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What is Romanticism?

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Image of Ben Kehoe
Ben KehoeResearcher, University of Oxford
Monument and Boat House at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex
Monument and Boat House at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement which took place in Europe between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. Learn how the Romantics sought to break from the guiding principles of the Enlightenment – which established reason as the foundation of all knowledge – and emphasised the importance of imagination, emotional sensitivity and individual subjectivity.

Romanticism in literature

Romanticism in English literature started in the late 18th century, with the poets William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It continued into the 19th century with the second-generation Romantic poets, most notably Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron.

In contrast to the reasoned detachment of the Enlightenment, the poetic works of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge were characterised by their emotional sensitivity and reverence for nature.

Second-generation Romantics

Though the second generation of Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Byron, became notorious for their subversive and salacious works, later Romantic poetry also retained many characteristics established by Blake and Wordsworth. Keats’ odes, much like the poetry of Wordsworth, took inspiration from nature, and Byron’s poetry had a strong introspective character.

Shelley, Byron and Keats also acquired a posthumous reputation as ‘Romantic’ because many aspects of their lives – including their travels around Europe and the fact they died young – conformed to the emerging 19th century ‘ideal type’ of Romantic hero.

Sun of Venice going to Lea by JMW Turner, a painting in The Drawing Room at Knightshayes
Sun of Venice going to Lea by JMW Turner, Knightshayes, Devon | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Romanticism in art

Nature was a source of inspiration in the visual arts of the Romantic movement too. This broke with the longer tradition of historical and allegorical paintings, which took scenes from history or the Bible as their principle subject matter.

Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable – as well as printmakers and engravers such as Samuel Palmer and Thomas Bewick – chose instead to depict the natural world, most notably landscapes and maritime scenes.

Romantic artists depicted nature to be not only beautiful, but powerful, unpredictable and destructive. This was a radical departure from Enlightenment representations of the natural world as orderly and benign.

Romanticism in music

The Romantic movement in music originated with Beethoven, whose later works drew upon and developed the classical styles of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven’s later symphonies and piano sonatas were made distinctive by their expressiveness and strong emotive quality. These characteristics set the tone for successive generations of Romantic composers in Europe, including Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.

Romantic music was also highly innovative and technically adventurous. Virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt dazzled audiences in the great concert halls of Europe with his masterly performances and never-before-seen techniques. Meanwhile, Polish-born prodigy Frédéric Chopin amazed Parisian salons with his expressive and emotionally complex piano pieces.

The Romantic period was also the ‘golden age’ of opera in Europe, with composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner combining music, lyrics and visual imagery to construct dramatic narratives which continue to captivate audiences today.

Romanticism as a mindset

Romanticism may be best understood not as a movement but as a mindset. The artists, poets and musicians of the Romantic period were united by their determination to use their art to convey emotion or provoke an emotional response from audiences.

There was also something pioneering – almost revolutionary – about Romanticism. It involved breaking with the past and consciously moving away from the ideas and traditions of the Enlightenment. In so doing, Romanticism fundamentally changed the prevailing attitudes toward nature, emotion, reason and even the individual.

Romantic places in our care

View over the stone wall at the front of Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Lake District
View over the wall outside Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Wordsworth House and Garden

It was in his parental home in Cockermouth, Cumbria, that William Wordsworth first fell in love with nature and literature. As a young boy he enjoyed going for walks in the Cumbrian countryside and reading from his father’s collection of books.

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Trusted Source

This is a Trusted Source article, created in partnership with the University of Oxford. This article contains contributions from Ben Kehoe. Ben is a researcher at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on popular politics and popular political participation during the Italian Risorgimento: the period from 1815 to 1870 in which Italy was unified as a single state.

A close up of a portrait of William Wordsworth as an older man at Wordsworth House

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