Although in literature romantic elements were known much earlier, as in the Elizabethan dramas, many critics now date English literary romanticism from the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the preface to the second edition of that influential work (1800), Wordsworth stated his belief that poetry results from "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," and pressed for the use of natural everyday diction in literary works. Coleridge emphasized the importance of the poet's imagination and discounted adherence to arbitrary literary rules.
Such English romantic poets as Byron, Shelley, Robert Burns, Keats, Robert Southey, and William Cowper often focused on the individual self, on the poet's personal reaction to life. This emphasis can also be found in such prose works as the essays of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt and in Thomas De Quincey's autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822). The interest of romantics in the medieval period as a time of mystery, adventure, and aspiration is evidenced in the Gothic romance and in the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. William Blake was probably the most singular of the English romantics. His poems and paintings are radiant, imaginative, and heavily symbolic, indicating the spiritual reality underlying the physical reality.
In Germany the Sturm und Drang school, with its obsessive interest in medievalism, prepared the way for romanticism. Friedrich Schlegel first used the term romantic to designate a school of literature opposed to classicism, and he also applied the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant and J. G. Fichte to the "romantic ideal." Major German writers associated with romanticism include G. E. Lessing, J. G. Herder, Friedrich Hölderlin, Schiller, and particularly Goethe, who had a mystic feeling for nature and for Germany's medieval past.
The credo of French romanticism was set forth by Victor Hugo in the preface to his drama Cromwell (1828) and in his play Hernani (1830). Hugo proclaimed the freedom of the artist in both choice and treatment of a subject. The French romantics included Chateaubriand, Alexandre Dumas père, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, and George Sand. Other leading romantic figures were Giacomo Leopardi and Alessandro Manzoni in Italy, and Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov in Russia.
In the United States romanticism had philosophic expression in transcendentalism, notably in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Poets such as Poe, Whittier, and Longfellow all produced works in the romantic vein. Walt Whitman in particular expressed pride in his individual self and the democratic spirit. The works of James Fenimore Cooper reflected the romantic interest in the historical past, whereas the symbolic novels of Hawthorne and Melville emphasized the movement's concern with transcendent reality.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.