Introduction to Romantic Literary Criticism

Origin and Timeline

Romanticism first originated in Germany and then spread to the rest of the Europe. Romanticism as a literary movement emerged during the final decades of the 18th century in England. The trends that dominated the literary works from around 1800 to 1850 came to constitute this movement.

Though the movement is not limited to this time period alone, these decades saw the rise of the romantic ideas. On the literary timeline, it is the year 1798 that marks the official beginnings of Romanticism as this year saw the publication of Lyrical Ballads. 

Manifesto of Romanticism

While the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 marked the birth of Romanticism, it was the Preface that was added to the 1800 publication, that served as a manifesto of the Romantic movement. Wordsworth laid down his poetic theory in this Preface. It was here that Wordsworth gave his now famous definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that the poet “recollected in tranquility” to produce poetry.

Characteristics of Romanticism

This movement emphasised emotion or feeling as opposed to the preceding Age of Enlightenment that valued rationale or reason. Pleasure and indulgence were in the very spirit of Romanticism. For the Romantics, anything that pleased the human senses was worth writing about.

Imagination was the key for Romantics. Romantics believed in the power of human mind to imagine and then create literature. This was in contrast to the scientific approach that had dominated the previous age.

Individualism was important to the self-indulgent poets of this era. A poet-speaker on a stroll around the city admiring Nature and its beauty was a hallmark of Romanticism. This poet was an individualist, a lone traveller, or any solitary figure.

Beauty was central to the idea of romanticism. Romanticism believed that Nature had the power to inspire poetic creation. Nature with its clouds, daffodils and nightingales, became manifestation of beauty. John Keats’s flavour of romanticism inspired him to seek pleasure in the beauty of nature. Keats’s statement “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” aptly sums up the spirit of Romanticism. The use of heavy nature imagery was common to all Romantics.

Influence of the French Revolution

Since the year 1789 had witnessed the historic French Revolution, its echoes were heard in the works of Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and PB Shelley. While some writers favoured the revolution, some were disillusioned by it.

A spirit of nationalism and fervour of the revolution made Wordsworth remark that “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Thus, the French Revolution had inspired ideals of liberty and a revolutionary spirit that influenced Romanticism.

Important Writers and Poets

Romanticism in literature is first identified with William Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads served as a starting point for Romanticism. ST Coleridge is as important as his theory of imagination and wilful suspension of disbelief. John Keats was an important nature poet who romanticized nature with all its beauty. The novels of sensibility by Jane Austen utilised the concepts of sentiments and feelings that were central to Romanticism. Gothic Romanticism was a variant found in works of Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori.

Romanticism Summed Up

Romanticism was thus an artistic movement that valued emotions and feelings. It sought to create art out of inspiration drawn from Nature. Imagination, sentiments, beauty and individualism were hallmarks of the Romantic movement in literature.