Study Guide

Romanticism Characteristics

  • Experimentation with Poetic Form

    When we read the Romantics now, they seem old-fashioned. They say things like, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty/ That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'"

    Sounds fancy, right? To the modern ear, this stuff can seem pretty old school. But actually, the Romantics were groundbreaking in terms of challenging poetic tradition.

    What the early Romantics—especially William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—wanted to do was revolutionize the way poetry was written. They were sick and tired of how artsy-fartsy poetry had become, especially the poetry of their predecessors. They wanted to make poetry conversational. They set out to write poems that used the language of ordinary speech but which were still beautiful and poetic. This was the big project of Lyrical Ballads, the collection of poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge that marked the beginning of the Romantic period.

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    So how do Romantic poets transform the writing of poetry? Check out William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud (Daffodils)" to see how the poet simplifies language and diction in this poem.

    Wordsworth's good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge also liked to play around with poetic conventions. See how he varies line lengths to create new effects in his poem "Kubla Khan

  • Nature

    The Romantics had a huge crush on nature. These guys (and sometimes gals) loved trees, flowers, mountains, clouds, crags, birds…you name it. As long as it was outdoors, they loved it.

    In nature, the Romantics found inspiration for their poetry, wisdom, and straight-up happiness. If we went to the Romantics with a diagnosis of depression, they'd tell us: "Forget meds; take a walk in the park. Hug a tree. Talk to a bird. All you need is a little green."

    Part of the Romantics' obsession with nature had to do with the fact that they were living and writing at the time of the Industrial Revolution. In the big cities, there were factories springing up everywhere, and mechanized manufacturing processes were changing society. People were moving further and further away from nature.

    So the Romantics took it upon themselves to remind everyone of the importance of nature. And how.

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    Want to see a Romantic poet waxing lyrical about the sun, the leaves, and water? Look no further than these quotations from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

    And here's the speaker of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ode to the West Wind" imagining himself as a leaf carried by the wind.

  • Ruins and Relics of the Ancient Past

    The Romantics loved to brood.

    They liked to sit, hunched over, clothes all disheveled, chin on hand, frowning, and thinking about Time. How quickly it goes by, how mysterious it is. Got that picture in your head? So yeah, it's not surprising that these guys loved them some ruins.

    There's nothing the Romantics loved more than a crumbling building or an excavated vase from who knows how long ago. They loved sitting there and thinking about how these fragments from the past could tell us something about our own times…or tell us nothing at all, except that man, life is short, y'all.

    Romantics were especially obsessed with Greek and Roman ruins. That's why a bunch of Romantics traveled to Greece and Italy—sites of these two ancient civilizations. Three of the most famous Romantics (John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron) died in these two countries. Yeah, it's fitting.

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    So how do ancient relics and ruins inspire the Romantic poets? Look at these quotations from John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to see how an old Greek urn gives the poet all kinds of interesting things to think about.

    Check out how a ruined statue in the desert leads to reflections on transience, power, and ambition in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias."

  • Rebellion

    The Romantics weren't conformists. No, they would be the kids in high school who wear strange clothes, listen to underground music, and don't hang out with anyone else. They're not trying to fit in with the cool crowd; on the contrary, they sneer at everything that everyone else considers "cool" or "hip" because they have their own, extremely sophisticated, standard of coolness.

    And one of the Romantics' standards of coolness was to go against the grain. The Romantics didn't want to be constrained by social, literary, or political conventions. They believed, above all else, in being true to their own individuality.

    Be true to yourself, Shmoopers.

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    Want to see the theme of rebellion playing out in Romantic literature? Check out the monster in Mary Shelley's famous novel Frankenstein cursing his creator and rebelling against him.

    How did the Romantics rebel against the social, economic and political conditions of their times? By writing poetry about these terrible conditions, of course. Take a look at William Blake showing up the awful conditions of London in the late 1700s in his poem "London."

  • Heroism

    Don Juan, Prometheus, Frankenstein's monster: these are all heroes who were made famous by the Romantics. The Romantics were great at creating larger-than-life, unforgettable heroes. And that's because these poets (and novelists) were all about telling the stories of people who rebelled, who fought for their ideals, or who were just plain amazing lovers (ahem). They loved to write about characters who stood out from the crowd.

    They were so good at it in fact, that their particular brand of hero gets called the "Romantic hero" or "Byronic hero" (after Lord Byron). Not too shabby.

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    Want to see the theme of heroism in action? Check out Robert Walton's words in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He's a North Pole explorer who's going to make it up to the North Pole no matter what, we say!

    It isn't so easy becoming a hero, is it? Nope. The Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" undergoes some serious transformations before becoming a pious hero.

  • Emotion

    Boy were the Romantics a sentimental lot. A flower could move them to tears. An old Greek urn could set them brooding for hours. These writers were flat out obsessed with feelings. In fact, one of the most famous definitions of poetry is the one that William Wordsworth, the father of British Romanticism, gave us. He said that poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" (source).

    The Romantics' obsession with emotions has to do with what they were reacting against. Remember that Romanticism followed on the heels of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 17th and early 18th century that emphasized reason above emotion, rationality above irrationality. The Romantics didn't agree with the Enlightenment point of view (duh). Of course our feelings count, they said. Of course we can't always behave in a rational way. To be human is to be emotional and irrational and moody, for crying out loud. We're not robots, are we?

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    Let's be joyful, people! Here's William Wordsworth reflecting on the "deep power of joy" in a quotation from his poem "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798."

    How much do these Romantics like being happy? A lot. Check out Samuel Taylor Coleridge describing feeling delighted in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

  • Sense and Sensuality

    No, not Sense and Sensibility (although Austen was influenced by Romantics…but that's a story for another time). We're talking sense and sensuality. We'll find tons of sensory detail when we read Romantic writing: lots of sounds and sights and smells and tastes. The Romantics are really into apprehending the world through the five senses.

    Because of that, their writing is super sensual: it's sexy, even when they're not talking about sex. They get pretty orgasmic when talking about nature, for instance, especially because these writers are really into the body and how it perceives and interacts with its environment. Translation: while the Enlightenment emphasized the mind, the Romantics were all about the body, baby.

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    How does Romantic poetry emphasize sensory impressions? Look at these lines from William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud (Daffodils)" in which the speaker describes a beautiful sea of daffodils.

    And here's Samuel Taylor Coleridge really getting turned on by beautiful scenery in his poem "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" (Quote #3).

  • Sublime

    "Sublime" is one slippery term.

    According to the Romantics, we experience the sublime when we're out in nature. But not just any nature—we have to be facing nature at its grandest, it's most awe-inspiring. Think big mountains, crazy deep valleys, a huge thunderstorm with lightning striking everywhere.

    What happens when we are confronted with nature at it's grandest is that we are both terrified and uplifted all at once. It's a hard feeling to describe, but we're guessing you've felt it.

    The sublime was so important to the Romantics because (1) they loved nature and anything having to do with nature, and (2) they believed that the sublime transcended the rational. That is, the feelings of awe and terror evoked by the sublime are beyond words and the emotions that the sublime creates overwhelm rational thought. When that big thunderstorm hits, we are terrified and excited, we're laughing and we're crying. We're basically a whole mess of very powerful emotions. Think of it this way:

    Nature + powerful emotion = the Sublime.

    And who said poets weren't good at math?

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    See William Wordsworth describing the sublime in this quotation (Quote #2) from "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798"

    How is the sublime scary and mysterious all at once? Check out William Blake's reflection on the "fearful mystery" of a tiger in his poem "The Tyger."

  • The French Revolution

    We're talking about British Romanticism, so what does the French Revolution have to do with it? A lot, actually. The French Revolution had huge repercussions not only in France, but all over Europe. It was the first time that the aristocracy had been brought down, and Marie-Antoinette and her husband Louis the XVI had their heads guillotined off. People were talking about liberté, égalité and fraternité (sounds so much better in French, doesn't it?).

    In other words, it was a time of huge social and political transformation, which was pretty inspiring to the Romantics, who, as we might remember, valued individuality and freedom and rebelled against social and literary conventions of their day.

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    Just like the French revolutionaries, William Blake was really against injustice and inequality. He shows us just how terrible inequality is in his poem "London."

    And here's another poem by William Blake describing more of the terrible conditions that the French Revolution reacted against. It's about a little boy who's a chimney sweeper and it's called "The Chimney Sweeper."

  • The Industrial Revolution

    The industrial revolution, like the French Revolution, was bringing about lots of changes at the time that the Romantic poets began writing. More and more people were moving to the cities to work in factories, new manufacturing processes were being put in place, and people were moving further and further away from nature.

    The Romantics weren't very enthusiastic about these changes—they were especially concerned about people moving away from nature. And so the Romantic movement was a movement against industrialization and mechanization.

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    Why didn't the Romantics like the Industrial Revolution? Because it made people pretty unhappy. Look at this quotation (Quote #3) from John Keats' Poem "Ode to a Nightingale," which reflects just how miserable people were.

    William Blake's take on people's lives during the age of industrialization is pretty depressing. Check it out in his poem "London."