Romanticism (roe-MAN-tuh-SIZZ-um) was a literary movement that emphasized individualism and emotion. The Romantic era lasted from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, but its effects are still evident throughout modern literature.
Romantic works were a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment and the advancing Industrial Age, a time in which science and rationalization began to take firmer hold in the public consciousness. Romantic literature challenged this new wave of ideas by telling stories rooted in emotion, nature, idealism, and the subjective experiences of common men and women.
It’s important to note that romanticism, as a literary movement, is not the same thing as the literary genre of romance novels. Romanticism may be an influence on today’s romance novels, but romance novels do not typically possess all the elements central to Romantic-era literature. Also, the term Romantic does not refer directly to romantic love. It comes from the medieval French romaunt, the term for an epic, chivalrous quest told in verse.
The History of Romanticism
Romantic literature emerged at a time when the world was undergoing a sea-change of thoughts and ideas. The Age of Enlightenment produced a new breed of philosophers and scientists who challenged long-held ideas about how humans thought, lived, and came to be. The Industrial Revolution, quite naturally, was hot on the heels of the Enlightenment. The ideas and theories formed in the latter now came to life in exciting new inventions that changed the way people lived and worked.
There is always some degree of nostalgia for “the old days” when new ways of life come into fashion, and it’s this phenomenon that gave birth to romanticism. The movement harkened back to a time when things were simpler and more straightforward. Life and literature depended on the heart and one’s more primitive emotions—not science or theory or overt religiosity.
The romantic movement began in Germany. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was a seminal early romantic work infused with a sense of nationalism, which became a hallmark of German romanticism. As romanticism spread throughout Europe and beyond, however, it didn’t concern itself with any explicitly nationalist tendencies.
English romanticism began in Great Britain, with the emergence of poets like Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads included works by Wordsworth and Coleridge and launched the English movement. During the peak of the English romantic era in the 1810s, the works of Jane Austen took centerstage.
Dark romanticism is a subset of romantic literature that also started in Germany. These works feature elements of the macabre, grotesque, or demonic. They are similar to gothic fiction, but while gothic works are largely horror-centric, the spookier elements of dark romanticism don’t overshadow the romantic characteristics. Dark romantic writers include E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
American romanticism generally held the same ideals as English romanticism: individualism; a rich, emotional, isolated life; the beauty of nature; and moral uprightness. One of the first notable American romantic works was William Cullen Bryant’s poem “To a Waterfowl” in 1818. Other American romantic authors, like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Emily Dickinson, followed.
The Elements of Romanticism
There are six elements common to most romantic works: the common man, the idealization of women, individuality, isolation, nature, and pathetic fallacy.
The Common Man/Woman
Romantic writers felt that the average reader should be able to understand and enjoy their works. This sentiment often extended to the relatability of characters they created. Heathcliff Linton from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, for example, is a servant; Charlotte Brontë’s titular protagonist in Jane Eyre is a governess. Virtually all of Jane Austen’s heroines were average young ladies, usually looking for love. While Romantic characters may have uncommon adventures or exceptional experiences, they are not larger-than-life personalities of towering might or intellect.
The Idealization of Women
The exception to the common woman in romantic literature was the idealized woman. Romantic writers would represent certain female characters as innocent, naïve bundles of perfection that needed sheltering and, in some cases, outright worship. Their admirers were nothing short of haunted by them. Take Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee”:
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Poe’s narrator puts his lover on a pedestal, enamored by her beauty and, in many ways, he was obsessed with their “love that was more than love.” Not even death can keep Poe’s narrator from loving and glorifying Annabel; he even insinuates that angels were so jealous of the love he and Annabel shared that they killed her.
Characters and their internal lives were a priority for Romantic writers. They gave readers access to the characters’ innermost thoughts and desires, emphasizing the minutia that made them tick. This hyper-focus on subjective thoughts and experiences opened the doors for an increased perception of the spiritual—and, sometimes, the supernatural.
Wuthering Heights is a classic example of Romantic individualism, most notably in Heathcliff. He is an example of a Byronic hero—a figure in Romantic literature who is miserable yet affectionate, moody yet proud and defiant. Heathcliff is so passionately in love with Cathy that even after her death, he can think only of being with her:
You know I was wild after she died; and eternally, from dawn to dawn, praying her to return to me her spirit! I have a strong faith in ghosts: I have a conviction that they can, and do, exist among us! The day she was buried, there came a fall of snow. In the evening I went to the churchyard. It blew bleak as winter—all round was solitary. I didn’t fear that her fool of a husband would wander up the glen so late; and no one else had business to bring them there. Being alone, and conscious two yards of loose earth was the sole barrier between us, I said to myself—“I’ll have her in my arms again!”
Heathcliff’s loss leads to become a tortured, vengeful man, and much of Wuthering Heights focuses on his evolution from a solitary youth to a besotted young man, to a bitter, heartbroken individual.
Isolation and its accompanying melancholy played a key role in the experiences of romantic characters and, often, their authors. This loneliness and estrangement from the rest of humanity gives the character a way to express the uniqueness of their experiences and thoughts.
John Clare, often called the quintessential romantic poet, wrote about the beauty of isolation and nature on the farm where he spent his life in the poem “I Am!”:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live…
Clare characterizes himself as a long-forgotten entity who receives no regard except from himself. As such, it’s almost as though he doesn’t even exist—his emotions dissipating to nothing for no one is there to experience them.
Nature was a source of endless inspiration and beauty for romantic writers. They often viewed nature as a teacher; a living, breathing entity; a god or goddess; or some combination of them all. For example, in the poem “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake celebrates nature and its awe-inspiring majesty:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
This kind of reverence for nature is what makes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a prominent example of romantic writing.
This is an offshoot of the reverence for nature characteristic of romantic works. Pathetic fallacy is a type of personification where romantic writers attributed human feelings and thoughts to aspects of nature. In the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” with the title itself giving human characteristics to a cloud, William Wordsworth writes about coming upon a field of daffodils:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee…
The Function of Romanticism
Literary romanticism honors universal human emotions like love, loss, triumph, and failure. These works did not center on bold religious statements or scientific theories; instead, they highlight a collective sense of morality and right versus wrong. They existed as accessible pieces of literature that featured the common man as a character to attract the common man as a reader. The result was that ordinary people were considered worthy of respect and even celebration. Romantic works also underscored the value of nature in the richness of the human experience, as well as the need for isolation to attain emotional or spiritual growth.
Romanticism and Other Literary Movements
Romanticism vs. Naturalism
Naturalist works use scientific theories of observation and detachment to tell their stories. This approach is, in many ways, the opposite of romanticism, which concentrates on emotions, feelings, ideals, and the singularity of lived experiences.
Naturalist literature is usually gritty and intense, and outside forces like heredity and environment determine the fate of the characters. In romanticism, destiny and spiritual guidance influence what happens to the characters.
Romanticism vs. Realism
Realism and naturalism share some qualities, but realism is more about writing style, whereas naturalism is a writing philosophy. Put another way: Realism is a technique to describe the way things are, and naturalism examines why things are the way they are.
Works of realism do not embellish, adorn, or attempt to romanticize characters, situations, or experiences; they reflect reality. Works of romanticism are typically idealist in nature, with a sentimentalized worldview and overly descriptive prose.
Romanticism vs. Transcendentalism
Emotions drive romanticism, which places the movement somewhat at odds with the aims of transcendentalism. It is intuition, not emotion, that is the overarching theme for many transcendentalist works.
Transcendentalist writers believed that people and nature were innately good, and autonomy and independence were crucial for individual freedom. Again, this theory contrasts with romanticism, which often pits good characters against evil characters and features deep, sometimes obsessive, love and codependence.
Writers Known for Romanticism
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility
- William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience
- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
- Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
- Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose,” “To a Mouse”
- John Clare, “I Am!,” “Autumn”
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
- James Fenimore Cooper, Leatherstocking Tales, The Last of the Mohicans
- Emily Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
- T.A. Hoffmann, The Sandman
- Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle
- John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
- Lord Byron, Don Juan
- Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven”
- Walter Scott, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark”
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
- William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” “The Prelude”
Examples of Romantic Literature
1. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Poe’s 1845 poem is about a man pining for his lost love, Lenore. Caught in a state between wakefulness and sleep, the man notices a raven perching on a bust over the door. He begins talking to this bird, who only ever utters the same word in response: “Nevermore.”
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Slowly, the narrator loses his grip on sanity and sees the bird as a supernatural visitor. In the above stanza, he hallucinates, thinking angels have sent the raven to make him forget Lenore.
2. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Shelley’s 1818 novel centers on Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his attempts to reanimate a corpse. After his first successful experiments, Frankenstein reflects on his creation:
No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source, many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.
Frankenstein starts to feel guilty that he carelessly brought new life into the world, and he flees in disgust, ashamed of what he has done. This reaction leads to the novel’s devastating events, as the Creature seeks revenge against Frankenstein for creating him and then relegating him to the life of an outcast.
3. Emily Dickinson “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers”
Dickinson’s poem, published after her death, is a testament to hope:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Dickenson imbues the short piece with many of the hallmarks of Romantic literature: a reverence for nature, a connection with emotions (in this case, a desire for comfort and optimism), personification of “the little Bird,” and a deep sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
Further Resources on Romanticism
SkyMinds has an in-depth look at romanticism in art and literature.
The British Library explains the central ideas and influences of British romanticism.
Pubstarr has a short video on the Romantic Era and its impact on art and literature.
A Mt. Holyoke website discusses romanticism in French literature.
A University of Houston website considers romanticism as a period, movement, style, and genre.
- Figurative Language
- Narrative Poem