Characteristics of Romanticism

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson identifies five central characteristics of Romanticism, which was an intellectual and aesthetic movement that begin in the 1770s in response to the Age of Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and rationalism.

Overview of Romanticism

Romanticism was an intellectual and aesthetic movement that began in the 1770s and ended in middle of the 19th century. Originating in England and Germany, Romanticism developed in response to the Age of Enlightenment, which celebrated rationalism and reason. Romanticism emphasized human emotion and intuition, as well as freedom and creativity.

Individuality and Self-Awareness

Romanticism emphasized the importance of individuality and self-awareness, rather than conformity to societal norms. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau articulated this ideal in his concept of the 'noble savage.' The noble savage is not tainted by civilization, but lives true to their natural desires and instincts. This philosophical ideal manifests in the Transcendentalist poetry in the United States.

For instance, American poet Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself' celebrates the individual and their authority, apart from society. English poet William Blake also expresses the ideal of individuality. He once said, 'To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.'

Emotion and Intuition

In contrast to the scientific empiricism of the Enlightenment Age, Romanticism celebrated emotion as an epistemology (way of knowing about the world). Science values facts and objective laws, but Romanticism celebrated the kind of knowledge that an individual intuits through their senses. For the Romantics, what one feels to be true is true. English poet William Wordsworth expressed this philosophy when he claimed, 'all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.'

Sublime Awe of Nature

Romanticism encouraged an awe and appreciation of nature. English philosopher Edmund Burke articulated this ideal in his notion of the Romantic sublime. The sublime is that which provokes extreme, debilitating awe. Nature is the epitome of sublime, since it paralyzes the individual with its vastness and mystery. Edgar Allen Poe's prose poem Eureka demonstrates the romantic appreciation for nature. In this poem, the speaker is in awe of the cosmos, reflecting on the wondrous mysteries of the universe.

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