Period Introduction Overview

The Romantic Period 1785–1832 (NAEL Vol. D)

  • The Romantic period is short, relative to other literary periods, but is still quite complex.
  • The beginning and ending dates of the Romantic period are identified differently by various scholars, though these dates always coincide with major literary, cultural, political, or social events.
  • The beginning and ending dates of the Romantic period are identified differently by various scholars, though these dates always coincide with major literary, cultural, political, or social events.
  • While study of the Romantic Period for many years focused on “the big six”— Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—scholars have more recently expanded their focus to include many diverse authors and genres of writing from the period.

Revolution and Reaction

  • England at this time was transforming from a primarily agricultural nation to one focused on manufacture, trade, and industry.
  • Revolutions outside of England’s borders had considerable impact within those borders, including the revolutions in America and in France.
  • While many English people initially supported revolutionary efforts like those in France, just as many came to abhor the violent tyrannies that followed. The Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution is a primary example.
  • Early efforts to abolish slavery met with little success. Often, those in power saw the granting of widespread freedoms as the prelude to violent uprising.
  • England at this time was often described in terms of “Two Nations”: (1) the rich and privileged who owned the nation’s burgeoning means of industrial production, and (2) the poor and powerless who were more and more forced from agricultural roots to life in industrial cities. Of course, it is this latter group upon which the Industrial Revolution depended, though it is the former group who benefitted.
  • The word “shopping” entered English vocabulary at this time, reflecting society’s newfound love for buying the goods that imperial colonization and industry could produce.
  • Women authors, though they did not enjoy anything like social equality with their male counterparts, did at least enjoy greater prominence and wider readership than had previously been the case. The term “bluestocking” was often used to describe a certain class of educated women writers and intellectuals.

The New Poetries: Theory and Practice

  • “The Romantics” did not actually identify themselves as such. It was later Victorian critics who first used the term to describe the previous generation of writers.
  • Among all literary genres during the Romantic period, poetry was considered the most important.
  • New modes of production and distribution made the written word available to more people in more places than had previously been the case in England. In fact, some authors even worried about the problem of “overproduction” of written works.
  • Just as there were many different, and sometimes conflicting, “schools” of poetry during the Romantic period, there were many competing visions for what good poetry should be and what its aims should be.

Writing in the Marketplace and the Law Courts

  • The number of people who could read, and who wanted to read, grew dramatically during the Romantic period, particularly among those of the lower and middle classes. Writers became increasingly aware of their position within a growing marketplace, even though the Romantic ideal of the writer was often conceived as the solitary figure, removed from the realities of everyday life.
  • New modes of production increased the number of books that could be printed. In this way, writing was affected by the Industrial Revolution in England just as agriculture and manufacturing were.
  • The British state tried to control what could be printed and read not so much by direct censorship but by charging authors or publishers with sedition or blasphemy. The state also tried to control publication by imposing prohibitive taxes on printed matter in some cases.
  • The British state tried to control what could be printed and read not so much by direct censorship but by charging authors or publishers with sedition or blasphemy. The state also tried to control publication by imposing prohibitive taxes on printed matter in some cases.

Other Literary Forms

  • Although the Romantic period centered primarily on poetry, many other literary forms flourished as well, including political pamphlets, reviews, drama, and novels.
  • The Romantic Period saw the emergence of the professional literary critic who came to have considerable influence in shaping national literary tastes.
  • Drama during the Romantic period tended to focus on visual spectacle rather than literary value. Theatergoers went to see something (which might include dancers, pantomime, and musicians), rather than hear great literature spoken to them.
  • The novel as a genre grew in importance throughout the Romantic period and it, like poetry, saw increasing efforts on the part of authors to experiment with form, style, and content.