Fear in Writing: Literary Movement Series: The Romantics

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Literary Movement Series: The Romantics

At a time of political and social turmoil, but also one of great independence, Romantic literature was born.  It was born of revolution and of pain.  It poured from artists like strong wine, and it filled the cups of everyone--not just the elite.

Where Dante wrote the first vernacular piece of literature in his Divine Comedy (approx 1308), the Romantics pushed the idea even further to incorporate the common people in thier work.  Much of this can be attributed to the fact mentioned earlier that this movement was a byproduct of war--the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the French Revolution (1789–1799), and the first world war, the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).

What does war do to people?  It tears lives apart, brings commoners in contact with the social elite, causes a near-universal hardship, and wrenches emotions from bodies that never existed prior.

It is this emotion, this passion, that is Romantic literature.

There are three commonalities in all Romantic lit: nationalism, idealization of nature, and freedom of thought and expression.  Nationalism can be conferred as a direct result of the wars which helped bring about the movement in the first place.  And, as can be expected, this varied from country to country in its importance.  For example, Spanish Romanticism was regional, written in the local languages of the areas inside the country.  Therefore, nationalism was a relative term.  Braziliam Romanticism, however, came in three parts.  The first period was highly concentrated on a national identity and often centered around the heroic Indian.  The second was more influenced by Europeans, Byron and Goethe.  But the third took on the social problems striking the country such as the abolitionist movement.  A national commentary, if you will.

American Romanticism is decidely different, as is our custom here in the U.S.  It began with the Gothic writers we talked about yesterday--Poe and one I failed to mention, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The darker elements of AR (American Romanticism) can be attributed to German Romanticism, which took on these motifs and incorporated gothic elements.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's seminal piece The Sorrows of Young Werther created a tormented protagonist oft-mimicked in Romantic and later works.  It was also a highly personal piece of expression.  The writer said he "shot his hero to save himself," in reference to his own obsession with a woman.  The misunderstood loner living on inspiration rather than societal norms is furthered by famed British Romantic Lord Byron.

Almost as important as the movement itself in America, is the Romantics' influence on Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  American Transcendentalism began as a protest against society and culture, in particular against the intellectualism of Harvard and Harvard Divinity School.  However, where AR concentrated the emotional and physical expression, AT took on the spiritual, claiming this transcends the physical and cannot be reached through organized religion, but rather through the intellect.

Another aspect Romanticism holds in common with Transcendentalism is a concentration on nature.  In a world heading toward the Industrial Revolution, it is no wonder artists would grasp onto the seemingly innocent rural life (Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield), the simplicity of the wilderness (James Fenimore Cooper's The Leatherstocking Tales), and human nature in contrast to puritanical New England (Hawthorne's anything!).

Though largely unread in her lifetime, one of my favorite poets can be seen as the epitomy of American Romanticism.  And so we end with these lines from Emily Dickinson.

Wild Nights! Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port, --
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in Thee!

*Picture information:
Top left: La liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix
Next, left: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich
Right: daguerrotype taken of poet Emily Dickinson at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

Wednesday: a break--The Lion or the Snake?
Thursday: Beat Generation


  1. Michele - I am so thoroughly enjoying your discussion of literary movements. Even the music of the Romantic period reflects the kind of things you discuss here (I'm thinking, for instance, of Tchaikovsky). And thanks for mentioning Emily Dickinson. As a rule, I'm not as much for Romantic literature as I am for other eras, but I do really like her poetry : ).

  2. We were just listening to Tchaikovsky over here--thanks to the Little Einsteins. You know, I'm not much for the Romantics myself. I think it comes from the tedious 'Ode to's' we studied in college. But writing this post made me appreciate them more. I think if we had studied more of their influence in addition to the work, I would have gotten the importance back then.

    So glad you're coming back for more, Margot!


  3. Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets! Thanks for mentioning her :)

    These posts are fantastic.

  4. Great essay! I am coming back later to read about the Gothics.

    More! More!

  5. Michele, I think you should write a book on literature!

  6. Another amazing post! I think the AR and the British are a lot different. What influenced one culture didn't influence another.


  7. Great lesson. I'll come back for more. You're a good teacher.


  8. Romance has never been my genre, but I'm looking forward to Thursday's post on the beat generation. That's cool stuff >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. oh Michele you are doing such a great job of this - I love how you've threaded the beginnings of the movements to their flowering in North America - wonderful! I am a Dante nut! I took a year long course about him from a fantastic dante scholar 'Father Crouse' who was a consultant to the vatican although anglican not catholic. It was wonderful. I also studied Emily Dickenson and loved the Transcendalists so this is a nice reminder of all of that. Thank you! And I can't wait to read your post on the Beats. I carried Allen Ginsburg's teapot once...

  10. Victoria- I keep a Dickinson quote in the top right of this blog. She was an amazing woman, and so intriguing...Glad you're enjoying them!

    Alex- I'm surprising myself with my enjoyment of the research. Thanks!

    Clarissa- Very true, but definitely connected. I was actually surprised by how different the two schools were!

    Mason- Thanks, and thanks for always being such a great commenter and reader.

    Helen- Says the Master Teacher of the blogosphere! Quite a compliment, thank you.

    Cold- Well, romance novels are VERY different from Romanticism as a movement.

    Jan- Well, thanks. I realize I have an international audience, but it is most interesting to me how they came to influence North America. Your studies sound fascinating! Your experience with Ginsburg is a bit daunting...