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A literary movement away from the influence of the Church and tradition as well as science, Romanticism emphasizes the importance of the individual experience and interpretation of the world. Three important concepts of this movement are the following:
- A conviction that intuition, imagination, and emotion are superior to reason. Romanticists had an intense love of nature and a contempt for technology. One of the best examples of this philosophy is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in which the beauty and solace of the Swiss Alps is greatly extolled against the monstrous creation and dangers of science.
- A conviction that poetry is superior to science. William Wordsworth's poem, "The World is Too Much With Us" exemplifies this concept in which the poet contends that man is "out of tune" for not sharing in the experiences of Nature.
- A distrust of industry and urban life and an idealization of rural life and the truths of Nature. In Walt Whitman's poem 10 from Song of Myself observes and participates in the American experience juxtaposing different scenes and emotions of hunting in the wilderness, sharing chowder with clam-diggers, and so on.
The Romantic Movement returned people's focus to Nature and the supernatural, as well as the human experience, concepts that are intrinsic to humans and important to nurturing the soul as opposed to the stultifying effects of industry and technology which tend to dehumanize.
Five defining characteristics of the Romantic Age of English literature (generally considered encompassing 1785-1830) are interest in the common man and childhood, strong emotions, awe of nature, celebration of the individual, and imagination. Let's take three of those traits and consider their importance.
Interest in the common man: Since the time of Greek tragedies and epics, literature and poetry had often focused on noble protagonists; everyday people were not considered proper subjects to write about. This was partially because kings and aristocrats commissioned works of art, including literature, for themselves, and writers made money by writing for the royal court. Wordsworth and Coleridge used Lyrical Ballads to make literature accessible to a broader audience, as they believed in a more egalitarian lifestyle that made the common man a fit subject for literature. With printed material becoming more accessible and literacy rates increasing, such a broadening of the scope of literature made sense.
Celebration of the Individual: The beginning of the Romantic Era was marked by political revolution in the United States and in France. Thinkers, writers, philosophers, and politicians were gaining a new interest in and understanding of human rights. Authors like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote passionately about the rights that individuals and women had, not because of who their ancestors were, or what gender they were, but simply because they were created by God and were human beings. This new understanding of the value of every person spilled over into literature, as authors and poets celebrated everyday characters who showed courage and talent or expressed their individuality in unique ways.
Imagination: The Romantics were reacting to the period of time that immediately preceded them, namely the Age of Enlightenment. That age had seen a burgeoning of scientific discoveries, so much so that it seemed that everything could be explained by reason and science. The Romantics believed that some things could not be dissected and categorized—or shouldn't be. Thus the interest in Gothic themes and enchantments flourished during this time. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is an example. The supposedly enlightened scientist, Frankenstein, created life without considering the intangible, unscientific concepts of love, loyalty, and filial devotion. Not everything is reducible to a test tube or a formula, as the Romantics made very clear in their writings.
The characteristics of Romanticism provided important forward movement and balance to the prevailing worldview at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the influence of Romanticism continues into the twenty-first.
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