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.

Main romantic themes

From society to nature

There is an intellectual shift from society to nature. During the Enlightenment, thinkers had a metropolitan consciousness: the intellectual life took place in cities – London and Edinburgh were highly-regarded cultural centres.

The Enclosure Movement

Nature was thought as humanized, transformed by man with agriculture. The Enclosure Movement was a push in the 18th and 19th centuries to take land that had formerly been owned in common by all members of a village, or at least available to the public for grazing animals and growing food, and change it to privately owned land, usually with walls, fences or hedges around it.

The most well-known Enclosure Movements were in the British Isles, but the practice had its roots in the Netherlands and occurred to some degree throughout Northern Europe and elsewhere as industrialization spread. Some small number of enclosures had been going on since the 12th century, especially in the north and west of England, but it became much more common in the 1700’s, and in the next century Parliament passed the General Enclosure Act of 1801 and the Enclosure Act of 1845, making enclosures of certain lands possible throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

The English government and aristocracy started enclosing land claiming it would allow for better raising of crops and animals (particularly sheep for their wool). They claimed that large fields could be farmed more efficiently than individual plots allotted from common land — and the profit could be kept by the aristocrats who now owned the legally confiscated land. Some claim this was the beginning of commercial farming.

Poor people had no way of subsistence apart from working for the land owners. It brought about more poverty and poor people drifted from the countryside to the cities, where the Industrial Revolution had begun, based on the steam engine and the creation of factories where poor people were employed in bad working conditions, pollution, criminality and corruption. The paradox was that more and more people moved into the cities when they all had terrible living conditions.

An idealization of nature

Nature became idealized as life in the country was more virtuous. Romantic poets did not talk about cities (but realists did). Nature was a source of poetic inspiration and gave a spiritual dimension to life, based on the organic connection between man and nature in traditional rural society, which was dying fast because of the Industrial Revolution (opposition between the organic/natural and the mechanical technology). There was a regeneration of human life destroyed by cities, an idealized vision of nature : they were looking for a renewed humanity.

Thomas Cole – The Oxbow: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836)
Thomas Cole – The Oxbow: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts,
after a Thunderstorm (1836)

Wordsworth and Coleridge left the city for the Lake District. In America, transcendentalists such as Emerson or Thoreau did the same. Thoreau went out in the wilderness to Walden Pond to write Walden in 1854.

They discovered the American identity : the civilization was European. There is a kind of individualism that refuses every kind of moral convention (who you really are) and pantheism (belief that Nature is divine and has a soul).

The expression of personal feelings, energy and passion

Nature was not only peaceful and meditative but also stormy, tempestuous and too big for man (sublime).

In Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, the poet starts by identifying himself with the wind : he wants to have the same power and the same liberty. As such, it can be considered a political poem. The “west wind” is the wind from America, from the Revolution. The romantic world is a dynamic world of change. When there is beauty, it’s always ephemeral. What creates the changes are the elemental forces (storm, power etc).

Ivan Aivazovsky - The Ninth Wave, 1850
Ivan Aivazovsky – The Ninth Wave, 1850

Energy can come from human beings too. Romanticism is the emphasis of feelings, passions and intuitions. It differs from the 18th century, which was based on reason and reflection. Reason is universal, everyone uses the same logic : it is not personal. On the other hand, feelings, passion and intuition are what make people different from each other; it is very individualistic and selfish.

Passion is one of the dynamic elements of romanticism, it’s a factor of change for the individual and a factor of historical change as Hegel once said “nothing great was accomplished in history without passion”.

Passion is also extremely changing : nothing is closer to love than hate. It alternates between exaltation and melancholy, between nostalgia and optimism.

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.

– Keats

The romantic vision of love is best because intense when impossible : destiny, death, social differences – as in Romeo and Juliet.

Keats’ Isabella or the Pot of Basil happens in the Middle Ages in Italy. The lover is killed by Isabella’s brothers. She digs his grave, cuts his head and hides it in a pot of basil with a flower in it. As she cries everyday, it turns to a beautiful flower. It is Bocaccio’s story and Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir : a connection between love (Eros) and death (Thanatos).

According to Nietsche, passion is “beyond good and evil”, it does not care about morality.

A dualistic world

Contrasts, dichotomies can be seen on all levels between reason and emotion, beautiful and sublime, reality and imagination.

Dialectics are the dynamic principle behind everything and could be seen as a rational monism (the antonym of “pluralism”) with the religious revival and the visionary style. E.g : Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Anne Grey by Anne Brontë.

Wuthering Heights takes place in Yorkshire moors. Catherine Earnshaw hesitates between Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. She chooses Edgar but Heathcliff comes back rich. There is a conflict between what men represent and what places represent. It’s the conflict of “the children of calm, the children of the storm”. The dualism is a cosmic matter between calm and quietness, storm and passion. It’s the idea of homo duplex : man is double in a “double simultaneous postulation”.

A rediscovery of history and exoticism

There is a rediscovery of history and exoticism through local colour : few details to show you are not at home (for instance, if you write about Asia, add some geishas in kimonos).

With romanticism, there is an outburst of cultural nationalism : German romanticism was a flowering of vernacular literatures. The vernacular is the language spoken by the people; it’s different from the language spoken by the cultural elite (French, Latin). It was good enough to produce good literature. There was also a going back to folklore, legends, and fairy tales.

Wordsworth and Coleridge both wrote lyrical ballads in 1798. In The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge worked on the supernatural and tells the story of a mariner who killed an albatross, which is a very bad omen for mariners : they are all doomed.

In The Idiot Boy, Wordsworth dealt with the ordinary life and tells the story of a woman who needs medicine for her child. She sends the idiot boy. His aim was to represent the essential passions of human nature, to use simple language, “the select of a language, really used by men”. He abandoned the artificiality of poetic diction and the political dimension criticized by many people.

Wordsworth also wrote “conversation poems” such as Frost as midnight: blank verse monologues addressing the listener as in a conversation. The listener is in fact the reader.

Regional poetry is another way to use the vernacular : vernacular in Scotland is different from the vernacular in South England. See Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

Walter Scott invented the historical novel with Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819). He gave a sense of history with accurate details and characters’ destinies influenced by historical faces. The plot tells a clash of values, of choices made in a crucial moment by a young and romantic man, through the idealized image of a united nation. Scott tried to show reconciliation between idealism and reality.

In the USA, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) tells about the conflict between France and Britain in the American colonies. The image of the Native American is that of a noble savage, yet a “vanishing Indian” because of the progress of the American civilization.

Aesthetic dimension

See Todorov’s Théories du Symbole (1977). Romanticism emphasizes imagination (as opposed to the 18th century).

Before, art was imitation and mimesis (cf. Aristotle). There was a process of selection of things that were worth representing and a correction of nature according to the image of beauty you had in mind (harmony in parts and whole).

On the other hand, with romanticism, art is creation; it’s an autonomous whole. It does not imitate nature but recreates it. It is not a mirror but a different reality. This parallel world is based on the necessary artistic relations between the different organic parts.

Thus, it is useless, there is no purpose except of recreating reality. It is gratuitous, autonomous, unlike before when it was made to instruct and entertain with a moral quality. There is no morality in art for the romantics.

Like nature, a work of art is an organic totality in form and meaning. The faculty it creates is imagination. Coleridge defined fancy and imagination in The Biographia Literaria, one of his main critical studies.

Imagination is an artistic and secondary imagination. It’s the principle of unity in a work of art and assimilates into a unifying vision. Primary imagination is the basis of perception and God-like quality:

The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Fancy is associational logic, you do not create but associate ideas :

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

In Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (1816), there’s a contrast between microcosm and macrocosm : the union of contraries makes a synthetic whole thanks to symbols, polysemy and allegories.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), the white whale is an albinos and there is an opposition between nature and man (captain Ahab) showing the irreducible forces of nature.

The image of the artist can take several forms. He can be like a God, a creator but it comes with strings attached such as the problem of transgression or curse. If you are like a God, you’re likely to get punished for your hubris or your disobedience to the cosmic laws, just like Prometheus. The artist can also adopt the image of the “poète maudit”.

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

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