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What is Romanticism in Literature?

Updated on January 29, 2013
"The flower that smells the sweetest is shy and lowly." William Wordsworth
"The flower that smells the sweetest is shy and lowly." William Wordsworth | Source

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Definition of Romanticism

Romanticism in literature was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement in Europe at the end of the 18th century, partly as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Romanticism rebelled against the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment as well as scientific rationalization of nature. The central idea of romanticism in literature is the belief in strong emotion as the source of aesthetic experience.

Eighteenth century Romanticism was an attempt at escaping the urban and industrial confines and population growth of the times and return to nature. It credited individual imagination as critical authority in the world. With its emphasis on escape from modern realities, it is no surprise that, eventually, Romanticism in literature would be considered the complete opposite of Realism.

Romanticism in literature may not be all about love but it is is not lacking in romance.
Romanticism in literature may not be all about love but it is is not lacking in romance. | Source

Romanticism Movement

It may be surprising, when trying to understand what is Romanticism in literature, to learn that, contrary to popular belief, Romanticism is not all about love and romance. Furthermore, the fact that the Romanticism Movement reigned primarily in England and Germany and not a country of a romance language can also be a little surprising for some. Romanticism in literature was a change in the fundamental ways of thinking and viewing the world, stepping back from rationalism and trusting the senses and imaginations of the individual to lead the way instead of purely the mind.

In an age where the American Revolution and French Revolution were taking place, it is no surprise that this transformation would take place in the literary, philosophical, and artistic world buzzing with the energy of change and rebirth.

Imagination and its significance in the human experience is one of the key concepts of Romanticism in literature. Imagination is a force that allows humans to be creative, interact with nature, and find connections in the world that are beyond what is seen directly by the eye.Wordsworth would say that we not only see the world and reality around us but we also take part in creating it. Imagination is like a bridge uniting reason and feeling (Coleridge called this "intellectual intuition"), which is why it is a key part of Romanticism in literature.

Nature is also a major part of the Romanticism movement, but is also a more difficult thing to define because it has many different meanings for a romanticist. Overall, nature was viewed in a completely different manner than the rationalists would have it. Rationalists saw nature as a machine and sometimes personified it as a clock with laws that must be obeyed. Romanticist saw it as a living tree or mankind itself, with organic laws that are just as alive, rather than cold and machine-like. Romanticists observed nature but more in a meditation type way toward enlightenment, rather than in a scientific, dissecting manner.

Another key feature, amongst many others in the Romanticism movement in literature, is the significance of individual experience. Romanticists preferred boldness and suggestive writings rather than the restraint and clarity prized by rationalists. They are inspired and free to experiment and promoted the idea that the individual must choose the right system to live by, rather than follow an established one such as religion.

Expostulation and Reply

by William Wordsworth

"Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?

"Where are your books?--that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

"You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!"

One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:

"The eye--it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
Against or with our will.

"Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

"Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

"--Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away,"

Example of Romanticism

William Wordsworth, alongside Samuel Coleridge, was a major player in the English Romantic poet arena during his life. He is also partly credited with launching the Romanticism genre within English literature with the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth was Britain's Poet Laureate from 1843 until he died in 1850.

One example in of Romanticism in literature is William Wordsworth's "Expostulation and Reply" (1798), shown on the right. In the poem, William's friend, Matthew, asks why he sits and dreams his time away on an old stone. Then he asks "where are your books? -- that light beqeathed/ To Beings else forlorn and blind!" Matthew doesn't understand why William would sit outside and observe nature rather than read texts written by men long gone. He believes that these are the true sources of knowledge, rather than the senses and the experience of sitting in nature, like William is doing.

William clearly believes that sitting outside and trusting to his senses will provide him a much more true knowledge of nature than staying inside and reading. This belief is made even more clear in the fifth and sixth stanzas.This example is one way that Wordsworth's poem is an example of Romanticism. It is written as a brief dialogue between a romanticist (William) and a rationalist (Matthew), who is following the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific rationalization of nature. In this way, "Expostulation and Reply" provides its readers with a glimpse at the two ideals in action. In the end, it is a small argument between two friends of different beliefs, who simply do not understand the reasoning behind the other's thoughts or actions.

© 2012 Lisa


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