Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century.Romanticism arrived later in other parts of the English-speaking world.William Blake is considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.
The Romantic period was one of major social change in England and Wales, because of the depopulation of the countryside and the rapid development of overcrowded industrial cities that took place in the period roughly between 1750 and 1850. The movement of so many people in England was the result of two forces: the Agricultural Revolution, that involved the Enclosure of the land, drove workers off the land, and the Industrial Revolution which provided them employment. Romanticism may be seen in part as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, though it was also a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, as well a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. The French Revolution was an especially important influence on the political thinking of many of the Romantic poets.The landscape is often prominent in the poetry of this period, so much so that the Romantics, especially perhaps Wordsworth, are often described as ‘nature poets’. However, the longer Romantic nature poems have a wider concern because they are usually meditations on “an emotional problem or personal crisis”.
Robert Burns (1759–1796) was a pioneer of the Romantic Movement, and after his death, he became a cultural icon in Scotland. The poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757–1827) was another early Romantic poet. Though Blake was generally unrecognized during his lifetime, he is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Among his most important works are Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) “and profound and difficult ‘prophecies’ “, such as “Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion” (1804–c.1820).
After Blake, among the earliest Romantics were the Lake Poets, including William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Robert Southey (1774–1843) and journalist Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859). However, at the time Walter Scott (1771–1832) was the most famous poet.The early Romantic Poets brought a new emotionalism and introspection, and their emergence is marked by the first romantic manifesto in English literature, the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1798). The poems in Lyrical Ballads were mostly by Wordsworth, though Coleridge contributed, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Among Wordsworth’s most important poems, are “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, “Resolution and Independence”, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and the autobiographical, epic ThePrelude.
Robert Southey (1774–1843) was another of the so-called “Lake Poets”, and Poet Laureate for 30 years, although his fame has been long eclipsed by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) is best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), Essayist William Hazlitt (1778–1830), friend of both Coleridge and Wordsworth, is best known today for his literary criticism, especially Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817–18).
The second generation of Romantic poets includes Lord Byron (1788–1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and John Keats (1795–1821). Byron, however, was still influenced by 18th-century satirists and was, perhaps the least ‘romantic’ of the three, preferring “the brilliant wit of Pope to what he called the ‘wrong poetical system’ of his Romantic contemporaries”. Byron achieved enormous fame and influence throughout Europe and Goethe called Byron “undoubtedly the greatest genius of our century”.
Shelley is perhaps best known for “Ode to the West Wind”, “To a Skylark”, and “Adonaïs”, an elegy written on the death of Keats. His close circle of admirers included the most progressive thinkers of the day. Works like “Queen Mab” (1813) reveal Shelley, “as the direct heir to the French and British revolutionary intellectuals of the 1790s”. Shelley became an idol of the next three or four generations of poets, including important Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poets such as Robert Browning, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as later W. B. Yeats.
Though John Keats shared Byron and Shelley’s radical politics, “his best poetry is not political”, but is especially noted for its sensuous music and imagery, along with a concern with material beauty and the transience of life. His most famous works are “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “To Autumn”. Keats has always been regarded as a major Romantic, “and his stature as a poet has grown steadily through all changes of fashion”.
Another important poet in this period was John Clare (1793–1864), the son of a farm laborer, who came to be known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation for the changes taking place in rural England.His poetry has undergone a major re-evaluation and he is often now considered to be among the most important 19th-century poets.
George Crabbe (1754–1832) was an English poet who, during the Romantic period, wrote: “closely observed, realistic portraits of rural life in the heroic couplets of the Augustan age.” Modern critic Frank Whitehead has said that “Crabbe, in his verse tales in particular, is important–indeed, a major–poet whose work has been and still is seriously undervalued.”
One of the most popular novelists of the era was Sir Walter Scott, whose historical romances inspired a generation of painters, composers, and writers throughout Europe. Scott’s novel-writing career was launched in 1814 with Waverley, often called the first historical novel. Jane Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century realism.Her plots, in novels such as Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1815), though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security.
Romanticism in America
The European Romantic movement reached America in the early 19th century. American Romanticism was just as multifaceted and individualistic as it was in Europe. Like the Europeans, the American Romantics demonstrated a high level of moral enthusiasm, commitment to individualism and the unfolding of the self, an emphasis on intuitive perception, and the assumption that the natural world was inherently good, while human society was corrupt.
Romantic Gothic literature made an early appearance with Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819). There are picturesque “local color” elements in Washington Irving’s essays and especially his travel books. From 1823 the prolific and popular novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) began publishing his historical romances of frontier and Indian life. However, Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre that first appeared in the early 1830s, and his poetry were more influential in France than at home.