The term Romantic referring to the poets and novelists who wrote between 1770-1830 appeared after 1880 and was used by some literary critics in opposition to the term neo-classical.

The word Romantic comes from the French-Provençal word Romanz or Romance referring to a book written in a Provençal language and not in Latin. It indicated a story of adventure, marvellous and supernatural, in which the plot and the situations were often unreal and remote from everyday life.

In the middle of the 17th century, at the time of the English civil war, it was used to refer to something which was strange, wild and extravagant or even absurd.

During the 18th century it continued to have a negative connotation and it was associated with all that was Gothic, medieval and sentimental. At the end of the 18th century it had come to mean something that was liberating and attractive to the imagination.


The historical events which greatly influenced Romanticism were: The American Revolution (1775-1783), The French Revolution (1789-1799) and The Napoleonic Wars. The two revolutions affected the way of thinking bringing into Europe the ideals summoned up in the French slogan “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternitéwhile the Napoleonic wars affected the economy and the way of living making business uncertain and closely connected with the ups and downs of the wars: periods of overproduction and employment were followed by periods of depression and unemployment.

The working class also suffered because the State followed the economic theory of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, that is: the Governments could not interfere with the private economic activities if they wanted to improve the economy of their country; every interference on the free economic competition could be negative. To explain this theory he used the metaphor of the “invisible hand”: each individual who tries to reach a personal economic advantage is pushed by an invisible hand to work for the good of the whole society. In working out this theory, Smith was influenced by the French Fisiocrats (the label laissez- faire was attributed to the French fisiocrat economist Jean-Claude-Marie-Vincent de Gournay)

As a consequence of this policy there were no precise regulations about wages and hours of work. The workers lived in the Slums; unhealthy quarters in the suburbs of overpopulated industrial towns, without sanitation and forced to work from 12 to 19 hours a day in turn of a small salary. To increase their home income, women and children of the lower classes worked in factories, too. They were more exploited than men because they worked as men but received a smaller salary. The above mentioned conditions brought to the development of the first spontaneous Associations of workers, later known as Trade Unions, which tried to defend them and to better their life. Both the Government and the manufacturers looked at these organizations with increasing alarm and in 1799 Parliament passed the Combination Acts which made them illegal. The workers living in the most industrialized towns in the North opposed these laws attacking factories and destroying machinery. To control the Mob and to protect machinery, the Government decided to use the military force, in 1819, in the so-called Peterloo Massacre, the soldiers killed 11 workers. There was a reaction in the public opinion and the Government was forced to repeal the Combination Acts and to recognize the organizations of workers.

The situation gradually improved, unemployment decreased, communications and trade increased too, and Parliament passed a series of Reforms. The most important were: The Bill for Catholic Emancipation (1829), The First Reform Bill (1832), The Factory Act (1833). The Catholics obtained the same rights as the Protestants, except the one of becoming Sovereign of Great Britain because the Act of Settlement was not repealed. The Factory Act provided that no children under 9 years of age could work in a factory and that people under 18 could not work for more than 12 hours a day. The Reform Bill redistributed seats in Parliament and most of the middle-class received the right to vote; yet only 5% of people could vote because the Bill ignored the working class being based on census.

Little of that, however, is reflected directly in the works of the Romantics; most of their works is characterized by the attempt to escape the great social problems of the day and to find a personal solution to the meaning of life.


Romanticism was a great movement of ideas that developed in the European countries between the early 1770s and the early 1830s. It influenced all the forms of Art. It developed as a reaction against Enlightenment and its emphasis on rationality, order, form, clarity, rules and conventions.

The Age had become tired of all that and began to see the need to pay a little attention to the individual, his feelings, his emotions and thoughts and the need to express them without the restrictions of rules but giving more freedom to imagination and fantasy. There was also a thirst for sensation, Gothicism and exoticism together with an interest in past ages and a new concern with Nature and its beauty.

The Romantics questioned almost every thing of the previous Age of Neo-classicism: they opposed feelings to reason, imagination to realism, creativity to imitation, search for the sensation to the domestic pleasure, the unknown to the known, the supernatural to the conventional, country to town, children and humble people to aristocracy, Celtic Age and Middle-Age to classical Greece and Rome, the world of the spirit to the world of things.

They were much more interested in the world of the spirit because they believed it was the place where man could find the true reality and his true-self.(

NATURE: The Romantic poets were very much interested in Nature. They believed that Man’s only salvation was the rediscovery of nature and country life and devoted themselves to a recovery of its beauty. They saw in Nature the same divine Force which they found in the Spirit of Man. When they needed inspiration or wanted to elevate their feelings and communicate with the World of the Spirit they went into the country because it was impossible to achieve it in towns that had lost their original identity. After the industrial revolution, conditions in towns were usually terrible: smoke from the factories, bad housing, no sanitation and so on.

The first to suggest that man could find his true-self in communion with nature was Jean Jack ROUSSEAU. He condemned the evils of civilization and industrialism which had corrupted “The Noble Savage. He maintained that man is born with a good nature and that his instinctive sympathies guide him in the right direction but when he comes in touch with social, political, religious institutions and with progress and civilization, he is enslaved and corrupted by them. Rousseau considered primitive society as a society of equals. Man had become unequal and divided because of the growth of prosperity, itself a product of civilization.

The Romantics liked these revolutionary ideas of men with equal rights, so they asked a return of man to his primitive natural role; removing the bad effects of civilization he could be virtuous again.

The romantic conception of nature was influenced by three great philosophical theories: Neo-Platonism, Pantheism and German Idealism.

Neo-Platonism, with its conception of the World as a projection of the World of Ideas, stressed the importance to try to get in touch with the World of the Spirit.

According to Pantheism Nature was moved by a Might Power, an immanent God, whose presence was manifest in every stone and tree thus giving them a soul of their own.

German idealism and Schelling in particular considered Nature as something alive that shares man’s own feelings because they both are driven by the same animating principle.

The Romantics were interested in everything related with the World of the Spirit: ruined castles, churches, graveyards, ghosts, natural phenomena such as violent storms, torrential rivers and high mountains.


Romanticism took specific features in each European country: it was philosophical in Germany, revolutionary inFrance, literary in England and patriotic in Italy. In England it developed later than in France and Germany.

It is difficult to find out an exact date of birth because when we talk of great literary movements the old and the new learning mix and coexist together for sometime. We have to fix then a conventional date and we may choose the year 1798 when The Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge was published.

The English Romantic Age was mainly an Age of poets, even if some prose was produced. As far as poetry, it is traditionally divided into two periods corresponding to The First Generation of Poets (1798-1806) and The Second Generation of Poets (1818-1830). To the first generation belong Wordsworth and Coleridge, while Blake is considered by many critics an early romantic poet. To the second generation belong Byron, Shelley and Keats. The two generations were bound together by the common faith in poetry, the same love for Nature and the same belief in the power of the imagination. They   also shared the same pain of living in a world they disliked and they all sought refuge from real life refusing the real world which they considered corrupt. Each of them found personal solutions: Wordsworth and Keats sought refuge in the sublime world of Nature, Coleridge in the world of dreams, in the supernatural and in his utopian pantisocracy, Byron and Shelley in political and social involvement.

The poets of the 1st generation were mainly influenced by the French and American Revolutions which had shown that freedom could be achieved breaking free from old and inadequate institutions and ideas. Wordsworth and Coleridge applied the same conception to poetry and made almost a revolution.

The poets of the 2nd generation were influenced by the problems coming from the Napoleonic Wars and were more socially and politically committed. Except Keats, they were involved in movements to promote the cause of independence and freedom. Byron joined the Italian Carbonari and supported the cause of the Greek against the Turkish while Shelley supported the Irish Catholics in their struggle for the emancipation. They did not like Wordsworth and Coleridge because these latter had revised their poems adopting them to the orthodox Christianity of the time. They considered Wordsworth simple and dull and distrusted his role as a patriotic public figure. All the poets of the 2nd generation lived very romantic lives and all died abroad, Byron inGreece, Shelley and Keats inItaly.

The romantic poetry was different from before both as to form and as to contents. The new ideas of simplicity and democratization affected the LANGUAGE, too. The poetic diction of the previous Age, a very artificial language with the presence of uncommon and learned words, Latinate and frequent use of periphrasis and apostrophe, was replaced by “a selection of language really spoken by men and closer to the masses. It was the real language of people and not simply a tool to embellish their works.

The HEROIC COUPLET , which had been the favourite poetic form of the 18th century, gave way to a return to earlier verse forms such as Blank Verse(Wordsworth, Shelley), The Sonnet(Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats), the Italian Terza Rima(Shelley), the Italian Ottava Rima(Byron) and the Folk- Ballad Stanza(Coleridge, Keats).

As to the contents, rejecting the neo-classical idea of man in society, seen as a peace of a perfect whole, English Romantics focused on the individual seen at the centre of Art and Life. Following the German post-Kantian philosophy, they reversed the old idea of seeing the human mind as the Mirror of the Universe and considered it as being itself the Creator of that Universe.

The IMAGINATION was seen as the Key to penetrate the secrets of the Universe; it was a God-like faculty, the highest and noblest gift of the poet  who, through it, was able to modify or even to re-create the world around him. To do that, the imagination had to work freely and the composition had to come spontaneously, almost unconsciously:” if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all” (Keats).

The POET was seen as a prophet divinely inspired, enjoying the same freedom as God Himself in the sense that in writing his verses he was free from external rules except the ones he himself imposed on his creative mind. He played an important role as an intermediary between man and the world of the Spirit, which he discovered and interpreted through his imagination and then recreated and communicated it to common people.

Besides Nature and Imagination there was another important concern in the romantic period: the SUBLIME, that is the search for deep feelings, be they of pain or pleasure. Edmund Burke made a distinction between Beauty and Sublime: beauty was associated with lightness, delicacy and smoothness while the sublime with power, obscurity, fear, solitude, greatness and intense emotion (the statue of Laocoonte, for instance, with the snakes that eat Laocoonte’s sons).

Another feature of the Romantic Age was the desire to create MYTHS drawing on personal experience; it was what Goethe described as ‘a striving for the infinite’ or as Blake stated ‘less than everything cannot satisfy man’. So, what was not unacceptable before for a poet, that is the desire to exceed human limitation, now becomes glorious. The Romantics, however, were well aware that the search for the infinity was destined to fail. It was as Shelley wrote ‘the desire of the moth for the star’.


Even if the English Romantic period was mainly a period of poetry, yet some prose was produced.

We may divide Romantic Prose into two branches: fiction and non-fiction. In the non-fictional prose the ESSAY of Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey continued the tradition of literary journalism. The novelty was the development of a new type of Essay: the literary criticism. The greatest critic was William Hazlitt. In His Spirit of the Age, he gave us a series of portraits of his contemporaries he was a friend of: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott and Lamb.

In the fictional field the two great novelists of the Age were Walter Scott and Jane Austen.

SCOTT created the historical novel, a new type of novel which dealt with a series of chivalrous and fantastic adventures of the distant past, set in a romantic atmosphere and made up of heroism, honour, loyalty, full of heroes and heroines living fantastic adventures. Scott’s formula for the historic novel was a combination of fictional and historical elements and the union of historical events and imaginary heroes.

JANE AUSTEN, instead, declared herself an anti-romantic. She wrote Novels of Manners or Domestic novels, a kind of fiction quite conventional as to plots and characters, without any romantic heroes or heroines and adventures. They dealt with common characters and events taken from everyday routine life.


The poets of the second generation had a great love for Italy. This love originated from their refusal of the industrial society and Italy was seen as a land of refuge as yet untouched by industrialization. The Italian towns, above all Venice, Florence and Rome, still uncontaminated by factories, became the symbol of beauty with their harmony of natural environment and architecture. A second but not less important reason was that the Italy of the first movements for national unity and freedom represented for the English poets of the 2nd generation the achievement of their utopia, that is a society going towards freedom and justice, a society in which the liberation of the individual was seen in relation to a community united in egalitarian, civil brotherhood.

The English romanticism was, however, different from the Italian one because the historical context was different, too. The Italian one was patriotic while the English grew as an attitude of protest and of criticism of the national context of the time.


Some of the romantic themes were already present in the 18th cent. literature in the so called Transition Age.

Many poets had explored the theme of Nature, the idea of freedom and the oppression of city life; we may mention Pope’s pastoral Ode to the solitude or Gray’s Elegy written in a country churchyard.

The interest in the horrid and in the supernatural was present in the Graveyard School’ of Collins and Young and in the Gothic Novel.

Social commitment and concern with human problems can be found in the works of Blake and Burns.

Blake, considered by many critics a pre-romantic, was also the first poet to introduce the idea of imagination and to deal with childhood linked to innocence.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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