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Index by Period

The Romantics
(1780 - 1830)

Toward the end of the eighteenth century the certainties and rigidities of the Augustan Age began to crumble under the influence of revolutionary and humanitarian ideals which swept across America, Europe, and England. The serene and symmetrical neo-classical façade had already toppled by the time Frenchmen stormed the Bastille in 1789. By the last decades of the century the Romantic literary movement in England was well under way; it had been foreshadowed by the nature poets Goldsmith, Grey, and Burns, and been given its first intense thrust by the visionary William Blake. By 1815, when Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, the revolutionary fervour, which inspired English Romanticism, had already begun to cool.

The Romantic period was thus one of very short duration. The bulk of its great poetry was written between 1795 and 1830. Each of the major figures in it knew, or knew of, the others. Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on a volume of poetry; Shelley and Byron spent time together on the continent; and the cross-fertilisation of minds in conversation, letters, reviews, and criticism that took place during these short decades was to change, as no previous period had, the shape and nature of literature. As a revolutionary period it had its eccentrics, some of whom displayed outright disregard for social convention, others who were quiet renegades. It was, in short, an age of individualists, who seem to have taken their cue from the French Romantic philosopher Rousseau who said “I may not be better than other people, but at least I’m different”.

An even more prominent trait was the high seriousness and vigorous humanitarianism of the period. By the end of the eighteenth century the abuses of the Industrial Revolution and the need for social reform had become clear. Although legislative reforms were slow in coming most were established in the late nineteenth century – the reforming spirit is evident in most Romantic writing, in its concern for the humble lives of the poor and its outright rejection of materialism and rationalism. It became clear to the Romantic that all was not right with the world, as the eighteenth-century rationalist had professed, and for merely logical reasoning he substituted personal “feeling” and conviction. The chief characteristic of the period was thus a tremendous increase in awareness (what the Romantics called “sensibility”) not only of the sublime power and beauty of nature unsullied by man’s hand, but also of man’s intimate connection with the natural world, and of the social ills that result when that world is corrupted or man’s “first-born affinities” with it are severed.

The literature of this brief period is richer and more powerful in the statement of these basic themes than any which preceded or followed it. It has about it a deep personal earnestness, a sensuous delight in the most common and natural (and most overlooked) things of this world, a blend of intensely lived joy and dejection, a yearning for ideal states of being and a probing interest in mysterious and mystical experience. If the Romantic vision of the world was occasionally tinged with bitterness or outrage, it was because the Romantic confronted the implications of a mechanical and materialistic society which threatened to extinguish man’s awareness of his vital relationship with his fellow men and with the rhythms of nature that mould his life. Romantic protests, in fact, remain as persuasive today as they were two centuries ago and the challenges and questions implied in Romantic literature remain still valid, and still unanswered.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

26 May 2002

Authors Related Articles
Jane Austen
William Blake
George Gordon, Lord Byron
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Leigh Hunt
John Keats
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Robert Southey
William Wordsworth
Romantic Art
The Early Nineteenth Century
The Revolutionary Poets
Minor Poets of Romanticism
Other Fiction Writers
The Critics and Essayists
Coleridge and Southey


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