Study Guide

Romanticism

Romanticism Biography

Introduction

Romanticism as a literary movement lasted from about 1789 to 1832 and marked a time when rigid ideas about the structure and purpose of society and the universe were breaking down. During this period, emphasis shifted to the importance of the individual’s experience in the world and his or her interpretation of that experience, rather than interpretations handed down by the church or tradition.

Romantic literature is characterized by several features. It emphasized the dream, or inner, world of the individual. The use of visionary, fantastic, or drug-induced imagery was prevalent. There was a growing suspicion of the established church, and a turn toward pantheism (the belief that God is a part of the universe rather than separate from it). Romantic literature emphasized the individual self and the value of the individual’s experience. The concept of “the sublime” (a thrilling emotional experience that combines awe, magnificence, and horror) was introduced. Feeling and emotion were viewed as superior to logic and analysis.

For the romantics, poetry was believed to be the highest form of literature, and novels were regarded as a lower form of writing, often as “trash,” even by those most addicted to reading them. Most novels of the time were written by women and were therefore widely regarded as a threat to serious, intellectual culture. Despite this, some of the most famous British novelists wrote during this period, including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. In addition, this period saw the flowering of some of the greatest poets in the English language, including William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth, many of whose works are still widely read today.

Romanticism Representative Authors

Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in England, the youngest daughter of a Hampshire clergyman. Her six novels were set in the world in which she lived, that of the comfortable, rural middle class, and were often based on her observations of people she knew and her assessments of human character. The novels depict young women entering society, many of whom make mistakes or become confused but ultimately find their way to a happy marriage.

Austen began writing as a teenager and initially shared her writing only with family and friends. When she eventually published, she did so anonymously. Not well known in her own time, she soon garnered a reputation for her precision, irony, and delicate touch as a writer. Her best-known works are Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Emma (1816). She influenced many later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Austen’s books have endured to the present day as some of the few “classics” widely read for pleasure. She died from illness on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, England. William Blake (1757–1827)
Artist and visionary poet William Blake, born November 28, 1757, in London, England to a hosier, was apprenticed at age fifteen to engraver James Basire, for whom Blake made drawings at Westminster Abbey. In 1783, Blake’s Poetical Sketches were printed, and in 1789, he engraved Thel and The Songs of Innocence. The increasing turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the war between Britain and France influenced Blake to engrave America (1793) and The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). In the following year, he produced the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience, Europe, and The First Book of Urizen. In 1803, Blake was accused of sedition (inciting resistance or insurrection against lawful authority). He was tried in 1804 but acquitted of the charge. During this time, he finished Milton and began Jerusalem. However, for the next two decades his life became increasingly despairing, poverty-stricken, and obscure. He was regarded as insane by some observers, and eked out a living by illustrating a pottery catalog and selling his print collection. However, late in his life he found supporters and patrons, and in 1820 Jerusalem was finally engraved. He died August 12, 1827, in London. While he was known primarily as an artist and engraver during his lifetime, Blake became known as an important writer after his death, influencing other poets such as William Butler Yeats.

Lord Byron (1788–1824)
George Gordon Byron was born January 22, 1788, in London, England, inheriting his title of the sixth Lord Byron when he was ten years old. He grew up at the family estate near Nottingham, Newstead Abbey, and received an education at Harrow and Cambridge. His first publication, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was based on a tour of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey he took between 1809 and 1811. The work was immediately successful, and he followed it with a series of tales featuring exotic Middle Eastern settings and hero-villains.

Byron’s marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815 lasted only fifteen months, largely due to rumors spread by Byron himself about his homosexuality and incestuous relations with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. In 1816 he left England permanently, undergoing a series of travels which inspired cantos three and four of Childe Harold (1816, 1818). Eventually, he settled in Venice, Italy, where his immersion in the Italian language and culture would have a profound influence on his work, particularly Don Juan (1819–1824). While in Italy, he was the lover of Countess Teresa Guiccioli and became involved with Italian independence movements. In 1823 he went to Greece to participate in the Greek movement for independence from the Turks. He died during a voilent electrical storm on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, Greece, after suffering from fever-induced illness for almost two weeks. His body was returned to England, but he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey because of his scandalous past. He was eventually buried in his...

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