Romanticism in Literature: Definition and Examples

Finding beauty in nature and the common man.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

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Romanticism was a literary movement that began in the late 18th century, ending around the middle of the 19th century—although its influence continues to this day. Marked by a focus on the individual (and the unique perspective of a person, often guided by irrational, emotional impulses), a respect for nature and the primitive, and a celebration of the common man, Romanticism can be seen as a reaction to the huge changes in society that occurred during this period, including the revolutions that burned through countries like France and the United States, ushering in grand experiments in democracy.

Key Takeaways: Romanticism in Literature

  • Romanticism is a literary movement spanning roughly 1790–1850.
  • The movement was characterized by a celebration of nature and the common man, a focus on individual experience, an idealization of women, and an embrace of isolation and melancholy.
  • Prominent Romantic writers include John Keats, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley.

Romanticism Definition

The term Romanticism does not stem directly from the concept of love, but rather from the French word romaunt (a romantic story told in verse). Romanticism focused on emotions and the inner life of the writer, and often used autobiographical material to inform the work or even provide a template for it, unlike traditional literature at the time.

Romanticism celebrated the primitive and elevated "regular people" as being deserving of celebration, which was an innovation at the time. Romanticism also fixated on nature as a primordial force and encouraged the concept of isolation as necessary for spiritual and artistic development.

Characteristics of Romanticism

Romantic literature is marked by six primary characteristics: celebration of nature, focus on the individual and spirituality, celebration of isolation and melancholy, interest in the common man, idealization of women, and personification and pathetic fallacy.

Celebration of Nature

Romantic writers saw nature as a teacher and a source of infinite beauty. One of the most famous works of Romanticism is John Keats’ To Autumn (1820):

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

Keats personifies the season and follows its progression from the initial arrival after summer, through the harvest season, and finally to autumn’s end as winter takes its place.

Focus on the Individual and Spirituality

Romantic writers turned inward, valuing the individual experience above all else. This in turn led to heightened sense of spirituality in Romantic work, and the addition of occult and supernatural elements.

The work of Edgar Allan Poe exemplifies this aspect of the movement; for example, The Raven tells the story of a man grieving for his dead love (an idealized woman in the Romantic tradition) when a seemingly sentient Raven arrives and torments him, which can be interpreted literally or seen as a manifestation of his mental instability.

Celebration of Isolation and Melancholy

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a very influential writer in Romanticism; his books of essays explored many of the themes of the literary movement and codified them. His 1841 essay Self-Reliance is a seminal work of Romantic writing in which he exhorts the value of looking inward and determining your own path, and relying on only your own resources.

Related to the insistence on isolation, melancholy is a key feature of many works of Romanticism, usually seen as a reaction to inevitable failure—writers wished to express the pure beauty they perceived and failure to do so adequately resulted in despair like the sort expressed by Percy Bysshe Shelley in A Lament:

O world! O life! O time!
On whose last steps I climb.
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more—Oh, never more!

Interest in the Common Man

William Wordsworth was one of the first poets to embrace the concept of writing that could be read, enjoyed, and understood by anyone. He eschewed overly stylized language and references to classical works in favor of emotional imagery conveyed in simple, elegant language, as in his most famous poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Idealization of Women

In works such as Poe’s The Raven, women were always presented as idealized love interests, pure and beautiful, but usually without anything else to offer. Ironically, the most notable novels of the period were written by women (Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Mary Shelley, for example), but had to be initially published under male pseudonyms because of these attitudes. Much Romantic literature is infused with the concept of women being perfect innocent beings to be adored, mourned, and respected—but never touched or relied upon.

Personification and Pathetic Fallacy

Romantic literature’s fixation on nature is characterized by the heavy use of both personification and pathetic fallacy. Mary Shelley used these techniques to great effect in Frankenstein:

Its fair lakes reflect a blue and gentle sky; and, when troubled by the winds, their tumult is but as the play of a lively infant, when compared to the roarings of the giant ocean.

Romanticism continues to influence literature today; Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight novels are clear descendants of the movement, incorporating most of the characteristics of classic Romanticism despite being published a century and half after the end of the movement’s active life.

Sources

  • The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Romanticism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/art/Romanticism.
  • Parker, James. “A Book That Examines the Writing Processes of Two Poetry Giants.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 July 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/07/how-two-literary-giants-wrote-their-best-poetry/594514/.
  • Alhathani, Safa. “EN571: Literature & Technology.” EN571 Literature Technology, 13 May 2018, https://commons.marymount.edu/571sp17/2018/05/13/analysis-of-romanticism-in-frankenstein-through-digital-tools/.
  • “William Wordsworth.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-wordsworth.