Romantic Literature: A Guide for Students

If you want to explore the romantic genre in literature, there are several major points to keep in mind. What is romantic literature, and what should you know?

Literature changed significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Romantic Movement emerged from the end of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, leading to a new writing style. Authors such as Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Goethe, and William Wordsworth defined the Romantic period, with numerous English, French, and American writers leaving their marks on the written word as a whole. Now, this era in literature is called romanticism.

Learn more about romantic literature below, and consider expanding your literary horizons.

Romanticism: An Overview

Romantic literature
Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Romanticism refers to a literary movement that began toward the end of the eighteenth century. It lasted until the latter half of the nineteenth century, although it continues to have a major influence even to this day. It took place during the Industrial Revolution, and many of the changes that took place during this time are reflected in the style of writing seen in Europe, the United States, and across the globe.

Literature written during this time was driven by the unique perspective of individual people, a respect for nature, and a celebration of the Common Man. In many ways, literature from this era is a reaction to major societal changes throughout France, Germany, England, the United States, and other areas, often commenting on this experiment called democracy. 

The Definition of Romanticism

When people hear Romanticism, they often think about romance and love. Even though this may be a concept of Romanticism, it is much more complicated than that. The word stems from romaunt, the French word for a romantic story told using several verses. Romanticism is a word used to describe anything that focuses on the writer’s inner life, feelings, or emotions. It was not unusual for a writer to use autobiographical material to explore the inner workings of their writing. Sometimes, the writer would even use their experiences to provide a template for their writing.

Romantic writing would also focus on regular people, usually called “common men,” elevating them to a status not yet seen throughout literature. Romantic writing also focused on nature, seeing it as an ancient force to be respected. Finally, this writing style celebrated isolation, believing it was necessary for artistic and spiritual development.

The Driving Characteristics of Romantic Literature

Romantic literature has several defining characteristics and driving forces. They include:

1. Personification

Romantic literature focuses heavily on nature, and it often uses personification to bring it to life. Personification refers to the writer’s idea of giving human qualities to things that are not human. 

Mary Shelley employs one example in Frankenstein:

“Its fair lakes reflect a blue and gentle sky; and, when troubled by the winds, their tumult is but as the play of a lively infant, when compared to the roarings of the giant ocean.“

  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

She talks about nature, giving it human qualities when describing it as a lively infant. This type of personification was common throughout romantic literature. 

2. The Idealization of Women

The idealization of women
Some of the top female writers had to publish their works under pseudonyms because women typically were not allowed to publish under their names

Throughout romantic literature, women were always idealized. They were presented as beautiful, pure, and saccharine. Even though the writers often intended this to be a positive description, women rarely had anything else to offer as the story unfolded. The idealization of women is reflected in The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. It reflected how women were seen at the time, as they did not have the rights they enjoy today throughout most countries.

Even though women were often idealized in romantic literature, some of the top female writers had to publish their works under pseudonyms because women typically were not allowed to publish under their names. A few examples include Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and Mary Shelley. Even though they were some of the top writers of the romantic time, they had to publish under a pseudonym. 

3. A Growing Interest in the Common Man

The Romantic period was one of the first times writers tried to publish work that even the commoner could enjoy. In the past, writing was often meant for the elite, as the average person might not have been able to read at all. Now, writers were publishing books intended to be understood and enjoyed by just about anyone. For example, William Wordsworth was famous for rejecting complicated language and using simple concepts elegantly to ensure everyone could enjoy them. One of his most popular poems is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:

“I wandered lonely as a Cloud, That floats on high o’ver vales and Hills.”

  • William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

The writing is simple and direct but still powerful. It paints a vivid picture, targeting the reader’s emotions with a detailed description. This type of writing was common during the Romantic Movement. 

4. The Glorification of Isolationism

Next, the glorification of melancholy and isolationism is a common thread during this movement. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the top writers of this time, published a book of essays that focused specifically on isolation and its importance for a writer’s growth. In 1841, he published an essay titled “Self-Reliance,” largely seen as one of the most important works published. 

The essay goes through the value of looking inward, finding your way, and using your resources to become the best version of yourself. This celebration of the “self-made man” led to the growth of isolationism during the Romantic Movement. 

5. The Growth of Spirituality

Spirituality was also a common theme during this time. Many works published during the movement focused on the occult and supernatural elements. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein focuses on bringing an inanimate object to life before diving into the consequences it has for the characters involved. In addition, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe, tells the story of a seemingly sentient Raven who torments the main character while he is grieving for his dead love. Even though it could be interpreted as his mental instability worsening, it still focuses on supernatural forces and their impact. 

6. A Celebration of Nature

Next, Romantic writers also focused on celebrating nature. Because of the harm that the Industrial Revolution had on the environment, writers during this time tried to showcase the beauty of nature and how it was being destroyed by the changes taking place during the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, one of the most famous poems during this time was written by John Keats, titled To Autumn:

“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?”

  • John Keats, To Autumn

Throughout the rest of the poem, he personifies the individual seasons, giving them human-like qualities. He tries to glorify the changes in the weather, encouraging people to pay more attention to the beauty that nature possesses. 

7. A Celebration of Artistic Creativity and Imagination

Another major defining characteristic of romantic literature is a celebration of artistic creativity and Imagination. This represents a major shift from the literature published during the previous centuries, which focused on rational thought and the power of logic.

Instead, romantic writers focused on their imaginations, creating pictures of what could be. In some ways, romantic literature directly reacted to and rejected the previous constraints of literature published during the Enlightenment. Romantic writers focused on an idealistic society, celebrating the power of artwork and its relationship to human culture.

Furthermore, this mindset laid the groundwork for future genres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and surrealist work.

8. A Focus on the Self and Autobiography

Finally, romantic writers often chose to focus their writing on themselves in the form of an autobiography. In some cases, romantic authors would take their lives and project them onto a character, often having a fictional character go through the same experience they had during their younger years.

In other cases, romantic authors would directly approach their autobiography. They would tell their story without changing their name. This allowed romantic authors to reflect on their lives, sharing their lessons with their audiences. Sometimes, romantic authors would talk about the reasons behind their choices, what they might have done differently, and the impact they believe they had on the world.

Romantic authors changed the way people wrote their autobiographies and told the stories of their lives. Today, many people who publish autobiographies use the framework laid out during the romantic era.

These are a few of the biggest defining characteristics of romantic literature. These themes are present throughout the vast majority of the works published during this time, and many of them are still present in works published today.

How Has Romantic Literature Influenced Writing Today?

There are several significant ways that romantic literature has influenced writing today. Some of the biggest themes that are still found in today’s works include:

1. A Questioning of Society and Its Rules

One of the most powerful legacies of romantic literature is that people began to question those in charge. Even though this can be seen in earlier writing, romantic writers enjoyed greater freedoms than those in the past, and they did not hesitate to question numerous established Norms. This type of questioning can be seen in writing during the 20th century, often influenced by the writers who came before them. 

2. The Focus on Writing for the Individual

Another major change during the romantic movement was that they began writing works intended to be read by everyone. In the past, writers often wrote books and essays only intended to be read by people who could read, meaning they were often reserved for nobility. Now, romantic authors write for people everywhere. Even someone working the assembly line in a factory would be able to read and enjoy their work. This can be seen in the rejection of overly flowery language and the use of terms that can be easily understood and interpreted by everyone. 

3. The Growth of Imagination

Finally, romantic literature also focuses on the growth of the imagination. The surrealist movement that would develop following the Romantic Movement has a tremendous amount of imagination, and much of this imagination stems from this period. By focusing on the occult, personifying nature, and exploring the imaginations of individual writers, romantic literature pushed the boundaries in more ways than one. Now, the science fiction and fantasy novels that people enjoy today owe a tremendous debt to the writers of this period. 

4. The Emergence of Female Writers

During this time, many top female writers were forced to publish under pseudonyms. Examples include Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and Emily Bronte. Even though they may have been forced to publish under a pseudonym while alive, it did not take long for people to realize just how powerful their writing was. As a result, many female writers who enjoyed prolific careers followed in their footsteps, as they laid the groundwork for female writers to be celebrated and appreciated. 

The legacy of the writers during this time shines through in the work we continue to enjoy today.

To learn more about romantic literature, check out our round-up of romance authors’ best sellers!

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  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.