Plate from William Blake's Europe a Prophecy
The Romantic period was largely a reaction against the ideology of the Enlightenment period that dominated much of European philosophy, politics, and art from the mid-17th century until the close of the 18th century. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers value logic, reason, and rationality, Romantics value emotion, passion, and individuality. Chris Baldick provides the following description: “Rejecting the ordered rationality of the Enlightenment as mechanical, impersonal, and artificial, the Romantics turned to the emotional directness of personal experience and to the boundlessness of individual imagination and aspiration” (222-3).
These values manifested themselves in literature in several important ways, listed below. It is important to keep in mind that nothing on this list describes all Romantic literature or all Romantic writers. These general ideas, however, provide a reasonable description of tendencies which would have been fairly commonplace amongst Romantics.
Definitions of the canon of any period are constantly in flux, but for the Romantic Era in England, there are six writers who will doubtless find their way into any such definition. They are listed here in chronological order based on birth:
Title Page of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience
William Blake (1757 – 1827):
Blake is famous not only for his poems, but for the illuminated plates on which he printed them. An excellent example (the title page to Songs of Innocence and of Experience) appears at the right. His poetry is highly visual, and reading only the text of the poems without medium of the illuminated plate is an incomplete experience, much like trying to reconstruct an entire football game based only on the box score. An excellent (and free!) compilation of these plates is available here: The William Blake Archive. Blake’s personal spirituality and his views of theological issues frequently filter into his work, perhaps most famously in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and in Jerusalem. His most famous works are likely those in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poems often function in pairs, one from the perspective of childlike “innocence,” the other from the perspective of disillusioned “experience.” Several of these poems, with the accompanying plates, appear on this brief slideshow.
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850):
Wordsworth is one of the domineering figures of British Romanticism. He was good friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the two of them (along with some other writers who are no longer as well known as these two) settled in the Lake District in northwestern England. The group is often referred to as “the Lake Poets.” In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge anonymously published a collection of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads. Many critics cite the publication of this volume as the true beginning of the Romantic Period. In the 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads (now published under Wordsworth’s name), Wordsworth added a preface which outlines his aesthetic theory and his views on what makes for good poetry. This preface is often considered as a manifesto of Romantic ideology.
One of Gustav Doré's illustrations of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834):
Coleridge’s role in Lyrical Ballads is often overshadowed by Wordsworth, but Coleridge’s poetic skill stands on its own. Though not as prolific as Wordsworth, many of Coleridge’s works resonate with readers in ways few other poets are able to match. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a narrative poem that is a mix of traditional ballad form, adventure story, and tale of spiritual redemption. “Kubla Khan” is slightly less famous as a poem, but its backstory is notorious: Coleridge fell asleep while high on Laudanum (which is basically opium dissolved in alcohol), had a crazy dream in which he wrote a few hundred lines of poetry, woke up claiming to remember everything he had written in the dream and started writing it in real life, only to be interrupted by a knock on his door after recording about 50 lines. The knock on his door caused him to forget everything else.
Lord Byron (1788 – 1824):
Byron is one of the few British Romantic writers to achieve widespread fame during his lifetime. Byron was good friends with Percy Shelley, but very much disliked (and was disliked by) Wordsworth and Coleridge. In fact, Byron’s poetry bears little resemblance to that of the Lake Poets; it’s style and form is much more similar to British poetry of the 18th century. His contribution to the period comes in the form of the Byronic hero, a “boldly defiant but bitterly self-tormenting outcast, proudly contemptuous of social norms but suffering for some unnamed sin” (Baldick 31).
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822):
Percy Shelley was in many ways a stereotypical degenerate artist. He was constantly in debt (despite his family’s wealth), often on the move, and deliberately provocative in the face of established traditions and social norms, prizing artistry and social rebellion above stability and acceptance.
John Keats: (1795 – 1821):
Keats was the prodigy of the Romantics. Though dead at age 25, he was enormously prolific. During his brief career, he was stubbornly (tough fairly successfully) insistent on maintaining his artistic independence and originally, even going so far as to refuse to befriend Percy Shelley out of fear that the slightly older, more established poet might influence his writing. As a result, Keats's poetry, though distinctly Romantic in flavor, is unlike any of his contemporaries. He is best known for his sonnets and odes, particularly "Ode to a Nightingale" and Ode on a Grecian Urn." He is also well-known for his love of the classics of antiquity, which often filters into his poetry.
N.B.: This page is a basic introduction to the period. Many important aspects of Romanticism have been deliberately left out for the sake of brevity. These include female Romantic poets (e.g. Charlotte Smith, Anna Letitia Barbauld), American Transcendentalists (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau), continental European Romantics (e.g. Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin) and the politicis of the era. Anyone interested in a fuller understanding of Romanticism should research these areas.
The William Blake Archive: Images of Blake's illuminated plates
Romantic Circles: Scholarly journal devoted to Romanticism
Gustav Doré's illustrations of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Romanticism in Painting