncraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) justified the French Revolution against criticisms of it. Tom Paine, in Rights of Man (1791-92) also advocated for England to become a democratic republic that was to be achieved, if not otherwise possible, through popular revolution. Still, many English became disillusioned with France when  revolution turned excessively violent under the Reign of Terror of Robespierre. In England, this was a period of harsh, repressive measures. Public meetings were prohibited, the right of habeas corpus (the legal principle protecting individuals from arbitrary imprisonment) was suspended for the first time in over a hundred years, and advocates of even moderate political change were charged with treason.

The Albion Flour Mills, the first major factory in London, built 1786, burned 1791 (perhaps by disgruntled workers or smaller scale flour millers)

The Albion Flour Mills, the first major factory in London, built 1786, burned 1791 (perhaps by disgruntled workers or smaller scale flour millers)

England also was shifting, at this time, from a largely agricultural society, in which wealth and power were in the hands of the landholding aristocracy, to a modern industrial nation. The Industrial Revolution was spurred by the advent of new machinery, for example the steam engine (1765) and the cotton gin (1793), which increased the speed and altered the forms of labor and production. The demand for industrial labor contributed to the rapid growth of an urban working class and also to consolidation of wealth in the hands of industrial entrepreneurs or owners. The commons, (public) agricultural land, which once supported rural communities was privatized and parceled or literally fenced off. This drove farming families into towns and cities where many were forced into low wage jobs and camped housing. All of these changes contributed to a great gap between rich and poor. Despite these rapid and substantial social shifts, there was little work done by the government to regulate industry and economic growth. This was because of the dominance of the “laizzes-faire” theory of economics, advocated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776). The idea was that the government should interfere with the economy as little as possible, encouraging the freedom of the “free market.”

"Over London by Rail" Gustave Doré c. 1870. Shows the densely populated and polluted environments created in the new industrial cities

“Over London by Rail” Gustave Doré c. 1870. Shows the densely populated and polluted environments created in the new industrial cities

Lack of regulation led to exploitation: low wages, long hours and poor conditions for workers, and child labor, also a lack of environmental and  health considerations. London became, in some visions of the city, an urban nightmare. Resistance and reform were hard in coming. Labor unions were illegal  and laborers couldn’t vote (only landowners could vote until 1832, and even then universal suffrage was not put into law until 1928).


In romantic art and literature, the imagination was elevated to a position as the supreme faculty of the mind. This contrasted distinctly with the traditional arguments for the supremacy of reason. The Romantics tended to define and to present the imagination as our ultimate “shaping” or creative power, the approximate human equivalent of the creative powers of nature or even deity. It is dynamic, an active, rather than passive power, with many functions. Imagination is the primary faculty for creating all art. On a broader scale, it is also the faculty that helps humans to constitute reality, for (as Wordsworth suggested), we not only perceive the world around us, but also in part create it. Uniting both reason and feeling (Coleridge described it with the paradoxical phrase, “intellectual intuition”), imagination is extolled as the ultimate synthesizing faculty, enabling humans to reconcile differences and opposites in the world of appearance. The reconciliation of opposites is a central ideal for the Romantics. Finally, imagination is inextricably bound up with the other two major concepts, for it is presumed to be the faculty which enables us to “read” nature as a system of symbols.

“The View of Tintern Abbey on the River Wye. Nov. 1, 1799,” by Edward Dayes

“The View of Tintern Abbey on the River Wye. Nov. 1, 1799,” by Edward Dayes

Thomas Gainsborough, "Romantic Landscape," c.1783

Thomas Gainsborough, “Romantic Landscape,” c.1783


“Nature” meant many things to the Romantics. As suggested above, it was often presented as itself a work of art, constructed by a divine imagination, in emblematic language. For example, throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman makes a practice of presenting commonplace items in nature–“ants,” “heap’d stones,” and “poke-weed”–as containing divine elements, and he refers to the “grass” as a natural “hieroglyphic,” “the handkerchief of the Lord.” While particular perspectives with regard to nature varied considerably–nature as a healing power, nature as a source of subject and image, nature as a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, including artificial language–the prevailing views accorded nature the status of an organically unified whole. It was viewed as “organic,” rather than, as in the scientific or rationalist view, as a system of “mechanical” laws, for Romanticism displaced the rationalist view of the universe as a machine (e.g., the deistic image of a clock) with the analogue of an “organic” image, a living tree or mankind itself. At the same time, Romantics gave greater attention both to describing natural phenomena accurately and to capturing “sensuous nuance”–and this is as true of Romantic landscape painting as of Romantic nature poetry. Accuracy of observation, however, was not sought for its own sake. Romantic nature poetry is essentially a poetry of meditation.

J M W Turner, Buttermere Lake  with Part of Cromackwater, a Shower, 1798

J M W Turner, Buttermere Lake with Part of Cromackwater, a Shower, 1798

Symbolism, Myth, and the Inexpressible or Sublime

Symbolism and myth were given great prominence in the Romantic conception of art. In the Romantic view, symbols were the human aesthetic correlatives of nature’s emblematic language. They were valued too because they could simultaneously suggest many things, and were thus thought superior to the one-to-one communications of allegory. Partly, it may have been the desire to express the “inexpressible”–the infinite–through the available resources of language that led to symbol at one level and myth (as symbolic narrative) at another.

The sublime arose as a category describing experience of that which is beyond reason or comprehension. More specifically, the sublime involves attempts by the intellect to grasp the incomprehensible through insufficient representations that nonetheless imply what cannot be completely conveyed. It is a species of limit experience originating in discourses on architecture but coming to refer also to engagements with natural phenomena and with the spiritual or transcendent.

Portrait of Wordsworth, 1842

Portrait of William Wordsworth, 1842

Emotion, Lyric Poetry and the Self

Other aspects of Romanticism were intertwined with the above three concepts. Emphasis on the activity of the imagination was accompanied by greater emphasis on the importance of intuition, instincts, and feelings, and Romantics generally called for greater attention to the emotions as a necessary supplement to purely logical reason. When this emphasis was applied to the creation of poetry, a very important shift of focus occurred. Wordsworth’s definition of all good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” marks a turning point in literary history. By locating the ultimate source of poetry in the individual artist, the tradition, stretching back to the ancients, of valuing art primarily for its ability to imitate human life (that is, for its mimetic qualities) was reversed. In Romantic theory, art was valuable not so much as a mirror of the external world, but as a source of illumination of the world within. Among other things, this led to a prominence for first-person lyric poetry never accorded it in any previous period. The “poetic speaker” became less a persona and more the direct person of the poet. Wordsworth’s Prelude and Whitman’s “Song of Myself” are both paradigms of successful experiments to take the growth of the poet’s mind (the development of self) as subject for an “epic” enterprise made up of lyric components. Confessional prose narratives such as Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Chateaubriand’s Rene (1801), as well as disguised autobiographical verse narratives such as Byron’s Childe Harold (1818), are related phenomena. The interior journey and the development of the self recurred everywhere as subject material for the Romantic artist. The artist-as-hero is a specifically Romantic type

Versailles Gardens in the neoclassical French style, built in the late 17th century

Versailles Gardens in the neoclassical French style, built in the late 17th century

English garden in the Picturesque style

English garden in the Picturesque style

Contrast with Neoclassicism and Enlightenment Rationalism

Consequently, the Romantics sought to define their goals through systematic contrast with the norms of “Versailles neoclassicism.” In their critical manifestoes–the 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, the critical studies of the Schlegel brothers in Germany, the later statements of Victor Hugo in France, and of Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman in the United States–they self-consciously asserted their differences from the previous age (the literary “ancien regime”), and declared their freedom from the mechanical “rules.” Certain special features of Romanticism may still be highlighted by this contrast. Enlightenment thinkers of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasized the value of reason and scientific method, which produced mechanistic models of the world, in the pursuit of knowledge. The Romantics were concerned, on the other hand, with the replacement of reason by the imagination for primary place among the human faculties and the shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation for poetry, and indeed all literature.  In addition, neoclassicism had prescribed for art the idea that the general or universal characteristics of human behavior were more suitable subject matter than the peculiarly individual manifestations of human activity. From at least the opening statement of Rousseau’s Confessions, first published in 1781–“I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe that I am not made like anyone in existence. If I am not superior, at least I am different.”–this view was challenged.

Gustave Doré, depiction of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, 1866

Gustave Doré, depiction of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1866

Individualism and the Romantic Hero

The Romantics asserted the importance of the individual, the unique, even the eccentric. Consequently they opposed the character typology of neoclassical drama. In another way, of course, Romanticism created its own literary types. The hero-artist has already been mentioned; there were also heaven-storming types from Prometheus to Captain Ahab, outcasts from Cain to the Ancient Mariner and even Hester Prynne, and there was Faust, who wins salvation in Goethe’s great drama for the very reasons–his characteristic striving for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted and his insatiable thirst for activity–that earlier had been viewed as the components of his tragic sin. (It was in fact Shelley’s opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.)

In style, the Romantics preferred boldness over the preceding age’s desire for restraint, maximum suggestiveness over the neoclassical ideal of clarity, free experimentation over the “rules” of composition, genre, and decorum, and they promoted the conception of the artist as “inspired” creator over that of the artist as “maker” or technical master. Although in both Germany and England there was continued interest in the ancient classics, for the most part the Romantics allied themselves with the very periods of literature that the neoclassicists had dismissed, the Middle Ages and the Baroque, and they embraced the writer whom Voltaire had called a barbarian, Shakespeare. Although interest in religion and in the powers of faith were prominent during the Romantic period, the Romantics generally rejected absolute systems, whether of philosophy or religion, in favor of the idea that each person (and humankind collectively) must create the system by which to live.

Eugene Delacroix (French), "The Death of Sardanapalus," 1827, which depicts an Assyrian King

Eugene Delacroix (French), “The Death of Sardanapalus,” 1827, which depicts an Assyrian King

The Common and the Exotic

The attitude of many of the Romantics to the everyday, social world around them was complex. It is true that they advanced certain realistic techniques, such as the use of “local color” (through down-to-earth characters, like Wordsworth’s rustics, or through everyday language, as in Emily Bronte’s northern dialects or Whitman’s colloquialisms, or through popular literary forms, such as folk narratives). Yet realism was usually subordinate to imaginative suggestion, and what was most important were the ideals suggested by the above examples, simplicity perhaps, or innocence. Earlier, the 18th-century cult of the noble savage had promoted similar ideals, but now artists often turned for their symbols to domestic rather than exotic sources–to folk legends and older, “unsophisticated” art forms, such as the ballad, to contemporary country folk who used “the language of common men,” not an artificial “poetic diction,” and to children (for the first time presented as individuals, and often idealized as sources of greater wisdom than adults).

Simultaneously, as opposed to everyday subjects, various forms of the exotic in time and/or place also gained favor, for the Romantics were also fascinated with realms of existence that were, by definition, prior to or opposed to the ordered conceptions of “objective” reason. Often, both the everyday and the exotic appeared together in paradoxical combinations. In the Lyrical Ballads, for example, Wordsworth and Coleridge agreed to divide their labors according to two subject areas, the natural and the supernatural: Wordsworth would try to exhibit the novelty in what was all too familiar, while Coleridge would try to show in the supernatural what was psychologically real, both aiming to dislodge vision from the “lethargy of custom.” The concept of the beautiful soul in an ugly body, as characterized in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is another variant of the paradoxical combination.

The Romantic Artist and Society

In another way too, the Romantics were ambivalent toward the “real” social world around them. They were often politically and socially involved, but at the same time they began to distance themselves from the public. As noted earlier, high Romantic artists interpreted things through their own emotions, and these emotions included social and political consciousness–as one would expect in a period of revolution, one that reacted so strongly to oppression and injustice in the world. So artists sometimes took public stands, or wrote works with socially or politically oriented subject matter. Yet at the same time, another trend began to emerge, as they withdrew more and more from what they saw as the confining boundaries of bourgeois life. In their private lives, they often asserted their individuality and differences in ways that were to the middle class a subject of intense interest, but also sometimes of horror. (“Nothing succeeds like excess,” wrote Oscar Wilde, who, as a partial inheritor of Romantic tendencies, seemed to enjoy shocking the bourgeois, both in his literary and life styles.) Thus the gulf between “odd” artists and their sometimes shocked, often uncomprehending audience began to widen. Some artists may have experienced ambivalence about this situation–it was earlier pointed out how Emily Dickinson seemed to regret that her “letters” to the world would go unanswered. Yet a significant Romantic theme became the contrast between artist and middle-class “Philistine.” Unfortunately, in many ways, this distance between artist and public remains with us today.

Spread of the Romantic Spirit

Finally, it should be noted that the revolutionary energy underlying the Romantic Movement affected not just literature, but all of the arts–from music (consider the rise of Romantic opera) to painting, from sculpture to architecture. Its reach was also geographically significant, spreading as it did eastward to Russia, and westward to America. For example, in America, the great landscape painters, particularly those of the “Hudson River School,” and the Utopian social colonies that thrived in the 19th century, are manifestations of the Romantic spirit on this side of the Atlantic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s