Who were the Romantics?

Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that flourished in Britain and countries around Europe from the late-18th century, with a huge impact on society and culture. Expressing themselves through novels and poems, paintings and music, architecture and philosophy, the Romantics emphasised passionate emotions over cold, hard reason; they lionised the imagination and the importance of the individual; and they adored the natural world over the advance of industrialisation. They lived unconventional lives, away from societal norms.

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“There is just an explosion of new thinking about literature and art, and about the role of literature and art in the life of a country and the life of its people,” explains Daisy Hay, associate professor in English Literature and Life Writing at the University of Exeter. “Romanticism was a reaction against the Neoclassicism [a revival of styles from classical antiquity, regarded as too rigid and restrictive] of the earlier 18th century.”

If the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution had brought a sense of order and rationalisation, Romanticism hoped to explore spontaneous creativity and art’s transcendental power in the world. “It saw a turn towards the self, to questions of interiority and imagination, but also a different kind of engagement with the natural world, the landscape and ideas of the sublime, which is crystallising in philosophy in that century,” says Professor Hay. “There is a different sense of political engagement; an urgency about the role of art and literature in big public conversations.”

When was the movement at its peak?

The 1780s is generally held to be when the Romantics really started to appear, particularly after 1789. “That year, when the Bastille fell [marking the start of the French Revolution], when everything changed in Europe, was a key moment in the timeline,” states Professor Hay. “In Britain, the heyday of Romanticism was the 1790s and the first two decades of the 19th century.”

By the early 1820s, some of the central figures of the movement had died and, although the influence of the Romantics endured, other cultural epochs were introduced to counter it, such as Realism. But in the space left behind, “there was this kind of hinterland in English literary history between Romanticism and the start of the Victorian era.”

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Who were the big names in Romanticism?

There were many Romantic artists, writers and thinkers, there were “the big six”, as Professor Hay puts it, across two broad groups in Britain. They were the William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake. With around a 10- to 15-year gap, the next generation was headed by Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron.

“But the model of Romanticism dominated by those sex men has been complicated over the last 20 years.” It, of course, does not include the main names in French Romanticism – like the painter Eugene Delacroix, composer Hector Berlioz, and poet Alfred de Vigny – and in Germany, like the philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel and the artist Caspar David Friedrich. More than that, we now see the movement as being the work of a much more heterogeneous group,” says Professor Hay.

This includes Shelley’s wife Mary (author of Frankenstein), writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, historical novelist Walter Scott, Gothic writers like Ann Radcliffe, and poets like Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Charlotte Smith, whose poetry comes earlier, wrote throughout the Romantic period: “Her poem Beachy Head [1806] is one of the great and undervalued poems of the movement in terms of how it thinks about history, literature, art, memory and the role of self in the landscape.”

What were some of the major works?

Professor Hay puts forward a selection of poems from the “big six”, including Lyrical Ballads, a volume produced jointly in 1798 by Wordsworth and Coleridge that was significant both for the quality of its prose and also as an “advertisement” of a new way of thinking about poetry and about its role in articulating political and social concerns.

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, published in 1794, fused words and images together in a way not seen before; the works of Shelley, such as Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815), developed the figure of the solitary Romantic genius in the landscape; and the 1819 odes by Keats were “extraordinary artistic expressions of the world he sees around him” and how to give words to that beauty.

Although mostly regarded as a work of Gothic literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) also thinks through the concept of the solitary Romantic creator. “And it’s pretty sceptical about that model of creativity,” explains Professor Hay. “It does not go well for Dr Frankenstein to be an isolated individual working alone. The novel is a critique of that Romantic model. It’s also about the potential of the human imagination to create something extraordinary and then to lose control of it, which is a very Romantic idea.”

What were the Romantics’ main influences?

“You cannot make a tidy distinction between Romantic art and what came before,” says Professor Hay. “This is a group who were really influenced by 18th-century literature: you can see Byron engaging with Alexander Pope [1688-1744]; you can see the influence of William Cowper [1731-1800], a really important figure in that turn towards the self, and seen in the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Percy and Mary Shelley were constantly reading 18th-century philosophy.”

They drew on all kinds of traditions and sources, and were influenced by works in other countries. The Grand Tour – the custom of wealthy and aristocratic young men travelling the continent – had opened up Europe as a site of tourism: in between the times of war and political turmoil, it became a place for artistic inquiry, a “version of Europe waiting to be discovered and remade,” says Professor Hay.

Did the Romantics refer to themselves as such?

The short answer is no. They certainly thought they were part of something new and of a movement that was changing artistic and intellectual perspectives, but they did not necessarily apply the term ‘Romantic’ to themselves. “The first person to use it was the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, in 1798,” according to Professor Hay.

“It begins to enter consciousness and public conversation – there are some early uses in the 1820s – but it becomes attached to this moment in literary history in the mid-19th century, so it was a retrospective term that sought to bring together all these different ideas and different people into a movement.”

How did the Romantics live?

To several key figures, living outside the traditional structures of society was a vital part of the Romantic movement. For the Shelleys, that meant living together while unmarried. In the 1790s, Wordsworth and Coleridge, in response to the disappointment of the political repression seen in Britain, moved to the Quantocks and then the Lake District. Professor Hay says that was where they “began to think about the way in which poetry might speak in the language of men, the way in which a person might respond to repression by taking language back to its most elemental form.”

For them, there was a conscious decision to live away from the metropolis; for other Romantics, though, their lifestyles were quite different. “Some of them are much more metropolitan. A label that gets attached to Keats, for example, is that he is of the ‘Cockney school’.” Blake similarly lived in an unconventional way that did not fit his contemporaries, but broadly still was against custom. “Living according to the dictates of your heart or your ideas,” says Professor Hay.

What was the reaction to the Romantics?

“They definitely weren’t really respected, there was a lot of ostracisation.” Keats’ poetry was slammed by most of the newspapers; Byron was driven out of England in 1816 due to rumours about his relationship with his half-sister Augusta, and also with boys; and Wordsworth and Coleridge were followed to the countryside by a spy looking for evidence of their radical behaviour. When Percy Shelly died in a boating accident in 1822, one newspaper wrote: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.”

That was not to say that some of the Romantics did not enjoy success and popularity in their lifetime, notably Wordsworth. By 1850, he is “one of the grand old men of English letters and made poet laureate,” says Professor Hay. “Byron is a major celebrity, but that’s more about scandal rather than literary worth until the years following his death.”

While Blake’s works are admired by a small group from the outset, it was not until the mid-19th century that many of the Romantics’ legacies were established. Biographies were written about them and Shelley’s poems, as the story goes, began to circulate in underground circles, such as the Chartists.

What is the legacy of the Romantics?

Although many of the Romantics only achieved literary success and acclaim posthumously, it must be remembered that many of them died young. Keats succumbed to tuberculosis at 25, Shelley drowned at 29, and Byron contracted a fever at the age of 36. Mary Shelley, while writing her novel The Last Man, spoke of being the last of her generation in her 20s. The first generation of the British Romantics lived longer, but they became more reactionary and turned away from the youthful idealism of the Romantic movement.

Still, the works they left behind continued to influence art and intellectual discourse in the 19th century and beyond. Professor Hay concludes: “So many ideas about creativity and authorship come form this period, from the idea that the author is no longer waiting for the muse to strike – the muse is within yourself, within your own imagination. That idea is so powerful and long-lasting that you can trace it everywhere, in how we think about the imagination and art and what it means to be creative in the 21st century.”

Daisy Hay is associate professor in English Literature and Life Writing at the University of Exeter, and author of Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (Chatto & Windus, 2022), Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (Bloomsbury, 2010) and The making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Bodleian Library, 2018).

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Words by Jonny Wilkes

Authors

Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.

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