Romanticism was a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
It was at its peak from 1800 to 1850 in the majority of the countries in which it gained a strong foothold. The movement influenced the visual arts, music, politics, and the social sciences.
Where and how did Romanticism start?
Romanticism began in England. The term was first coined in the 1840s, but the structure of the movement was around in the late 1700s. Like its American counterpart, Transcendentalism, Romanticism was in part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. It was a pushback against modernity and all its associated parts. The Romantics were interested in presenting an alternative to the growing aristocratic and political norms which came into being during the Age of the Enlightenment. They were also very much opposed to the rationalization of nature through science.
While this movement was occurring within the minds and hearts of writers and thinkers in Europe, there were a series of rebellions taking place in parts of Europe as well as in America. The ideologies which came to the forefront of the Romantic movement were inspired in part by these revolutions that were taking place. The French Revolution was particularly influential in the minds of the Romantics.
Just like the Transcendentalists, the Romantics felt that there was more to nature than could be understood through science. This is clearly seen through the emotional connections and experiences depicted in the works of poets such as Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a great example of the importance of nature, as well as the impact of solitude and a general quest for salvation. Take a look at these lines as an example:
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”
Who were the Romantic poets?
The most prominent of the Romantic poets are still some of the most popular poets today. The first generation of poets included William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. The most recognizable names of the second generation were:
Lesser known, are the female writers of the movement. These include Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and Charlotte Smith. The latter’s Gothic poem ‘Sonnet on Being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’ is a fantastic example of what emotions can do to transform a natural scene.
Some examples of their works, which best exhibit the tenants of Romanticism are included at the bottom of this article.
Romanticism was not confined to England, it stretches to France in the 19th century as well as to Germany and Russia. In France, some of the most prominent members of the movement were Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Alfred de Viny.
What form do Romantic poems take?
Imagination was one of the most important tenants of Romanticism. Those involved placed a great deal of importance on the individual’s ability to think creatively. This meant that the structure or form of a poem had to reflect the same mode of thought. The poems had to be at once spontaneous and sincere. But most of all, the product of one’s imagination. This meant that there was no set of forms that were most prevalent during this period, although sonnets were quite popular.
The use of language in poetry also changed during this period. Poets such as Keats disliked the stodgy language of the past. It did not suit the needs of this new movement. This led to a loosening of what kinds of words and phrases were acceptable. As long as they successfully spoke to the feelings a writer sought to express, they were used.
What are the common themes of Romanticism?
The major themes of Romanticism will be familiar to those who are versed in the beliefs of the Transcendental writers. They held aesthetic experience in the highest regard. Particularly, experiences associated with the strongest of emotions. These included horror, terror, awe, and wonder. These came together to form a new category of writing and art known as the “sublime.” It was associated with the state in which one is aware of some kind of powerful event, but it’s far enough away from it to where the person in this scenario is not in immediate physical danger.
You can imagine “The Great Day of his Wrath” by John Martin as a visual art example of the sublime. Other painters such as JMW Turner and Henry Fuseli also exhibit the tenants of sublimity. These painters, and writers such as Shelly and Wordsworth, were influenced by the idea of experiences that pushed human emotions to the limit. The natural world was a gateway to this kind of experience.
The poem, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ is a perfect example of how someone fleetingly experiences the sublime. In fact, Wordsworth mentions “sublime“ in the following lines:
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
In this section, Wordsworth is speaking about his memories and how they’ve brought up more happy memories and the good deeds associated with them. His burden, which comes from the “weary weight” of the world is lightened when he is in a natural space.
Take a look at these examples of Romantic poems: