1. The Essence of Romanticism:

If the eighteenth century is called the age of rationalism, the first half of the nineteenth century is often called the Age of Romanticism.

It is true that there were other powerful influences at work, but romanticism was the dominant one, at least in literature and fine arts.

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In a broad sense, romanticism was a reaction against the forms and conventions of the eighteenth century. Enlightenment told the people how exactly to think, feel and behave. Neo-classicism set down hard and fast rules which the poet, playwright or artist must observe if he wanted to produce a perfect composition. The result was that rules, formulas and conventions reigned supreme in literature, in fine arts and in society generally.


Romanticism was a revolt against classical restraint, intellectual discipline and artificial standards. Romanticism did not oppose everything for which the past stood as literary romanticism proceeded from neo-classicism. A writer or an artist is neither exclusively classical nor romantic. Wordsworth was not entirely free of classicism. Pope was not wholly unromantic.

While enlightenment and neo-classicism put emphasis on reason, romanticism put emphasis on feelings and imagination. During the age of reason, both feeling and imagination were kept under the restraint of taste and decorum. A cultured person was expected to check his feelings and imagination as “something plebian and uncultured.” Lord Chesterfield told his son that he had not laughed since he had the use of his reason.

Fontenelle never laughed, ran or wept. The restraint which was exercised in polite society was expected to be maintained in literature and fine arts. Only those sentiments were allowed to be expressed which could be suitably displayed in a drawing room.

The Romanticists asserted the rights of feelings and imagination. According to them, feeling was more important than reason. Novalis wrote, “The heart is the key to the world.” Goethe maintained that “feeling is everything.” Madame de Stael asserted that feeling far surpasses reason as a means of arriving at the truth. The view of Lamartine is that man is really himself only “under the stress of powerful feeling.”


Man must discard artificial standards in the expression of feelings and follow the prompting of the heart. Imagination must be free from its shackles. The romanticists believed that there should be no check on genius and hence men must follow their imagination.

If a work of literature or art shows the sovereignty of reason, with measure, harmony and sympathy in representation, it may be called classical. If it is characterised by the dominance of feeling and imagination, it can be called romantic.

As feelings and imagination differ in each person, romanticism involves the accentuation of the personal or individual. Hence, some of the writers styled romanticism as “the liberation of personality” or “the Emancipation or the ego.” During the age of reason, there was standardization which avoided local variations and individual diversities.

The individual was subordinated to the general or universal. The rules of neo-classics demanded that the subject-matter of literature must be limited to that which is universal in human experience. As opposed to this, romanticism emphasized the particular and the personal. It was not contrary to good taste to exploit one’s own personality.


Accentuation of the person accounts for the diversity of subjects treated in romantic literature and art. The various romanticists led their imagination roam far and wide. What was interesting to them was the primitive, the grotesque, the supernatural, the infinite, the exotic, the medieval, the pastoral, the startling and anything which was novel.

2. The origins of Romanticism:

The origins of romanticism cannot be traced to one figure or to one specific movement. There were stirrings in various religious movements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In the church, religion had given way to mere acceptance of certain dogmas and obedience to the authority of the church. Gradually, religion became as cold in its formality as the literature of that time.

In Germany, the reaction against dogmatism appeared in the form of Pietism which put emphasis on the inner spirit and emotions and not outward conformity. It considered reason as presumptuous and misleading. It asserted the value and dignity of the individual human soul, with emphasis on God’s love for the individual.

The Quakers, Baptists and Methodists in England protested against the age of reason. The Methodist movement rekindled once again a sense of religious ardour and enthusiasm in England. It brought feelings once more into repute. Methodist preachers proclaimed their message with fervent enthusiasms.

Their hymns were full of emotions. They sounded a deep personal note by putting emphasis on God’s interest in every human being. They stressed supreme value of the individual soul and its preciousness in the sight of God. The opening line of a hymn of Charles Wesley was “Jesus, Lover of my soul.”

There was a reaction in the Roman Catholic Church against reason when the goddess of reason was enthroned in the cathedral of Notre Dame in 1793. Chateaubriand published in 1802 in four volumes his book entitled “The Spirit of Christianity” and that book heralded the advent of a sentimental Catholicism.

He did not consider religion merely a collection of theological dogmas but a living creed, an aesthetic force. Voltaire had declared Christianity to be ridiculous but Chateaubriand tried to show that Christianity was sublime. He asked his readers to admire the sublimity of Christianity and seek in it satisfaction for their religious emotions. Madame Hamelin wrote, “What! Is that Christianity! Christianity is perfectly delightful.”

Romanticism did not leave any area of life untouched, but it found its widest expression in literature. Neo-classicists had shown preference for city life as contrasted with life in the country. To quote Dr. Johnson, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Life in the country without society, without coffee houses, without news was considered as dreary and monotonous.

In Dryden’s “The Wild Gallant,” Isabella expressed the general sentiment in these words. “I cannot abide to be in the country like a wild beast in the wilderness.” However, a feeling arose that man had gone too far from nature and hence a movement started which asked people to go back to nature. The love of nature shown by the romanticists was for the wild and the primitive. They were interested in the spiritual potencies of nature.

They transformed the primitive man into the good child of nature who was supremely happy because he obeyed only the pure impulses implanted in him by nature. The romanticists praised the native instincts and emotional qualities of primitive man. They idealized the American Indians, the natives of Africa and the South Sea Islanders.

While depicting primitive life in glowing colours, the romanticists relied upon reports of the various expeditions such as that of Captain Cook to Australia and New Zealand. In those reports, there were many accounts of the happy and carefree life of splendid races of savages. Lord Edward FitzGerald reported from New Brunswick in 1788, “Savages have all the real happiness of life, without any of those inconveniences or ridiculous obstacles to it which custom has introduced among us.

I have seen human nature under almost all its forms, but the wilder it is, the more virtuous.” The romanticists made the most of those reports. In the play entitled.” The Indians” which appeared in 1790, an Indian chieftain said, “Away with your culture and refinement! Enjoy the freedom and simplicity of nature. Be guileless! Be an Indian!”

The advocates of reason regarded the masses as inferior to the cultured classes because they were led by their emotions. Voltaire referred to the common people as the “vile canaille.” Prevost regarded the common people as too stupid to be depicted in literature. On the other hand, the romanticists considered the lowly classes like primitive man, a repository of goodness because they had been far less exposed to the corruptions of culture and civilisation than the other classes.

Some romanticists regarded folk poetry as the only true poetry because it was the spontaneous expression of the natural impulses of man. They also held legends and myths in high regard. Numerous poets were inspired to write in the manner of the folk song. Collections of folk poetry, folk tales and fairy tales were published. Among them were Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English poetry (1765) and Herder’s Volkslieder (1778-1779). The Grimm brothers published in 1812 their collection of folk and fairy tales.

The rationalists of the eighteenth century regarded the medieval period of history as a period of barbarism and superstition. They called them the dark ages. Hume treated the middle Ages with contempt. Moliere Racine and Corneille simply ignored the middle Ages. Voltaire compared the study of the middle Ages with a study of the doings of wolves and bears.

However, the romanticists considered the middle Ages as the Golden Age. They found in that period more justice, more happiness, more variety, more colour, more romance and more adventure. Novalis, another German romanticist, praised the middle Ages as the age of spiritual unity, profound humanitarianism and joy in poverty.

In a series of Waverly novels, Sir Walter Scott revived interest in the Middle Ages in Britain His novels were widely read in Europe. In France medievalism became almost a mama. Young men wore their hair long and grew beards like the people of the middle Ages. The ladies of France copied the medieval style in their head dresses and jewellery. Masked balls were staged in medieval dress. Plays, operas and novels were built around medieval subjects.

3. Literary Romanticism:

Herder (1744-1803) was the father of German romanticism. He had a high opinion of the irrational, the spontaneous, the natural and the individual of the middle Ages. He regarded folk poetry as “the true expression of feeling.” The other romantic waters of Germany were Goethe, Schlegel, Fichte and Schleiermacher. They praised feudalism, chivalry, the crusades and the medieval folk songs.

As regards France, “The Spirit of Christianity” by Chateaubriand (1768-1848) revived interest not only in Christianity but also idealized the middle Ages. In his other writings, Chateaubriand glorified nature and pictured the American Indian as a “noble savage.” Victor Hugo (1802-1885) carried the romantic tradition of Chateaubriand to its loftiest heights.

In his drama entitled “Cromwell published in 1827, Hugo repudiated the traditions of neo-classicism and embraced all the romantic ideas and aspirations which had been current since the beginning of the century and he became the leader of the Romantic Movement? He published his famous drama entitled “Hemani” in 1830 and that book made romanticism the vogue for years to come. He published in 1831 his novel called “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” which is considered to be the most successful single work of the period. It stirred men’s hearts to the depths.

English romanticism was neither so intense nor as comprehensive as that in Germany and France It was largely restricted to poetry. Sir Walter Scott is the outstanding figure m novel. English romanticism was an expression of the desire for freedom from the restraining forces of reason and the assertion of the rights of feeling and imagination.

The beginning of the age of romanticism in England is usually dated from the publication in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems of Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Coleridge (1772-1834). In his preface to the second edition published in 1800 Wordsworth set forth his ideas of poetry. As regards the subject, his purpose was “to choose incidents and situations from common life.” To quote him, “Humble and rustic life was generally chosen because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil m which they can attain their maturity, are under less restraint and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.”

As regards style, Wordsworth declared that the language of poetry should be “the language really used by men.” The poem entitled “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge thrills with its images of horror and supernatural beauty. The turbulent soul of Lord Byron (1788-1824) found relief in the wilder aspects of nature, more particularly in mountain peaks and the sea. Byron won fame as the author of the first two cantos of Childe Harold published in 1812.

His Don Juan published in 1819 is considered one of the great satirical poems in the English language. He died in Greece while he was fighting for the independence of the Greeks. As regards Shelley (1792-1822), two passions, those for nature and humanity, characterized almost everything he wrote. For him, nature was the incarnation of the divine. Some of the best examples of his poetry of nature are “The Cloud,” “To a Skylark” and “Ode to the West Wind.”

As regards John Keats (1795-1821), the keynote of his work is to be found in the opening line of Endymion (1818), “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy forever.” His odes are among the imperishable things of English verse. Of these, “To a Nightingale” is considered as his masterpiece. Mathew Arnold writes, “No one else in English poetry save Shakespeare has in expression quite the fascinating felicity of Keats, his perfection of loveliness.”

As regards Spain, romanticism revived her past. The only genuine romanticist in Russia was Lermontov (1814-1841). Next to Pushkin, he was the greatest Russian poet of the nineteenth century. His most important poetical work was “The Demon” published in 1838. He also published his novel entitled “A Hero of Our Times” in 1839.

As regards Italy, Manzone (1785-1873) was a poet, novelist and dramatist. He was a representative of the Romantic Movement. Like Chateaubriand, he stressed the sublimity of Christianity. His “Sacred Hymns” are among the most beautiful lyrics ever offered to Christianity. His “The Betrothed” is considered the best prose work of Italian romanticism.

4. Romanticism in Architecture:

As regards architecture, the romantic tendency manifested itself in a revival of the Gothic style. Previously, the term “Gothic” was considered to be one of disparagement and even of contempt. It was used as a synonym for “barbarous.” However, gradually the term “Gothic” ceased to be one of reproach and became one of admiration. In England, Horace Walpole heralded the revival by his Castle of Otranto and Strawberry Hill.

In Germany, Goethe hailed in Von deutscher Baukunst (1773) Gothic architecture as the glory and peculiar expression of the Gennanic spirit. Schlegel and Chateaubriand sang the beauties of Gothic architecture. In France, the new enthusiasm expressed itself not so much in the erection of new buildings as in the restoration of medieval structures. In Germany, there was considerable restoration and reconstruction.

The new buildings in a pure Gothic style were limited to a few churches. However, the Gothic revival had the greatest effect in England. The groups of parliamentary buildings in London, constructed after the burning of the Old Westminster Palace in 1834 were after the Gothic style. In the succeeding period, the Victorian Gothic became supreme. Not only churches and houses but also railway stations and hotels were built in Gothic style.

5. Romanticism in Painting:

The spirit of romanticism also asserted itself in the field of painting. In romantic paintings, more emphasis was put on spontaneity rather than restraint. For a romantic painter, beauty was not in the subject-matter, harmony or unity but in the depth of feeling. He demanded freedom not only in his choice of subject but also in his way of treating it. He expressed his own personality in his art. Goya (1746-1828), the Spanish artist, depicted Spanish life in all its picturesque diversity, with each individual work reflecting a personal reaction.

The leadership in romantic painting fell to two Frenchmen, Gericault (1791-1824) and Delacroix (1799-1863). The work of Gericauh is the expression of his personal feelings. His important pictures were painted in 1812 and the succeeding years and they recorded various phases of the end of the Napoleonic era. Some of those pictures are “Wounded Soldiers in a Cart” and “The Return from Russia.” His best historical work is “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818).

This picture is considered to be “a masterpiece of dramatic vigour and vivid characterization of wide and deep human interest.” Delacroix was the greatest painter of the romantic school. He freed himself completely from the conventional rules and types of painting. While choosing his subjects, he allowed his Imagination to roam up and down the vistas of history. He was particularly fascinated by the Middle Ages.

This is clear from his “Entrance of the Crusaders into Constantinople- and “Templars Carrying off Rowena.” He tried to depict the spirit of his age, particularly its passion for liberty. His “Liberty Leading the People” was inspired by the Revolution of 1830 He has been called “the painter of the soul of his age.” The picture which caused the greatest sensation was his “Massacre of Scio” (1824) which is an episode in the Greek struggle for freedom from Turkish rule.

6. Romanticism in Music:

In classical music beauty of form was the primary aim and everything else was secondary. Emotional content was subordinated to form. In romantic music, emotional content comes first and form is subordinate to emotion. Untrammeled self-expression became the primary interest of the romantic composers. Each one tried to express himself in a unique manner.

In some of his works, Beethoven showed how music could be the language of personal feeling and individual passion. In his “Pastoral Symphony”, Beethoven depicted rustic dances, songs of shepherds and notes of birds of the countryside. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) has rightly been called “the father of the song.”

His fund of melodies was so great that he could hardly find enough verses to set to music. The number of recorded titles is nearly 500 and he wrote not less than 144 of the melodies inl815 alone, eight of them on one day. No other composer worked with so much ease as Schubert did. At the time of his death at the age of 31, he left more than 1100 compositions.

All his music is characterised by a persistent lyricism. The view of Liszt was that when listening to the music of Schubert, one was bound to exclaim, “How poetical, how beautiful, how intensely Schubert.” Robert Schumann (1810-1856) promoted romantic conceptions not only as a composer but also as a critic. In 1834, he assisted in founding a journal which had as its principal aim the advancement of romanticism in music.

To him, music was the language in which he expressed his moods, his sympathies and his literary devotions. Music was also the medium for making characterizations and portraits of his friends. His symphonies are regarded by some, as the most notable contributions to music.

The compositions of Frederic Chopin (1809-1849), the Polish pianist and composer, have a characteristic finesse, grace and tenderness. In them, he expressed all the ills of his soul. Most of his work is marked by a national spirit, voicing the grievances of the people of Poland. A critic writes about his music, “Like the fugues of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven, the songs of Schubert and the music dramas of Wagner, Chopin’s piano pieces touch the high water-mark m their kind. Schumann called Chopin “the boldest and proudest poetic spirit of the time.”

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) ranks high among the composers of music in a happy vein. His two completed oratories. Saint Paul and Elijah awakened a new interest in this form of music. His other important compositions are “Hymns of Praise” and “Songs without Words,” particularly the Spring Song and the Spinning Song.

The two important exponents of programme music were Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the French composer and Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the Hungarian pianist and composer. Berlioz founded the programme school of music with his “Symphonic Fantastique and the Cantata,” “The Death of Sardanapalus.” Both of these compositions are distinguished by the concreteness of their imagery, wealth of detail and descriptive literalness. Berlioz is acknowledged as one of the fathers of modem orchestration. Liszt was a prolific composer.

He wrote symphonies, songs, piano-forte pieces, masses psalms and oratorios. As the music of Schumann represents the soul of Germany and the music of Chopin the soul of Poland, the music of Liszt typified the spirit of the Magyars. His influence on pianoforte music was great. His largest works are his Dante and Faust symphonies.

About the Romantic Movement Dr. David Thomson writes that as a whole, it corroded the cosmopolitan and non-nationalist outlook on which absolutism has prospered. The romantic writers promoted nationalist sentiments. As the Germany of Goethe, Novalis and Schlegel replaced France as the focus of cultural and intellectual interest, likewise emphasis shifted to pride in nationalism and Volksgeist, the particular genius of a people.

The Romantic Movement, in all its cultural forms, emphasized emotion and sentiment rather than reason and intellect. By turning attention to a misty past, it stirred pride in folk tales and past heroisms. By its very traditionalism, it appealed to sentiments of separatism. It reminded man of all that was special, individual and personal.

By its emphasis on creative and original genius, it made human personality more important than society. It condemned restrictions on individual freedom of expression. In its search for the creative genius of an age or of a people, it nourished belief in the supreme value of popular traditions and national development. It made it easy to abandon rationalism for nationalism.

The people saw in romanticism the literature of emancipation. Lord Byron declared; “I have simplified my politics into a detestation of all existing Government.” Lord Byron became a great personal influence throughout Europe in support of nationalist and liberal causes. Victor Hugo observed. “Romanticism is liberalism in literature.” Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet and dramatist, wrote his greatest works, Boris Godunov and Eugen Onegin in the 1820s.

In 1828, Adam Mickiewicz produced his great epic of the Polish nation named Conrad Wallenrod. Czech, Magyar and Serbian poets revived popular interest in the folk legends and wistful memories of their past glories. The Greek War for independence aroused every impulse behind the Romantic Movement. It recalled the Crusades in its heroism and in its struggle between Cross and Crescent.

It sufficiently evoked the old sense of the unity of Christendom. Both Louis XVIII of France and the Pope contributed money to the cause of the Greek War of Independence. As committees in nearly every country raised funds to help the Greeks, the romantic writers threw their influence into the struggle. Chateaubriand and Hugo in France and Shelley and Byron in England sponsored the cause of the Greeks. Shelley declared, “We are all Greeks.” Lord Byron died in 1824 in Greece while actually taking part in the Greek War of Independence.

By doing so, he became the symbol of the new spirit. Philhellenism created a new current of European opinion in favour of nationalism and liberalism which was against the policies and practices of most of the existing Governments. It won its greatest triumph when it compelled the Governments of Britain, France and Russia to intervene on behalf of the Greeks against the Turkish Government in 1827.