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May 24, 2013


Romanticism is a major literary movement which emerged towards the end of the 18th century, the waning days of Neoclassicism. The Romantic Movement assumedly emerged in Germany, although the main source of inspiration came from the events and ideologies of the French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in the same year, is presumed to be responsible for the growth of this movement. However, it is generally said that this epoch-making literary movement was initiated in 1798 by the publication of Lyrical Ballads, which was written by William Wordsworth in collaboration with his friend S.T. Coleridge. In essence, the romantic elements had been present in literature for centuries. The Elizabethan Age, for example, was essentially featured with romantic spirit. No matter who or which kindled Romanticism, the movement indisputably exerted a significant influence on the literature across the globe. The age is truly endowed with unique literary output. The movement ended in the 3rd decade of the 19th century when new literary movements like the Parnassians, Symbolism, Realism and Naturalism made ways.

Basic Premises

Romanticism ushered in as a reaction against Neoclassicism. Therefore, in Romanticism:

1.       imagination was praised over reason and intellect.
2.       emotions were given prominence over logic/rationality.
3.       intuition was given importance over science.
4.       rural and the natural settings found much attention than the urban life.
5.       subjective poetry was replaced by public impersonal poetry.

Major Characteristics

No romantic writer followed any specific rules or regulations and as such no precise characteristics could be proposed. However, the major characteristics of Romanticism are roughly as follows:

1. Rebellion and Revolution: The Romantic Movement was a revolt against all artificiality, it sought to alter the prevailing literary tradition to the following extant:

a) Individuality/Subjectivity: Pursuant to their philosophy the poet was seen as the creator of a piece of writing which reflected his individuality and inner mind. Such a view paved the way for subjective poems.

b) Simplicity of Expression/Spontaneity: The Romantics deviated from strict rules and regulations of the preceding era and concentrated on writing in simple language of the common people. Their theme was also relatively simple and modest.

c) Freedom of Thought and Expression: The Romantics gave special attention to emancipation of expression which helped them to unleash the creativity, imagination, feelings, emotion and passion without any obstruction.

2. Nationalism: The Romantics produced their works by inspiring from the folklore that was created by the masses or the common people. As they showed pofound interest in developing/rediscovering the folklore, culture of their own country, they developed a sense of Nationalism.

3. Idealization of Nature: Nature is a prevailing theme in Romantic literature. The Romantics were profoundly in love with the beauty of Nature. To them Nature was a impassioned and benign force which protects man. They viewed nature as the best place to take refuge from the complications of urban life. The Romantics combined it as a gateway to transcendental experience and truth.

4. Melancholy and Escapism: Generally a pessimistic tone pervades the Romantic literature as the Romantics were dissatisfied with their lives, time, and the overall condition of the humankind. The Romantics tried to escape into an imaginative world created by them to avoid the sordid realities of life.

6. Love for Medievalism/Focus on Exotic Locations: They often escaped into Strange and far-away places of the Middle Ages as they not only provided them an escape from the real world but also provided an opportunity to create a sense of remoteness or mysterious environment.

7. Love for the Supernatural or the Occult: The Romantics were greatly fascinated by the magic and mystery of the universe. They could feel the presence of concealed powers in nature. That is why in majority of Romantic literature we see the stories of ghost, magicians, goddesses, witchcraft, etc. The Romantic literature is as such mystical and foreign from everyday experiences of life.

Chief Representatives

The essence of Romanticism was first seen in France and Germany by the late 18th century. Initially the inspiration came from two great thinkers:
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Jean Jacques Rousseau

French philosopher, social and political theorist, and musician. He was one of the most influential writers of the Age of Enlightenment. Rousseau’s concept of the individual freedom left a major influence on the development of the 19th century Romanticism.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist. Goethe’s plays and novels reflect an insightful exploration of human individuality. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; translated 1779) is deemed to be one of the great influential documents of Romanticism.

English Romanticism

From the above discussion it is clear that the English Romanticism received much of its inspiration from the writings of Rousseau andGoethe. However,it was formally launched in Britain by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).The duos published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads (1798), which started Romanticism. It contained the first great works of the Romantic school. Wordsworth's “Preface” to the second edition (1800) of Lyrical Ballads, became the manifesto of the English Romantic movement in poetry.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
William Wordsworth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Other Followers

Lord Byron (1788 –1824)
Lord Byron

English poet, mostly known for the influence of his poetry on the Romantic Movement although his writing style was somewhat classical. In his works he disregarded rationality and emphasized the imagination and the emotions. His major works include Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18) and Don Juan (1819-24).
P.B. Shelley (1792–1822)
P.B. Shelley

English poet, considered by many to be among the greatest, and one of the most influential leaders of the Romantic Movement. His notable Romantic poems include To a Skylark (1820), To the West Wind (1819), and The Cloud (1820).
John Keats (1795–1821)
John Keats

Major English poet, whose use of classical legend with rich poetic imagination captured the true spirit of Romanticism. His Romantic attitude best expressed in Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy and To Autumn.

Early Romantics

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
Thomas Gray

Leading English poet in the mid-18th Century. He is the precursor of the Romantic Movement. Gray is mostly remembered today for his poem An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard.
William Collins (1721-1759)
William Collins

Prominent 18th century poet, who is regarded as one of the most important pre-Romantic English lyric poets. Although he followed the Neoclassical poetic forms, his themes were very much Romantic. His major works comprise, How Sleep the Brave, Ode to Evening, Ode to Simplicity, The Passions, and Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland (1750).
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Blake

English poet, painter, and engraver, considered by many to be one of the earliest and greatest figures of Romanticism. His apex works are Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794).
Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Robert Burns

Scottish poet and writer of traditional Scottish folk songs, who is often labeled  a pre-Romantic poet for his sensitivity to nature, his high valuation of feeling and emotion, his spontaneity, his fierce stance for freedom and against authority, his individualism, and his antiquarian interest in old songs and legends.


In America a similar type of movement began to flourish under a different label. It was known as Transcendentalism, which emerged from New England by incorporating new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy. The term was first used by the opponents of this school of thought. The movement began in the early 19th Century as a protest against the increasing dehumanization and materialism engendered by the Industrial Revolution and the spiritual inadequacy of the established religious beliefs. The movement was much stimulated by the English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume. However, the transcendental philosophy was systematically explored in Nature (1836), a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Its publication marked the beginning of this period. The movement ended in the late 19th century by the advent of Anti-transcendentalism/Dark Romanticism.

Basic Premises:

1.       An individual is the spiritual centre of the universe and in an individual can be found the clue to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. It is not a rejection of the existence of God, but a preference to explain an individual and the world in terms of an individual.
2.       The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self, all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge.
3.       Transcendentalists accepted the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs - nature is symbolic.
4.       The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization - this depends upon the reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies:
a)      the expansive or self-transcending tendency:  a desire to embrace the whole world, to know and become one with the world.
b)      the contracting or self-asserting tendency: the desire to withdraw, remain unique and separate, an egotistical existence.

Major Characteristics

The Transcendentalists never considered themselves belonging to a particular school of thought. Although they agreed implicitly on some principles, they prided themselves on their lack of agreement. Therefore, the following are an inventory of rough concepts shared by many of them:

1. Nature is Akin to God:The Transcendentalists believed that Nature is like a teacher, whose lessons can bring men closer to God. Therefore, pursuant to their views Nature is equal to God.

2. God is Omnipresent: The proponents of Transcendentalism believed that God/Nature/Universe/Over-soul is present in everywhere and in everything. Therefore, they argued that man does not need to observe either a specific religion or visit the churches to find God. They only supported the direct relationship with God since all the established religions are formed by opportunist individuals.

3. Man is divine: The Transcendentalists believed that Nature is divine and as Man is the creature of Nature he is also divine.
4. Intuition: The Transcendentalists argued that as God exists in Man, he has the intuitive power to determine which is right and which is wrong. Man doesn't need any holy books to learn morality.

5. Self-Reliance: The Transcendentalists opined that as Man possesses the natural instincts to guide himself to do the right thing, he must not obey the artificial laws, customs, fashions, or values.

6. Emphasis on the Present: To the Transcendentalists the past is insignificant. They believed that knowledge comes from experience and man doesn’t necessarily acquire it from studying past or from the people who lived before him. Basically, people from the past also attained knowledge through experience, as a result people from present must also depend on experience rather than anybody or any entity from the past.

7. Idealism: Human beings are naturally good at their core. Again, it is society that corrupts them. Human beings left to their own devices are good.

8. Materialism is Evil: According to Transcendental beliefs the pursuit for material goods is worthless and harmful. Money is evil because it causes man to place artificial and false value on objects and people.

9. Optimism:The Transcendentalists emphasized on the essential goodness and purposefulness of life therefore, their outlook on life was vigorously optimistic.

Chief Representatives

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)         
Ralph Waldo Emerson

American Philosopher, Journalist, Poet, one of the central leaders of the school of transcendentalism. His Transcendental notes are apparent in Self-Reliance (1841), The American Scholar (1837), Friendship (1841) and Experience.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 –1862)  
Henry David Thoreau

American writer, philosopher, and naturalist, considered to be among the best figures of the Transcendentalist movement. He is mostly noted for Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) and Civil Disobedience (1849).
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
Walt Whitma

American poet, essayist and journalist. His best works are Franklin Evans (1842), Leaves of Grass (1855), Drum-Taps (1865), During the War, and Democratic Vistas (1871)
Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)
Amos Bronson Alcott

American writer, philosopher, schoolteacher, the most brilliant and visionary of the Transcendentalists.
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)
Amos Bronson Alcott

American social reformer, author, and critic. Her works include, Summer on the Lakes(1844), Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845).
Theodore Parker (1810-1860)
Theodore Parker

An American preacher, lecturer, writer, public intellectual, and religious and social reformer. His brilliant sermon A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841) is truly a Transcendentalist manifesto.


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