back to main E&R page

Romanticism was a movement in the art, literature, and philosophy of virtually every country of Europe, the United States, and Latin America that lasted from about 1750 to about 1870. The period was marked by its values of imagination, individuality, subjectivity, and nature. The term romantic first appeared in 18th-century English and originally meant "romancelike"--referring to the character of Medieval romances.

By the late 18th century in France and Germany, literary taste began to turn from classical and neoclassical conventions. Inspiration for the romantic approach initially came from two great shapers of thought, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Rousseau established the cult of the individual and championed the freedom of the human spirit; his famous announcement was "I felt before I thought." Goethe and his compatriots, philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder and historian Justice Möser, provided more formal precepts and collaborated on a group of essays entitled Von deutscher Art und Kunst. In this work the authors extolled the romantic spirit as manifested in German folk songs, Gothic architecture, and the plays of English playwright William Shakespeare. Goethe sought to imitate Shakespeare's free and untrammeled style in his Götz von Berlichingen, a historical drama about a 16th-century robber knight. One of the great influential documents of romanticism, this work exalts sentiment, even to the point of justifying committing suicide because of unrequited love. The book set a tone and mood much copied by the romantics in their works and often in their personal lives: a fashionable tendency to frenzy, melancholy, world-weariness, and even self-destruction.

The preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), by English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also of prime importance as a manifesto of literary romanticism. Here, the two poets affirmed the importance of feeling and imagination to poetic creation and disclaimed conventional literary forms and subjects. Thus, as romantic literature everywhere developed, imagination was praised over reason, emotions over logic, and intuition over science--making way for a vast body of literature of great sensibility and passion. This literature emphasized a new flexibility of form adapted to varying content, encouraged the development of complex and fast-moving plots, and allowed mixed genres (tragicomedy and the mingling of the grotesque and the sublime) and freer style.

As the romantic movement spread from France and Germany to England and then to the rest of Europe and across to the western hemisphere, certain themes and moods, often intertwined, became the concern of almost all 19th-century writers.

Basic to the romantic movement was the concern with nature and natural surroundings. Delight in unspoiled scenery and in the (presumably) innocent life of rural dwellers is perhaps first recognizable as a literary theme in such a work as "The Seasons" (1726-1730), by Scottish poet James Thomson. The work is commonly cited as a formative influence on later English romantic poetry and on the nature tradition represented in English literature, most notably by Wordsworth. Often combined with this feeling for rural life is a generalized romantic melancholy, a sense that change is imminent and that a way of life is being threatened.

In another vein in American literature, the romantic interest in untrammeled nature is found in such writers as Washington Irving, whose Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), a collection of descriptive stories about the Hudson River valley, reflects the author's knowledge of European folk tales as well as contemporary romantic poetry and the Gothic novel. The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper celebrate the beauty of the American wilderness and the simple frontier life; in romantic fashion they also idealize the Native American as (in Rousseau's phrase) the "noble savage." By the middle of the 19th century the nature tradition was absorbed by American literary transcendentalism, chiefly expressed in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In the spirit of their new freedom, romantic writers in all cultures expanded their imaginary horizons spatially and chronologically. They turned back to the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) for themes and settings and chose locales ranging from the awesome Hebrides of the Ossianic tradition, as in the work of Scottish poet James MacPherson (see Ossian and Ossianic Ballads), to the Asian setting of Xanadu evoked by Coleridge in his unfinished lyric "Kubla Khan" (1797?). The nostalgia for the Gothic past mingled with the tendency to the melancholic and produced a fondness for ruins, graveyards, and the supernatural as themes. In English literature, representative works include Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes," the Gothic novels of Matthew Gregory Lewis, and The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, and his historical novels, the Waverley series (1814-1825), combine these concerns: love of the picturesque, preoccupation with the heroic past, and delight in mystery and superstition.

The trend toward the irrational and the supernatural was an important component of English and German romantic literature. It was reinforced on the one hand by disillusion with 18th-century rationalism and on the other by the rediscovery of a body of older literature--folk tales and ballads--collected by Percy and by German scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Karl Grimm and Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story, by Adelbert von Chamisso, the tale of a man who sells his shadow to the devil, can be considered a variation on the theme. Later, Russian master Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky wrote his famous novel The Double, an analysis of paranoia in a humble clerk.

By about the middle of the 19th century, romanticism began to give way to new literary movements: the Parnassians and the symbolist movement in poetry, and realism and naturalism in prose. However, the influence of the movement is still felt in the present day, and romantic artists will always exist, in some form or another.