The “Romantic Period” refers to literary and cultural movements in England, Europe, and America roughly from 1770 to 1860. Romantic writers (and artists) saw themselves as revolting against the “Age of Reason” (1700-1770) and its values. They celebrated imagination/intuition versus reason/calculation, spontaneity versus control, subjectivity and metaphysical musing versus objective fact, revolutionary energy versus tradition, individualism versus social conformity, democracy versus monarchy, and so on.
Other elements that influenced the writing of the Romantic period was that the frontier promised opportunity for expansion, growth, freedom (which Europe lacked as it had nothing new to ‘discover’); the spirit of optimism invoked by the promise of an uncharted frontier; the new cultures and perspectives brought in by immigration; the polarization of the industrial north and agrarian south;
and the growth of secularism that had begun in the Puritan Era, and now resulted in Americans looking for new spiritual roots.
As we have discussed in class multiple times, it is very hard to define literary movements are draw a clear line between when this literary era began and ended and when another starts. This is very true for the Romantic period. Early writers in the Romantic periods are often identified as The Fireside Poets -the first group of American poets to rival British poets in popularity in either country. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier,Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant are the poets most commonly grouped together as the ‘Fireside Poets’. Their strict focus on form and meter make their writer seem very British and Victorian when contrasted with later Romantics, but the content of their poetry usually focuses on uniquely American images (images of nature or the frontier,American home life and contemporary politics ). In general, these poets preferred conventional forms over experimentation, and this attention to rhyme and strict metrical cadences made their work popular for memorization and recitation in classrooms and homes. At the peak of his career, Longfellow’s popularity rivaled Lord Alfred Tennyson’s in England as well as in America, and he was a noted translator and scholar in several languages—in fact, he was the first American poet to be honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.
Emerson and Thoreau, along with Margaret Fuller, are a part of a literary/philosophical/theological movement known as “Transcendentalism” (they had their own literary magazine, The Dial, which Fuller edited). They privileged imagination and wanted to resuscitate spiritual values in a era in which institutional religion dominated (or so they felt). According to them, we are, if we only knew it, Gods in ruin, with the power to regain our spiritual birthright by attending to the divine within. Walt Whitman is also a Transcendental writer, and heavily influenced by Emerson – however, his unique style separates him from other Transcendental writers. As the longest living Romantic writer, Whitman published well into the 1880’s, and later in life readers can see a definite shift in his writings that reflect the work of other Realist (the period after Romanticism)
Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne and Poe however, were not Transcendentalists, and often (implicitly or explicitly) critique Emersonian idealism. Melville, Hawthorne and Poe are often categorized as ‘Dark Romantics’. Dark Romantics are much less confident about the notion perfection is an innate quality of mankind, as believed by Transcendentalists. They believe that individuals are prone to sin and self-destruction, not as inherently possessing divinity and wisdom. Secondly, while both groups believe nature is a deeply spiritual force, Dark Romanticism views it in a much more sinister light than does Transcendentalism, which sees nature as a divine. For these Dark Romantics, the natural world is dark, decaying, and mysterious; when it does reveal truth to man, its revelations are evil and hellish. Finally, whereas Transcendentalists advocate social reform when appropriate, works of Dark Romanticism frequently show individuals failing in their attempts to make changes for the better.
If all of this sounds really confusing, as all of these periods and genres seems to be overlapping and happening simultaneously, hopefully this graphic will help:
Make sure you have a clear understanding of Romanticism and its various sub-genres before we return from fall break! For all of my audio/visual kids out there, please click the link below to watch a short video that covers the Romantic period!
Click here to watch the notes over Romanticism!