Romantic Period (in English literature): A watershed era in the history of English literature usually said to have commenced with the 1798 publication of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, a volume that included such well-known poems as Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Some scholars, however, maintain that the Romantic Period began before 1798, arguing that certain works published before that date — such as Robert Burns’s Poems (1786); William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789); Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); and various Gothic works published by writers including Ann Radcliffe, William Godwin, and Horace Walpole — exemplify the radical changes in political thought and literary expression commonly associated with English romanticism. The period is generally said to have ended in 1832, with the passage of a major electoral reform bill, or in 1837, with the coronation of Queen Victoria, after whom the subsequent Victorian Period is named.

In addition to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake, critic Charles Lamb and novelists Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott are generally viewed as early or “first generation” romantics. Noted works include Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Emma (1815), which critics have pointed out reflect the priorities and values of the preceding Neoclassical Period as fully as those of romanticism, and Scott’s historical novel Waverley (1814). Austen also adapted — and parodied — the conventions of the Gothic romance in Northanger Abbey (written c. 1798, published 1818). Major “second generation” English romantic poets, who published their most important work after 1815, include George Gordon, Lord Byron (Don Juan [1819—24]); John Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn” [1820]); and Percy Bysshe Shelley (“Adonais” [1820]). Prose writers of this second phase of English romanticism include Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein (1818) shows the clear influence of the late-eighteenth-century Gothic tradition; Thomas De Quincey, best known for his provocatively titled autobiographical novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821); essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt, whose Spirit of the Age (1825) presented portraits of his contemporaries; and Walter Savage Landor, whose Imaginary Conversations (1824—29) imagined conversations between historical figures such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

In general, writers associated with the Romantic Period exalted imagination and emotion; believed that humans are by nature good; considered Nature the source of the sublime, divine inspiration, and even moral action (Wordsworth spoke in “Tintern Abbey” of Nature’s being the source of “our little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love”); celebrated the individual rather than the social order; critiqued oppressive, class-based political regimes and social forms; and rejected many of the artistic rules, forms, and conventions associated with classicism and neo-classicism, considering them to be aesthetic forms of repression or, at least, unnecessary constrictions detrimental to the individual artist’s calling. Artistic and intellectual freedom combined to make the spirit of the age one of exploration and discovery. That spirit underlies countless lines of romantic poetry, from those in which Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner declares “We were the first that ever burst / Into that silent sea” to those of The Prelude (written 1805, published posthumously 1850) in which Wordsworth described the “silent face” of a statue of Sir Isaac Newton as “The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”