The Romantic movement in literature was a period of time in the late 1700s and early 1800s in which writers rejected the restrictions of order, rules and rationality. An answer to the previous era of scientific, organized Enlightenment, it allowed authors to explore freedom, emotions, nature, independence and related ideas, all while pushing the limits of imagination. Although experts widely agree that it began in Western Europe, it soon spread to other areas, such as the United States and Russia, having long-lasting effects on people around the world.
Challenges with travel and communications, coupled with varying degrees of political and social stability, kept this movement from emerging in all areas at the same time. Even so, most experts say that, where literature is concerned, the era spans about 100 years, ranging from around 1760 to 1860 in most regions. It arose in Western Europe on the heels of the French Revolution as countries started to become more industrialized, which drastically changed how people lived.
Romanticism was largely a response to the previous ideas of the Enlightenment, which focused on order and logic. An emphasis on imagination, emotion and intuition over rational thought are all characteristic of the writing of the time. The movement stresses nature, individualism and the common man rather than civilization, the infinite and mysterious instead of science and freedom from rules over strict regulation. Much of the work from this period is sentimental in quality, looking backward with sympathy and attempting to transcend reality.
Even though Romantic thought emphasized individualism, nationalism is another characteristic. Many people who lived during this period believed that joining together to fight personal injustices or to support human rights was critical to being physically and intellectually free. For this reason, writers of this era frequently used rebellion and revolution, either real or imaginary, as a backdrop for their stories.
The concepts behind Romanticism led to writers around the world generally rejecting more restrictive methods. For example, even though they showed a renewed interest in poetry, such as that by Shakespeare, they started moving away from strict poetic forms in favor of more experimental styles and free verse, letting works becoming more prose-like with more everyday language. They also typically focused less on realistic limits and let their imaginations rule plots and characters without restraint, often highlighting emotions.
Various forms of lyrics were especially popular, as were problem, sentimental and historical novels. Gothic and metrical romances were successful, and many people enjoyed ancient myths and ballads. Critical essays allowed people of this time to point out what they thought was problematic with the ideas and practices of Enlightenment, strengthening and spreading Romantic beliefs.
Some of the earliest examples of this movement in literature emerged in Germany, where the most important literary figure of the period arguably was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), about a young, sensitive artist, was popular throughout Europe. Goethe also used myth and local folklore as subjects for his poetry, inspiring a sense of German nationalism in the decades before a unified Germany. The American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century added to the popularity of such Romantic ideals as freedom, liberty and national pride.
Romanticism dominated English literature throughout the 19th century, with poetry being very important. Notable poets from Britain include William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Common themes in their work include religious fervor, nature, Ancient Greek aesthetics and emotional response to beauty. Novels, especially Gothic ones that exploited emotions such as fear and love, were popular in Britain, as well. Some well-known examples are Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847).
Early American colonists, who had left Great Britain with the Romantic ideas of freedom and independence in mind, planted the seeds of this movement in America as early as the 1600s. Even though settlement life was hard, many people loved and were inspired by the beautiful yet chaotic wildness of their new land. In literature, the movement peaked between 1830 and 1865, when conflicts over slavery became increasingly tense and raised questions and awareness about human dignity and worth.
Much of what American writers produced was in the Gothic vein, such as the work of Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, stressed the beauty of nature and man's identity as a natural being, themes echoed in the later work of
Walt Whitman. James Fennimore Cooper focused on the nationalist aspect of Romanticism with his tales of the American frontier and Native Americans.
Reach to Other Areas
This movement also influenced the literature of other areas. In France, for example, the novels of Victor Hugo and Stendhal showed some Romantic influence, but more often, experts include them in the Realist movement. In Eastern Europe, Russian writers Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, as well as Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, worked in a Romantic freamework.