Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

Definition of Romanticism

Romanticism (also the Romantic era or the Romantic period) is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850.

Romanticism is characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. It is a reaction to the ideas of the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature.

The meaning of romanticism has changed with time. In the 17th century, "romantic" meant imaginative or fictitious due to the birth of a new literary genre : the novel. Novels, that is to say texts of fiction, were written in vernacular (romance languages), as opposed to religious texts written in Latin.

In the 18th century, romanticism is eclipsed by the Age of Enlightenment, where everything is perceived through the prism of science and reason.

In the 19th century, "romantic" means sentimental : lyricism and the expression of personal emotions are emphasized. Feelings and sentiments are very much present in romantic works.

Thus, so many things are called romantic that it is difficult to see the common points between the novels by Victor Hugo, the paintings by Eugène Delacroix or the music by Ludwig Von Beethoven.

The romantic international

Romanticism is not limited to one country, it was an international vision of the world.

The romantic international started in Germany at the end of the 18th century with "Storm and Stress". The two most famous poets are Goethe and Schiller and many philosophers such as Fichte, Schlegel, Schelling and Herder.

Romanticism was then adopted in England. Poets are divided in two generations :

  • first generation : William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
  • second generation : George Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats.

Romanticism reached France at the beginning of the 19th century with François-René de Chateaubriand - Atala (1801), René (1802), Le Génie du Christianisme (1802) - and Germaine de Staël : De l'Allemagne (1813).

Romanticism was a renewal, a revolution is artistic forms in paintings, literature and theatre. In Germany and Russia, romanticism created the national literature. It influenced the whole vision of art.

It was also the origin of contemporary ideas : modern individualism, the vision of nature, the vision of the work of art as an isolated object.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Fighting Téméraire (1836)
Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Fighting Téméraire (1836)

Political dimension : the birth of Romanticism

Romanticism represents a break with the universalistic outlook of the Enlightenment. Reason is something universal and the Enlightenment found its models in classical France and Rome : all men are the same because there are all reasonable. Romanticism if a fragmentation of consciousness, with no universalistic ideas left.

The French Revolution was characterized by universalistic ideas such as all men are created equal. It corresponds to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The nation is born out of a social contract : it means that you are free to choose to belong to one nation or another. It is different in Germany where you don't choose your country, that is where you were born (organic nation).

There's a difference between the first and second generation of poets. British poets were rather progressive and close to dissenters. The French Revolution was full of hope of equality but it quickly changed when in 1793, it gave way to the Terror and the beheading of the King.

The first generation of British romantic poets

Only William Blake remained a radical, unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge. There was an incredible pressure in England at the time. The Prime Minister, Pitts, suspended the Habeas Corpus and adopted the Sedition Act, which was meant to prevent the freedom of press. It turned away the first generation from their ideals.

Blake wrote a visionary, imaginary poetry, really difficult to understand. Wordsworth and Coleridge were reactionary to the French Revolution. Wordsworth turned away from the excesses of the revolution and wrote a simple poetry in a democratic style. Coleridge was inspired by the Middle Ages and German thought, and was a reactionary Christian nationalist.

The second generation of British romantic poets

The second generation remains more radical but the political climate was so oppressive that the radicals left England or made more indirect political comments.

The Mask of Anarchy by Shelley was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. In Prometheus Unbound, a man fights against political and religious oppression.

Romanticism was connected with politics of the time. Romantic poets could be either conservative or progressive, depending on their vision of the world.

Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature

Ralph Waldo EMERSON

Emerson's literary and philosophical importance in the American renaissance and after it has always been associated with his lasting influence in two domains of American intellectual and social life:

  • The emergence of an America romantic sensibility.
  • The emergence of a characteristically American conception of individual consciousness and actions.

For the first time in America, Emerson gave full expression to a philosophy of romantic idealism. He thought that the spiritual and intellectual ideals of the 18th century, the principles of the Age of Reason, had ended in sterility. Emerson's ethic of self-reliance represents the necessity for the individual to question most of all forms of social conventions and to refuse his ideas by the accepted standards and values of society. Also, it represents the necessity for the individual to think and act according to his standards.

But this self-reliance can also be interpreted as moral relativism and as a certain cult of individualistic power. Indeed, Emerson's philosophy does reflect a certain fascination with power. Very often, he seems to be too enthusiastic about all manifestations of energy, personal force and superior vitality: "power first. In politics and in trade, pirates are of better promise than talkers and clerks": it's a philosophy of action. Such ambivalent affirmations show a great deal of the liberating potential of Emerson's philosophy but evidently, they also hide a dangerously anarchistic potential that can not be denied.

Henry David THOREAU

Is the spiritual son of Emerson: he did what Emerson said and tried to act according to the philosophy of self-reliance. One of the most important observations that can be made about Thoreau's life as a man and as an artist is that he considered freedom as the highest ideal of society. His life as a writer and as a thinker was dedicated to the freedom of trying new ideals and new experiences. Also, freedom for Thoreau meant the possibility for the individual to discover himself and to live his life against social conventions. In order to accomplish his ideal of freedom, Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond in 1845. This decision was essentially determined by three tendencies in Thoreau's personality:

  • As a man, he wanted to explore and discover new aspects of his own personality.
  • As an intellectual, he wanted to experiment with a new form of life different from life in an organized complex capitalistic society.
  • As a writer, he wanted to explore and experiment with his own writing. In this respect, Thoreau's experience marks the beginning of the essay as lived experience.

Concerning Thoreau's experience as a writer, his poetry and prose reflect the work of a very careful artist: great deal of attention to the nuances of the language. It may appear spontaneous, even like conversation but it is not. His prose is carefully studied. He's always addressing the reader.

Walden is representative of Thoreau's style. It is quite artful and elaborate. Yet, it appears to be artistically modest. The ideals are complex and sophisticated. Yet, it appears to be simple. Simplicity in Thoreau's is not just a literary characteristic of Walden, which also incarnates the ideal of an intellectual who wants to limit life to the simplest activities. Thoreau came to Walden Pond in order to make a fresh start, to see intellectual and natural experience directly. He did not look for inspiration in books but in Nature. He established a real tradition of individualism: life in Nature is by necessity a separation from society and its conventions. Consequently, the writer's position outside society becomes the best place to observe society and its institutions with critical eyes.

Through this return to Nature, Thoreau wants to move away from the regulations of a materialistic and instrumental society. He wants to reorganize his life according to his own philosophy. At the beginning of the essay, Thoreau uses ironic expressions for his new experience: "a private business". To call this escape from the materialism of society a "business" is irony and Walden becomes the story of this escape. It reminds us of Zen Buddhism or Hindu mysticism: his life in nature seems to be a form of sacrifice in order to reach a higher transcendent state of being. Even when Thoreau describes himself building his cabin, we have the impression that the business of building is also a religious ceremony of purification and renewal. Therefore, Thoreau belongs to the American tradition of renewal, a sort of symbolic baptism of the individual through an escape to nature.


Is much more pessimistic about human nature: he didn't believe in a new beginning: to him, the past comes back to haunt the present. He wrote short stories and novels with a complex and disturbing aspect of American life. His literary imagination was strongly influenced by his early life in Salem (Massachusetts) where he was born. The history of Salem and American Puritanism presented the context in which he developed his ideas about human nature and the ambivalent nature of human psychology, and about sin and guilt, the dangers of the intellect and the risks of passion.

Later, when he lived in Concord (Massachusetts), Hawthorne dedicated his efforts to sketches and short stories, called "allegories of the heart". His novels are "romances". In both short stories and novels, Hawthorne was excellent at describing the complexities and ambiguities of human psychology. According to Hawthorne, human mind is determined by a division between sensuality & repression of the sensuality, between conformity & individualism. It is also the scene of a dialectical conflict between good and evil. His fictions represent the co-existence of contradictory forces on the individual. Hawthorne is a romantic author whose short stories and novels are marked by a concern with the American past with the role of the creative artist in a materialistic society. He insisted on the importance of human emotions and imagination, and on the dangers of cold intellect.

Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe criticized Hawthorne for being too allegorical in his style. Hawthorne himself admitted that his allegorical style is vague and not easy to understand: "I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in these blasted allegories". In his "allegories of the heart", Hawthorne uses symbols in order to represent the narrow separation between good and evil in the human mind. Through his allegorical technique, he shows that humankind can never solve the mysteries and the ambiguities of a divided human psychology. Hawthorne's moral and religious concerns are central to his literary symbolism. His most representative symbols were derived from puritan history of New England. He developed his themes about good and evil around the historical events and the personalities that influenced New England culture and society.


Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman stands in the literary history of America as the poet who has generated the most dramatic and lasting transformations in American poetry and in the function of the American poet. Indeed, Whitman redefined poetry and the role of the poet in, at least, two important ways:

  • In terms of aesthetic practice
  • In terms of the social position of the poet as an active participant in a democratic society

As far as his aesthetic practice is concerned, Whitman considered the poet essentially as an experimental artist first and foremost: the poet's function is to create both new forms and new themes for poetry. The poet must re-create a literary tradition: conventions were out. In Whitman's dynamic and revolutionary conception of poetry, there are 2 important consequences:

  1. Rhyme would not matter: would have no importance at all.
  2. Uniformity in the structure of stanzas should be abandoned.

Concerning the thematic content of a new poetry, Whitman also expressed his opinion quite clearly. The new American poet would avoid sentimental poetry and simplistic moralization: he is no longer a moral teacher. Also, exaggeration in style and in subject would be replaced by realistic descriptions of life and its impressions. Whitman would abandon any sentimental idealism.

As far as his intellectual influence is concerned, he believed reading literary texts should not be limited to an elite of intellectuals. Whitman thought it was possible to include the people in the experience of literature. He wanted to make of literature a popular art: the poet can come to play an important role in exalting the people. Through his capacity to sing (= to exalt) and encourage the people, the poet also indicates the way to collective self-realization and self-realization for each individual. Whitman therefore believed that literature, as an instrument of communication, was also a democratic instrument. With Whitman, we realize that his analysis of democratic society can not be separated from his conception of poetry. This relationship is reflected in the poem Song of Myself. According to Whitman, Song of Myself depends on the creative participation of each reader. It is in this context that he defines the great poet as a bridge between the reader and society at large. It is this definition of the poet that he affirmed in the opening lines of Song of Myself:

"I celebrate myself and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume".

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism

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