Romantic era poetry rejects neoclassicism and the Enlightenment and is characterized by individualism and subjectivity, emotion, and the pastoral. There is a preoccupation with the poet as genius and the hero’s inner struggles and passions. Although definitions of the term vary, Romanticism continues to exert considerable influence over Western thought and art but should not be confused with contemporary notions of what is romantic. Nearly every country has produced Romantic poets.
A wide-sweeping artistic and philosophical movement that began in the late 18th century in Germany, Romanticism arrived in different countries at different times. The complexity and multiplicity of the movement is reflected in the varied definitions of the term, causing American scholar A.O. Lovejoy to remark that romantic means so many things that it means nothing at all by itself. Although love can be a subject of Romantic poetry, Romanticism has little in common with what is popularly considered to be romantic.
Generally Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment and continues to exert influence over Western ideas and thoughts. Romantic era poetry exalts the individual; the poet becomes a prophet or moral leader who gives voice to the common man and nature. Rather than adhere to conventional forms, romantic era poetry created new modes of expression and a dynamic language to articulate how a personal experience becomes a representative one of all human experience.
Nature is a substantial presence in Romantic poetry, functioning as a teacher and companion. The poets viewed their art as mediation between humanity and nature and would set their human dramas on her stage. The Romantic wanderer and vicariously the reader would learn his or her place in the universe by journeying through nature’s dark spaces and exotic dream lands. The mysterious, monstrous, and strange are all Romantic era poetic predilections.
Generally Romantic era poetry emphasized intuition and imagination over reason, everyday language over inscrutable poetic form, and the pastoral over the urban. Imagination is the gateway to transcendence, and the poet filters powerful emotions and emotive responses, translating them into an accessible poetic form. The arguably extreme idealism of Romantic era poetry characterized by a search for immortality, perfection, and pure love was often in conflict with the realities of everyday life.
Some of the most well-known Romantic era poets include William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are representative American Romantic poets. The movement also included accomplished female poets like Mary Shelley, Mary Robinson, and Charlotte Turner Smith.
Romanticism as a movement lasted well into the 20th century, and its ideals and themes in poetry have yet to completely die out. Aspects of Romanticism can be found in many subsequent movements, including surrealism and French symbolism. Some literary theorists have begun to question the Romantic perception of the poet as a genius and individual creator. Instead, they argue that a poem is part of a web or archive or other texts and the poet is one of a collective of voices limited by the boundaries of language.