This time period starting in around the time of both the American and French Revolutions and lasting through the nineteenth century was called the Romantic Period or Romanticism, which was an artistic, literary, and philosophical movement that began in eighteenth century Western Europe. It was a rejection of the Enlightenment Era (Age of Reason), where reason and scientific achievement were stressed. The Romantics stressed the imagination, strong emotions, such as horror, awe, terror, and the love of nature, such as was beginning in poetry. In England, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a perfect example, as she blended the love of nature and the horror of a scientific creation that became a deadly monster. The term “romantic” to describe this period does not pertain to courting behavior. It refers to a “romance,” which was a heroic poetic narrative that began in the Middle Ages.
Some of the popular themes in Romantic literature were an emphasis on women and children, exotic foreign lands to escape from modern life, extreme appreciation of nature, emotional outpouring, imagination versus reason, and criticism of the past, especially the ideas expressed in the Age of Enlightenment in terms of reliance on science. Stories with supernatural aspects and mysticism were popular, such as Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in America. James Fenimore Cooper was also popular and elevated the Indian population by calling them “noble savages.” American Transcendentalist poets like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson come from the Romantic influence and European romantic poets. It was a time of social revolution, with women advocating more rights to education and the people rising up against slavery. As out text reminds us, though, women were more likely to be critical of the “romance,” as it often depicted the male fantasy of the virtues of “silence, self-sacrifice, passivity, and unquestioning obedience” (8). As a result of the French revolution and Napoleon’s invasions, England focused inward and experienced an intense sense of nationalism, and it spread to other countries as well, so all over Europe and America, nationalistic themes were expressed in literature, art, and music. Social order was being challenged; lower classes were demanding changes in Parliament, leading to the unsuccessful “Peterloo” in 1819.
Industrialization also flourished in the 1800s, with factory towns and mines springing up, employing children as young as three, and scarring the countryside. This was agonizing to the Romantic poets, who celebrated Nature, but it also led to vast improvements in the transportation system throughout the country. British expansion into India led to the opium trade, which found its way into the hands of poets, who created some of the world’s most famous poems, such as Kubla Khan (Coleridge), Ode to a Nightingale (Keats), and Confessions of an Opium Eater (De Quincey) (21).
One key point when studying any literary period is that the writers represented a diversity of social class, background, political parties, and all other categories one can be placed into. Our text also points out that literary periods are hard to pin down precisely. They can be placed into a rough time frame, such as the Romantic era was roughly in the 1780s to the 1830s, but the Romantic era also is defined in terms of subject matter, emotion, and theme.