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The Romantic Period

Special thanks to Eastern's own Catherine Allegretti for writing this introduction!

The Romantic Period began roughly around 1798 and lasted until 1837. The political and economic atmosphere at the time heavily influenced this period, with many writers finding inspiration from the French Revolution. There was a lot of social change during this period. Calls for the abolition of slavery became louder during this time, with more writing openly about their objections. After the Agricultural Revolution people moved away from the countryside and farmland and into the cities, where the Industrial Revolution provided jobs and technological innovations, something that would spread to the United States in the 19th century. Romanticism was a reaction against this spread of industrialism, as well as a criticism of the aristocratic social and political norms and a call for more attention to nature. Although writers of this time did not think of themselves as Romantics, Victorian writers later classified them in this way because of their ability to capture the emotion and tenderness of man.


Robert Burns is considered the pioneer of the Romantic Movement. Although his death in 1796 precedes what many consider the start of Romanticism, his lyricism and sincerity mark him as an early Romantic writer. His most notable works are “Auld Lang Syne” (1788) and “Tam o’ Shanter” (1791). Burns inspired many of the writers during the Romantic Period.

William Blake was one of the earliest Romantic Period writers. Blake believed in spiritual and political freedom and often wrote about these themes in his works. Although some of his poetry was published before the official start to the era, Blake can be seen as one of the founders of this movement. His works, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), are two of his most significant. These collections of poetry are some of the first to romanticize children, and in these works Blake pits the innocence and imagination of childhood against the harsh corruption of adulthood, especially within the city of London. He was also known for his beautiful drawings, which accompanied each of these poems.


Scholars say that the Romantic Period began with the publishing of Lyrical Ballads (1798) by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This was one of the first collections of poems that strayed from the more formal poetic diction of the Neoclassical Period. Poets of the period instead used everyday words that the average person could understand. This also aided in expressing human emotion. Wordsworth primarily wrote about nature. He felt it could provide a source of mental cleanliness and spiritual understanding. One of Wordsworth’s well-known works is “The Solitary Reaper” (1807). This poem praises the beauty of music and shows the outpouring of expression and emotion that Wordsworth felt was necessary in poetry. His greatest piece is The Prelude (1850), a semi-autobiographical, conversation poem that chronicles Wordsworth’s entire life. Conversational poetry was the literary genre most commonly used by Wordsworth and Coleridge, with the latter writing a series of eight poems following the genre structure of conversational verse and examining higher ideas of nature, man, and morality. This poetry is written in blank verse and is extremely personal and intimate in nature, with much of the content based on the author’s life.

Coleridge and Wordsworth were very good friends and the two often influenced each other. While Wordsworth was much more meditative and calm, Coleridge was the opposite and lived a more uncontrolled life. Of his three major poems only one is complete: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). This poem tells the story of a sailor’s journey and his experiences on the ship. The sailor is cursed by supernatural powers and is only able to return home when he appreciates the animals and nature around him. He is forced to wander the Earth sharing his story due to his earlier mistakes. His two other long form poems are Kubla Khan (1816) and Christabel (1816). According to Coleridge, his poem Kubla Khan came to him in an opium-induced dream after reading a work about Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. He was never able to finish the work. Christabel tells the story of the title character meeting a stranger named Geraldine who asks for Christabel’s help. Ignoring the supernatural signs, Christabel rescues and takes her home, but it appears that the stranger is not normal. Coleridge was only able to finish two out of his five intended parts to the poem.

The Second Generation of Romantic Poets

Succeeding Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth was a new generation of poets, each following the pattern of Romanticism of those before them. John Keats is still one of the most popular of these poets, with his work continually read and analyzed today. Keats aimed to express extreme emotion in his poetry, using natural imagery to do this. He is well known for his odes, lyrical stanzas that are typically written in praise of, or in dedication to, something or someone that the writer admires. These odes followed the genre of lyrical poetry and focused on intense emotion using personal narrative. Among these odes, “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) are most famous. Keats was preoccupied with death and aging throughout his life, which is shown in each of these two odes. “Ode to a Nightingale” discusses the temporary status of life and beauty, but in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he explores the artistic permanence of the images on the urn.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was seen as a radical thinker for his religious atheism and largely ostracized by his contemporaries for his political and social views. One of his most famous works is Adonais (1821). This was a pastoral elegy, a poem combining death and rural life, written for John Keats. The poem mourns the death of Keats and his contribution to poetry. Another of his well-known works was Ode to the West Wind (1819) where he discusses the force and power of the wild wind and shows the Romantic writer’s tendency to connect nature with art.

Lord Byron differed from the writing styles of Keats and Shelley. He was heavily influenced by the satire and wit from the previous period and infused this in his poetry. His satire Don Juan (1819-1824) is told in 17 cantos, divisions of long poems, and is based on the traditional legend of Don Juan. Byron changes the original telling of the story and instead of creating a womanizing character, he makes Don Juan someone easily seduced by women. The cantos follow his character’s journey as he travels throughout Europe meeting several women and continually trying to escape from trouble. Byron’s other notable work is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1816), another lengthy narrative poem. This poem was largely biographical and discusses many of Byron’s personal travels. It describes the reflections of a young man who is seeking new beginnings in foreign countries after experiencing many years of war. This poem is significant because it introduced the Byronic hero, typically a handsome and intelligent man with a tendency to be moody, cynical, and rebellious against social norms.


During the Romantic Period the novel grew in popularity and became one of the major sources of entertainment for middle class citizens. Authors began to tailor their writing to appeal to this audience. Sir Walter Scott gained popularity during this time, both in Britain and around Europe. He mainly wrote within the genre of historical romances and made this a viable form of fiction for later writers. Scott also focused on his home country of Scotland, often writing about its beauty and romanticism. Scott’s first major novel was Waverly (1814), which is set during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The rebellious group sought to restore the Stuart dynasty to Charles Edward Stuart. The hero, Edward Waverly, is commissioned to the army and sent to Scotland in 1745. While there, he joins the Jacobite groups even though he knows they will fail and is imprisoned; however, he is ultimately freed. The novel ends with a marriage between Waverly and a Baron’s daughter, Rose, representing the rational, realistic present of Scotland post-rebellion. While this was his first success, generally The Antiquary (1816), Old Mortality (1816), and The Heart of Midlothian (1818) are considered his masterpieces.

Gothic Fiction

During the second half of the 18th century, gothic fiction began to increase in popularity in Great Britain. This came from a look back to medieval times. Often this genre would combine supernatural and mysterious elements with the castles and dungeons of the past. The gothic novel combines the intense emotions of terror, anguish, fear, and even love. Coleridge and Byron both contributed works to this canon, but John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) stand out as two of the genre’s most enduring pieces. Polidori’s work has importance for creating the vampire literary genre. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published during the Victorian Period, would continue to generate popularity around vampirism.

Shelley combines elements of love and the supernatural in her gothic novel, Frankenstein. Dr. Victor Frankenstein harnesses the power of life and uses it to animate a creature he has built. When the creature is cast away and refused companionship for his hideous physical features, he becomes murderous and determines to ruin Victor’s life.

Women Have Arrived

The Romantic Period saw more successful women writers, a precursor to their popularity in the Victorian era. The most significant female writer during this period was Jane Austen. Writing toward the end of the period, Austen did not always adhere to the strict Romantic Period guidelines and mocked some of the more extravagant plots of previous writers. Instead, Austen chose to highlight the everyday lives of average people, making a turn toward social realism. Her novels include relatable heroines with adventures that the ordinary reader would likely encounter. She was also able to better depict the lives of women in this way. She understood that women had very little class mobility at the time and used many of her novels as a way to show this. Some of her famous novels include Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Northanger Abbey (1817). Pride and Prejudice is still widely read today and tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter among five. When Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy move into the neighborhood, the Bennet family hopes they will wed two of the unmarried daughters. Although Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy clash heads early on in the novel, they eventually fall in love and get married. Austen’s novel Emma is also very popular and shows the consequences of meddling with love. Emma thinks that she could be a matchmaker, but her efforts ultimately fail and lead to heartbreak along the way. Although in the beginning of the novel she vows never to marry, by the end she realizes she is in love with Mr. Knightly and the two do get married.


The European Romantic Movement reached America in the early 19th century. It encompassed many of the same ideals, genres, and styles as the European Romanticism and appealed to the Americans’ revolutionary spirit. The English Romantic Period ended with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to be fully felt by the people of England as the working class became dominant in the culture. Most significant would be the introduction of the steam printing press and the railroads, which would make it possible to easily make and distribute texts.


For this introduction I consulted: Robert Barnard’s A Short History of English Literature, Stephen Coote’s The Penguin Short History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders’ The Short Oxford History of English Literature