Romanticism is a movement that dominated the literary, visual, and musical arts from the late eighteenth century until about the 1870s. Romanticism is in no way related to the concept of romantic love; rather, it reflects the movement's focus on "depicting emotional matter in imaginative form," a definition given by Friedrich Schlegel, a prominent German poet active in the early nineteenth century. The romantic movement spread throughout the arts in Western Europe and the United States. Scholars typically subdivide it by region or genre—such as German or English, poetry or paintings.
Literary romanticism can be defined in part by a gradual relaxing of the strict rules of form that had governed the production of previous works, particularly poetry. For example, the rigid and inflexible form of the sonnet fell out of favor, and more free-form poetry began to appear. It was in many ways a revolt against the established order, especially that which was established by the Enlightenment. Among the most noted writers of the romantic movement are Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and logic profoundly affected European and American society. The industrial revolution swept across Western Europe and North America. Rapidly advancing scientific discoveries were revolutionizing the way people understood and interacted with the world. It is important to note that the historical roots of romanticism are closely tied to the ideals of the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789). It was this spirit of revolt and upheaval of the existing order that inspired changes in both literary form and subject matter.
Romanticism can also be seen as a backlash against the austerity of the neoclassicist movement that preceded it, especially in the visual arts. Neoclassicism is defined by order, symmetry, logic, and adherence to form. Romanticism also evolved out of a rediscovery of the literary romances written during the medieval period. Again, romance in this sense is not linked to romantic love; rather, a medieval romance focuses on the daring spirit of an individual hero who encounters mysterious and exotic characters, creatures, and obstacles over the course of an adventure.
By the very nature of its ideals, romantic literature displayed one of the most expansive ranges of content and subject matter of any single movement in literary history. Several themes recur frequently enough to be considered definitive. These include imagination and emotion, intuition, nature, the individual, freedom, and the lure of the exotic.
The prominence of the imagination as a key source of inspiration and emotion as a central means of expression can be seen as a direct response to the repressive and subdued characteristics of neoclassicism. Romanticism devalues logic and reason. Many writers and artists explored altered states of consciousness as a means of unlocking the hidden creative powers of the mind. Also, the triumph of emotion over logic is a key feature not only in the content of romantic works, but also in their creation. Many romantic artists worked feverishly when they felt strong bursts of emotion to capture the essence of their feelings on the page or the canvas. Emotional rather than logical responses to a rapidly changing world also found expression in romantic works.
Intuition was seen as an important source of inspiration. Rather than subscribing to prevailing mores or logical thought patterns, romantic writers and artists instead sought to better understand their own instincts and natural responses, urges, and desires. Intuition is more prominent as a philosophical approach to literary and artistic production, however, than as a recurrent theme in romantic literature.
One of the central conceits of romantic literature is that nature itself is a work of art; everything from a spectacular sunset to an ant colony has perceived aesthetic value. Romantic writers went to painstaking efforts to capture nature in vivid and accurate detail, and a wide variation of philosophical perspectives toward nature is evident in romantic works. These perspectives range from portraying nature as an unspeakable power with divine origins to treating it as a refuge from a rapidly urbanizing world.
The individual is valued to a much greater degree than society as a whole. Also, from both a philosophical and aesthetic standpoint, romantics sought to explore individual consciousness and expression as a means of understanding the world and the universe. The uniqueness of the individual was prized above all else, and idiosyncratic touches that defied known convention were encouraged in all genres and artistic forms. To romantics, the artist was a supremely important figure.
Freedom's role as a central theme in romantic literature was largely due to the influence of the American and French Revolutions. Political, personal, emotional, and financial freedoms are recurrent points of focus in romantic literature. Late in the movement its adherents also became preoccupied with using their works to achieve social and political upheaval and fight perceived social injustices.
Primitivism, or the lure of the exotic, is more evident in the visual arts than in literature. This preoccupation with the exotic and the primitive can be interpreted in two ways. First, it results from increasing European and American contact with faraway corners of the world, as a great deal of global colonial expansion took place during romanticism's heyday. Second, it ties in with the movement's fascination with nature; primitive states are, in the eyes of many romantics, the purest and most natural states. For some authors this preoccupation with the exotic evolved into an exploration of topics such as magic, the occult, and the supernatural.
Scholars have noted a sharp distinction in the romantic literature of Great Britain and the United States. The first romantic literary works written in English originated in Britain in the late eighteenth century, but the movement did not begin to influence American literature until about 1830. The romantic movement in Britain was dominated by poetry, whereas American romantic writers championed the novel as their primary tool of expression. Numerous subgenres of romantic literature also appeared as the movement spread; for example, some literary historians include the gothic novel, which became popular in the nineteenth century, as a romantic subgenre. The divisions between these subgenres and the movement as a whole are blurry at best.
National romanticism became a feature of the movement once it took hold in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. More attention was paid to imbuing works with characteristics unique to their place of origin. Ballads, fairy tales, and native folklore were all plundered by romantic writers seeking subject matter unique to their environs.
Major Authors and Works
The most enduring British poets of the romantic movement include John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. American romantic poets include the likes of Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Prominent novelists working in the romantic tradition include Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Nathaniel Hawthorne'sThe Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans are examples of canonical novels in the romantic tradition. Moby-Dick serves both as a philosophical work and a lively, detailed account of life at sea. Unfortunately Melville, who spent a great deal of time serving on ships hoping to improve his financial situation, wrote the book as the whaling industry collapsed. The novel was a failure in 1851 when first published, but was rediscovered about seventy years later. Melville was posthumously hailed for his remarkable experimental writing style. Cooper, on the other hand, enjoyed immediate and sustained success for his novels about wild frontier life. The Last of the Mohicans was the fifth novel in which he featured the adventures of the scout Hawkeye.
Famous romantic poems include William Blake's "The Tyger," William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias," Lord Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," and John Keats' "Hyperion." The early works of Keats, who trained as a doctor and practiced medicine for one year before dedicating his time to writing poetry, were harshly reviewed. A walking tour of Scotland's Lake Country and a visit to Ireland awoke in him an appreciation for nature. Though the trip influenced his writing, and inspired "Hyperion," it also may have affected his health. He was unwell and later contracted tuberculosis from his brother. Keats's poems and plays met with varying degrees of success, though he died three years after his inspirational journey believing himself a failure.
It is also important to note that the romantic movement spread throughout the European mainland. Many romantic authors of significance worked in languages other than English. Among these are Victor Hugo, Adam Mickiewicz, Aleksandr Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, Stendhal, Angel de Saavedra, and Alessandro Manzoni.