The related terms “Romantic,” “Romance,” and “Romanticism” are often used very loosely, and need some definition. First, the terms are used with a capital letter, to distinguish them from “romance” and “romantic,” terms that are usually applied to love stories or erotically heightened situations. Although Romances often contain a love interest, that is not what defines them. Likewise, Romantic poets deal with the whole gamut of human experience, not just love affairs or the experience of being in love.
The British Romantic poets of this period never used the term “Romantics” to describe themselves. It was the next generation, the Victorians, who applied the term to them. They used, in certain situations, the term “Romance,” to designate a certain traditional genre of literature that can be traced back to medieval times. This genre deals with tales of wonder and adventure, often involving the marvellous and the supernatural. It can be written as either prose fiction or as verse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) as such a Romance, part of a long tradition of magical voyages.
However, it is best to set this genre aside in thinking of the terms “Romantic” and “Romanticism.” Although generalizations are difficult, the best way to come to an understanding of the terms is by seeing how Romanticism differs from the cultural movement against which it reacted in the first place, and the cultural movement that succeeded it, in which contemporary poetry finds its place.
Romantic vs. classical
The cultural movement that preceded Romanticism is known by a variety of names. At its widest, it can be called the Enlightenment, which can be seen as an artistic, philosophical, and scientific movement that privileges the human reason, seeing humankind as self-sufficient in its ability to discover truth of whatever sort. The supernatural is either banished altogether as “superstition” or put into the background as no longer necessary. Thus, Christianity became Deism or atheism. Excessive shows of emotion were seen as antirational and to be suppressed. Intuition, the feminine, and the spiritual were demoted to the second rank of worthwhileness in human study and endeavor.
In terms of literature, the expression of this cultural movement was usually termed classical or neoclassical, since its models went back to Greek and Roman literature. The study of Roman and Greek language, culture, and literature has always been known as studying the classics. In the history of English literature, sometimes the term “Augustan” is used to denote the particular period of the Roman emperor Augustus as the peak of classical civilization.
Romanticism, by contrast, sought to privilege the imaginative and the intuitive as ways to truth. The term “imaginative truth” was coined, and this truth was claimed to be of equal worth to scientific and philosophical truth, or even higher. Poets were seen as truth tellers and prophets to their generation, often taking on a quasi-religious role as members of a new priesthood. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and other anti-Christian Romantics in fact claimed poetry had taken over religion, as did the Victorian Romantic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).
This does not mean that all Romantic poets were antireligious or antiscientific, but rather that they downgraded the rational and the logical and valued the intuitive. One manifestation of this was the trust in childhood states of being, of “innocence” as being a form of truth. This goes back to the Greek philosopher, Plato, who held that the human soul comes straight from heaven, entering a baby uncorrupted. Thus, young children are naturally nearer to heaven in their innocence. “Now We Are Seven” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) are excellent examples of this, as are the poems in Songs of Innocence (1789), by William Blake...
(The entire section is 3,764 words.)