Characteristics of Romanticism
Characteristics and Features of Romanticism
Introduction to the Age of Romanticism
Oxford Companion to English Literature defines Romanticism as a literary movement that took place between 1770-1848 as a means to break from the entanglement of reason. Karl Wilhelm Frederich Schlegal, a German poet and philosopher, who was amongst the main figures of ‘Jena Romantics’ used the word ‘Romance’ for the first time in English Literature.
The Romantic Movement is said to have emerged in Germany, although the main source of inspiration came from the events and ideologies of the French Revolution, the central idea of French Revolution being “An accident of birth does not determine one’s worth.” The Industrial Revolution which began during the same period is also said to be responsible for the development of this movements. Though Romantic elements had been present in art and literature since several centuries, it was the publication of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ a collection of poems by William Wordsworth in 1798 that ushered forth the Romantic period.
In the 16th century, Romance was considered something derogatory. In the 17th century, romance started meaning something gentle, sentimental or tender. However, it was in the late 18th and 19th century that romance was considered as a form of writing to depict something emotional.
The French Revolution deeply affected many writers. The elder writers of the period, with Wordsworth and Coleridge as conspicuous examples, hailed the new era with joy. Then as the revolution proceeded to unexpected development, there came in turn disappointment and despair, and notably in the case of Wordsworth, the rejection of youthful ideas and soured adoption of older revolutionary faith. Younger writers like Leigh Hunt, Shelley and Keats still adhered to the revolutionary doctrines.
The conclusion f long war brought low wages, unemployment and heavy taxation to which men like Shelley and Ebenezer Elliot called aloud and Mrs. Hermans and Tom Hood bewailed the social misery in a gentle way.
The Reform Bill of 1832 was a grudging concession to the general disconnected which introduced wide ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. The conservatives like Wordsworth thought that the bill would pronounce the dissolution of every social tie but it brought only disappointment.
Thus, Romanticism as a literary movement had intellectual, political and private implications. At the intellectual level, it was a response and means to unchain people from the reason and logic that were emphasized in the previous age of sensibility. At the political level, romanticism engaged itself with the restoration of mankind. At the personal level it meant for many as the discovery of the soul.
The Main Features and Characteristics of Romanticism
Abundant Output in the Age of Romanticism
This period was even more lavish than the Elizabethan Age due to the development of new ideas bringing fresh inspiration for poetry. In prose, novels started coming up and essays rejuvenated.
Myriad Subjects in the Age of Romanticism
The writers and poets of this age lay the knowledge and experience of all ages under a heavy toll. The classical writers are explored anew, and are drawn upon by the genius of Keats and Shelley; the middle ages inspire novels of Scott and poems of Coleridge and Southey, modern times are analyzed and dissected in the works of novelists and satires of Byron.
Treatment of Nature and Imagination in the Age of Romanticism
The poetical attitude to nature alters profoundly and the idea of imagination plays a very important role in this age. In the works of Crabbe, Cowper and Gray the treatment is principally the simple chronicle and sympathetic observation of the natural features. In the new race of poets the observation becomes more mature and intimate like in Wordsworth’s poetry. The Romantics gave paramount emphasis on the importance of nature mainly because of the industrial revolution, which had shifted life from the peaceful, serene countryside towards chaotic cities, transforming the man’s natural order. Nature was not only appreciated for its true beauty but also for its ability to help the urban man find his true identity.
Sentiments versus Rationality in the Age of Romanticism
Romanticism placed human emotions, feelings, instinct and intuition above everything else. While the previous age of Enlightenment adhered to conventional rules and regulations while selecting and writing about it, the Romantic writers like Wordsworth said that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.’ The emphasis on emotions was also seen in the music composed by musicians like Weber, Beethoven, Schuman, etc.
Poetic Persona & the Artist as a Creator in the Age of Romanticism
As Romanticism emphasized on human emotions, the position of artists gained supremacy where an artist was seen as a creator of something which reflected his own individuality and emotions. Casper David Freiderich’s remark – “The artist’s feeling is his law” succeeded in putting the artists on a pedestal and establishing them as a person similar to the creator.
Nationalism in the Age of Romanticism
Romantic Writers borrowed heavily from the common folklore and the popular local art culture which helped the lower classes to enjoy literature unlike the earlier eras where the language was so highly lyrical that only the higher echelons of the society could understand them. The focus upon the common culture along with nature developed a sense of Nationalism which got reflected in their work. Romantic writers were not strict with their ideas and there was no rigidity in writing. The language became more of the countryside as opposed to Idealism.
Super-naturalism and Gothic in the Age of Romanticism
The Romantics were interested in the supernatural and included it in their works. Gothic fiction emerged as a branch of Romanticism after Horace Walpole’s 164 novel THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO. The fascination for the mysterious and the unreal also lead to the development of Gothic romance. Supernatural elements can also be seen in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Rhime of Ancient Mariner and Keats’ La Bella Dame Sans Merci.
Exoticism in the Age of Romanticism
The Romantics developed a love for exotic. Hence far off and mysterious locations were depicted in many of the artistic works from that period. Exoticism is also one of the most prominent characteristics in art, along with sentimentality and spirituality.
The Family, the Mother and the Child in the Age of Romanticism
Family as a microcosm emerged as an important aspect in the writings of the Romanticists. Romanticism used the Renaissance concept of ‘Tabula Rasa’ according to which our mind lies in a blank state and various experiences create myriad impressions. Therefore, mind is a receptacle of various images and impressions are born out of experience. The child is seen as a predominant figure whose mind is a state of Tabula Rasa. The child fears, loves and hates when he perceives through his senses. The mother and the family who bring up the child into an adult human thus become very important in this context. The concept of nature and nurture and how the child after dissociating with his mother realizes the phallocentric nature of the society become of paramount significance over here. In FRANKENTIEN too, we see various types of families highlighting the above concept. Family is thus regarded at the apex of the status ladder which helps the child to form his consciousness and grow into an adult.
Reviews and Political & Periodical Writings in the Age of Romanticism
Some of the most perceptive comments are by the poets on each other. Though the age did not produce a pamphleteer of first class like Jonathan Swift, but the turbulence of the period was clearly marked by the productivity of its political writers. The Morning Chronicle (1769), The Time (1785), The Examiner (1808) and The London Magazine (1820) were some of the excellent publications which reacted strongly upon authorship and were responsible for much of the best works of Hazlite and Southey.
The Romantic Form in the Age of Romanticism
The Romantics revived traditional verse forms (the Tezra Rima, the Sonnet, the Ode and the Spenserian stanza) in a strange conjunction of propriety and impropriety, but they rebelled against formal demands. They often left poems open ended, inviting the readers to decide for themselves what a poem may be about, thus paving the path for the concepts of imagination and free interpretation.
The Language in Romanticism
Both Wordsworth and Shelley consider language in relation to the role of poet in society, but Wordsworth is interested in the reader as well while Coleridge and Shelley offer more philosophical views of and on poetry. Wordsworth believed in the democratization of language as opposed to selective readership of Augustan poetry while Coleridge not only emphasized the difference between prose and verse, but also accused Wordsworth of not practicing what he preaches in his poem Tintern Abbey. For Shelley, without language there could be no idea, for how was an idea to be apprehended unless it was clothed in a language? This also shows why metaphors were an important feature in Shelley’s poetry.
The Woman Writers in Romanticism
Women wrote prose, drama, political and religious tracts, literature for children, middle class ‘improving’ literature for the working classes, there was verse and prose by the women which looked ironically at their double subservience as women and servants; and love poetry which was sometimes silted because they often assumed a male persona to it. There were also women writers like Mary Shelley who wrote about travel and science as is portrayed in FRANKENSTEIN. Such novels for women allowed them to transgress their own territories and emerge as strong women writers.
The Influence of Germany in the Age of Romanticism
The increasing bitterness of the long war with France extinguished the influence of the French language and the study of German literature and learning came rapidly in favor in this Age of Romanticism. The first political work of Scott is based on German literature, and the effects of the new influences can be further observed in the works of Coleridge, Shelley and Byron.
American Literature in the Age of Romanticism
Already the infant nation across the Atlantic was showing promise of a literary figure. The first efforts were largely imitations of the more mature English products, but in Fennimore Cooper the novel had a good beginning and Washington Irving is the first in the line of notable American men of letters in the Age of Romanticism.
Conclusion and Critique of the Age of Romanticism
Thus, we can say that Romanticism is the most fertile period in the history of English Literature. Romanticism saw a shift from reason to faith in emotions, from urban to rural, from public and impersonal poetry to subjective poetry and from scientific and mundane to interests in mysterious and infinite. However, what is important to note is that although the Romantic Writers covered a vast area in various subjects, none of them focused on colonies. The Indians and other third world countries happen to be incidental readers of their poetry and not the intended readers. Therefore, although the Age of Romanticism is often termed as the age of return to nature, it should be kept in mind that the poetry of this era did not just deal with emotions and sentiments, but these ‘feelings’ were perhaps veiled in layers of colonial and poetic politics of the time when Britain was emerging as a superpower.
Author: Vidur Sethi
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