What are the differences between Romanticism and Classicism?

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literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Romanticism and Classicism exist on two very different poles within literary movements. Many new periods came about as a reaction to the previous period, and the contrasts between these periods are no different.

First, to differentiate between the two, we will begin with their differences in how they regarded nature. The Romantics believed that nature was powerful and constantly changing. The Romantics believed that nature was a force that would/could never be fully understood. Unlike the Romantics, the Classicists believed that nature could be rationalized and, therefore, completely understood.

Second was the differentiating thoughts on truth. The Romantics believed that one would only find truth through their own intuition given they highlighted the importance of individual thought and not societal thought. The Classicists, instead, believed that truth existed only as a result of reason. They found that imaginative thought failed to be able to be studied scientifically and, therefore, upheld no realistic function.

Third, ties into scientific thought differences. The Classicists believed that man should conform to universal thought and ideas. The Romantics believed that they should embrace their own individual innovations. Perhaps the most poignant quote to exemplify Romantic thought on tradition and innovation is from William Blake:

I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare.

Basically, the Romantics believed in the endless possibilities which man could change the world, and they embraced them. The Classicists, instead, held up the importance of adhering to what has already been said and done and mastering only those ideals.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Romanticism was a reaction against Classicism in poetry. Classical poetry in the eighteenth century modeled itself on the work of Greek and Roman poets, and it used Classical characters and situations such as figures and stories from Greek mythology and history. For example, Pope's Rape of the Lock is a parody of a heroic epic, based on the Iliad. It was written to mock or make fun of a diminished English aristocracy that was not off fighting wars in the Classical model, but feuding over locks of hair. Pope assumed that his audience would be familiar with the Iliad.

Classical poetry had very clear, regular meters and rhyme schemes, was more interested in the important people in society than anyone else, and was more likely to convey ideas than emotions.

The age of Romantic poetry in England is often associated with the publication of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. In the preface, Wordsworth writes about a kind of poetry that puts the emphasis on the common person, nature, and the supernatural. Rather than reason, emotion predominates. Wordsworth famously wrote that 

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

Romantic poets wanted to write in simple, everyday language that was accessible to ordinary people who might not have been schooled in the Greek and Latin classics. It was far less rigid in rhyme scheme and often referenced folk stories or ballads rather than Classical literature.