The Romantic Period 1798-1832 History

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The Romantic Period



-The Enlightenment

-The American Revolution

-The French Revolution


-George III and the Regency

-The Industrial Revolution


-The Enlightenment “Project”


-German idealism

-Rousseau and the “state of nature”

-Sturm und Drang movement


-Reaction against Neoclassical/Augustan

-William Blake and Robert Burns (precursors)

-William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (early)

-Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats (late)

-Mary Shelley

-Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott


In order to understand Romanticism it is necessary to first grasp what the goals of the Enlightenment were. The Enlightenment, like the Renaissance, is a term that is used by historians to describe the intellectual developments that took place during a certain period of time. The Enlightenment was a movement during the 18th century that emphasized the use of science and reason to understand the world. It shares with the Renaissance a certain confidence in our ability to comprehend the world through human reason. Increasingly, science and rationality were declared the most legitimate ways of comprehending reality. In England, the figure of Sir Isaac Newton and the discovery, or belief that the universe operates according to logical principles is representative of this approach. Gradually, philosophers began to apply this scientific thinking to human beings and society. The Enlightenment reliance on reason influenced literature, politics, economics, and religion.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The “Declaration of Independence” was heavily influenced by John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government,” which rationally argued against the “divine right of kings.” The American Revolution, which took place between 1776-1783; represents the application of certain Enlightenment ideas. However, it is the French Revolution, which began in 1789 that contributes more prominently to the historical background of English Romanticism.

While the loss of the American colonies affected England’s pride and economic interests, the French Revolution posed a much more serious threat to political and social order within England itself. Early Romantic writers such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge enthusiastically supported the French Revolution when it began. These writers did not view it simply as an important event for French history, but as an important event for humankind. These writers viewed the French Revolution within the framework of the Enlightenment, a movement whose ideals crossed national boundaries.

These early Romantic writers tended to align themselves with the democratic spirit of reformers and revolutionaries. However, as the broad revolutionary movement in France evolved into a radical and violent faction, support within England began to decline. In 1792, the event known as the “September Massacres” involved the execution of hundreds of the French nobility. In 1793-1794, the event known as the “Reign of Terror” involved the execution of King Louis XVI and thousands of aristocrats associated with the Old Regime were guillotined. Due to this violent shift, the early Romantic writers became disillusioned with the French Revolution as a possible realization of Enlightenment ideals and the English government became increasingly concerned about their own security. The violent persecution of the aristocracy in France revealed the power that a discontented lower class was capable of exercising. The response to the violence and chaos in France was a conservative restriction on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in England. Despite their disillusionment with the French Revolution, many liberal and democratic reformers felt that England was in need of political and social changes, but those in power feared that any reforms would represent a move towards the anarchy that characterized France (slippery slope argument). Parliament and the monarchy feared an internal rebellion from below, but also feared a French invasion from without. Britain went to war with France after the French invasion of the Netherlands and French aid was given to the Irish attempting to remove the English colonialists who occupied Ireland (Swift’s A Modest Proposal).

In France, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as a military dictator and eventually became emperor of France. Napoleon aimed to spread Enlightenment ideals through military conquest and this resulted in the rise of nationalism in what would become Germany and Italy.

The British defeated the French navy in 1805 in the Battle of Trafalgar and no longer feared a French invasion. Britain gradually liberated countries that Napoleon was occupying and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was unsuccessful. Napoleon was ultimately defeated in 1815 in the Battle of Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna then restored monarchies to the countries that Napoleon had conquered. In other words, what began as a revolutionary and democratic movement within France that had spread to all of Europe by Napoleon, ended with the wealthy and conservative classes still in power.

George III was King of England during the American Revolution and the French Revolution; however, George later became mentally ill and his son George ruled from 1811-1820. This is referred to as the “Regency” period and George eventually ruled as George IV.

Lastly, in order understand the historical background of English Romanticism it is necessary to understand the profound transformations that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th century, England began to change from a primarily agricultural society to a modern industrial society. The balance of economic, and therefore political power, began to shift from the landowning aristocracy to the middle-class industrialists and businessmen; those who owned the factories.

The process of “enclosure,” whereby public land is made private, had been taking place in the countryside for some time. This contributed to a situation wherein peasants were losing access to land while new jobs were becoming available in the urban factories. Cities experienced growth due to industrialization and rural peasants began seeking work in the new factories. These factories were characterized by dangerous working conditions, long hours, and low wages. Admittedly, this growing working class did not live a much better life in the country, but the rapid growth of cities resulted in poor living conditions, inadequate sanitation, disease, and crime. Furthermore, new cities that arose due to industrialization did not have representation in Parliament.

Overall, the middle-class and aristocracy prospered due to industrialization, while the lower-class suffered in horrible working and living conditions. The dominant economic philosophy during this time period was the “laissez-faire” approach. The idea is that the economy works best without government intervention. At this time, no laws regulated factory safety, hours, or wages. Furthermore, the government made no attempt to control the inevitable booms-and-busts of the market. “Laissez-faire” economics stems from the Enlightenment, the notion that “natural laws” are at work in the universe. Well, that might work great for physics, but it is this misapplication of, and over emphasis on, rationality and science, that the Romantics are reacting against.

At the beginning of the Regency, an economic depression occurred and factories fired many workers. Well, if you have taken economics then you know about the “crises of overproduction.” Machinery is introduced, which makes more stuff in less time and less people are needed as labor power; the result, more supply, less purchasing power, more people get fired. Well, the unemployed factory workers decided to riot and to destroy the machinery in many factories. This event is known as the “Luddite riots.” Parliament and the people who owned the factories obviously did not like this so they passed a law making the future destruction of machinery punishable by death. Due to the “laissez-faire” approach, the government did not seek to solve the unemployment problem that caused the riot, but instead attempted to prevent riots. The factory workers, the poor, and the unemployed wanted to unite in their efforts, but labor unions were illegal. When the factory workers did assemble, the government sent troops to break up the meeting and eleven people were killed. This event is known as the “Peterloo Massacre.”

Earlier, I said that the early Romantic writers viewed the French Revolution within the framework of the Enlightenment. In other words, they viewed the event as the possible realization of Enlightenment ideals. The Enlightenment “project” aimed to emancipate mankind. That humanistic ideal of the Renaissance, that belief that human reason can be used to make the world a better place, influenced all of Europe. It was believed that human reason, employed in science, philosophy, and literature, could improve society. The Enlightenment encouraged the reasoned criticism of existing authorities, the monarchy and the church, with the aim of personal and political freedom.

Because the Enlightenment crossed national boundaries, the orientation of reformers towards the French Revolution possessed a sort of cosmopolitanism. In England, the figure of Thomas Paine, who was involved in reform efforts in Britain, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution, is representative of this cosmopolitanism. Paine was a product of the Enlightenment and his commitment to those ideals transcended nationality.

How is Romanticism a reaction against the Enlightenment? Well, the Romantics did not reject the aims of the Enlightenment and believed in many of the Enlightenment’s ideals. Romanticism is a reaction against the Enlightenment in that it represents a critique of the excessive reliance and emphasis on rationality, order, and scientific thinking. In other words, the Enlightenment had unforeseen consequences. Factories produce rationally and efficiently lots of stuff; but is it healthy for human beings to be treated as part of a machine? What happens when we apply that Enlightenment view that Nature can be understood, controlled, and used in a rational and productive manner, and apply it to human beings? The Enlightenment emphasized the individual only as part of a rational whole, a society; or in the case of labor power as part of a machine. The Romantics revive the Renaissance emphasis on the individual. In this way, Romanticism is the “renaissance of the Renaissance.” Furthermore, it aims to carry out the ideals of the Enlightenment in a different manner. Due to the French Revolution, the emancipation of the individual through political means had been a failure. The realization of personal imaginative freedom was the only alternative. In this way, the Romantics represent a tension between concerns for society, or ideas of progress, and an emphasis on the individual. Faced with the conservative reaction to the French Revolution, the shortcomings of the Enlightenment “project,” and the social changes caused by the Industrial Revolution, the Romantics in Britain respond to this uncertainty with a new way of thinking.

The English Romantics were primarily concerned with the individual, subjectivity, imagination, and emotion. This new way of thinking had many sources, including German idealism (philosophy), the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature, the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Protestant ideas of self-determination and individual faith stemming from the Reformation.

Schelling, a German philosopher, claimed that man could only understand his place in the universe through an imaginative involvement with it. In other words, rationally understanding how the world operates, or understanding physics; does not provide an explanation for why the world exists or the nature of man’s existence within the world. How does the subject (the human being) make sense of the object (the world) and their place within the world? We are part of the world, but we can also reflect on the world. For the Romantics, Nature becomes the site of imaginative and emotional understanding. Nature can be understood in a rational, scientific sense and encountered in an imaginative, emotional sense.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss philosopher, wrote about man in the “state of nature.” This was a time before political institutions and society. English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke had both written about the “state of nature,” but Rousseau argues that man is naturally good. Rousseau argues that society and institutions corrupt the individual and that the “state of nature” was a less oppressive form of civilization. Rousseau influenced Romanticism in that human imagination, emotion, and intuition are viewed as a source of truth and goodness.

The Sturm und Drang movement, meaning “storm and stress,” in German literature and music emphasized individuality, subjectivity, and violent emotion. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which Napoleon carried in his jacket during the French invasion of Egypt, is an early example of the “Romantic hero” who feels a sense of isolation from the society which he is expected to conform. The English Romantics emphasized emotion over reason, Nature over industry, and the individual over society. They considered the individual’s relationship to Nature very important, they celebrated the commonplace, and perceived beauty in the everyday. REPEAT.


Where does the term “Romanticism” come from? Well, last semester you studied the medieval “romance,” such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The medieval “romance” is a tale of chivalry involving a “quest” that takes place in an imaginative world. The use of the word “romance” to denote an emotional or imaginative experience can be traced back to the medieval “romance.” In referring to the literature of the late 18th and early 19th century as “Romanticism,” historians and literary critics are recognizing an interest in the charming, magical, mysterious, and imaginative among these writers.

Romanticism, as a literary movement in Britain, was a reaction against the neo-classical and Augustan writing of the earlier 18th century. Augustan writers stressed balance, order, logic, and emotional restraint. The Romantics felt that the Augustan emphasis on tradition resulted in a limitation of vision, or an inability to perceive possibility.

Who are the Romantics? Two individuals who are considered precursors to Romanticism are William Blake and Robert Burns.

William Blake (1757-1827) was not simply a poet; he was an artist. In addition to writing poetry, Blake poured his energy into painting, drawing, and engraving. He invented his own style of printing called “illuminated printing,” which included a poem’s text and illustration on the same plate. His poems in Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) explore the perspectives of two opposing states of existence. Blake was a Christian, but believed that church doctrine was used primarily as a form of social control. This realization was part of the transition from a state of innocence (blind obedience) to a state of experience (disillusionment).

Robert Burns (1759-1796) grew up in poverty and was critical of the economic inequality in Scotland. He wrote poems praising peasant life in the dialect of the Scottish peasants. Burns’ dedication to natural speech and common experiences influenced later Romantic poets.

The beginning of “Romanticism” in Britain is traditionally marked by the publication in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth used simple language to celebrate nature and common life. Many of his poems are about the passage of time and man’s subjective experience of life and nature. He supported the French Revolution in his youth, but became more conservative later in life. Wordsworth contributed many poems to Lyrical Ballads and his Preface to that work outlined some of the main characteristics of “Romanticism.” The Preface is the theoretical justification for the new conception of poetry that emphasized subjective experience. How is the spontaneous expression of strong emotion and imagination linked to man’s experiences in Nature? According to Wordsworth, the natural world was a catalyst to explore inner thoughts and feelings. Communion with nature could translate into spiritual contemplation. The subject matter of the new poetry was rustic life and ordinary events. In other words, the common was glorified and beauty was perceived in the simple. The emphasis on imagination also involved the mysterious, exotic, and supernatural.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the first poem in Lyrical Ballads, is an example of the supernatural in “Romanticism.” Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” which was written in an opium-induced sleep, represents the mysterious and exotic. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge was more idealistic in his youth and desired to build a utopian colony in Pennsylvania, but the plan failed to materialize. Other utopian colonies were being founded in the U.S. during this time and in the early 18th century as experiments with utopian socialism and this was also influenced by the political thought of Rousseau.

While Wordsworth and Coleridge, co-authors of Lyrical Ballads, represent “early” Romanticism, a second “wave,” or younger generation of poets represent “late” Romanticism. These poets, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats, all died relatively young.

Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) passion and rebelliousness make him a symbol of the romantic spirit that was first captured in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. The “Byronic hero” is a restless, tortured soul who rejects traditional values. Byron was described as being, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” His fame as a poet began with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, based on his travels in Europe. He left Britain for the continent in 1816 and became friends with Percy and Mary Shelley in Switzerland. Lord Byron gave a speech in the House of Lords defending the Luddite rioters and died helping train Greek soldiers in their war for independence (cosmopolitan).

Percy Shelley (1792-1822) was an idealist and nonconformist. As a child, Percy was the victim of bullying and developed a hatred for tyranny and conformity. He was expelled from Oxford University for writing an essay on atheism. He supported Catholic emancipation and independence for Ireland. Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin, whose parents, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the philosopher William Godwin, were two of the most influential radicals of the 1790s. Shelley wrote much of his greatest poetry while traveling in Switzerland with his wife and Lord Byron. Percy died at sea off of the coast of Italy during a storm.

The friendship between Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and Mary Shelley led to the writing of Frankenstein. Byron suggested that they have a contest to write the best “ghost story” and Mary ultimately produced Frankenstein, a warning against the dangers of science and the desire to control nature. Frankenstein combined elements of Romanticism, the Gothic, and science-fiction.

John Keats (1795-1821) achieved literary fame at an early age and accomplished more in his short life than other poets who wrote for decades. Keats was prevented from marrying due to his poor health and poverty. Keats is most admired for his odes and the imagery he used to discuss both physical and philosophical beauty. Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.

During the 18th century the novel became a popular form of writing and the Romantic period produced two influential novelists; Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

Jane Austen is known for her “novels of manners.” Works such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility dealt with the social conventions of the middle and upper classes. Sir Walter Scott was influential in developing the “historical novel” and his characters represented the experiences of the middle and lower classes. Novels would become even more popular in the 19th century as it became the preference of the growing middle-class.

Historians and literary critics mark 1832 as an appropriate end date for the Romantic period due to the death of the novelist Sir Walter Scott and the passage of the First Reform Bill of 1832. After King George IV died in 1830, an influential member of the Whig party, Earl Grey, led a parliamentary reform effort. This legislation, the First Reform Bill of 1832, extended voting rights to more middle-class men and represented a small step in the gradual development of democracy in Britain. While Britain had experienced working class riots, the country did not experience a revolution and reform took place gradually. In 1837, Queen Victoria took the throne and England expanded its power abroad. The industrial revolution, laissez-faire capitalism, Christianity, English culture, and the English language would be spread all over the world, as Britain gradually became an empire.

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