Today, this literary device is often defined as a characteristic of post-modern literature. Readers will recognize elements of metafiction within the two classic examples below.
Explore Romantic Irony
Definition of Romantic Irony
Romantic irony is a distinct kind of irony that occurs when writers reveal their presence in a novel, poem, or short story. It becomes “Romantic” when paired with characteristics of Romanticism, creating an unusual contrast between the imagination, emotion, and individuality of this incredibly influential literary movement and the rationality and self-reflexive nature of irony as a literary device.
What is Romanticism?
Before delving into the complexities of Romantic irony, it’s beneficial to understand its two sides, one of which is Romanticism. It was a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination. It was incredibly influential in the literary arts, visual arts, music, politics, and more. Famed Romantic poets include:
These authors often engaged with themes of wonder, terror, nature, and general aesthetic experience. Imagination was incredibly important, as was the documentation of individual experience and emotion.
What is Irony?
The other side of Romantic irony is irony itself. It occurs when an outcome is different than expected. There are a few different kinds of irony, including Romantic. They are:
By combining this literary device with Romanticism, authors employ two very different techniques. While Romanticism connects readers to emotions and individuality, irony reminds them of rationality and clear-headed thinking.
Examples of Romantic Irony
Don Juan by Lord Byron
‘Don Juan’ is a long, epic poem that depicts the historical character Don Juan as a man seduced and controlled by women. It is written in ottava rima and divided into sixteen cantos. Throughout this well-known literary work, Byron presents readers with several examples of Romantic irony.
My poem ’s epic, and is meant to be
Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
With love, and war, a heavy gale at sea,
A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
New characters; the episodes are three:
A panoramic view of hell ’s in training,
After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
So that my name of Epic ’s no misnomer.
Here is one more stanza where the narrator talks directly to the reader:
There’s only one slight difference between
Me and my epic brethren gone before,
And here the advantage is my own, I ween
(Not that I have not several merits more,
But this will more peculiarly be seen);
They so embellish, that ’tis quite a bore
Their labyrinth of fables to thread through,
Whereas this story ’s actually true.
Explore more Lord Byron poems.
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy, is also commonly cited as an example of Romantic irony. The novel’s full title is: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and it was published in nine volumes, the first of which appeared in 1759. This novel is marked by the poet’s use of Romantic irony. Seen first through Shandy’s inability to break away from the opinion of those around him (a distinct ironic contrast with the title) and a very self-conscious evolution of the narrative style. He often reminds the reader of what they should be experiencing in his novel. Here is a passage from the beginning of the novel:
Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether: But that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy;—(I forget which,) besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace’s pardon;—for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man’s rules that ever lived.
To such however as do not choose to go so far back into these things, I can give no better advice than that they skip over the remaining part of this chapter; for I declare before-hand, ’tis wrote only for the curious and inquisitive.
Here, the narrator, Tristram himself, acknowledges that the rest of “this chapter” is only for the “curious and the inquisitive” and advises that some “skip over the remaining part.”
Romantic irony is a clever literary and rhetorical device that is used to draw attention to the author’s presence within a literary work. It can be used in different ways, such as in the Bryon example above or in a novel, short story, or play. It is important in that it reveals information about the author and their consideration of their narrator, their writing style, how they see themselves with the text, and more.
There are many different examples of romantic irony throughout the 18th century and beyond. While works by authors like Lord Byron are often cited, examples date back to the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and are featured throughout numerous other literally periods.
An example of romantic irony occurs when a narrator or author signals their understanding of a poem, novel, or short story as a work of fiction. In Tristram Shandy, the narrator repetitively refers to the style in which he’s writing and to the fact that he is composing a narrative that is fictional.
Romantic irony is not the easiest literary device to employ. But, imagine the following example and how the format might be translated into other storylines: In a novel journaling the emotionally turbulent experiences of a narrator, an example of Romantic irony would occur if that narrator paused and, in writing, examined the impact their use of language has on the reader. They might directly address the reader, speak to the individual lines they used in past sections, and more.
Related Literary Terms
- Burlesque: a style of literature that mocks its subject. Burlesque writers represent their subjects using irony and obviously outrageous imagery.
- Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules.
- Situational Irony: occurs when something happens that’s different from what’s expected.
- Verbal Irony: occurs when the meaning of what someone says is different from what they actually mean.
- American Romanticism: is considered the first highly influential literary movement to occur in the United States. It is also sometimes known as the “American Renaissance.”
- Dark Romanticism: a subgenre of the important literary movement— Romanticism. It includes works of a more grotesque nature.