Characteristics of the Romantic period include:
- a return to (or respect for) nature
- idealization of women and children
- an interest in the past (especially medieval)
- championing personal freedom
- the supernatural and the occult
- imagination and emotion
There are variations on these characteristics, and some reviewers will include more or fewer. This is what I have used in the classroom.
The respect for nature (or a return to nature) was driven by the Romantics distress over seeing the environment spoiled and polluted by factories and mining in England's Industrial Revolution. Personal freedom was something most Romantics supported, especially the American and French Revolutions. Melancholy, or sadness, is also often seen in the poetry of the Romantics. Changes to the world around them (nature) and the plight of the less fortunate would have been some causes for melancholy.
Those less fortunate were the poor, and women and children, who had no rights and were often victimized. These were the people who worked for pennies in the many factories springing up as a part of industry. They were forced to work long hours. And poverty was such that losing a job was the difference between life and death. Even if a woman was pregnant, to stop working was not an option. In coal mining, exploitation was rampant. Children, because of their small size, would climb into hard to reach spaces. The loss of a hand or foot—or life—was not unusual among the children—however, working any number of years would many times lead to death caused by breathing coal dust.
An interest in the past (especially the Middle Ages) hearkened back to a time when honor guided the lives of Arthur's knights (as Romantics saw it)—when chivalry and love were infused in Arthurian tales (such as those collected and translated by Sir Thomas Mallory).
Interest in the supernatural and the occult, as well as the use of imagination or presence of emotion, are closely linked. "Supernatural" referred to anything above or beyond the norm in this world. Supernatural things today often include ghosts, poltergeists and aliens. During that time, God was considered to be supernatural, as well as ghosts, witches, spirits, etc.
The imagination was also often a major element in poems of the Romantic writers.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an epic poem that includes a majority of the characteristics of Romantic writing. For example...
At length did cross an Albatross (62)
This refers to the bird the mariner (sailor) kills. This is a violent act against nature, for which the mariner will be punished. Coleridge also goes to great lengths to describe the beauty and majesty of nature on the mariner's journey. All of this shows a respect for nature.
"Life-in-Death" is a supernatural character in the story. She is the "mate" of Death; she saves the mariner from death when the other sailors die:
The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold. (190-191)
Other-worldly creatures and the description of the living things under the water are a few examples of imagination in the poem.
The Wedding Guest, to whom the mariner tells his tale, experiences melancholy:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. (619-622)
Knowledge brought him sadness.
These elements are not present in every poem, but generally, many are included in Romantic poetry.