Romanticism: A broad and general term (like classicism, with which it is often contrasted) referring to a set of beliefs, attitudes, and values associated with a shift in Western culture that was characterized by a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and an emphasis on emotion, innovation, nature, the individual, and subjective experience; more specifically, a literary movement in Europe, Russia, and America generally said to have extended from the end of the eighteenth century through much of the nineteenth, depending on the country in question.
Most critics agree that romanticism arose first in Germany and England, followed by America and other European countries such as France. For instance, England’s Romantic Period spanned the years 1798—1837, America’s 1828—65. William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Emily Brontë were among the foremost romantic writers in England; prominent American romantics included Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Pushkin were noted romantic writers in Germany, France, and Russia, respectively.
Romantics rejected many of the artistic forms and conventions associated with classicism and neoclassicism, considering them to be overly constricting and detrimental to the artistic mission. They differed, however, in their interests and emphases. Some urged a revival of medievalism (an interest in emulating certain aspects of the Middle Ages); others emphasized the importance of freedom from all traditions. Some tended to turn literature into a vehicle for the fancy, a mode of escapism; still others, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, drew a distinction between fancy and imagination, privileging the latter as the source of creativity. But they generally shared the view that spontaneous writing was essential to a true representation of subjective experience and thus put a premium on original expression as well as the use of everyday language rather than poetic diction.
Romantics also embraced primitivism, which postulates that people are good by nature but corrupted by civilization. Closely related to the belief in humanity’s original goodness was the romantic esteem, even reverence, for childhood and emotions, which were viewed as the most “natural” of human manifestations. In fact, romantics often regarded emotions as more reliable than reason, which they tended to view as a negative product of civilization, unlike the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers who celebrated reason as the vehicle furthering and expanding human capabilities. The conception of civilization as a corrupting influence also led romantics to glorify nature, which they tended to view as the antithesis of materialism and artifice and to which they often imputed a mystical or even sublime quality. Finally, looking outward, and believing in the essential goodness of human beings, many romantics demanded political and social change. Some looked to the French Revolution of 1789 as a political blueprint for improvement, at least before the excesses of the Reign of Terror became widely known; others focused on the unparalleled (if unfulfilled) possibilities for beneficial social change that the revolution engendered.
Romantics, who prized individualism and the sanctity of individual self-expression, frequently perceived themselves as both sensitive and unappreciated. (In fact, the romantics may be chiefly responsible for popularizing, and even glorifying, the theme of the suffering artist — the lonely, misunderstood artistic genius.) Although romantics recognized the potential represented by the new machinery and scientific developments so prized in the industrial era, they also felt undervalued (or even rejected) by a world increasingly fixated on progress and what Wordsworth called “getting and spending” in his sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us” (1807). Not surprisingly, the heroes and heroines of romantic literature often share their creators’ perceptions of alienation and difference from the society at large.
Many romantics felt an affinity with the Gothic and the grotesque. Gothic literature is typically characterized by a general mood of decay, suspense, and terror; action that is dramatic and generally violent; loves that are destructively passionate (like that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights ); and grandiose yet gloomy settings. The grotesque, which Gothic literature often invokes, involves artistic representations that are always strange — even bizarre or unnatural — and often disturbing. Unlike the neoclassicists, who viewed the Gothic as crude or even barbaric, romantics celebrated its freedom of spirit, mystery, and instinctual authenticity, which meshed with their own emphasis on individuality, imagination, and sublimity.
As with all other literary movements, a reaction against romanticism eventually set in. Realism, an effort to “write reality” that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the objective presentation of details and events rather than personal feelings or perceptions. The self-centeredness, sentimentalism, and improbability of many romantic works incited some of the harshest attacks, many of which came from Victorian writers and critics. In Appreciations, With an Essay on Style (1889), Walter Pater called Wordsworth a “brain-sick … mystic” and described Coleridge’s work as “represent[ing] that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and homesickness, that endless regret, the chords of which ring all through our modern literature.” In Essays on Criticism (1865), Matthew Arnold argued that Percy Bysshe Shelley suffered from “the incurable want … of a sound subject-matter,” characterizing him as an “ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” In Fiction, Fair and Foul (1880—81), John Ruskin attacked Shelley’s lyrics as “false, forced, foul”; he not only criticized such poems as Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” (1820) on the scientific grounds that “Sensitive plants can’t grow in gardens! … Dew with a breeze is impossible” but also mounted a more personal attack on the poet, calling him a “blockhead — and he thinks himself wiser than God though he doesn’t know the commonest law of evaporation!” Nonetheless, regardless of the ferocity of Victorian criticism, romantic elements continued to pervade nineteenth-century works and still play a major role in literature today, especially the emphasis on individual perspective and artistic originality.