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
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
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.