Romanticism

Looking for a bit of romance? You’ve come to the right place!  Let's have a flirt with Romanticism, responsible for some of the most beautiful and emotional poetry in the English language and some of its zaniest characters! Keep reading to learn more about the philosophy, characteristics, and more!

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Table of contents

    Romanticism: definition

    Romanticism was a broad artistic movement encompassing visual arts, literature, poetry, philosophy and even politics. To understand the definition and origin of Romanticism, we need to know what came before it. The 18th century saw the popularity of the Augustan poets in the tradition of Classicism, who wrote poetry that was very concerned with philosophy, politics and satire – in other words, it came from the brain.

    Romantic poetry responded to these poets by doing a total U-turn. Romantic poetry is about love, nature and emotion – you could say it comes from the heart. Romanticism also drew inspiration from the French Revolution, picking up themes of freedom and equality. Let’s take a look at the difference between Augustan poetry and Romantic poetry.

    The French Revolution (1788-89) was a period of political upheaval in France, as workers and peasants rose up against the aristocrats in an attempt to topple the old order. The Revolution culminated in the execution of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.

    Romanticism: philosophy

    The philosophy surrounding romanticism came about in response to philosophers such as Kant, who amongst other things wrote that there was a shared sense of morality and aesthetics that would exist with or without God. This ties to the Romantic movement because it does away with the idea that every question has a single, true answer - ie. the answer that God would give. Here's a breakdown of the differences between Augustan/Classicism poetry and Romantic poetry.

    Characteristics of 18th Century/Augustan PoetryCharacteristics of Romanticism
    Satire and emulation of the classics (especially ancient Greek) - requires background knowledge to fully understand.Creative and self-contained - often references the classics but can mostly be read without prior knowledge.
    Intellectual and empirical - the idea that there is one discoverable truth.Subjective, stemming from the emotions of the author - multiple and varied interpretations can be made.
    Lofty and formal language.Often simple language, the language of the people.
    Classical, more rigid rhyme schemes such as heroic couplets.Makes use of a range of rhyme schemes and meters.

    Some of the key thinkers and writers of Romanticism are William Wordsworth (1770 –1850), William Blake (1757-1827), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Lord Byron (1788-1824), and John Keats (1795-1821). These writers knew about and took inspiration from each other’s work, and between them published many of the most famous and recognisable poems in the world. You probably already know poems like 'Ozymandias' (Shelley, 1818), 'Ode to a Nightingale' (Keats, 1819), 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (Coleridge, 1800), and 'The Tyger' (Blake, 1794).

    Romanticism in literature is often said to have begun in 1798 when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, but it can be argued that Romantic poetry began with William Blake’s collection Songs of Innocence in 1789. The poems in these collections were fuelled by imagination and a deep appreciation for nature and the natural order, and they were a great deal more sentimental than the poetry that came before them. They were extraordinarily influential, and over the next 20 years the movement grew and changed as the Romantic poets continued with their work.

    Romanticism: characteristics

    In his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth summed up his view of what poetry should be: 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'1 . This is a great way to sum up Romanticism – feelings take centre stage, and there are no rules! The Romantics explored the supernatural and the legendary and blurred the lines between the real and the weird. Have a look at a couple of quotes to get your head around it.

    I wandered lonely as a cloud

    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

    When all at once I saw a crowd,

    A host, of golden daffodils

    - William Wordsworth, 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' (1802)

    Look at the devices Wordsworth uses here – He compares himself to a cloud, making himself into a part of nature. He also compares the daffodils to a crowd, personifying them – by using these two techniques, Wordsworth asks questions about humanity’s place in the world and celebrates the sense of belonging and wonder of being in nature. This is typical of Wordsworth – although all the Romantic poets wrote about nature, Wordsworth was the most devoted to it.

    Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

    -John Keats, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' (1818)

    Another great signpost for Romanticism, this quote from Keats sums up another key belief of the Romantics – that beauty is the most important thing in any form of art. In this poem, Keats considers an urn created about two thousand years ago and how unlikely it was to have survived for him to see. He concludes that it is because of its beauty that it has survived, showing beauty to be an incredibly powerful force. This tracks with our summation of Augustan poetry – they were less concerned with aesthetics than the Romantics, and they are also much less famous in the 21st century. Coincidence? You tell me!

    Round the decay

    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    -Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Ozymandias' (1818)

    This is a great example of a concept known as the sublime. The sublime is the experience of something that far exceeds our understanding, such as a vast and wild landscape or an incomprehensible passage of time. The sublime is awe-inspiring but also terrifying because it taps into the human fear of that which we can’t understand. Romantic poets were very interested in the sublime because of the epic scale of the natural world and the excess of emotion that it causes. In 'Ozymandias', Shelley highlights the sublime by showing that even the 'King of Kings' means nothing in the grand scheme of things because time and the cruel desert are so much bigger and more powerful than anything a human can achieve or imagine.

    Romanticism, a painting of a man in a suit standing on rocks looking down on a sea of fog, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. This painting gives a small insight into what it means to experience the sublime!

    Romanticism: literature

    The Romantic poets were a varied and interesting bunch - let's meet them!

    William Blake

    William Blake was the oldest of the great Romantics, born in 1857. A pioneer of Romanticism, poetry was not his only artistic outlet – he was also a painter and an engraver, his engraving earning him a living in his early life. In 1783, Blake published the collection Poetical Sketches, which much more closely resembled his satirical, political predecessors. In 1789 he published Songs of Innocence, a huge turning point for the Romanticism movement. Five years later, in 1794, he published Songs of Experience, which contained 'The Tyger', one of the most iconic and recognisable poems in the English language.

    Blake continued to publish up until his death in 1827, also writing the poem 'Jerusalem' (1808), which you might have sung in school! Blake’s poetry was somewhat more concerned with religion than the other Romantics, and he believed that God was in everything and everyone, informing his love of the world around him.

    Romanticism, a painting of a muscular and mystical male figure reaching down, StudySmarterFig. 2 - William Blake's 1794 engraving The Ancient of Days.

    William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    These two were a bit of a dynamic duo – Born two years apart, their meeting was fated as it brought about the publication of Lyrical Ballads, the most important collection of the early Romantic period.

    William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in the Lake District in Cumbria, his hometown becoming a huge source of inspiration for his poetry. Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772 in Devon, but he went away to study in Cambridge and London before meeting Wordsworth in 1795. The poets worked together and influenced each other deeply, even to the point that there are certain lines of Coleridge’s 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' that were directly contributed by Wordsworth!

    Some of Wordsworth’s most famous poems are 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' (1802), 'A Slumber did My Spirit Seal' (1800), and his gargantuan autobiographical blank verse poem 'The Prelude' (1850). Notable poems by Coleridge include 'Kubla Khan' (1816), 'The Eolian Harp' (1796), and of course 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

    'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is one of Coleridge's longest poems. It is about a mariner who shoots an albatross and brings a curse on his ship and crewmates. His crewmates die and leave him alone but torment him from beyond the grave, and he meets Death and Life-In-Death, who gamble for his fate. The poem looks at themes of sin, perspective and nature, and is where the phrase 'albatross around one's neck', meaning an unescapable burden, comes from.

    Lord Byron

    'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know' – that’s how one of George Gordon Byron’s lovers once referred to him2. Born in 1788, Byron was known as a bit of a dandy and a womaniser, and this comes out in his work. His poetry is deeply autobiographical and is often concerned with feelings of love and lust, as well as rejection, alienation and frustration.

    Byron was known to use complex structures in his work, weaving different rhyming and metrical effects to create poetry that was pleasing to multiple senses. To understand what we mean, take a look at one of Byron’s most famous poems, 'She Walks in Beauty' (1814). This poem is written in Iambic Tetrameter, a rare rhyme scheme because of its difficulty and awkwardness. Byron’s choice to use this kind of structure and his great success in doing so shows his raw skill as a poet.

    Iambic Tetrameter is a poetic meter that refers to lines of eight syllables with the pattern stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed. Read out the line 'She walks in beauty, like the night' (Byron, 'She Walks in Beauty') and see if you can feel the pattern.

    John Keats

    Saved the best till last! John Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821 at the age of 25, but the amount he got done in those years was absolutely staggering. Much of his poetry was interested in transience, the idea that things can only truly last for a short time. He felt desperately helpless about the fact that his love for his girlfriend Fanny Brawne could not last forever (see 'Bright Star' (1838)) and the idea that he may die before he could fully realise his artistic potential (see 'When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be' (1848)).

    Tragically, it seems that these fears were realised – he came down with tuberculosis in 1820 and died in Rome in 1821, where he had been sent to take the warm air and recover. Many of his poems were not published until years after his death. He was so sure of his failure as an artist that he had the words 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water' written on his gravestone – ironic, then, that you are reading about him 200 years later! It seems that, as he wrote in his epic poem 'Endymion' (1818), 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'

    Romanticism (1785-1832) - Key takeaways

    • Romanticism was an artistic movement that broadly spanned from the 1780s to the 1830s.
    • Romanticism in literature was a response to the poetry of the first half of the 18th century, also known as Augustan poetry.
    • While Augustan poetry was interested in finding the empirical truth in things, as well as imitating the classics, Romanticism was more interested in art for its own sake, focusing on emotions and imagination.
    • Some of the most famous Romantic poems are 'Bright Star' by John Keats, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
    • Along with those writers, the other most important writers of the Romanticism movement were William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron.

    References

    1. Wordsworth, William (1800). Preface. Lyrical Ballads, 1800
    2. Douglass, Paul (October 2004). Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography.
    3. Fig 1 - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog.jpg) by Caspar David Friedrich
    4. Fig 2 - The Ancient of Days (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Ancient_of_Days_by_William_Blake#/media/File:Europe_a_Prophecy_copy_K_plate_01.jpg) by William Blake
    Frequently Asked Questions about Romanticism

    What are the differences between Romanticism and Classicism?

    Writers of poems in the Classisism tradition tended to be analytical and objective, while Romanticism was much more subjective and emotional.

    What does Romanticism mean in literature?

    Romanticism in literature refers to the literary movement between 1785 and 1832 that saw an explosion of sensual and emotional poetry.

    When was Romanticism?

    The Romanticism movement was between the years of 1785 and 1832.

    What are the 5 characteristics of Romanticism?

    5 characteristics of Romanticism are:

    • Emotive language
    • Use of the imagination
    • Appeal to the senses
    • Love of the natural world
    • Focus on art for the sake of art

    What is the main idea of Romanticism?

    The main idea of Romanticism is the move away from objective and logical poetry to subjective and emotional poetry.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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    Before Industrialisation, what percentage of the population in Britain live in rural areas?

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