Understanding the characteristics of Romanticism in literature can help you become a better reader, and it can give you a leg up on literary essays and discussions. This period in literary history is fascinating and dramatic, and once you know the telltale signs, you’ll be able to identify work that typifies it.
Popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Romanticism was a literary movement that emphasized nature and the importance of emotion and artistic freedom. In many ways, writers of this era were rebelling against the attempt to explain the world and human nature through science and the lens of the Industrial Revolution. In Romanticism, emotion is much more powerful than rational thought.
Although literary Romanticism occurred from about 1790 through 1850, not all writers of this period worked in this style. There are certain characteristics that make a piece of literature part of the Romantic movement. You won’t find every characteristic present in every piece of Romantic literature; however, you will usually find that writing from this period has several of the key characteristics.
Nature, in all its unbound glory, plays a huge role in Romantic literature. Nature, sometimes seen as the opposite of the rational, is a powerful symbol in work from this era. Romantic poets and writers give personal, deep descriptions of nature and its wild and powerful qualities.
Natural elements also work as symbols for the unfettered emotions of the poet or writer, as in the final stanza of “To Autumn” by John Keats. Keats was aware that he was dying of consumption throughout much of his short life and career, and his celebration of autumn symbolizes the beauty in the ephemeral.
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;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
A focus on emotion is a key characteristic of nearly all writing from the Romantic period. When you read work of this period, you’ll see feelings described in all forms, including romantic and filial love, fear, sorrow, loneliness, and more. This focus on emotion offered a counterpoint to the rational, and it also made Romantic poetry and prose extremely readable and relatable.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein offers a perfect example of this characteristic of Romanticism. Here, Frankenstein’s monster shows great self-awareness of his feelings and offers a vivid emotional description full of anger and sadness.
I continued for the remainder of the day in my hovel in a state of utter and stupid despair. My protectors had departed and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom, and I did not strive to control them, but allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death. When I thought of my friends, of the mild voice of De Lacey, the gentle eyes of Agatha, and the exquisite beauty of the Arabian, these thoughts vanished and a gush of tears somewhat soothed me. But again when I reflected that they had spurned and deserted me, anger returned, a rage of anger, and unable to injure anything human, I turned my fury towards inanimate objects. As night advanced I placed a variety of combustibles around the cottage, and after having destroyed every vestige of cultivation in the garden, I waited with forced impatience until the moon had sunk to commence my operations.
In contrast to the previous generations’ focus on reason, writers of the Romantic movement explored the importance of imagination and the creative impulse. Romantic poets and prose writers celebrated the power of imagination and the creative process, as well as the artistic viewpoint. They believed that artists and writers looked at the world differently, and they celebrated that vision in their work.
You can see this in William Wordsworth’s poem, “The Prelude."
Imagination—here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say—
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world….
Romantic literature also explores the theme of aesthetic beauty, not just of nature but of people as well. This was especially true with descriptions of female beauty. Writers praised women of the Romantic era for their natural loveliness, rather than anything artificial or constrained.
A classic example of this characteristic is George Gordon, or Lord Byron’s, poem “She Walks in Beauty."
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Writers of the Romantic era believed that creative inspiration came from solitary exploration. They celebrated the feeling of being alone, whether that meant loneliness or a much-needed quiet space to think and create.
You’ll see solitary themes in many literary works from this period, including in this excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Frost at Midnight."
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully …
Romantic-era literature often has a distinct focus on exotic locations and events or items from history. Poems and prose touch on antiques and the gifts of ancient cultures around the world, and far-away locations provide the setting for some literary works of this era.
One great example is Percy Byssche Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias."
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
The writers of the Romantic era did not turn away from the darker side of emotion and the mysteries of the supernatural. They explored the contrast between life and death. Many pieces have Gothic motifs, such as manor houses in disrepair, dark and stormy nights, and more.
Some of the supernatural elements serve as symbols for emotions of guilt, depression, and other darker feelings, as you can see in this excerpt from The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.
I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth --in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated --an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit-an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.
Another essential characteristic of nearly all Romantic-era literature is vivid sensory descriptions. The poems and prose of this period include examples of simile and metaphor, as well as visual imagery and other sensory details. Poets and other writers went beyond simply telling about things and instead gave the information readers need to feel and taste and touch the objects and surroundings in Romantic-era writing.
Wordsworth uses vivid descriptions, including similes and metaphors, in his 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 …
Romantic poets and prose writers also used personification in their work. You can see examples of personification of everything from birds and animals to natural events or aspects. These works even personify feelings like love or states like death.
You can see Romantic personification in the work of the famous naturalist and writer, Karl von Martius. Here is an excerpt about the trees of the Amazon from his book Flora Brasiliensis.
I am impelled by some inner urge to tell you, gentle reader, these thoughts of my mind, since I am presenting to your eyes a picture of those most ancient trees which I once saw beside the Amazon River. Even today, after many years have gone by, I feel myself struck by the appearance of those giants of great age, in the same way as by the face of some giant human being. Even today those trees speak to me and fill my spirit with a certain pious fear, even today they excite in my breast that silent wonder with which my spirit was held at that time. This wonder is like a broad and deep river; the thoughts of the human mind are its waves; not all feelings of the heart are to be expressed with words....
Many works of Romantic-era literature are deeply personal, and they often explore the self of the writer. You’ll see autobiographical influences in poems and prose of the period. One characteristic of this movement was the importance placed on feelings and creativity, and the source of much of this emotional and artistic work was the background and real-life surroundings of the writer. This self-focus preceded confessional poetry of the mid-1900s, but you can see its profound influence on that movement.
One key example of Romantic autobiography is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. In this work, he endeavored to create an unvarnished look at his own upbringing and life.
I have begun on a work which is without precedent, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself.
I have studied mankind and know my heart; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mold in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read.
If you are studying poetry of the Romantic era, it’s helpful to know the forms that were popular during this time. These included odes, sonnets and lyrics. Take a look at examples of odes by Romantic poets like Keats, as well as sonnet examples by the likes of Percy Shelley. Understanding these poetic forms and their relationship to Romanticism will give you a deeper appreciation of this work.