Romanticism and Romantics. A Brief Introduction

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2010

44 Pages




Chapter One: Romanticism
1.1 Defining the Subject
1.2 Romantic Literature and its Characteristics
1.3 Chosen Motifs and Themes in Romantic Literature
1.3.1 Imagination
1.3.2 Nature
1.3.3 Symbolism and Myth
1.3.4 The Everyday and the Exotic
1.4 Summary

Chapter Two The Romantics
2.1. First Generation of Romantic Poets
2.1.1. William Wordsworth
2.1.2. William Blake
2.1.3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
2.2. First Generation Romantics’ Notion of Love

Chapter Three Second Generation of Romantic Poets
3.1. Lord George Byron
3.2. Percy Bysshe Shelley
3.3. John Keats
3.4. Second Generation Romantics and the Theme of Love
3.4.1. Erotic Love
3.4.2. Lost Love
3.4.3. In Praise of True Love




The aim of the hereby paper is to compare the poets and writers of the First and Second Generation of British Romantics in respect with their attitude towards the theme of love. In relation to this, the paper provides the detailed account about the history of the period in literature as well as the portraits of the poets.

Romanticism was arguably the largest artistic movement of the late 1700s. Its influence was felt across continents and through every artistic discipline into the mid-nineteenth century, and many of its values and beliefs can still be seen in contemporary poetry. Romantic ideals never specifically died out in poetry, but were largely absorbed into the precepts of many other movements.

According to Liliana Sikorska (2002) “Romanticism is the time of individualism” (Sikroska 2002: 229). Related to the visionary quality of poetry, Romanticism created the figure of a poet who is often the main subject of the literature of the period.

The essential elements of the romantic spirit were curiosity and the love – the one of beauty and the more ‘natural’, down-to-earth form – passion and eroticism; and it is only as an illustration of these qualities, that it looked for in the Middle Age, because, in the overcharged atmosphere of the Middle Age, there are unworked sources of romantic effect, of a strange beauty, to be won, by strong imagination, out of things unlikely or remote.

In order to depict all the aspects both of the period and the chosen aspects of the thesis, the paper was divided into three main chapters and several subchapters. Each chapter presents distinct aspects of Romantics in Britain and its reference to the theme of love in their pieces of works.

Chapter One, Romanticism, provides general pieces of information on the period in literature that was called Romanticism. Its subsections include the overview of the chosen motifs and themes in Romantic literature.

Chapter Two entitled The Romantics, deals merely with the British poets of the First Generfation of Romantics, including such notable names as Blake, Wordsworth or Colleridge. Moreover, the chapter discusses how this poets dealt with the theme of love in their writings .

Chapter Three, Second Generation of Romantic Poets, presents Byron, Keats and Shelley – the younger Romantics of the British literary scene. It thoroughly analysis how each of the poets approached to the theme of love.

Chapter One: Romanticism

The eighteenth century had been a time of enlightenment, of a belief in reason, tradition, society, and science. Then, in the words of one critic, “The French Revolution and Napoleon made a clean sweep; after them it was no longer possible to think, act, or write as if the old forms still had life.” Out of the smoke of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution emerged a new approach to writing characterized by emotion over reason. In this Romantic Age, the individual person was valued over society, imagination was valued over logic, and the natural was valued over the artificial. Romantics found inspiration in nature, folk art, the past, and their own passions (McGraw-Hill 2002: 657).

Henry A. Beers, the author of A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century claims that: “to attempt at the outset a rigid definition of the word romanticism would be to anticipate the substance of the volume” (Beers 1899: 1). And therefore most scholars will probably agree that the subject of Romanticism tends to give rise to complex questions, even strong convictions, yet offers few conclusive answers.

In order to proceed with the presentation of the various aspects referring to the Romanticism as well as the authors of the period, it is necessary do understand what the ‘romantic’ and ‘Romanticism’ mean and what problems may one come across while trying to define the time-frames.

Finally, throughout this paper, where the quotations were needed, they were done extensively. This was a principle adhered due to the fact that such form gives a fuller understanding of the topic, better than a summary that the author could provide.

1.1 Defining the Subject

It is worth to begin with some quotations. The first is from the fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, where Romanticism is described as:

a literary movement, and profound shift in sensibility, which took place in Britain and throughout Europe roughly between 1770 and 1848. intellectually it marked a violent reaction to the Enlightenment. Politically it was inspired by the revolutions in America and France Emotionally it expressed an extreme assertion of the self and the value of individual experience . . . together with the sense of the infinite and the transcendental. Socially it championed progressive causes The stylistic keynote of Romanticism is intensity, and its watchword is ‘Imagination’ (Drabble 1985: 842-43).

The second quotation is from the sixth edition of M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms. Here, under the heading ‘Neoclassic and Romantic’, Abrams explains first of all that, as he applies them: “the ‘Neoclassic and Romantic’ periods in Britain are ‘names for periods of literature’. The ‘Neoclassic Period’ in England spans the 140 years or so after the Restoration (1660), and the ‘Romantic Period’ is usually taken to extend approximately from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 - or alternatively, from the publication of [Wordsworth and Coleridge’s] Lyrical Ballads in 1798 - through the first three decades of the nineteenth century’” (Abrams 1993: 125). Abrams goes on to summarize his sense of the ways in which Romantic ideals and writings differ most conspicuously from those of the Neoclassic period.

There is a good deal of congruence, despite the differences in length, between the accounts of Romanticism given in the Oxford Companion and in the Glossary. The dates vary somewhat, but both sources agree on a centre of gravity for Romanticism at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. They both agree that Romanticism was in some sense at odds with Neoclassic or Enlightenment attitudes and values. Both accounts agree on the inspirational role of the French Revolution in Romantic ideology and on a democratic or progressively rebellious impulse at the heart of that ideology. Both agree that Romanticism gave a special importance to individual experience, that the faculty of imagination was of special signifi­cance and that this faculty was celebrated along with a profound sense of spiritual reality.

Romanticism was arguably the largest artistic movement of the late 1700s. Its influence was felt across continents and through every artistic discipline into the mid-nineteenth century, and many of its values and beliefs can still be seen in contemporary poetry.

According to Carter and McRae the dates of the Romantic period of literature are not precise and the term ‘romantic’ was itself not widely used until after the period in question. Conventionally, the period begins in 1798, which saw the publication by Wordsworth and Coleridge of their Lyrical Ballads, and ends in 1832, a year which saw the death of Sir Walter Scott and the enactment by Parliament of the First Reform Bill. These years link literary and political events. The Romantic period was an era in which a literary revolution took place alongside social and economic revolutions. In some histories of literature the Romantic period is called the ‘Age of Revolutions’ (2001: 177). Accordingly:

In many respects, these are the terms in literary history and criticism which are the most controversial and difficult to define with any precision (a critic apparently counted 11,396 definitions of them in 1948). Derived from the Old French word for ‘[a] romance’ (‘romanz’), then from the French ‘romantique’, the word ‘romantic’ in English still holds several meanings, the commonest – apart from the literary-period descriptor outlined below – being that which suggests an inclination to love and romance (as in ‘a romantic dinner for two’). But ‘romantic’ is also used to describe a person who is idealistic and fanciful (‘he’s incorrigibly romantic – he romanticises everything’), and to suggest an account or project which is fictitious, exaggerated, far-fetched, wild or fantastic (‘a romantic version of events’). The noun ‘a romance’ was used originally for a medieval tale of chivalry and ideal love – often in combination with magic and the marvelous – of the kind written in the ‘Romance languages’ (the vernaculars of French, Italian, Spanish, etc.); then (in earlier periods, sometimes pejoratively) for those freely imaginative literary fictions, especially of a historical variety (a ‘historical romance’), which do not fit the category of ‘the realist novel’; but it also remains the term used to describe a literary work which is clearly fictitious and wonderful (again, in contemporary usage, often to do with love/love affairs: ‘a Mills and Boon romance’) (Widdowson 2004: 90-91).

Moreover, Holt assumes that “it may be possible to hit upon a form of words which will mark romanticism off from everything else – tell in a clause what it is not; but to add a positive content to the definition – to tell what romanticism is, will require a very different and more gradual process” (Holt 1899: 2).

Indeed, the problem is that any such attempts to summarize Romanticism inevitably end up over-systematizing and simplifying the phenomenon. It is true that some of the elements by which Romanticism is defined in the summaries do appear in the writings of those who are now called Romantic. But it is not true that all British Romantic writers display all of those elements all of the time.

The conclusion is that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact start of the Romantic movement, as its beginnings can be traced to many events of the time: a surge of interest in folklore in the mid- to late-eighteenth century with the work of the brothers Grimm, reactions against neoclassicism and the Augustan poets in England, and political events and uprisings that fostered nationalistic pride.

Romantic ideals never specifically died out in poetry, but were largely absorbed into the precepts of many other movements. Traces of romanticism lived on in French symbolism and surrealism and in the work of prominent poets such as Charles Baudelaire, to mention but one.

1.2 Romantic Literature and its Characteristics

Aidan Day points out that: “What has for many years been seen as the canon of British Romantic writers - centering on the poets Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats – still forms the basis of many curricula in the teaching of British Romanticism” (Day 1996: xi).

Sadly, the Romantic era produced many of the stereotypes of poets and poetry that exist to this day, such as that the poet is a highly tortured and melancholy visionary.

The Romantic age in literature is often contrasted with the Classical or Augustan age which preceded it. The comparison is valuable, for it is not simply two different attitudes to literature which are being compared but two different ways of seeing and experiencing life. The Classical or Augustan age of the early and mid-eighteenth century stressed the importance of reason and order. Strong feelings and the imagination had to be controlled. The rapid improvements in such fields as medicine, economics, science and engineering, together with developments industrial technology, suggested trust in reason, intellect, and the head. The Romantics preferred feelings, intuition, and the heart (Carter, McRae 2001: 179-180).

In addition, it is worth quoting at lengthy Widdowson, who offers brief generalizations as available to be traced in various countries in the period of the interest:

· It exalts individual aspirations and values above those of society, and is personal and subjective in inclination.

· It turns for inspiration to the Middle Ages (regarded by the Augustans as barbaric), to earlier forms of language (e.g. in Old English poetry), to folklore and folk-tales, to the supernatural as a means of expressing ‘strange states of mind’, and to Nature, celebrating both its specificity and the spiritual and moral bond between humanity and the natural world.

· It generally follows Rousseau’s belief in human goodness and the innocence of children and ‘primitive’ peoples (‘the noble savage’), and is optimistic about human progress, whilst also registering the potential anomie involved in sustaining a Romantic sensibility in modern urbanizing and industrializing societies.

· Aesthetically, it is characterized by the privileging of the Imagination rather than canonic models (as the Neo-Classicists had done), by freedom of subject, form and style, by the elevation of feeling (‘Sensibility’) over reason (‘Sense’), and in poetry – arguably the dominant literary genre in the British context at least – by rejecting Augustan poetic diction, by the use of traditional forms (e.g. lyrics, songs and ballads) and by the quest for a simpler, more direct style (Widdowson 2004: 92).

Therefore, it can be assumed that Romantic writers looked inward to their own soul and to the life of the imagination, they were are attracted to the irrational, mystical and supernatural world and what is also important, that Romantic literature was generally more critical of society and its injustices, questioning rather than affirming, exploring rather than defining, as Carter and McRae define (2001: 180).

To quote Wordsworth:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books; Or surely you'll grow double: Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks; Why all this toil and trouble?

(as quoted in Riasanovsky 1995: 7)

One of the great poets of England and the world, Wordsworth has been especially acclaimed as a poet of nature. To appreciate his point it is necessary to rely on reading and rereading the poems themselves rather than on any theoretical expositions. It should be remembered that according to Wordsworth: “poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man” (Wordsworth 1802: 881).

As it was mentioned above, British poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon Lord Byron, and John Keats propelled the English Romantic movement.

1.3 Chosen Motifs and Themes in Romantic Literature

The concept of romanticism together with general understanding of its characteristics can be found in René Wellek who wrote in 1963:

If we examine the characteristics of the actual literature which called itself or was called ‘romantic’ all over the continent, we find throughout Europe the same conceptions of poetry and of the workings and nature of poetic imagination, the same conception of nature and its relation to man; and basically the same poetic style, with a use of imagery, symbolism, and myth which is clearly distinct from that of eighteenth-century neoclassicism.

In all of these studies, however diverse in method and emphasis, a convincing agreement has been reached: they all see the implication of imagination, symbol, myth, and organic nature, and see it as part of the great endeavour to overcome the split between subject and object, the self and the world, the conscious and the unconscious. This is the central creed of the great romantic poets in England, Germany and France. It is a closely coherent body of thought and feeling.

One could even say (if we did not suspect the word so much) that progress has been made not only in defining the common features of romanticism but in bringing out what is its peculiarity or even its essence and nature: that attempt, apparently doomed to failure and abandoned by our time, to identify subject and object, to reconcile man and nature, consciousness and unconsciousness by poetry which is “the first and last of all knowledge” (Wellek 1963: 160-162).

A revolutionary energy which can be ascribed to the early Romantic period while it coincides with what is often called the ‘age of revolutions’ was also at the core of Romantic literature, which quite consciously set out to transform not only the theory and practice of poetry, but the very way people perceive the world. Some of its major precepts survived into the modern times and still affect contemporary literary period.

1.3.1 Imagination

The essential elements, then, of the romantic spirit are curiosity and the love of beauty; and it is only as an illustration of these qualities, that it seeks the Middle Age, because, in the overcharged atmosphere of the Middle Age, there are unworked sources of romantic effect, of a strange beauty, to be won, by strong imagination, out of things unlikely or remote (Gleckner, Enscoe 1962: 4).


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Romanticism and Romantics. A Brief Introduction
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Romanticism, romantics, love, literature, motifs, themes, imagination, nature, myth, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Second Generation of Romantics
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MA Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2010, Romanticism and Romantics. A Brief Introduction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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