Romanticism (literature)

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Romanticism (literature), a movement in the literature of virtually every country of Europe, the United States, and Latin America that lasted from about 1750 to about 1870, characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature. The term romantic first appeared in 18th-century English and originally meant “romancelike”—that is, resembling the fanciful character of medieval romances.


By the late 18th century in France and Germany, literary taste began to turn from classical and neoclassical conventions (see Classic, Classical, and Classicism). 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.

A The Romantic Spirit  

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 Justus Möser, provided more formal precepts and collaborated on a group of essays entitled Von deutscher Art und Kunst (Of German Style and Art, 1773). 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 (1773; translated 1799), a historical drama about a 16th-century robber knight. The play, which justifies revolt against political authority, inaugurated the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement, a forerunner of German romanticism. Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; translated 1779) was also in this tradition. 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.

B The Romantic Style  

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.

No longer tolerated, for example, were the fixed classical conventions, such as the famous three unities (time, place, and action) of tragedy. An increasing demand for spontaneity and lyricism—qualities that the adherents of romanticism found in folk poetry and in medieval romance—led to a rejection of regular meters, strict forms, and other conventions of the classical tradition. In English poetry, for example, blank verse largely superseded the rhymed couplet that dominated 18th-century poetry. The opening lines of the swashbuckling melodrama Hernani (1830; translated 1830), by the great French romantic writer Victor Hugo, are a departure from the conventional 18th-century rules of French versification; and in the preface to his drama Cromwell (1827; translated 1896), a famous critical document in its own right, Hugo not only defended his break from traditional dramatic structure but also justified the introduction of the grotesque into art. In their choice of heroes, also, the romantic writers replaced the static universal types of classical 18th-century literature with more complex, idiosyncratic characters; and a great deal of drama, fiction, and poetry was devoted to a celebration of Rousseau's “common man.”

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.

A Libertarianism  

Many of the libertarian (see Libertarianism) and abolitionist movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were engendered by the romantic philosophy—the desire to be free of convention and tyranny, and the new emphasis on the rights and dignity of the individual. Just as the insistence on rational, formal, and conventional subject matter that had typified neoclassicism was reversed, the authoritarian regimes that had encouraged and sustained neoclassicism in the arts were inevitably subjected to popular revolutions. Political and social causes became dominant themes in romantic poetry and prose throughout the Western world, producing many vital human documents that are still pertinent. The year 1848, in which Europe was wracked by political upheaval, marked the flood tide of romanticism in Italy, Austria, Germany, and France.

In William Tell (1804; translated 1825), by German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, an obscure medieval mountaineer becomes an immortal symbol of opposition to tyranny and foreign rule. In the novel The Betrothed (1825-1827; translated 1834), by Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, a peasant couple become instruments in the final crushing of feudalism in northern Italy. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who for some most typify the romantic poet (in their personal lives as well as in their work), wrote resoundingly in protest against social and political wrongs and in defense of the struggles for liberty in Italy and Greece. Russian poet Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, whose admiration for the work of Byron is clearly manifested, attracted notoriety for his “Ode to Liberty” (1820); like many other romanticists, he was persecuted for political subversion.

The general romantic dissatisfaction with the organization of society was often channeled into specific criticism of urban society. La maison du berger (The Shepherd's Hut, 1844), by French poet Alfred Victor de Vigny, expresses the view that such an abode has more nobility than a palace. Earlier, Rousseau had written that people were born free but that everywhere civilization put them in chains. This feeling of oppression was frequently expressed in poetry—for example, in the work of English visionary William Blake, writing in the poem “Milton” (about 1804-1808) of the “dark Satanic mills” that were beginning to deface the English countryside; or in Wordsworth's long poem The Prelude (1850), which speaks of “... the close and overcrowded haunts/Of cities, where the human heart is sick.”

B Nature  

Basic to such sentiments was an interest central to the romantic movement: 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. Such intimations were early evinced in “Ode to Evening” (1747) by William Collins, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) by Thomas Gray, and The Borough (1810) by George Crabbe. The melancholic strain later developed as a separate theme, as in “Ode on Melancholy” (1820) by John Keats, or—in a different time and place—in the works of American writers: the novels and tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which probe the depths of human nature in puritanical New England, or the macabre tales and melancholy poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.

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 folktales as well as contemporary romantic poetry and the Gothic novel. The Leather-Stocking 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.

C The Lure of the Exotic  

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 compilation of old English and Scottish ballads by English poet Thomas Percy was a seminal work; his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) exerted a significant influence on the form and content of later romantic poetry. 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.

D The Supernatural  

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—folktales and ballads—collected by Percy and by German scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Karl Grimm (see Grimm Brothers) and Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. From such material comes, for example, the motif of the doppelgänger (German for “double”). Many romantic writers, especially in Germany, were fascinated with this concept, perhaps because of the general romantic concern with self-identity. Poet Heinrich Heine wrote a lyric apocryphally titled “Der Doppelgänger” (1827; translated 1846); The Devil's Elixir (1815-1816; translated 1824), a short novel by E. T. A. Hoffmann, is about a double; and Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story (1814; translated 1927), 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 (1846), an analysis of paranoia in a humble clerk.

IV DECLINE OF THE TRADITION  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.

See also American Literature: Poetry; American Literature: Prose; Brazilian Literature; Danish Literature; Dutch Literature; English Literature; French Literature; German Literature; Italian Literature; Latin American Literature; Polish Literature; Portuguese Literature; Russian Literature; Spanish Literature; Swedish Literature.

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