University of Oxford

Characteristics of Romanticism


‘Romanticism’ is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe in 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1798 to 1832 (some historians say- from 1800 to 1840). Partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, it was also a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Neo-classical Age (Neo-classicism) or the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific explanation of nature. Many critics say that The Romantic Movement appeared in Germany, which soon spread to England as well as France, however, the main source of inspiration came from the events and ideologies of the French Revolution. Other than this, even the industrial revolution which began during the same period is also said to be responsible for the development of this movement.

Though Romantic elements were found in art and literature since several centuries, it was the publication of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798 that marked the beginning of the Romantic period. Its emphasis was mainly on the imagination and emotions, and the period is marked especially in English literature by sensibility and the use of autobiographical material, an admiration of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a liking for melancholy, and the use in poetry of older verse forms. This period is called the second creative period of English literature (Elizabethan Age is the first). The literature of this period is largely poetical; it is the golden age of the lyric.

Characteristics of Romanticism:

Let us look at some of the characteristics which influenced all the artistic fields of that period. They include-

       1.  Love of Nature/Excessive Interest in Nature

       2.  Emotions vs. Rationality

       3.  Artist, the Inventor/High Imagination/Spontaneity

       4.  Nationalism

       5.  Exoticism

       6.  Supernaturalism

       7.  Subjectivity

       8.  Revolutionary Zeal

       9.  Medievalism

1. Love of Nature/Excessive Interest in Nature:

The Romantics greatly emphasized on the vitality of nature, and one of its main features in poetry is the beauty of nature prevalent in the country life. This was chiefly because the Industrial Revolution transformed man’s natural order and dragged man from the serene rural life towards the city life. Nature was not only appreciated for its physical beauty by the Romantics, but also for its ability to help the urban man in finding his real identity.

2. Emotions vs. Rationality:

Romanticism placed human emotions, feelings, instinct and intuition above everything else whereas the neoclassical age focused on logic and wisdom. While the poets in the former era adhered to the rules and regulations while selecting a subject and writing about it, the Romantic writers relied on their emotions and feelings to create poetry. This finds its suitable expression in the definition of poetry by William Wordsworth, where he says that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The emphasis on emotions was also spread to music created in the Romantic Period, and was seen in the compositions made by great musicians like Weber, Beethoven, Schumann, and the like.

3. Artist, the Inventor/High Imagination/Spontaneity:

As the Romantic period emphasized on emotions, the position or role of the artist or the poet also obtained superiority.  The artist, in the earlier times, was regarded as an individual who copied the outer world through his art. Nevertheless, it disclosed this faith. The poet or artist was seen as a creator of a piece of work which echoed his individuality and intrinsic mind. It was also for the first time that the poems written in the first person were being acknowledged, as the poetic personality became one with the voice of the poet.

4. Nationalism:

The announcement of nationalism is one of Romanticism’s main thoughts and most durable legacies which became a vital topic of Romantic art and political philosophy. From the most primitive parts of the movement, with their spotlight on advance of national languages and tradition, and the significance of neighboring norms and folklores, to the movements which would redraw the atlas of Europe and initiate calls for freewill of nationalities, nationalism was one of the key vehicles of Romanticism, its function, expression and sense. In the early hours, Romantic nationalism was stoutly motivated by Rousseau, and by the suggestions of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that the geography shaped the usual economy of a people, and shaped their norms and the social order. The nature of nationalism transformed significantly, yet, subsequent to the French Revolution with the rise of Napoleon, and the retorts in other nations. Napoleonic nationalism and republicanism were, initially, inspirational to movements in other nations: autonomy and an awareness of national harmony were held to be two of the reasons why France was able to beat other countries in conflict. But as the French Republic became Napoleon’s Empire, Napoleon became not the inspiration for nationalism, but the object of its struggle. The Romantics borrowed heavily from the folklore and the popular art. During the earlier periods, literature and art were considered to belong to the high class educated people, and the country folks were not considered fit to enjoy them. Also, the language used in these works was highly poetic, which was totally different from that which was spoken by people. However, Romantic concept changed all this. Their works were influenced from the ballads and folklore that were created by the masses or the common people, rather than from the literary works that were well-liked. Aside from poetry, taking up from the tradition and ballads is one of the very significant traits in music too. As the Romantics became concerned and paid attention on developing the folklore, culture, language, conventions and beliefs of their own motherland, they developed a sense of Nationalism which echoed in their works. Moreover, the Romantics wrote poems in an easy manner and their language was from everyday life.

5. Exoticism:

In conjunction with Nationalism, the Romantics even developed the love of the exotic or the unusual. Therefore, the distant and puzzling sites were portrayed in many of the literary plus creative works of that era. They by no means disagreed with each other even though this was totally reverse from the principle of Nationalism. The basis for this is that just like the exotic places, the public did not recognize the folklore of their places before, and consequently they appeared to be as unclear as the remote situations. In company with sentimentality and mysticism, exoticism is also one of the most well-known qualities in art.

6. Supernaturalism:

The Romantics were interested in the paranormal and integrated it in their works. This attraction for the strange and the imaginary also bring about the progress of the Gothic romance which became popular throughout this age. We can find paranormal ingredients in Coleridge’s, “Kubla Khan” and in Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. It is in fact a bit hard to describe the traits of this movement exactly since no Romantic author or artist pursued any type of regulations or guidelines. However, some of these qualities mirror in the works of that age. But, we must admit that it endeavoured to represent the world, particularly human nature in new-fangled brightness even though a lot of authors and critics have called this movement unreasonable.

7. Subjectivity:

Generally, the term subjectivity refers to the subject and his or her perspective, feelings, beliefs, and desires. The Romantics emphasised on introspection, psychology, melancholy, and depression. Frequently, the art contended with passing away, transience and mankind’s emotions regarding these things. The artist was an exceptionally idiosyncratic inventor whose imaginative spirit was more significant than firm devotion to official canons and customary modus operandi. They gave value to poetic I, which means that the bookworm notices the writer in the central character.

8. Revolutionary Zeal:

Rebellion and revolt (particularly concerned with individual rights), individualism, and liberty from cruelty fascinated the Romantics.

9. Medievalism:

The name “Romanticism” itself was derived from the medieval genre chivalric romance. Romantics were interested in the medieval past, the supernatural, the mystical, the “gothic,” and the unusual. Romanticism has been seen as “the revival of the life and thought of the Middle Ages”, reaching beyond rational and Classicist models to elevate medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval, in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl and industrialism, embracing the exotic, unfamiliar and distant.

This movement contributed to the strong influence of such romances, disproportionate to their actual showing among medieval literature, on the image of Middle Ages, such that a knight, a distressed damsel, and a dragon is used to conjure up the time pictorially.The Romantic interest in the medieval can particularly be seen in the illustrations of English poet William Blake and the Ossian cycle published by Scottish poet James Macpherson’s in 1762, which inspired both Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (1773), and the young Walter Scott. The latter’s Waverley Novels, including Ivanhoe (1819) and Quentin Durward (1823) helped popularise, and shape views of, the medieval era. The same impulse manifested itself in the translation of medieval national epics into modern vernacular languages, including Nibelungenlied  (1782) in Germany, The Lay of the Cid (1799) in Spain, Beowulf (1833) in England,The Song of Roland (1837) in France, which were widely read and highly influential on subsequent literary and artistic work. (Wikipedia)


In the end, Romanticism is a movement that emerged as a reaction against Neoclassicism. The Romantic period wanted to break away from the traditions and conventions that were dear to the Neoclassical Age and make way for individuality and experimentation. As literature was the first to be influenced by the ideas and ideologies of this movement before spreading to art and music, the characteristics in literature are the same for other art forms too.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973).

Ferber, Michael. 2010. Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Reidhead et al., Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Romantic Period – Volume D (W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.) 2006.

Smith, Logan Pearsall (1924) Four words: romantic, originality, creative, genius. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Workman, Leslie J., “Medievalism and Romanticism,” Poetica (1994).