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The Romantic Age 1789-1832

The romantic period is a term applied to the literature of approximately the first third
of the nineteenth century. During this time, literature began to move in channels that
were not entirely new but were in strong contrast to the standard literary practice of
the eighteenth century.

How the word romantic came to be applied to this period is something of a puzzle.
Originally the word was applied to the Latin or Roman dialects used in the Roman
provinces, especially France, and to the stories written in these dialects. Romantic is a
derivative of romant, which was borrowed from the French romaunt in the sixteenth
century. At first it meant only "like the old romances" but gradually it began to carry a
certain taint. Romantic, according to L. P. Smith in his Words and Idioms, connoted
"false and fictitious beings and feelings, without real existence in fact or in human
nature"; it also suggested "old castles, mountains and forests, pastoral plains, waste and
solitary places" and a "love for wild nature, for mountains and moors."

The word passed from England to France and Germany late in the seventeenth century
and became a critical term for certain poets who scorned and rejected the models of the
past; they prided themselves on their freedom from eighteenth-century poetic codes.
In Germany, especially, the word was used in strong opposition to the term classical.

The grouping together of the so-called Lake poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and
Southey) with Scott, Byron, Keats, and Shelley as the romantic poets is late Victorian,
apparently as late as the middle 1880s. And it should be noted that these poets did not
recognize themselves as "romantic," although they were familiar with the word and
recognized that their practice differed from that of the eighteenth century.

According to René Wellek in his essay "The Concept of Romanticism" (Comparative

Literature, Volume I), the widespread application of the word romantic to these writers
was probably owing to Alois Brandl's Coleridge und die romantische Schule in England
(Coleridge and the Romantic School in England, translated into English in 1887) and to
Walter Pater's essay "Romanticism" in his Appreciations in 1889.

The reaction to the standard literary practice and critical norms of the eighteenth
century occurred in many areas and in varying degrees. Reason no longer held the high
place it had held in the eighteenth century; its place was taken by imagination, emotion,
and individual sensibility. The eccentric and the singular took the place of the accepted
conventions of the age. A concentration on the individual and the minute replaced the
eighteenth-century insistence on the universal and the general. Individualism replaced
objective subject matter; probably at no other time has the writer used himself as the
subject of his literary works to such an extent as during the romantic period. Writers
tended to regard themselves as the most interesting subject for literary creation;
interest in urban life was replaced by an interest in nature, particularly in untamed
nature and in solitude. Classical literature quickly lost the esteem which poets like Pope
had given it. The romantic writers turned back to their own native traditions. The
Medieval and Renaissance periods were ransacked for new subject matter and for
literary genres that had fallen into disuse. The standard eighteenth-century heroic
couplet was replaced by a variety of forms such as the ballad, the metrical romance, the
sonnet, ottava nina, blank verse, and the Spenserian stanza, all of which were forms that
had been neglected since Renaissance times. The romantic writers responded strongly
to the impact of new forces, particularly the French Revolution and its promise of
liberty, equality, and fraternity. The humanitarianism that had been developing during
the eighteenth century was taken up enthusiastically by the romantic writers.
Wordsworth, the great champion of the spiritual and moral values of physical nature,
tried to show the natural dignity, goodness, and the worth of the common man.

The combination of new interests, new attitudes, and fresh forms produced a body of
literature that was strikingly different from the literature of the eighteenth century, but
that is not to say that the eighteenth century had no influence on the romantic
movement. Practically all of the seeds of the new literary crop had been sown in the
preceding century.

The romantic period includes the work of two generations of writers. The first
generation was born during the thirty and twenty years preceding 1800; the second
generation was born in the last decade of the 1800s. The chief writers of the first
generation were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Southey, Blake, Lamb, and Hazlitt. The
essayist Thomas De Quincey, born in 1785, falls between the two generations.

Keats and Shelley belong to the second generation, along with Byron, who was older
than they were by a few years. All three were influenced by the work of the writers of
the first generation and, ironically, the careers of all three were cut short by death so
that the writers of the first generation were still on the literary scene after the writers
of the second generation had disappeared. The major writers of the second romantic
generation were primarily poets; they produced little prose, outside of their letters.
Another striking difference between the two generations is that the writers of the first
generation, with the exception of Blake, all gained literary reputations during their
lifetime. Of the writers of the second generation, only Byron enjoyed fame while he was
alive, more fame than any of the other romantic writers, with perhaps the exception of
Scott, but Keats and Shelley had relatively few readers while they were alive. It was not
until the Victorian era that Keats and Shelley became recognized as major romantic

Nature is a major concern of poets from Robert Burns, through all the Romantics
and on to John Clare. Clare is the most unusual. He watched and described the decline
of the agricultural countryside. His description of nature are also descriptions of an
individual personality who is anxious and uncertain. The Romantics were poets of
change. They found constants in nature and in art, but they could also see the new
dangers of the modern world, and in many of their writings the security of the
individual is threatened. The Romantic period was a time in which prose writing
developed rapidly., Writers such as Thomas de Quincey, Charles Lamb and William
Hazlitt changed the styles and topics of the 18th century essay and also created new
forms in which their personal impressions and the subjects of everyday life were
central. Thomas Love Peacok, whose work was written in the Romantic and Victorian
periods, satirises some of the main Romantic ideas and lifestyles in novels such as
?Nightmare Abbey?, in which the main characters are based on Coleridge, Byron and
Shelley. The most important novelists of the time were Jane Austen and Walter
Scott. There were also famous women writers such us Fanny Burney and Maria
Edgeworth, both Ann Radcliffe and Clara Reeve wrote Gothic novels which were
popular for their exciting plots. A later Gothic novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
(1818), shows an extraordinary world in which a living being is made by a Genevan
student from the bones of the dead, but becomes a monster which nobody can control.
The monster murders Frankenstein?0s brother and his wife and finally Frankenstein
himself. The novel shows the interest of the _Romantics in the supernatural and in the
attempts of man to be as powerful as God. Frankenstein can be seen as one of the first
modern science fiction novels.
Jane Austen is different from other writers of her time, because her main
interest is in the moral, social and psychological behaviour of her characters. She writes
mainly about young heroines as they grow up and search for personal happiness. Jane
Austen?s pictures are detailed, often ironic, and always about a small number of people.
She doesn?t write about the Napoleonic Wars or the social and political issues and
crises of her age, but her observations of people apply to human nature in general. She
gives her main characters choices and then shows how and why the make the choices.
In ?Sense and Sensibility? she contrast two sisters, Elinor who is rational and self-
controlled (sense), and Marianne who is more emotional (sensibility), in a novel which
is also a contrast between the Romantic and Augustan ages. In ‘?Orthanger Abbey’? she
satirises the plots of the Gothic novels. In ‘?ride and prejudice’? Emma and ‘?Ansfield
Park’? she shows that it is important to know oneself in order to make the right choices
in love and marriage. Although her endings are generally happy, her novels make
readers feel that they have been made to think about themselves and their moral lives.
Sir Walter Scott writes about revolution, history and social changes, and
about characters from all levels of society. Most of his early novels from ?Waverley? to
?The Bride of Lammermoor? are set in the past, but comment on the present because
they show characters who are trying to understand changes in their world. Scott uses
historical facts and characters, such as the rebellion in 1745 l4d by Bonnie Prince
Charlie, against the English king in Wawerley to recreate the issues of power, politics
and change from a historical period and make them relevant to the great issues of his
own time. Scott made the novel the most popular of literary forms in the 19th and
20th centuries. He create Scotland as a historical setting and gave the 19th century world,
especially universally read because, like ?Shakespeare, he explored values in a world of
rapid changes, and created exciting plots and characters who live in the memory
because they are both of their time and beyond their time. Sir Walter Scott was a very
popular author and an influential writer across Europe. His popularity also encouraged
other regional Scottish novelists, such as John Galt and James Hogg.

Although the Romantic period is best known for the work of the major Romantic
poets, the period also saw the rapid growth of the novel. In a period of rapid social
and political change the novel became more and more important as a detailed record
and exploration of change. The growth of the novel in this period prepared the way
for the even larger growth of the novel in the Victorian period.

Romanticism arose in the mid-1700s in Europe as a means of expression against

prevailing trends of the time -- the aristocracies, the politics, and most importantly, the
rigid restrictions of the Age of Reason, restrictions which explained all points of every
day life in a scientific manner. Romanticism fought such narrow-minded thoughts on
several fronts, including literature.

Imagination and Creativity

Romantic-period writers stress the imaginative and subjective side of human nature,
according to Carol Scheidenhelm, English professor at Loyola University in Chicago.
Characters' thoughts, feelings, inner struggles, opinions, dreams, passions and hopes
reign supreme. For example, in William Wordsworth's poem "The Prelude," the
narrator is disappointed by his experiences crossing the Alps and imagines unlikely
natural phenomenon on his journey, such as powerful waterfalls. Romantic authors
don't allow facts or truths to inhibit them from expressing imaginative ideas, especially
as they relate to nature.

The Beauty of Nature

Romantic literature explores the intense beauty of nature, and Romantic writers invest
natural events and objects with a divine presence, suggests Lilia Melani, English
professor at Brooklyn College. For example, in Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself,"
the poet refers to the grass as a "hieroglyphic" and "the handkerchief of the Lord."
Romantic authors understood progress and the changing tide toward industrialization,
but they prioritized and glamorized natural beauty over urbanization, commercialism
and materialism.

Individualism and Solitude

Romanticism appeals to individualism, rather than conventional norms or collectivism.

For example, in "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley, the monster is a Romantic hero
because he symbolizes individuality and nonconformity. Shelley wanted readers to
sympathize with the monster's plight, praising him for his simplicity, originality and
distinctiveness. Even though Frankenstein lives in solitude and experiences rejection,
readers see him as a genuine representation of humankind. Romantic authors valued
independent thinking, creativity and self-reliance.

Romantic Love

Characters in Romantic-era stories and poems experience deep, emotional, passionate

love. They don't typically marry out of convenience or involve themselves in stagnant
romantic relationships and are extremely unhappy if they choose to do so. Romantic
love is intensely wistful and amorous. For example, Healthcliff -- the primary male
protagonist in "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte -- tears open his deceased lover's
casket so he can lie beside her. This heart-wrenching display of love and devotion,
Melani suggest, demonstrates the unbridled passion of Romantic characters.


Perhaps the most important aspect of romantic literature was its emphasis on
emotions, rather than the often cold logic of the Age of Reason. Writers looked inward
in romantic literature. They looked at the psychological effects of events in one's life, at
feelings about subjects that often had been ignored in past literature -- death and
sadness, for instance. Writers offered varied opinions on such matters in romantic
literature, rather than following a strict set of rules grounded in science.

Return to the Past

Romantic literature advocated a return to a simpler age and renewed interest in life
during Medieval times. It also generated the quest for knowledge of ancient
civilizations, such as those in Greece and Egypt, and helped pave the way for archeology
to become a science.

Removal of Class Barriers

Romantic literature did not follow the time honored tradition of praising the rich and
monarchies, but rather espoused equality for all. This aspect of the literature was a
product of the times, when both the French and American Revolutions took place.
Writers of romantic literature weren't bashful about questioning authority or
advocating the rights of people to act as individuals rather than as a member of the
mindless masses.

Tales From Near and Far

Romantic literature often told tales specific to a nation's history and its people, drawing
from legends handed down from generation to generation. Paradoxically, another
aspect of romantic literature that was popular was stories of far away locales or places
supernatural or in the future. Heroes were a common element in romantic literature no
matter where or when the story was based. Romantic literature often emphasized the
use of imagination rather than previous experience.
“Women’s Place in Society during the Romantic Era”

During the Romantic period of British Literature, society began debating the proper
role of women; not only were male poets and writers writing about their views of
women’s changing role, women were increasingly prolific writers, writing about their
own thoughts and experiences on the topic. Using language that was easy to
understand, these women used their experiences to, in many cases, advocate for more
egalitarian treatment from both men as individuals as well as society at large. This is
especially notable as before this time period, few women were afforded the opportunity
to be educated in what were traditionally considered more masculine pursuits; subjects
generally considered appropriate for women included lessons in music, dancing, art,
and needlework (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 216). These role of women in society
was fiercely debated by writers of the period; Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth,
and Mary Darcy Robinson posited for women to be allowed more rights and autonomy
over themselves, while Anna Letitia Barbauld wrote affirmatively in favor of the current
social norms.

Fighting to obtain better rights, advocates for that position explained that the idea of
feminine equality followed logically from the arguments being put forth during this
time period regarding individual liberties. Mary Wollstonecraft, in the dedication of A
Vindication of the Rights of Women, as written to Bishop Talleyrand-Perigord (who had
submitted a report on public education to France’s Constitutional Assembly), inquired
if it was “not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly
believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness?
Who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him the gift of reason?”
(Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 212). At this particular time, women “had no political
rights, were limited to a few lowly vocations… and were legally nonpersons who lost
their property to their husbands at marriage and were incapable of instituting an action
in the courts of law,” which the law called coverture (Wollstonecraft, “Introduction”
209). Furthermore, Wollstonecraft claims that both men and women had been
impacted negatively by social constraints, writing “Whilst [women] are only made to
acquire personal accomplishments, men will seek for pleasure in variety, and faithless
husbands will make faithless wives… What is to preserve private virtue, the only
security of public freedom and universal happiness?” (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication”
213). Analyzing the social situation against the backdrop of her society, Wollstonecraft
argues that without women truly gaining a foundational understanding of the reasons
why they should behave in certain ways, not only was women’s development
constrained, but the virtue of women (as mentioned above) was based on training and
not on reasoned and rational response.

Claiming that improper education was one of the main causes of social dysfunction,
Wollstonecraft argues that without a proper education and understanding of the world,
women are not able to be the partners that their husbands needed, in order to manage
the household effectively and educate the children that they were expected to produce.
As she notes in Vindication, she has “turned over various books written on the subject
of education, [and observed parents and schools, but have come to the ‘profound
conviction’ that neglecting education of women leads to misery]; women, in particular,
are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from
one hasty conclusion” (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 215). Furthermore, quoting from
Shakespeare to underline this point, she states that “it is acknowledged that [women]
spend many of their first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of
accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to… notions of
beauty, to… establishing themselves…when they marry they act as such children may
be expected to act – they dress; they paint, and nickname God’s creatures”
(Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 216). This was not met with positive acclaim from all
quarters, however; Horace Walpole remarked that Wollstonecraft “was a hyena in
petticoats” (qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar 31). After Wollstonecraft’s untimely death, her
legacy was tarnished by her husband William Godwin’s decision to release an account
of her life including her love affairs, her illegitimate child, and her suicide attempts.
Reviewers and society alike turned against Wollstonecraft’s ideas based on her
unconventional lifestyle choices. Fortunately, through her prolific writings and
response to the male-dominated social structure, she succeeded in beginning the
discussion to redefine social expectations of women.

The Female Body

During the Romantic Era, female bodies were subject to both biological assumptions
and social expectations. Ideas about what women were capable of doing and what they
were encouraged to do manifested in the way their bodies were presented in life and
literature. Since men were widely believed to be physically superior, women’s physical
inferiority became idealized. Physical exertion was regarded as “unfeminine,” and this
opinion came to be regarded as a natural truth. In turn, passivity was incorporated into
the definition of female virtue. For instance in Emile, Rousseau argued that lack of
physicality is essential to women’s natures and asserted that young girls are naturally
drawn to the nurturing play of dolls, but Mary Wollstonecraft countered that a young
girl “whose spirits have not yet been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false
shame, will always be a romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless
confinement offers her no alternative” (110). Truly, women were only inactive out of a
sense of propriety. Recall in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) how Lizzie
Bennett disregarded decorum by walking for miles to visit her sister, Jane, scandalizing
Caroline Bingley with the flushed cheeks of her exertion. Though Romantic feminists
strove to correct disempowering notions about female nature and feminine virtue,
shame and inactivity were already written into the curriculum of social education.

Besides perfecting traditional feminine accomplishments such as painting and music,

proper feminine education mandated that women engage in needlework.
Wollstonecraft believed that this type of confining work not only weakened the body
but also made women introverted and overly concerned with dress and ornamentation.
She claimed, “The thoughts of women ever hover round their persons, and is it
surprising that their persons are reckoned most valuable?” (148). Since most of
women’s education was aimed at attracting a husband, her primary tool to this end was
the arrangement of her appearance. According to Wollstonecraft and other Romantic
feminists, women were too preoccupied with beauty and fashion, making a “gilt cage”
of their bodies (112).

To counter these negative effects, Romantic feminists promoted an active body for
women by making robust health a virtue. Feminists argued that, while physical
meekness will attract a man in marriage, such submissiveness could not have the
strength to maintain marriage as an enduring state of union. On the other hand, an
active and healthy female body would promote a strong mind, and together those
qualities would make women much more effectual “helpmeets” for their husbands and
strengthen the bonds of marriage. Additionally, feminists suggested that a strong
female body would allow women to be better mothers, ensuring that their children
were hearty and healthy. Wollstonecraft suggests that addressing this problem would
require an intervention during childhood. Young girls should be encouraged to play
actively and freely, and then these habits should be continued throughout life. If young
girls become hearty and healthy young women, then they will not be overly dependent
on men but actually more helpful as a marriage partner.