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Attempting to settle on a succinct definition of “romanticism” is a futile endeavour.  F.L. Lucas, in The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (1948) identifies 11,396 definitions of “romanticism”. There have been whole studies devoted to just sorting out these definitions into classifiable groups. In 1941 E.G. Burgum said that “He who seeks to define Romanticism is entering a hazardous occupation which has claimed many victims”. In fact, the English Romantics studiously avoided using the word altogether. For Goethe, romanticism itself was hazardous: “Romanticism is disease. Classicism is health”. And for Rousseau romanticism was simply “the return to nature”. However, as a general guide Friedrich Schegel's definition tends to be used often when trying to convey generally what romanticism was about: “that is romantic which depicts emotional matter in an imaginative form”. 

Suffice at this point to say that romanticism was a deep, multi-faceted and long-lived artistic movement that was the outcome and the culmination of a long process of evolution. The best that can be done in the short space here is to draw together a few characteristics that can be identified as being extant in the romantic period, as well as looking at the different ways romanticism manifested in different countries, and some of the key figures of the time. The further reading, hyperlinks and checklistlist at the bottom of this page will provide ample elaboration.

During its time romanticism had great impact and changed theories of creation, standards of beauty, ideals, and modes of expression. The most important thing in romanticism was the imagination, and it is this emphasis that distinguishes it from other artistic movements. The power of the imagination is at the forefront of Shelley's Defence of Poetry, and in 1819 Keats wrote to his brother George saying “I describe what I imagine”. This simple statement by Keats has been described as the epitome of Romantic art, although neither Byron nor the French Romantics valued the imagination quite so highly.

Most of the Romantic poets were political activists and idealists seeking to transform society.  Major influences during this period were Rousseau and Goethe. Some aspects of eighteenth century romanticism are an increasing interest in Nature, and in the natural, primitive and uncivilised way of life; an interest in scenery; identifying a connection between nature and humans, such as the moods of humans being aligned with the moods of nature; an emphasis on natural religion; the importance of genius and the power of the imagination; an emphasis on the individual and individual expression; and the cult of the Noble Savage.

However romanticism was more than a mere set of concepts. The re-orientation in aesthetics, particularly the release of the creative imagination and of individual feeling paved the way for a tremendous upsurge of new writing throughout Europe between about 1798 and 1832. These aspects of the Romantic movement are evident in three literary genres: the lyric, where the concept of the imagination is most prominent; the narrative (most used by the Germans) which concentrated on the “confessional” and the historical; and the drama, which really only fared well in France.

Romanticism evolved in different countries at different times, each with a slightly different flavour. In Germany, there were two groups: the Early Romantics, which were the first European Romantic group, from 1797 to the early nineteenth century. The Early Romantics wanted to change the world, and were manipulators of ideas rather than creative poets, with a tendency to metaphysical abstractions and idealism.  They were followed by the High Romantics (also known as the Younger Romantics) from 1810 to 1820. This group was more practical and more productive.

English romanticism was much more diffuse than European, though this was not necessarily a bad thing. Because there wasn't really any cohesion, there was more room for individualism and diversity. The main figures of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Scott all had individual and unique approaches, but could still be broadly placed under romanticism. Romanticism came later to France. French Romantics are chronologically the last, delayed by the Revolution and the French devotion to classicism and neo-classicism. The main figures there were Lamartine, Victor Hugo and de Vigny.  The Romantic period also gave us modern aesthetics or philosophy of art with the works of people like Kant, Hegel, Schiller, and Coleridge.

See below for Romantic checklist








Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National