No other period in English literature displays more variety in style, theme, and content than the Romantic Movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, no period has been the topic of so much disagreement and confusion over its defining principles and aesthetics. Romanticism, then, can best be described as a large network of sometimes competing philosophies, agendas, and points of interest. In England, Romanticism had its greatest influence from the end of the eighteenth century up through about 1870. Its primary vehicle of expression was in poetry, although novelists adopted many of the same themes. In America, the Romantic Movement was slightly delayed and modulated, holding sway over arts and letters from roughly 1830 up to the Civil War. Contrary to the English example, American literature championed the novel as the most fitting genre for Romanticism’s exposition. In a broader sense, Romanticism can be conceived as an adjective which is applicable to the literature of virtually any time period. With that in mind, anything from the Homeric epics to modern dime novels can be said to bear the stamp of Romanticism. In spite of such general disagreements over usage, there are some definitive and universal statements one can make regarding the nature of the Romantic Movement in both England and America.
First and foremost, Romanticism is concerned with the individual more than with society. The individual consciousness and especially the individual imagination are especially fascinating for the Romantics. “Melancholy” was quite the buzzword for the Romantic poets, and altered states of consciousness were often sought after in order to enhance one’s creative potential. There was a coincident downgrading of the importance and power of reason, clearly a reaction against the Enlightenment mode of thinking. Nevertheless, writers became gradually more invested in social causes as the period moved forward. Thanks largely to the Industrial Revolution, English society was undergoing the most severe paradigm shifts it had seen in living memory. The response of many early Romantics was to yearn for an idealized, simpler past. In particular, English Romantic poets had a strong connection with medievalism and mythology. The tales of King Arthur were especially resonant to their imaginations. On top of this, there was a clearly mystical quality to Romantic writing that sets it apart from other literary periods. Of course, not every Romantic poet or novelist displayed all, or even most of these traits all the time.
On the formal level, Romanticism witnessed a steady loosening of the rules of artistic expression that were pervasive during earlier times. The Neoclassical Period of the eighteenth century included very strict expectations regarding the structure and content of poetry. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, experimentation with new styles and subjects became much more acceptable. The high-flown language of the previous generation’s poets was replaced with more natural cadences and verbiage. In terms of poetic form, rhymed stanzas were slowly giving way to blank verse, an unrhymed but still rhythmic style of poetry. The purpose of blank verse was to heighten conversational speech to the level of austere beauty. Some criticized the new style as mundane, yet the innovation soon became the preferred style. One of the most popular themes of Romantic poetry was country life, otherwise known as pastoral poetry. Mythological and fantastic settings were also employed to great effect by many of the Romantic poets.
Though struggling and unknown for the bulk of his life, poet and artist William Blake was certainly one of the most creative minds of his generation. He was well ahead of his time, predating the high point of English Romanticism by several decades. His greatest work was composed during the 1790s, in the shadow of the French Revolution, and that confrontation informed much of his creative process. Throughout his artistic career, Blake gradually built up a sort of personal mythology of creation and imagination. The Old and New Testaments were his source material, but his own sensibilities transfigured the Biblical stories and led to something entirely original and completely misunderstood by contemporaries. He attempted to woo patrons to his side, yet his unstable temper made him rather difficult to work with professionally. Some considered him mad. In addition to writing poetry of the first order, Blake was also a master engraver. His greatest contributions to Romantic literature were his self-published, quasi-mythological illustrated poetry collections. Gloriously colored and painstaking in their design, few of these were produced and fewer still survive to the present day. However, the craft and genius behind a work like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell cannot be ignored.
If one could identify a single voice as the standard-bearer of Romantic sensibilities, that voice would belong to William Wordsworth. His publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 is identified by many as the opening act of the Romantic Period in English literature. It was a hugely successful work, requiring several reprinting over the years. The dominant theme of Lyrical Ballads was Nature, specifically the power of Nature to create strong impressions in the mind and imagination. The voice in Wordsworth’s poetry is observant, meditative and aware of the connection between living things and objects. There is the sense that past, present, and future all mix together in the human consciousness. One feels as though the poet and the landscape are in communion, each a partner in an act of creative production. Wordsworth quite deliberately turned his back on the Enlightenment traditions of poetry, specifically the work of Alexander Pope. He instead looked more to the Renaissance and the Classics of Greek and Latin epic poetry for inspiration. His work was noted for its accessibility. The undeniable commercial success of Lyrical Ballads does not diminish the profound effect it had on an entire generation of aspiring writers.
In the United State, Romanticism found its voice in the poets and novelists of the American Renaissance. The beginnings of American Romanticism went back to the New England Transcendental Movement. The concentration on the individual mind gradually shifted from an optimistic brand of spiritualism into a more modern, cynical study of the underside of humanity. The political unrest in mid-nineteenth century America undoubtedly played a role in the development of a darker aesthetic. At the same time, strongly individualist religious traditions played a large part in the development of artistic creations. The Protestant work ethic, along with the popularity and fervor of American religious leaders, fed a literary output that was undergird with fire and brimstone.
The middle of the nineteenth century has only in retrospect earned the label of the American Renaissance in literature. No one alive in the 1850s quite realized the flowering of creativity that was underway. In fact, the novelists who today are regarded as classic were virtually unknown during their lifetimes. The novelists working during this period, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, were crafting densely symbolic and original pieces of literature that nonetheless relied heavily upon the example of English Romanticism. However, there work was in other respects a clean break with any permutation of Romanticism that had come before. There was a darkness to American Romanticism that was clearly distinct from the English examples of earlier in the century.
Herman Melville died penniless and unknown, a failed writer who recognized his own brilliance even when others did not. It would take the Modernists and their reappraisal of American arts and letters to resuscitate Melville’s literary corpus. In novels like Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, Melville employed a dense fabric of hinted meanings and symbols that required close reading and patience. Being well-read himself, Melville’s writing betrays a deep understanding of history, mythology, and religion. With Moby Dick, Melville displays his research acumen, as in the course of the novel the reader learns more than they thought possible about whales and whaling. The novel itself is dark, mysterious, and hints at the supernatural. Superficially, the novel is a revenge tale, but over and above the narrative are meditations of madness, power, and the nature of being human. Interestingly, the narrator in the first few chapters of the novel more or less disappears for most of the book. He is in a sense swallowed up by the mania of Captain Ahab and the crew.
Although the novel most certainly held sway, poetry was not utterly silent during the flowering of American Romanticism. Arguably the greatest poet in American literary history was Walt Whitman, and he took his inspiration from many of the same sources as his fellows working in the novel. His publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 marked a critical moment in the history of poetry. Whitman’s voice in his poetry was infused with the spirit of democracy. He attempted to include all people in all corners of the Earth within the sweep of his poetic vision. Like Blake, Whitman’s brand of poetics was cosmological and entirely unlike anything else being produced at the time. Like the rest of the poets in the Romantic tradition, Whitman coined new words, and brought a diction and rhythmic style to verse that ran counter to the aesthetics of the last century. Walt Whitman got his start as a writer in journalism, and that documentary style of seeing the world permeated all his creative endeavors.
In somewhat of a counterpoint to Whitman’s democratic optimism stands Edgar Allen Poe, today recognized as the most purely Romantic poet and short story writer of his generation. Poe crafted fiction and poetry that explored the strange side of human nature. The English Romantics had a fascination with the grotesque and of “strange” beauty, and Poe adopted this aesthetic perspective willingly. His sing-song rhythms and dreary settings earned him criticism on multiple fronts, but his creativity earned him a place in the first rank of American artists. He is credited as the inventor of detective fiction, and was likewise one of the original masters of horror. A sometimes overlooked contribution, Poe’s theories on literature are often required reading for students of the art form.
The master of symbolism in American literature was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each of his novels represents worlds imbued with the power of suggestion and imagination. The Scarlet Letter is often placed alongside Moby Dick as one of the greatest novels in the English language. Not a single word is out of place, and the dense symbolism opens the work up to multiple interpretations. There are discussions of guilt, family, honor, politics, and society. There is also Hawthorne’s deep sense of history. Modern readers often believe that The Scarlet Letter was written during the age of the Puritans, but in fact Hawthorne wrote a story that was in the distant past even in his own time. Another trademark of the novel is its dabbling in the supernatural, even the grotesque. One gets the sense, for example, that maybe something is not quite right with Hester’s daughter Pearl. Nothing is what it appears to be in The Scarlet Letter, and that is the essence of Hawthorne’s particular Romanticism.
Separate from his literary production, Hawthorne wrote expansively on literary theory and criticism. His theories exemplify the Romantic spirit in American letters at mid-century. He espoused the conviction that objects can hold significance deeper than their apparent meaning, and that the symbolic nature of reality was the most fertile ground for literature. In his short stories especially, Hawthorne explored the complex system of meanings and sensations that shift in and out of a person’s consciousness. Throughout his writings, one gets a sense of darkness, if not outright pessimism. There is the sense of not fully understanding the world, of not getting the entire picture no matter how hard one tries. In a story like “Young Goodman Brown,” neither the reader nor the protagonist can distinguish reality from fantasy with any sureness.
As has been argued, Romanticism as a literary sensibility never completely disappeared. It was overtaken by other aesthetic paradigms like Realism and Modernism, but Romanticism was always lurking under the surface. Many great poets and novelists of the twentieth century cite the Romantics as their greatest inspirational voices. The primary reason that Romanticism fell out of the limelight is because many writers felt the need to express themselves in a more immediate way. The Romantic poets were regarded as innovators, but a bit lost in their own imaginations. The real problems of life in the world seemed to be pushed aside. As modernization continued unchecked, a more earthy kind of literature was demanded, and the Romantics simply did not fit that bill.
This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.
Major Writers of the Romanticism Movement
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1804-1864)
- Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)
- Poe, Edgar Allen (1809-1849)
- Shelley, Mary (1797-1851)
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822)
- Wordsworth, William (1770-1850)
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772-1834)
- Melville, Herman (1819-1891)
- Blake, William (1757-1827)
- Lord Byron (1788-1824)
- Keats, John (1795-1821)
- Bryant, William Cullen (1794-1878)
- Cooper, James Fenimore (1789-1851)
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth (1807-1882)
- Irving, Washington (1783-1859)
- Lowell, James Russell (1819-1891)
- Whittier, John Greenleaf (1807-1892)