Dark Romanticism Characteristics

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  • 0:00 Romanticism & Dark Romanticism
  • 1:13 Insanity
  • 2:08 Melancholia
  • 3:15 The Grotesque
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Deep grief, insanity, criminality, the grotesque and the bizarre are some of the subjects explored by writers categorized by the label Dark Romanticism. These writers focus on the darker aspects of emotion and nature.

Romanticism and Dark Romanticism

The literary movement known as 'Romanticism' began in Germany in the 18th century before spreading to France, England and America, among other places. Romanticism's key characteristics were a focus on emotion, nature, and individual experience. Romantic ideals are often captured in the idea of the sublime, a powerful and ecstatic experience of emotion, often in reaction to nature.

Often the Romantic sublime is expressed as an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world, such as in the work of poet William Wordsworth. But from the beginning, the sublime, and Romanticism itself, have had a darker side. The sublime is such a powerful feeling that it can turn dark and scary. And individual emotion and the natural world can produce all sorts of horrors: insanity, crime, irrationality, melancholia, and the grotesque.

Fascination with the less-pleasant sides of Romanticism gave birth to the subgenre known as Dark Romanticism, which has been practiced by writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Insanity

One of the most common markers of Dark Romanticism is a focus on insanity, or the uncontrollable irrationality of the human brain, as well as the criminal mind. This is a natural outgrowth of Romanticism's focus on individual experience and emotion.

Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems often attempt to take the reader inside the mind of someone who's insane or disturbed. Some of the most famous examples of this include the short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' in which a murderer is driven crazy by his crime, and 'The Cask of Amontillado,' in which the narrator buries his enemy alive.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' also tells of a sailor punished by supernatural forces for killing an albatross. Like in a lot of Dark Romantic literature, the reader is left to wonder if the supernatural forces are real or just a projection of the narrator's deranged mind.

Melancholia

While many of the insane characters in Dark Romantic literature experience an overflow of guilt for a past crime, others experience an overflow of grief and sadness, termed melancholia. This powerful emotion was the focus of much of Dark Romantic literature.

Many of Poe's poems are laments by the narrator for the death of a beautiful woman, such as 'Annabel Lee' and 'The Raven.' 'The Raven' is a classic Dark Romantic poem because it combines a focus on melancholia and insanity. The narrator starts in a melancholy state and is driven to insanity by the reappearing bird of the title who, like usual in Dark Romantic literature, may not be real at all.

However, there was also Charles Baudelaire, who is considered by some to be the greatest writer on the subject and in his depiction of melancholia. His collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) is considered one of the most important works of Dark Romanticism. Baudelaire's poems express a boredom with life that's pretty characteristic of melancholia and calls this boredom the worst of all evils.

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