The Romantic Era is famous for its poetry--in fact, Romanticism is one of the most influential periods in the history of English poetry.
It’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll have to tackle Romantic poetry at some point, whether it’s in your English classes or on the AP Literature and Language exam. That’s why we’ve whipped up a crash course on the Romantic Era for you! We’ll explain the following in our crash course:
- Answer the question, “What is Romanticism?” by providing a Romanticism definition and describing the historical context of the era
- Explain Romanticism characteristics that are unique to the period’s philosophy and literature
- Give an overview of the key traits of Romanticism literature and poetry, including Romanticism examples
- List the six most important Romantic poets you need to know
- List five books for further reading if you want to learn more about the Romantic Era!
There’s a lot to cover about Romanticism, so let’s get started!
Feature image: Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix (1827)
The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1888)
What Is Romanticism? Definition, Historical Context, and Key Characteristics
So what exactly is Romanticism? Let’s start by defining it in one sentence: Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement spanning the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries that emphasized the individual mind, spirit, and body; the emotional, irrational, imaginative, and spontaneous.
In other words, when people talk about Romanticism, they aren’t just talking about a period in history or a type of literature. They’re also talking about a particular attitude toward humans, ideas, and the world. Additionally, the ideas of Romanticism were presented to the world through the visionary works of literature, art, music, and philosophy.
To fully define Romanticism, we also have to think about where it began. The Romantic Era is often referred to as a “movement.” And that makes sense! This Romantic movement began in western Europe, but eventually spread throughout Europe and to different parts of the world as more people heard the ideas of Romanticism and saw them represented in art. For example, the United States, Russia, and South America eventually contributed their own literary, musical, and artistic interpretations of Romanticism during the era.
What Caused Romanticism?
So why did the Romantic Era start? The answer to this question is where some historical context comes in. Like a lot of intellectual movements throughout history, Romanticism was partially a reaction to the ideas of the era before it. The Enlightenment period (1715-1789), which preceded the Romantic Era, placed a heavy emphasis on rationalism, science, and empiricism. In other words, the Enlightenment Era was about facts and rational thinking!
The Enlightenment Era came to an end because of two major events: the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution of 1789.
When the Industrial Revolution began in Europe, the world changed almost overnight. (Which is why we call it a “revolution,” of course!) New powered machinery was developed in the 1780s, factories popped up all over cities, and mass production began. To access the new jobs and opportunities created by industrialization, people began moving away from rural areas and into the increasingly crowded cities.
A second event that influenced the beginning of the Romantic Era was the French Revolution of 1789. The working classes in France staged a revolt and overthrew the French monarchy to pursue freedom and equality. The revolutionary spirit in France sparked an interest in rebellion throughout Europe and played a big role in setting the tone of the Romantic Era.
The Enlightenment Versus The Romantic Era
The great thinkers of the Romantic Era had something to say in response to the Enlightenment, industrialization, and the French Revolution. First, Romantic Era thinkers reacted to the cold, hard rationalism of the Enlightenment by reviving a connection to emotion and feeling, the irrationality of the natural world, and a belief in the freedom and genius of the individual thinker.
Second, in response to the mass production and urbanization fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, the Romantics emphasized the tranquility of rural landscapes, the power and grandeur of natural phenomena, and the need to honor and preserve the wildness of nature.
Finally, the ideals of freedom, independence, and equality that characterized the French Revolution spread throughout Europe and became hallmarks of the spirit of Romanticism as well. Romantic Era thinkers resisted the idea that society could control the individual mind, creativity, and imagination, and rebelled against any forces that tried to confine them.
And that pretty much sums up the main elements in the emergence of Romanticism! Next, we’ll talk about one of the main forms of expression that helped define the characteristics of Romanticism and really brought about the spirit of the age: Romantic poetry.
Romantic Poetry: The Superstar of the Romantic Era
It’s difficult to define Romanticism without talking about poetry! If you asked an English major what comes to mind first when you mention “Romanticism,” they’ll probably say poetry. As a genre, Romantic poetry has its own defining characteristics and aesthetic, and the poetic works written during this era have many shared thematic elements that make them “Romantic.”
In general, the Romantic poets explored three main topics in their poetry:
- the relationship between humans and nature,
- the gothic and the surreal (more on what that means later), and
- what the purpose of poetry is and how the identity of the poet should be understood.
The Romantic poets believed that the inner world of humans provided endless possibilities for new ideas and ways of thinking and living, which is exemplified in much of the poetry of the era. We can look more closely at the three main topics of Romantic poetry to see how this spirit of freedom and creativity was expressed throughout the Romantic Era.
Theme 1: The Relationship Between Humanity and Nature
A major theme in Romantic poetry is the relationship between humans and their emotions and the natural world. The Romantic poets felt that humans’ internal lives and the exterior, natural world had a lot in common: they could both be mysterious, open and vast, wild and free, and sometimes a little bit terrifying.
Romanticism’s focus on the relationship between humanity and nature was at least partially inspired by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, which we mentioned earlier.
Enlightenment thinkers sought to rationalize natural phenomena. Similarly, industrialism depended on humanity’s ability to harness natural forces, like water power and fossil fuels, and put them to work. The new industrial society also required a big human workforce. People’s lives were increasingly caught up in working long, harsh hours in grimy factories for low wages...which also forced them to move into dirty, crowded cities.
So how did the Romantic poets respond to the ways that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution used and controlled nature and human beings? By portraying and praising nature’s power to inspire awe and terror in humans instead.
Here’s what we mean: think of a time when you heard a booming clap of thunder. It probably startled you, even though it was a pretty cool thing to hear, right? That’s what we’re talking about when we say nature can be both awe-inspiring and scary at the same time!
To the Romantics, those moments of awe and terror in response to grand natural phenomena were a spiritual experience. This spiritual connection to nature came to be known as “the Sublime.” In the midst of industrialization, the Romantic poets felt they bore the responsibility of reinvigorating that spiritual connection to nature by portraying the Sublime in their poetry.
A Gothic castle in Normandy
Theme 2: The Gothic and the Surreal
When most people think of the gothic and the surreal in literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first thing that comes to mind. And guess what? It’s a Romantic novel! While the Gothic and surreal are more commonly associated with fiction and novels from the Romantic Era, these themes also come up in a lot of Romantic poetry, too.
The Gothic can be thought of as portrayals of terrifying or horrifying phenomena that readers find thrilling. It’s kind of like that rush of adrenaline you get when you go through a haunted house or watch a scary movie. Part of the theory behind the Gothic in literature is that people like being scared.
Surrealism and the Gothic often go hand-in-hand. Surrealism’s goal is to subvert--or challenge--normal life by tapping into people’s unconscious imagination. Think of a weird dream you had recently where what you were experiencing wasn’t quite real. Whether you were floating above your desk in math class or riding in a car with a long-lost friend, dreams often blend bits of reality with your imagination. That, dear readers, is surrealism at work!
In poetry from the Romantic Era, the Gothic conveys a sort of mysteriousness through the setting and characters, and it often relies on supernatural forces and the unruliness of nature to create the sense of the surreal. If you’re reading a book or poem and there are cobwebs, dark, decaying passageways, or mysterious women who seem capable of putting you under a spell--and you’ve got goosebumps!--it’s possible you’re reading a piece of Gothic literature and experiencing the surreal.
So where can you find this in Romantic poetry? Pretty much everywhere! One good example is in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic poem “Christabel,” which portrays dark scenery, damsels in distress, and alludes to the presence of supernatural forces. For the Romantics, using gothic imagery was just another way to explore the vast possibilities for human emotion and feeling, and to emphasize the ways that nature has the power to do things that are beyond human control.
Pretty spooky, huh?
A handwritten poem by Mary Wollstonecraft (1804)
Theme 3: Odes, Lyrics, and Sonnets
Every literary era is known for creating or putting its own twist on different literary forms. For instance, early twentieth century novels are known for popularizing the stream of consciousness style, where the author basically writes whatever pops into their head. Additionally, the unique rhyme scheme of the English sonnet was developed during the Renaissance in the 1500s!
The Romantic poets also used specific poetic forms: odes, lyrical ballads, and sonnets were popular among the Romantics. Let’s quickly define these three poetic forms.
Odes are long, stately, and lyrical. They’re written in stanzas of varied metrical patterns. In terms of theme, odes are often fixated on paying tribute to some kind of divine or supernatural creative power that the poet admires and even seeks to possess.
Lyric poems are briefer than odes. They’re often highly emotive and written in the first person, so the reader gets an intimate look at the feelings of the narrator of the poem who, in Romantic poetry, is often the poet themselves. Lyric poetry emphasizes sound and pictorial imagery instead of a long narrative or dramatic tales.
Sonnets, or poems with 14 lines and patterned end-rhyme schemes, were often used by women poets during the Romantic period to portray the feelings and moods experienced in romantic relationships. Some poets during the era would write sonnet sequences to portray an extended drama between lovers.
How These Forms Work in Romantic Poetry
So what does the use of these poetic forms have to do with the dominant themes of the Romantic Era? Well, the Romantic poets were extremely interested in understanding how poetic genius works. In other words, they wanted to figure out what made someone a poetic genius!
Thus, it makes sense that Romantic poets would write odes lauding the creative genius of divine beings. Actually, Romantic poets saw themselves as creators, and they were constantly searching for inspiration for the creative genius within themselves.
The Romantic poets also wanted to explore the complexity of how they responded emotionally to their experiences in the natural world. Lyric poetry allowed them to express these emotional reactions in first-person by describing the sounds and visual images that caused them. It was a way for poets to share their feelings with their readers.
Finally, sonnets also provided an ideal form for expression of feelings exchanged between people. The form of the sonnet was used to move away from the logic and rationality of the Enlightenment and more toward mood and feeling. Just take a look at Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” to see what we’re talking about!
Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare, who wasn't a Romantic poet but was definitely a poetic genius!
Poetic Genius: Philosophizing About Poets and Poetry
We’ve already mentioned that the Romantic poets were kind of obsessed with poetry and the people who wrote it. In fact, they loved to philosophize about where and how poets got their inspiration and what exactly “poetic genius” means. In general, the Romantics sought to answer the question, “What is a poet?” And they had some pretty specific ideas about how that question should be answered.
The Romantics defined “genius” as the state of being like a visionary or a seer. It wasn’t a skill to them, but more like having the capacity to view things in a way that others could not. William Wordsworth described the creative genius as one “who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to common among mankind.” The Romantics saw poets as individuals who just had a greater intellectual and emotional capacity for interpreting the world than everyone else.
Wordsworth also coined the phrase “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” during the Romantic Era. For the Romantics, that phrase pretty much summed up their understanding of how that creative genius played out in writing poetry. Writing poetry wasn’t a calculated, meticulously planned process. At its purest, poetic inspiration occurred when the writer was so overcome with emotion in response to something witnessed or experienced that, when they sat down to reflect on that experience in a quiet moment later on, a poem flowed forth freely.
But this kind of poetic genius wasn’t just about seeing things that others couldn’t—it was also about putting that vision into words that everyday people could understand. The Romantic poets lauded the ability to use the language of everyday people to capture everyday events, too.
Top 7 Romantic Era Poets You Definitely Need to Know
If you’re taking AP English in high school, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Romantic Era poets will come up on your reading lists and possibly even the AP exams. We’ve picked out the six major Romantic poets that you’ll probably need to be familiar with for the AP exam, and we’ve given you an overview of who they were, why they’re important, what their major works are, and which Romanticism characteristics you can find popping up in their poetry.
A caveat here: there are other poets who were important to the era, and our list provides a small circle of representation based on one Romanticism definition (for example: all six poets on our list are from England...but Romantic poetry was not confined to England!). That’s because the AP exams and reading lists for high school English courses have been known to pull works most regularly from this list of poets. We want you to know that there’s a lot more out there, but that it’s almost guaranteed you’ll need to be familiar with the folks on this list when exam time rolls around.
Blake didn’t get much recognition for his poetry during his lifetime (his contemporaries kind of thought he was a weirdo), but in the years since, literary scholars have praised his work for its embodiment of the aesthetic of the Romantic Era: his poetry is creative, highly expressive, mystical, and philosophical. Blake believed totally in freedom and equality—for the sexes, different races, the individual, and, perhaps most of all, for the mind of the artist and poet.
Because of that, his poetry was some of the most influential of the period, and references to it frequently appear in literature today!
Works You Should Know:
Coleridge is considered a founder of the Romantic Movement (along with his BFF, William Wordsworth), and his belief that deeply profound poetic ideas can be expressed using common, everyday language had a tremendous influence on the poetry of the Romantic Era.
Coleridge was known by his contemporaries to be a wordsmith through and through—he was meticulous in his crafting and revision of his poems, and his fellow poets and philosophers were often inspired by his approach to poetic language and philosophy.
Works You Should Know:
William Wordsworth by William Shuter
Perhaps the most familiar poet of the Romantic Era, William Wordsworth also helped to establish the movement with his joint publication of Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge. Wordsworth was England’s poet laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850, which means he was kind of a big deal.
Wordsworth loved to venture about in the natural world, and his frequent travels and excursions across Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes frequently influenced the imagery in his poems. Wordsworth also gave what might be considered the Romantic Era’s most famous definition of poetry, which he called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
Works You Should Know
- The Prelude (It’s book length, so we recommend reading one section to get a sense of it. Just remember: it’s his most famous work!)
- “Tintern Abbey”
- “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
Known simply as “Lord Byron,” this Romantic poet lived fast and died young—at the age of 36 from a fever he contracted in Greece while fighting in the Greek War of Independence. Though his years were short and his contemporaries often rolled their eyes at his aristocratic excesses and frequent romantic scandals, Lord Byron is still known as one of the most influential Romantic poets.
Works You Should Know
- Don Juan (Also book length, and also Byron’s most famous work. The Romantics loved long poems!)
Percy Shelley by Alfred Clint
Shelley achieved fame and recognition for his poetry posthumously, when people began praising the genius of his long, philosophical and lyric poetry. Shelley also ran around with some famous friends—Lord Byron and John Keats were part of his inner circle—and he was even married to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Shelley’s philosophical ideas about nonviolent resistance have influenced many political thinkers and civil rights activists in the years since his death.
Works You Should Know
Like Lord Byron, Keats died far too young—at the age of 25—from an unfortunate bout of tuberculosis. His poetic works only saw publication in the four years leading up to his death, and he slowly began receiving praise for his works after he died.
Keats is known for writing odes that are filled with sensual imagery from the natural world and heavy emotion. As a result, he’s now known as one of the foremost poets of the Romantic Era...and of the English language in general!
Works You Should Know
You’ve probably noticed that there aren’t very many women on this list. That’s because during the Romantic period, poetry was considered a masculine art! But that’s not to say that women weren’t writing poetry at all. One of the most famous poets of the Romantic period was Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Browning’s poetry often confronted social injustices of the period, including the subjugation of women, child labor, and slavery. While that made her unpopular with some readers, her brave confrontation of those issues is what makes her work widely read today.
Works You Should Know
- “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43)
- “The Cry of the Children”
- Aurora Leigh (which is actually a novel written in verse)
The Ozymandias Colossus in Egypt
2 Romantic Poems, Explicated
“Explicating a poem” sounds like doing surgery, and that’s kind of what it’s like. What it really means to explicate a poem is to simply look at all of the different literary elements that make up the poem and analyze their meaning. Explicating poetry can also help you discover new Romanticism definitions that you hadn’t thought of before!
To help you see how the poetry of the era exemplifies Romanticism characteristics, we’re going to briefly explicate, or analyze, two Romantic poems for you below.
“Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Before getting into a sample explication, let’s start with the poem itself. You can read the poem below and look back at it as we analyze it afterward!
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert....Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
We aren’t going to explicate every single line of Ozymandias, but we are going analyze Shelley’s use of a historical allusion and strong imagery to get an idea of what the major theme of the poem is.
First, we’ll start with Shelley’s historical allusion to Ozymandias. (Remember: an allusion is a reference that doesn’t name the object specifically. Think of it as an implied mention.) Here, the poem alludes to Ozymandias. Ozymandias was the Greek name of a powerful pharaoh from ancient Egypt. While we can’t know for sure, it’s likely that Shelley is alluding to the real, historical person.
Most of the poem is made up of the narrator’s description of a giant, broken, stone statue of Ozymandias through imagery. The traveler describes Ozymandias’s face in the statue as frowning, sneering, and cold. In text engraved on a pedestal at the bottom of the statue, Ozymandias himself speaks to those who might view the statue of him in the future, saying, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Ozymandias seems to be speaking to all kings and rulers who might follow him to let them know that, no matter how great they become, they’ll never surpass his greatness. And, yet, despite the grandeur of the statue of Ozymandias, the traveler tells readers it has fallen into total decay.
So how does all this imagery of a decaying statue in the desert exemplify Romanticism characteristics? Well, you probably remember that the Romantic poets were really interested in thinking about the tension between human power and the power of nature. Shelley points out how even the most powerful people in history still cannot stand up to nature’s power over time. In the end, everybody—even the mighty, like Ozymandias—return to the dust to be a part of nature again.
“I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud,” by William Wordsworth
Here’s a second poem we can explicate for you—a lyric poem by William Wordsworth. Give it a read, then check out our brief analysis below!
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
In Wordsworth’s poem, the narrator—also a poet—is doing what the Romantic poets loved to do best: reveling in the beauty and grandeur of nature. Most of the poem is made up of rich visual imagery: the poet is describing a long line of daffodils that stretch along the bay of a lake. While the sparkling waves of the lake are beautiful to the poet, they can’t compare to the lighthearted swaying of the daffodils in the breeze.
The lake and the daffodils aren’t the only images of nature that the poet describes, though. At the beginning of the poem, he uses a simile to compare himself to a process that happens in the natural world: the movement, or “wandering,” of a single cloud in the sky. Like a lonely cloud, the poet wanders alone through nature...until he stumbles upon the daffodils. The narrator then uses personification to make the daffodils seem somewhat human or supernatural: he describes them as “tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”
While the poet is delighted by the sight of the dancing daffodils during his walk, he ends the poem by expressing how the memory of the daffodils fills him with pleasure over and over again when he is back home, alone, away from nature.
So here’s how Wordsworth’s poem exemplifies some characteristics of Romanticism. Remember that idea about the Sublime? The poet in Wordsworth’s poem is definitely experiencing sublime awe in response to nature when he sees the daffodils dancing.
The poet also experiences the “oneness” with nature that the Romantic poets relentlessly pursued. The internal spirit of the poet is at one with the external spirit of nature as he sees it on his walk: both are lighthearted and happy. Nature revitalizes him in a way that urban, industrial life can’t.
Finally, Wordsworth implies that the poet’s memory of the daffodil’s sprightly dance itself embodies a poem. We mentioned earlier that Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” That’s exactly what Wordsworth describes in the final stanza of the poem. When the poet is alone, tranquilly resting, he is overcome by a recollection of the daffodils’ dance, and re-experiences the same powerful feelings he felt that day on his walk by the lake.
4 Best Books To Build Your Knowledge of the Romantic Era
If you want to learn more about the Romantic Era and Romantic poetry, there are lots of books out there that can help supplement your knowledge. We’ve selected four books that we think could help you learn more about Romanticism, depending on what you want to explore. Check out the four books for additional reading on Romanticism in our list below!
This book provides a collection of literary works from the Romantic period. It includes poetry and essays written by the famous poets listed above—Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—but it also includes works by some lesser-known writers, too.
Additionally, the structure of this book is also extremely user-friendly: the book’s editors have divided up the included works into sections based on dominant Romanticism characteristics, including the era’s main themes and literary forms, like “Romantic Solitude, Suffering, and Endurance,” “Ennobling Interchange: Man and Nature,” and “The Gothic and Surreal,” to name just a few. If you’re looking for quick access to writings on a particular theme of Romanticism, this book will come in handy.
If you find Romantic poetry confusing and are looking for a reading and analysis guide, this book is definitely one to look into. Romantic Poetry: An Annotated Anthology takes an in-depth look at a selective list of poems written mostly by the “big names” of poets we listed earlier. Its examinations of individual poems are highly detailed, and they break down the literary elements you want to become familiar with for explication and analysis, like theme, genre, structure, rhyme, form, and imagery.
Another plus with this text is that it provides contextual and background info about each poem as well, so if you need to be able to talk about how a poem fit into the historical context or the Romantic Era more generally, these annotations can give you a place to start.
One of the big themes of the Romantic Era was a fascination with the identity and freedom of the poet. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives explores that theme in a narrative-style by describing the relationships among a talented, passionate, and close-knit group of writers: the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, and other young writers and intellectuals who were included in the group.
If you need help interpreting the relationship between some of the Romantic poets’ personal lives and their writing, this book will provide you with a unique perspective. Young Romantics is also a great option if you want to learn more about how women fared during the Romantic period.
If you’ve made it to the end of this guide and you’re still asking, “What is romanticism?” then Michael Ferber’s Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction could be a good resource for you. Ferber’s book is exactly what it says it is: a very short introduction to Romanticism as an intellectual movement and era of philosophical thought.
This book doesn’t limit itself to discussion of literature or a single country and instead explores the birth, development, and decline of Romanticism across regions and artistic mediums. If you want a bird’s eye view of the Romantic Era, Ferber’s book is a great choice!
Background information—like the stuff we talk about in this post!—is important to understanding literature. But you need more tools in order to analyze it properly. Here’s a list of the 31 literary devices you must know in order to really understand and talk about literature. (Oh, and here’s a look at the 9 literary devices that you’ll find in every piece of literature ever.)
When it comes to textual analysis, practice makes perfect. Why not pick up a good book and test out your skills? Added bonus: the books on this list are great choices for the AP Literature exam, too!
These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.