Romanticism is a very strange literary genre, in that it can be defined in about a hundred different ways depending on which scholar you listen to. Eric Hobsbawm defined it as a revolt against the encroaching march of Victorian capitalism by the youth, uniting both right-wing (Scott, Wordsworth) and left-wing (Shelley, Byron, Godwin) thinkers into one literary movement. This movement was obsessed with the counter-enlightenment in general – ideas such as spirits, the transcendental, and the power of nature over the forces of humanity.
Inspired by both the French philosophes (early on Rousseau and Voltaire, with Volney and Abbe Sieyes becoming more influential as the movement developed) and the rapidly changing political environment of Europe that stretched over 50 years from 1780-1830, romanticism has been deeply linked to revolutionary ideals. As such, the literature of the Romantic movement was often suppressed or deeply controversial in its time. Spanning a period from the French Revolution through the infamous Pitt’s Terror against reformers, up until the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the birth of industrial capitalism as we know it, Romanticism was both a reaction and a solution. In its most general form, it possessed both a fixation on the lost pastoral world (inherited from Rousseau’s Emile) coupled with the belief in egalitarianism and liberalism.
The literature that best captures romanticism, at least in its most general form, captures these two elements. As far as I can see, there is no better candidate to start this list with than Robert Burns’s Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published in 1786. Although Burns did not live to see the golden years of the movement he helped to inspire, dying at 37 in 1796, his Poems… is one of the foundational texts for romanticism. Burns, up until then a relatively poor farmer in Ayrshire, not only based his poetry in rural life but the poems were addressed to those living in the rural Lowlands. The Poems…. is written in Scots dialect (fear not, non-Scottish readers, all good editions will have annotations to translate) and features such tales of the ordinary as The Cotter’s Saturday Night, To a Louse, and the famous To A Mouse, which Steinbeck would later nod to in his novella Of Mice And Men. Along with these rural tales, told both through poems and ballads meant to be sung, Burns was unafraid to throw in political and philosophical spice to these poems, clearly seen in the Dedication to Gavin Hamilton. Burns is not just notable for the quality of his poetry alone – and that has won him renown worldwide – but for his tremendous influence on other writers. The most notable of these is the influence he had on a certain young man in the North of England named William Wordsworth.
This brings us on nicely to the natural successor of Burns. Wordsworth was about 16 or 17 when he first read Burns, and was 26 when Burns died. 2 years later, he would produce a work better than Burns’s Poems….. Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798. The impact of this collection of poems cannot be underestimated. In literary terms, it is an incredible achievement for two men in their late twenties, especially considering the paucity and inconsistency of quality in the later works of both poets. Great poems like We Are Seven, The Nightingale, and The Idiot Boy have been unjustly dimmed by the glowing, burning light of the last two poems: Coleridge’s epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth’s epic Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey. Lyrical Ballads, essentially, restarted Romanticism as a genre. Earlier Romanticism had been closely associated with reform, Jacobinism, and the French Revolution. Wordsworth and Coleridge seized the genre and made it into a mass-market phenomenon again, getting around England’s brutal censorship laws and suppression of free speech in the mid-1790s by sacrificing the (overtly) radical politics of the exiled Thomas Paine and the outcast William Godwin.
Speaking of Godwin, his contribution to Romanticism can’t be ignored. Every one of his works in the early 1790’s is worth reading, especially Political Justice, but the book I would pick out as crucial to the literary genre of Romanticism is Caleb Williams. A tale of a servant, Caleb, who discovers a terrible secret about his master, Ferdinando Falkland, and is forced to go on the run, Godwin’s aim was to create a portrait of “things as they are”. Published in 1794, just before the apex of the anti-Jacobin terror in England, Godwin shows the deep corruption of English society: rigged courts, unfair laws, undue deference to authority, and Burkean prejudice populate the novel. While it is not the best book you’ll ever read, Godwin’s ideas and themes are extremely important for anyone seeking to understand early Romanticism as a movement. The tale of the master/servant dialectic culminating in a bitter pursuit would also be a great influence on a later Romantic writer: Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley, who would lift this theme for Frankenstein.
Along with political radicalism, Romanticism came along at a time when the anti-slavery movement in Britain was beginning to pick up force. Poems such as Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce by William Cowper, Anna Barbauld’s Epistle to William Wilberforce (a leading anti-slavery campaigner), and Hannah More’s Slavery: A Poem were all influential. But the most important literary work to deal with slavery is Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. One of the first autobiographies ever written, Equiano dealt powerfully with his life as a slave. Taken from his homeland and renamed Gustavus Vassa, Equiano worked as a slave for a succession of masters before managing to buy himself out of his servitude. He ended up in London, as a key figure of the Abolitionist movement in Britain, and his autobiography became a key piece of literature for those seeking to abolish slavery.
Romanticism, as a movement, was subdued as you’d expect by government repression and a Europe-wide war. By 1815, however, it returned with a force. A second generation had grown up in the time between 1795 and 1815, far more radical than the first. And the most radical of these young Romantics was the atheist, polyamorous vegetarian proto-communist Percy Shelley. No poem reflects this radical side of Romanticism better than Shelley’s epic The Revolt of Islam, published in 1817. A mystical allegory of tyranny and revolution, the tyrant Othman is overthrown by Laon and Cythna, two lovers (who may also be related). Yet the paradise is crushed by the return of Othman, backed by other kings and tyrants, and a great plague and famine sweep the land. Laon and Cythna end the story after sacrificing themselves on a pyre and are greeted in paradise by an angel. Righteous, sensual, and powerful, Shelley’s clear aim is to allegorise the French Revolution, as well as contemporary events in England, as the post-war government was again trying to suppress the radicals, which would culminate in the massacre at St Peter’s Fields.
Romanticism, as a genre, covers so many works and texts it would be impossible to get a coherent sense of the whole movement via about 4 or 5 works. But I hope the ones above have at least been indicative of a good starting point to understand the ideology of Romanticism and the progression of the movement from an underground, Jacobinistic inner circle to mass popularity, which was met with push-back in the later period by far more radical writers.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft (1790)
Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke (1790)
The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (1792)
The Prelude – William Wordsworth (1806)
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Lord Byron (1812)
Waverley – Walter Scott (1814)
Darkness – Lord Byron (1816)
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (1818)
The Vampyre – John Polidori (1819)
The Masque of Anarchy & Peter Bell The Third – Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819)
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hogg (1824)
Words by Gabriel Rutherford
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