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Romanticism in Literature

commentary by Karen Bernardo

The literary period known as Romanticism stretched from the late eighteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth. This deeply emotional style of writing originally evolved as a rebuttal to the elite and elegant modes of writing that dominated literature before the French and American revolutions. If these political upheavals taught the world anything, it was that popular culture would no longer be dominated by the elite and elegant.

The new middle class wanted a kind of writing that reflected -- and even evoked -- the passions of life in the reader, and explained life in a way that common people could understand. The result was Romanticism, which does not refer here to love or sex, but to the use of the vernacular tongue -- in other words, ordinary language, simple in style and popular in appeal. (The word "romance" actually comes from the same root as "Roman," and pertains to the languages of the people inhabiting southern Europe after the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the decay of classical Latin.) Romanticism replaced "classical" literary diction and themes with the speech and interests of the common people..

With these distinctions in mind, the great cultural change from seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Classicism to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Romanticism can begin to be understood. An important sign of this change is Romanticism’s preference for simplicity and naturalness; plain, easily-understood feelings; and natural scenes. This change can be seen in the conscious and very political movement from a preference for the French formal gardens to the "wild" English ones, from the high princely tragedy in iambic pentameter to the prose drama of domestic life, from dry rationalist essays to unabashed displays of feeling through tears, embraces, and passion. Romantic writers tried to find meaning in nature as well as in human experience, and thus explain their own existence in the universe.

Romanticism not only stood in contrast to fine manners and elegant surroundings; it set itself against the entire material world so beloved by the Age of Reason. Just as, for scientists such as Newton, empiricism had replaced revelation as a way of learning about the world, so for the Romantic, imagination replaced observation. The world of the heart was not only more exciting than the empirical world -- it was, to the Romantic, actually more real, because it expressed itself to the emotions rather than simply identifying itself to the intellect. A tree was no longer merely a tree; it could be a metaphor for lineage, or a sign of God's power and strength, or a symbol of the human life cycle.

The great drawback of this, of course, was that in order to be comprehensible to the masses, Romantic narrative often had to be explained -- and this led to excessive moralizing by its authors. By the 1830s and 1840s, the palpitations of Romanticism began to be seen as somewhat overwraught. Writers, beginning with Zola and de Maupassant in France and Crane in the United States, began experimenting with a kind of writing that was pared down to its barest narrative -- no symbolism, no metaphor, no editorializing. The goal was to cut through the mad rush of feeling and simply report what happened. A grittier literature began to grow in popularity -- a movement that would be called realism. It is still possible, however, to see elements of romanticism in the works of contemporary authors because its raw appeal to our emotions has never lost its power.