In the most basic sense, Romanticism, which is loosely identified as spanning the years of 1783-1830,12 can be distinguished from the preceding period called the Enlightenment by observing that the one elevated the role of spirit, soul, instinct, and emotion, while the other advocated a cool, detached scientific approach to most human endeavors and dilemmas.3 In short, Romanticism in literature was a rejection of many of the values movements such as the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution held as paramount.
Romanticism, initiated by the English poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as Blake, Keats, Shelley, was concentrated primarily in the creative expressions of literature and the arts; however, the philosophy and sentiment characteristic of the Romanticism movement would spread throughout Europe and would ultimately impact not only the arts and humanities, but the society at large, permanently changing the ways in which human emotions, relationships, and institutions were viewed, understood, and artistically and otherwise reflected. As Bloom and Trilling observe, some of the most cherished ideals of the Romantic Age have not been lost with the passage of time. On the contrary, “Romanticism [has become] an ageless and recurrent phenomenon".4
The Enlightenment was the name given to the period that preceded the Romantic Age, and it is in understanding the key features of the Enlightenment that one can best understand how the characteristics of Romanticism came to be, and how they differed so radically from those of the industrialized era. The Enlightenment had developed and championed logic and reason above all other qualities and there was little room in this worldview for the emotion-based nature that would define Romanticism. According the Enlightenment view, people and their relationships, roles, institutions, and indeed, their whole societies, could be understood best if organized and approached with a scientific perspective.5
During this time in the history of the romanticism movement in literature, it was believed that objectivity was not only desirable, but also achievable. Subjective emotions, contemplation of nature, and the creative impulse felt by individuals were all of far lesser importance than building the physical and commercial infrastructure of a country that had new resources, techniques, and capital with which to experiment.6 The literary products of the period reflected the priorities and values of the time, focusing mainly on political and economic themes. Philosophical writings similarly reflected the mechanistic preoccupations of the age and dealt more so than ever with the individual human experience as well as personal thoughts.
Romanticism, then, emerged as a reaction against what was perceived to be a cultural climate that had been lacking in spontaneity, creativity, and individuality. Indeed, some of the earliest and most profound writings of the Romantic period were not the poems themselves, but manifestos and discourses on the nature of human beings and creative expression, such as Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, and Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. In these three exemplary prose pieces, the Romantic poets promote their vision of what poetry, and by extension, society, should be. Their vision was quite distinct from that of the Enlightenment, and in these pieces, the major characteristics of Romanticism were developed and disseminated. One of these characteristics, as articulated by Wordsworth in the Prefacewas the belief that “ordinary things [were worth writing about] and should be presented to the mind in an unusual way".7 The Romantics believed that through close attention, the most ordinary, quotidian objects, emotions, and experiences could be elevated to the extraordinary.
Another characteristic of Romanticism, as expressed by Shelley in his Defence, was the belief that emotions and relationships were not just important, but were the very currency of life. Rather than functioning as a cog in a wheel, mechanically and unaware of the other parts comprising the whole machine, Shelley argued that: The great secret of mortals is love…and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.8 While some of the Romantics were more inwardly focused than the kind of engagement that Shelley called for so passionately in his Defence, they tended to agree on the major characteristics of Romanticism: the valuation of intensely felt emotion, the importance of creative expression, and the possibility of transcending ordinary experience, which was referred to as achieving a state of sublimity.9 As Bloom and Trilling explain, the meaning of sublimity changed between the Enlightenment and Romantic periods: “This sublimity [unlike that of previous eras]…is not a Sublime of great conceptions, before which the self feels small, but rather of a hoped-for potential, in which the private self turns upon infinitude, and so is found by its own greatness."10
Romanticism was, above all, an experimental project of self and social quest, a quest for intense experiences that were felt deeply, a quest for connection, a quest for transcendence, and a quest to know the self—and, by extension, others—more profoundly. The quest did not occur, nor could it have occurred, by creating a plan to achieve it. Rather, it was through constant observation and alertness, and the devotion of attention to the most minute and seemingly unimportant details of daily life, that the self, and therefore society, had the possibility of transmuting itself into something greater. Bloom and Trilling refer to Romanticism as a “health-restoring revival of the instinctual life".11 Rather than trust in machines, industry, and scientifically-based progress, Romanticism encouraged people to look inward, trusting themselves and their own intuition. Romantics also directed their own and others’ attention to nature, where all organic processes could be observed, celebrated, and from which lessons could be learned. Through these shifts in focus, the Romantics argued, it would become possible for people to know themselves and the world better and more fully.
Whereas the preceding age of Enlightenment had promised that reason, logic, and scientific processes would lead to knowledge, success, and a better society, the Romantics challenged that notion, and changed the equation. It was no longer necessary to follow traditional formulae; rather, new literary forms and new modes of expression could be created. “The major Romantic questers," write Bloom and Trilling, offered through their own examples the possibility of “engage[ing] in the extraordinary enterprise of seeking to re-beget their own selves, as though through the imagination a man might hope to become his own father, or at least his own heroic precursor".12 Perhaps Romanticism was adopted so quickly and on such a widespread scale across Europe and then, not long after, to America, because it was an antidote to the hyper-accelerated period of change that the Industrial Revolutions had ushered in during the previous epoch. Given that the Industrial Revolution had caused such dramatic shifts in all aspects of society, changing the ways that people thought, felt, worked, and related with one another, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesize that such a shift in paradigm and in practice created a sort of cognitive dissonance. Such dissonance might only have been possible to resolve by embracing the backlash that Romanticism represented to the Enlightenment ideas and ideals. Whereas the Enlightenment could be interpreted as having drained the creativity and spontaneity out of life, making tasks and relationships predictable through mechanization, Romanticism offered the hope of restoration through small and unexpected pleasures. Romanticism invited people to dream again, to imagine, to give in to flights of fancy, to explore the border between conscious experience and unconscious dreams and desires.13
These ideals of Romanticism, first articulated by the English poets, spread to other artistic genres, including music and the visual arts, as well as to other countries. For those countries which had not yet coalesced in terms of their own national identity, the Romanticism offered a creative framework for defining and expressing what was unique to that region, for Romanticism was inherently creative and imaginative, inviting its adherents to envision possibilities that might never have been entertained before. As a result, the value of the individual, of the arts, and of emotional expression, was able to regain a place in thought and practice, tempering the logic-bound tendencies of science with the shifting philosophies of emotion. As Bloom and Trilling observe, the contributions of the Romantics remain valuable and relevant in contemporary life. Perhaps, they write, “romanticism is…endemic in human nature," for “all men and women are questers to some degree."