Romanticism refers to a distinct art movement from the late 18th century onwards. In this post, you will read about the key traits of Romanticism (in particular, literature) and the motivations behind the many writers, composers and painters.
How To Define Romanticism
The key traits of Romanticism include:
- Emotion & Sentiment
- A Focus On Childhood
- Speculation And The Imaginary, Including ‘Gothic’ Ideas
- Turmoil And Individualism
- Devotion To Beauty And Nature
Keep reading for an indepth analysis of these key traits of Romanticism, plus recommendations for further viewing.
Emotion & Sentiment
Romanticism, although not the opposite of rationality, has criticisms of its application to ‘modernity.’ Vast amounts of Romanticism is melodramatic, as well as emotionally-charged and sentimental. This is because Romanticism emerged during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. New techology and developments in science changed cities, town and country.
But more importantly, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution changed people’s thinking and philosophy. Traditional structures of religion and monarchy were challenged, as steam engines and factories were developed. On one hand, some of these changes were positive. Technology made life easier, as did employment. The Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment are rightly praised for increased living standards and the acknowledgement of human rights such as free speech. Although the Enlightenment was not perfect, and did not achieve all of its goals, it deserves acknowledgement for its accomplishments.
However, one of the flaws in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was how mechanical it appeared. Traditional structures of faith and beauty were cast aside for ‘progress’ and so-called ‘enlightened technology.’ By dismissing the rich history of previous ages, the Enlightenment painted an unfortunate picture devoid of history and art. Because of that, Romanticism attempts to install emotion, faith, beauty and art in a world run through machines.
Romanticism was not opposed to everything in the Enlightenment. One core theme of both Romanticism and the Enlightenment is individualism, which we’ll cover later in this post.
A Focus On Childhood
Romanticism focuses on childhood for several reasons. One, is the representation of ‘innocence’ and bygone eras. Two, is to emphasis the ‘imagination’ of a child, and the benefits of youth (idealism). A significant portion of literature from Romanticism uses fairytales and escapist fantasy.
A great example is C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles Of Narnia. Unlike the bleak, foreboding environment of WWII, Narnia is magical, like a fairytale. There’s enchantments, cute creatures, woods and joy. Lewis himself was inspired by fairytales, whether they were from Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Anderson.
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”C.S Lewis
In the visual arts, you have illustrators such as Edmund Dulac. Today, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the brilliance of Charles Van Sandwyk. (I recommend his illustrated books from The Folio Society!)
However, the focus on childhood is not limited to children’s literature. In Les Miserables, one of Hugo’s most striking images is of a young, broom-holding Cosette. Likewise, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (a great example of pop culture, contemporary Romanticism) has a teenage heroine. In poetry, William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ features a child named Tom Dacre.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved; so I said,
‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’The Chimney Sweeper, William Blake
Another terrific example is from William Wordsworth, whose poem ‘We Are Seven‘ remains cited today.
Many misconceptions about the Middle Ages floated during the Enlightenment. An era, spanning over a thousand years, was almost reduced to regression, darkness and decay. Romantics were heavy medievalists, and in the 19th century in England, a movement of Catholic architects promoted ‘neo-Gothic’ style, presumably moved by the imposing might of Cologne Cathedral and the Notre-Dame of Paris. Stained glass saw a revival, particularly in North America (look up Tiffany Glass!) and in Europe.
In numerous ways, the Romantics challenged misconceptions regarding the Middle Ages. This is certainly true in The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole) and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Victor Hugo). Both authors added their own commentary on not just the Middle Ages, but also the present.
Speculation & The Imaginary, Including The Gothic
Romanticism is underpinned by a particular aesthetical philosophy. Art does not have to depict reality as its physically seen. One may paint an apple without speculative elements or tension, but a Romantic adds those elements to broaden their imagination. This is because Romanticism values speculation, intuition, imagination and fantasy. Many Romantic works, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the novels by Jules Verne and the fairytales by the Grimm Brothers are driven by speculative fiction.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”W.B Yeats
Our conception of the Gothic takes place during Romanticism, too. Novels such as The Monk by Matthew Lewis and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte are both highlights of romanticism and gothic literature. Much of fantasy fiction uses Romanticism for storytelling purposes. From Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, you can spot the Romantic influences. In the case of J.K Rowling’s blockbuster series, there are many instances of melodrama and magic. Besides, she was inspired by Emily Bronte!
Now, in the 21st century, we see a prominence of ‘realism.’ However, fantasy and science fiction remains highly popular. If Romanticism ever makes a comeback, it will take the form of dragons, fairies, wizards and elves.
Turmoil & Individualism
In Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, a man facing backwards looks at an uncertain scene of fog. Before him, are many perilious situations. This painting from German Romanticism conveys mystery, horror, romance and the many emotions and states of the individual. It’s no wonder Friedrich’s painting is often mentioned. It certainly captures the individualism and turmoil of Romanticism.
The Romantics placed great emphasis on the ‘individual’ experiences. What’s fantastic about Romantic literature is how authors only need one, or a few characters, to make an engrossing point about life. The clever authors of Romanticism, such as Jane Austen, distinguish characters from each other. In Pride & Prejudice, Austen shines light on the differences between the Bennett family members. Because of this, the novel is richer and more nuanced in its characterisation.
Romanticism never holds back from emotion, turmoil or drama. A vast majority of its works have theatrical situations (The Phantom Of The Opera), characters with exaggerated personalities (Wuthering Heights) and stormy settings (Frankenstein). A great example of drama is in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!Ozymandias
If you’d like further reading about individualism and Romanticism, I highly recommend looking into Sturm und Drang (storm and drive). An art and intellectual movement in the late 18th century, it covered numerous forms of art (particularly music). Although it did not last long, it gives fascinating insight into the origins of Romanticism. Figures such as Goethe were drawn to Shakespeare, an unsung influence on Romanticism.
Devotion To Beauty And Nature
Romantics found beauty in nature, and nature in beauty. When surveying Romanticism, it is difficult to seperate ‘nature’ and ‘beauty’ because they are interlined.
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.I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud by William Wordsworth
Romantics loved nature, and saw it under threat by Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution ideals. The poems of William Wordsworth are remarkable, because they visualise nature in such detail. Over in Germany, Hermann Hesse’s ‘At Night In The High Seas‘ signifies the importance of seas and waves.
In the 20th century, Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings features Ents who roam the forest, and eventually fight against the tyrannical Saruman. That wizard had cut down trees and used machinery for his monsterous needs. Tolkien is hardly subtle, here. He is praising the beauty of the English landscape and forest, and suggesting how they contribute to community and personal meaning. Just as Treebeard mourns his tree friends, the Romantics mourned a loss of ‘true’ purpose.
Nationalism is associated with the French Revolution, and other various upheavals in modern Europe. The association between Romanticism and nationalism is tricky, because we must not assume every work of Romanticism is nationalistic. However, every piece of Romantic literature can serve a nationalistic purpose (for good or evil). In Russia, the works of Pushkin are not only studied, but are used to depict Russian excellence in the arts.
The most well known example of Romanticism and nationalism comes from Richard Wagner. In the Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner is influenced by Norse sagas and the medieval epic poem, Nibelungenlied (or, The Song of The Nibelungs). Not only are these clearly German influences, but are recontextualised for a 19th century German-speaking audience. When researching this post, I came across a rather fitting quote from Wagner:
I hate this fast growing tendency to chain men to machines in big factories and deprive them of all joy in their efforts – the plan will lead to cheap men and cheap products.Richard Wagner
Although our understanding of ‘nationalism’ in the 21st century differs to the height of Romanticism, we can understand how modern European nations were built on Romantic-era emotions, poems of drama and ideas of individualism.
Overall, Romanticism challenged societal norms about the ‘industrial revolution’ and the Enlightenment. It’s easy to dismiss Romanticism as childish, naive and unfocused. However, many works of Romanticism are sophisticated and address the hardships of life. By adding drama, magic, beauty, tension, medievalism… life will never be dull again.
What are your favourite works of Romanticism? Comment below!