English Romanticism Characteristics

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.

Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement that came to England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and had a profound impact on English literature. English Romantic literature is characterized by a love of nature, distrust of reason, and rejection of traditional authority.

Classicism and Romanticism

In the final decades of the 18th century, literature in England was stuck in a rut. For much of the previous century, classicism, a witty, ornate style influenced heavily by the work of ancient Greece and Rome, dominated English literature. This form produced masterpieces like Alexander Pope's hilarious ''The Rape of the Lock.'' At its worst, classicism could be dreadfully boring. Bound by tradition and elaborate rules, it was often only accessible to an elite able to understand the witty wordplay and classical references.

By the final decades of the 18th century, a new literary and artistic movement was afoot. Romanticism began in Germany and migrated across Europe. Romanticism was largely a reaction against the strictures of classicism. It prized nature over the industrialized city, emotion over reason, and the individual over institutions like the church and state. Writers associated with Romanticism, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and John Keats, did not see themselves as a unified school of poetry. Later critics lumped them together as the English Romantics due to similarities across their bodies of work.

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth

Respect for Nature

By the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution had come to England. Cities like London were full of dirty factories that spit black smoke into the air day and night. The cities were overcrowded and filled with garbage. No wonder the Romantics sought refuge in nature!

This love of nature is indicated in the poems that make up Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published in 1797. Wordsworth's ''Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey'' is a classic Romantic poem about finding spiritual renewal in nature. The following lines describe the poet's finding solace in a return to nature:

'Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.'

Despite common themes, the Romantics never fully agreed on anything. This tension can be seen in Lyrical Ballads itself. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge loved nature, though he saw it as a darker and more uncontrollable force, something to be feared and respected. His most famous poem, ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' tells a terrifying story of a sailor's experiences at sea.

Overflow of Emotion

In his influential preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth defined poetry as 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,' which is an apt description of Romantic poetry. Rejecting the witty wordplay and self-conscious nature of classicism, Romantics embraced powerful emotion.

Perhaps the greatest example of the role of emotion in Romantic poetry is the work of John Keats. Keats' most famous poems, such as ''To Autumn'' and ''Ode on a Grecian Urn'' are full of the poet's emotional reactions to the world around him. In ''To Autumn,'' the focus is the changing seasons, while in ''Ode on a Grecian Urn,'' it is an ancient work of Greek pottery. Keats' own spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling can be seen in this ecstatic final stanza from ''Ode on a Grecian Urn'':

'O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!'

Power of the Individual

Both of the previous characteristics -- love of nature over the city and emotion over reason -- led the Romantic poets to harbor a natural distrust of all man-made systems of authority and control. These included industry, government, and even organized religion. The Romantics prized the power of the individual over these authoritative institutions.

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