Romanticism in Literature: Definition & Characteristics

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

In the late 18th century, the Romanticism movement began in Europe, promoting individualism and inspiration. Learn the definition and characteristics of Romanticism in literature. Understand how the movement broke convention, encouraged rebellion, explored ruins from the past, evoked emotion, and focused on the power of the senses, nature, and the sublime. Updated: 12/23/2021

Defining Romanticism

Romantic writers? Those are the people who write Valentine's Day cards, right? Well, not exactly. While most people associate the word romantic with love, in a literary context it is something much different. Romanticism in literature is difficult to define simply. Generally, though, we can say that the Romantic Movement took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably in England and America. The writings of this period reacted in part against the preceding Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on clear, rational thought. The Romantics, as we'll see, took a more subjective approach to examining their surroundings.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: One Summer Night by Ambrose Bierce: Summary & Analysis

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 Defining Romanticism
  • 0:43 Breaking Convention &…
  • 2:05 Ruins From the Past
  • 2:51 Emotion & Power of the Senses
  • 3:49 Nature & the Sublime
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Breaking Convention

The poets and writers of the Romantic Movement wanted to break new literary ground. This period is full of writers ignoring the traditional rules. The early British Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sought to make poetry more accessible to the common folk. They wrote poems in conversational style in an effort to remove the stigma of pompousness from poetry. Later, when Romanticism flourished in the United States, American Walt Whitman wrote his poems in the radical style of free verse. These poems completely broke with typical poetic conventions such as rhyme and meter.


These Romantics weren't ones to go along with the crowd. They passionately believed in individuality and being true to oneself; hence the business about breaking convention, above. Romantics celebrated rebellion. Walt Whitman saw himself as rebelling against old traditions, creating a bold, new, specifically American style of poetry. His poems celebrate the individual self above everything - his most famous poem is called Song of Myself. We also see the theme of rebellion in British Romantic Mary Shelley's famous novel, Frankenstein. In it, Dr. Frankenstein's monstrous creation rebels against his master but is still presented as a sympathetic character to the reader.

Ruins From the Past

The Romantics loved to brood on the mysteries of ancient civilizations, especially those of Greece and Rome. Their writings often ponder the deeper meaning of life in light of the history of ancient lands. In John Keats' famous 'Ode On A Grecian Urn,' the speaker waxes philosophical as he examines the paintings on an old Greek urn. Another British Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote a chilling poem called 'Ozymandias.' It describes the statue of an Egyptian king named Ramses II from ages ago, now crumbled to pieces in a desert. While Ramses II was all-powerful at the time the statue was erected, the fact that the statue ends up in ruins indicates a deep, terrifying truth about the fleetingness of man's time on Earth.


The Romantics were a sentimental, brooding lot. They really, really loved to talk about their feelings. This is a big part of that reaction against the Age of Enlightenment. Literature of the previous age was marked by clear, objective rationality. The Romantics had no interest in this. They used their hearts before their heads. William Wordsworth summed up Romantic Poetry perfectly when he called it 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.'

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account