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Tintern Abbey and the River Wye in Tintern, Wales.
Often the term Romantic literature, particularly poetry, evokes the connotation of nature poetry. Although nature is an important component in much Romantic literature, Romanticism is much more than recording the beauties of the natural world. And Romanticism is certainly not what modern readers usually think of when we hear the words romance and romantic; Romanticism does not refer to romantic love.
Romanticism grew from a profound change in the way people in the Western world perceived their place and purpose in life. Events such as the American Revolution in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789, and the Industrial Revolution restructured society and the way individuals viewed themselves and their relationship to each other and to the social order.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, concepts such as the Great Chain of Being, which had long represented the way humans thought of themselves and their roles in society, crumbled in the wake of new ideas about democracy. Rather than placing themselves above or below other individuals in a hierarchy, people began to believe that all men are created equal. Although it took more time to be accepted, the idea that women and people of color are also created equal germinated in the fertile environment of democratic ideals.
European philosophers such as Rousseau and Spinoza maintain that innocence and the potential for human goodness are found in nature; human institutions, such as governments, produce pride, greed, and inequality. Thus nature, and people close to nature, becomes the ideal for Romantic writers.
Nature takes on additional significance with the ideas of philosophers such as Schelling who posits an identity of mind and nature: “Nature is visible spirit.…” For poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, nature is a source of divine revelation, a visible veil through which God may be discerned. For others such as Shelley, nature is the means to tapping into the collective power of the human mind, what American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as the Over-Soul. Nature is the source of human innocence and goodness because nature is a manifestation of the Divine.
For Romantic writers, then, the source of poetry is not a conscious crafting of lines of a certain number of syllables in a certain metrical pattern and rhyme scheme, like the 18th-century heroic couplet. Instead, the source of literature is the inspiration that comes from connecting, through nature, with the divine or the transcendental properties of the human mind. Romantic writers use the term Imagination to refer to this connection. The power of God to create nature is parallel to the poet’s power to create through the Imagination. In his A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley states that the Imagination “strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.” In his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth writes of “A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things…” that he finds in nature. In his “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge pictures all of nature, including humans, as harps creating music when touched by the breeze of Imagination, the “One life” that is “in us and abroad.”
One facet of Romanticism also recognizes the dark side of the human mind. Originating in Germany, the Sturm und Drang (usually translated “storm and stress”) movement pictures an anti-hero, a character dark in appearance, mood, and thought, in rebellion against the restrictions of society. Ann Radcliffe and others wrote Gothic novelsNovels that typically feature picturesque yet haunted medieval castles and ruins, supernatural elements, death, madness, and terror. that typically feature picturesque yet haunted medieval castles and ruins, supernatural elements, death, madness, and terror. Gothic elements appear in many Romantic works: Heathcliff and the ghost of Catherine in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey delightfully parodies the Gothic novel. In poetry, Byron’s narrative poems feature dark, brooding anti-heroes called Byronic heroes, a role Byron played himself in his personal life. The Tate Britain provides an online tour through a previous exhibit of paintings that illustrate Romantic Gothic art.
Romanticism is a reaction against many facets of Neoclassicism. The following chart lists contrasting views of Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
|use and imitation of literary traditions from ancient Greece and Rome||use and imitation of literary traditions from the Middle Ages (including the medieval romance)|
|beauty in structure and order||beauty in organic, natural forms|
|art from applying order to nature||art from inspiration|
|heroic couplets||lyric poetry|
|focus on external people and events||focus on self-expression of the artist|
|Great Chain of Being||democracy|
|Reason leads to spiritual revelation||Nature leads to spiritual revelation|
|urban (glorifies civilization and technological progress)||rural (sees the evils of civilization and technological progress)|
|values wit and sophistication||values primitive, simple people|
|Human nature needs artificial restraints of society||Restraints of society result in tyranny and oppression|
|the head||the heart|
Lyrical BalladsA collection of poems written and jointly published by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. is a collection of poems written and jointly published by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. The volume is of such importance that its 1798 publication date is often considered the beginning of the Romantic Period. The poetry in Lyrical Ballads marks a distinct change in both subject matter and style from the poetry of the 18th century.
In the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth includes a PrefaceAn introductory explanation., an introductory explanation, to Lyrical Ballads to explain his theory of how poetry should be written.
The following points from the Preface delineate the characteristics that make these poems markedly different from poetry of the preceding century:
The language of poetry should be real language spoken by common people.
During the 18th century, many poets used what Wordsworth called “poetic diction,” flowery or ornate words for ordinary things such as feathery flock instead of birds or finny tribe instead of fish. Wordsworth protests that people don’t use such expressions; therefore poetry shouldn’t either. Notice also that much of Wordsworth’s poetry rejects the uniform stanzas and line lengths that were popular in the 18th century. Much of his poetry is free in form—lines and stanzas of varying lengths in the same poem, more like the “selection of language really used by men.”
The subject of poetry should be events from the real lives of common people.
Wordsworth believes that common, ordinary situations are worthy topics for poems, events such as farmers plowing their fields. He further believes that through the Imagination he could make his audience more aware of the significance of common scenes that they might otherwise take for granted.
A novelAs famously defined in the Holman/Harmon Handbook to Literature, an “extended fictional prose narrative.”, as famously defined in the Holman/Harmon Handbook to Literature, is an “extended fictional prose narrative.” The novel flourished in the Romantic Period, encompassing novels previously listed by Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley, and Ann Radcliffe; Sir Walter Scott‘s historical novels, known as the Waverly Novels, set in medieval times and glorifying Scottish nationalism; and Jane Austen’s novels of manners, portraying the genteel country life of the Regency era.
A lyricA brief poem, expressing emotion, imagination, and meditative thought, usually stanzaic in form. is a brief poem, expressing emotion, imagination, and meditative thought, usually stanzaic in form.
As used in the Romantic Period, the odeA lyric poem longer than usual lyrics, often on a more serious topic, usually meditative and philosophic in tone and subject. is a lyric poem longer than usual lyrics, often on a more serious topic, usually meditative and philosophic in tone and subject.
A balladA narrative poem or song, usually simple and regular in rhythm and rhyme. The typical ballad stanza is 4 lines rhyming abab. is a narrative poem or song. Ballads originated as songs that were part of an oral culture, usually simple and regular in rhythm and rhyme. The typical ballad stanza is 4 lines rhyming abab. Because of their simplicity and their role as part of folk culture, ballads were popular with many Romantic writers.