The Romantic Age: an Introduction
The Romantic Era
The Romantic period in English literature began in 1798 with the publication of Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads" and concluded in 1832 with the first Reformation Act. This act, it allowed more people to vote but had limited impact on the lives of the working class.
Around 1785, early figures like William Blake paved the way for Romanticism to emerge. However, it was Wordsworth and Coleridge's joint work, "Lyrical Ballads," published in 1798, that marked the official beginning of literary Romanticism. This collection of poems brought about a significant shift in literature, favoring rural subjects and everyday language over urban settings and grand styles.
Several key factors shaped literature during this era:
The French Revolution emphasized the idea of universal freedom and equality.
The Industrial Revolution led to the rise of large-scale industries, the dissolution of small enterprises, and issues such as slums and child labor.
In 1830, the first train was introduced and radically changed transportation.
Steam engines became widely used in various sectors, including transportation and industry.
The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 granted Roman Catholics more rights.
The Penny Post, introduced in 1840, allowed affordable postal communication.
Romanticism extended beyond literature, influencing art, music, and more. It revived themes from the Middle Ages, like chivalry and courtly love, through ballets, operas, and Shakespeare regained popularity.
Neoclassical art aimed to imitate ancient Greece and Rome, resulting in rigid, emotionless works. In contrast, Romantic art was passionate, emotional, unique, and exotic, reacting against the Neoclassical style.
Romantic composers featured Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Piotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky.
Key Literary Features:
Romantic literature emphasized introspection, psychology, melancholy, and sadness. It relied heavily on myth and symbolism and shifted its focus from reason to the senses, intuition, and imagination.
The Romantic period exhibited a fascination with the medieval past, the supernatural, the mystical, the "gothic," and the exotic. Romantic poetry favored spontaneity and experimentation over strict conventions, embracing evocative language. It celebrated the language of common people, romanticized rural life, and often expressed dissatisfaction with oppression while championing individualism and human rights.
Prominent Romantic Poets:
In the United Kingdom, pre-Romantic poets like Thomas Gray, Robert Burns, and William Blake set the stage for Romanticism. Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is an example of early Romantic themes.
Robert Burns drew inspiration from nature and social issues, while William Blake criticized the living conditions of the poor and denounced the restrictions imposed by laws.
The Romantic era started with the publication of "Lyrical Ballads" in 1798, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both first-generation Romantics. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats belong to the second generation of Romantics .
Wordsworth and Coleridge, who lived through significant historical events, had distinct perspectives. Wordsworth emphasized the harmony between nature and the human mind, using everyday life to explore the inner self. In contrast, Coleridge delved into the supernatural and mysterious, employing ballad forms, exoticism, and mysticism.
The second generation of Romantics was more rebellious, with Byron creating Byronic heroes, Shelley embracing revolutionary ideals, and Keats exploring the intersection of suffering, death, beauty, imagination, and poetry.
Literary Criticism and Influential Figures:
Criticism became integral to the literary experience, with notable figures like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Lamb, De Quincy, Hazlitt, and political thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Adam Smith engaging in social and political discourse. Thomas Paine , the author of "Rights of Man" took part in the tumutuous social and political discussion of the time. In his book "The Wealth of Nations" Adam Smith examines capitalism. Thomas Robert Malthus discussed population growth and poverty.
In addition to poetry, Gothic novels set in eerie natural settings and abandoned castles, like Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," gained popularity. These novels emphasized mystery and the supernatural. Other purpose-driven novels tackled various themes, including politics and science. Novels of manners, exemplified by Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," examined the conventions and behaviors of specific social classes, while historical novels like Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" were set in the past, such as during the Crusades.
AnonymousUnknown author (Horace Walpole for the words, presumably anonymous for the typesetter), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Inside cover by Theodor von Holst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Jane Austen (1775-1817), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Walter Scott (1771-1832), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Romanticism in American Literature:
Romanticism had a profound impact on American literature. Many American writers explored supernatural elements and Gothic themes, as well as celebrated nature. Transcendentalists believed that God existed in nature, a contrast to earlier Augustan thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson who saw God as a distant creator.
- Reformation Act - A legislative act that made changes or reforms to the existing laws or systems.
- Forerunners - People or things that come before and prepare the way for something else.
- Industrial Revolution - A period of significant economic and technological change characterized by the shift from hand production methods to mechanized manufacturing.
- Steam engines - Machines that use steam to generate power for various purposes.
- Catholic Emancipation Act - Legislation that removed certain legal restrictions on Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom.
- Penny Post - A postal system that allowed letters to be sent for a fixed, low cost.
- Neoclassical - Referring to a style that imitates or draws inspiration from classical Greek and Roman art and architecture.
- Introspection - The process of examining one's own thoughts and feelings.
- Myth - A traditional story or belief, often explaining the origins of something.
- Subjective - Based on personal opinions, interpretations, and feelings rather than objective facts.
- Objective - Based on facts and unbiased by personal opinions or emotions.
- Individualism - The belief in the importance of individual freedom, self-reliance, and self-expression.
- Counter-reaction - A response or movement against a previous action or ideology.
- Byronic heroes - Characters in literature who are characterized by their rebellion, emotional complexity, and moral ambiguity.
- Gothic novels - A genre of fiction that often includes elements of mystery, horror, and the supernatural.
- What were the key factors that impacted literature during the Romantic period?
- Who are some of the pre-Romantic poets mentioned in the text?
- What did William Wordsworth emphasize in his poetry, and why was nature important to him?
- How did Coleridge use literary elements in his poetry?
- Who are some of the second-generation Romantic poets mentioned in the text, and what were their contributions?
- What did Thomas Paine and Adam Smith contribute to the social and political discussion during the Romantic period?
- Name two Gothic novels mentioned in the text and briefly describe the genre.
- What did the Transcendentalists believe about nature, in contrast to earlier thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson?
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