Isn’t It Romantic(ism)?

The birth of Romanticism – an era of emotion and individual expression.

Horace Walpole
Iambic pentameter
William Wordsworth
The Sorrows of Young Werther

Defining Romanticism

Romantic literature – not to be confused with Romance literature – describes written works created during Romanticism, also called the Romantic movement or Romantic era.

This was an intellectual movement that started in Europe near the end of the 18th century and lasted until about 1850. The Romantic movement impacted more than literature but also art and music of the time.

Romanticism can be defined by its characteristics including an emphasis on individualism, idealizing nature, and glorifying the past – with an emphasis on the medieval. It often includes a rejection of science and industrialization, and came about as a reaction to both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Intense emotion is a key component of the Romantic aesthetic, and it views traditionally negative emotions such as horror or terror as equal to the sublime or beautiful.

Historical Context of the Romantic Era


Romanticism rose to popularity across Europe as a response to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. While the Enlightenment drew on classical Greek and Roman philosophy and championed reason, Romanticism took a note from medievalism in an attempt to revive a chivalric and pastoral past.

The Romantic era had a variety of influences that came together to create a singular outlook. On one hand, the Romantics’ appreciation of nature was a direct response to the population growth, industrialism, and urban sprawl they experienced in their day-to-day lives.

Additionally, European Romanticism came out of the German *Sturm und Drang* movement that began in the 1760s as a response to rationalism. The name translates to ‘storm and stress,’ emphasizing individual subjectivity and emotional extremes.

Ultimately, Romanticism was also heavily influenced by the French Revolution – many early Romantics were cultural revolutionaries who valued the ‘heroic’ characteristics and achievements they perceived as part of the revolution.

Romanticism vs. Romance - what’s the difference?

It’s easy to confuse Romanticism and Romance literature. Romance literature is one of the oldest types of literature, dating back to Hellenistic and Greek romances.

To add to the confusion, modern Romance novels trace their origins to the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, who were writing during the same period of time as the Romantics.

These early romance novels featured female protagonists struggling under oppressive social conventions and overcoming personal struggles in the pursuit of love. These works established the two core requirements of the modern Romance novel: the development of a romantic relationship and a ‘happily ever after.’

In contrast, Romanticism often has little to do with romance or love. During this time, the word ‘Roman’ was used in various European languages to mean ‘novel,’ or popular. The founders of Romanticism used ‘romantic’ as a derivative of ‘Roman,’ to contrast with ‘classic.’

The Gothic Novel

Gothic fiction is a literary style that focuses on fear (especially caused by the surrounding environment), supernatural threats, hauntings, and the past intruding upon the present.

The name is inspired by the Gothic architecture of the European Middle Ages, as the earliest Gothic works were set in this style of castle. The first author to identify his work as Gothic was Horace Walpole about his 1764 work *The Castle of Otranto*.

More than a decade later, the late 18th century saw a meteoric rise in the popularity of the Gothic novel. The works of Ann Radcliffe, including *The Romance of the Forest* and *The Mystery of Udolpho* were particularly popular, and Radcliffe’s publications were highly anticipated in her own time.

The Gothic novel entered a second wave in the 1810’s, which saw the establishment of the Byronic hero – a variant of the Romantic hero inspired by the poet Lord Byron – and the creation of Mary Shelley’s *Frankenstein*.

Emotion and the Sublime

Key characteristics of Romanticism included emotion and individualism. Although most particular to the Romantic writers, these ideas also impacted the cultures at large during this era and found their way into texts from a variety of genres.

The free expression of the feelings of the artist was paramount for Romantic writers. To achieve this ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ as Wordsworth put it, the poet could not be constrained by any rules of style or influenced by other works. Originality was key.


Despite this, Romantic poetry emphasized the importance of rhythmic meter and rhyme schemes. For example, John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is written in iambic pentameter.

The concept of ‘the Sublime’ was one of the most important elements of Romantic poetry. It describes using language or description to move the reader to thoughts or emotions beyond ordinary experience. This may be a positive experience, but it can also include the terrible or grotesque.

The Romantic Poet

Although Romanticism was a movement that affected all the arts, it’s best remembered today for inspiring some of the greatest poets in the English language.

In the early years of the 1800s, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge kicked off the Romantic poet movement by defining their innovative new poetry in the Preface to the 2nd edition of *Lyrical Ballads*.

In addition to Wordsworth and Coleridge, the best known Romantic poets were, and are, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and William Blake. While these poets held similar key ideals, each wrote in a unique style and eventually developed individual priorities.

Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge are considered ‘first-generation’ Romantics, but their outlooks – and Wordsworth’s in particular – were already shifting as the second-generation, including Byron, Shelley, and Keats, took to the stage.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey were also known as the Lake Poets, as they all lived in the Lake District of England in the first half of the 19th century.

Key Figure: Jane Austen

Jane Austen is often considered the most famous female writer in Western literature. She was an English novelist who lived from 1775 to 1817, and today her novels have sold countless copies, been translated into languages from around the globe, and inspired blockbuster movie adaptations. In 2017, her image replaced that of Charles Darwin on the £10 note.

Austen is best known for her 6 major novels, all of which explore issues of women’s dependency and the necessary pursuit of marriage for social standing and economic security. Her works are on the cutting edge of literary realism, a 19th century style that came after Romanticism. In addition to social commentary and realism, her works are loved for their irony and wit.

Austin experienced only mild success in her lifetime – particularly with the publication of *Sense and Sensibility*, *Pride and Prejudice*, *Mansfield Park*, and *Emma*. She died at age 41 of an illness now thought to have resulted from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Key Figure: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is an icon of American literature. He was a central writer for the American Romantic movement and is best known for his Gothic poetry and short stories that feature the mysterious and the macabre.


Poe was highly influential in the growth of American literature and is thought to be the first American writer to earn a living exclusively by writing. He lived from 1809 to 1849.

Poe’s writing often focuses on death by looking at it from different angles including the effects of decomposition, concerns with premature burial, the physical signs of death, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning the dead. In this way, his works bridge the gap between Gothic horror and dark romanticism.

Poe’s most famous poem is undoubtedly ‘The Raven,’ made up of 18 stanzas of 6 lines each and is, roughly, in trochaic octameter – with eight pairs of stressed/unstressed syllables per line. Its use of refrain, or the repetition of a phrase, has immortalized the words, ‘Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore!”’

Key Figure: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German poet, playwright, and novelist – as well as scientist, statesman, and critic. He lived from 1749 to 1832 and is widely regarded as the most influential writer in the German language. The range of his works have had a profound effect on Western literature, politics, and philosophy.


In 1775 Goethe published his first novel, *The Sorrows of Young Werther*, to immediate success – even earning him a nobility – and it’s sometimes considered history’s first ‘best-seller.’ Goethe was an early participant in the German *Sturm und Drang* movement that inspired Romanticism.

Goethe is also widely regarded for his epic drama *Faust*, which was completed in two sections. *Faust Part Two*, one of Goethe’s most famous works, was published posthumously. The play is a ‘closet drama,’ meaning it was written to be read, not performed; it’s a tragedy that follows the experiences of Dr. Faustus who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power.

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