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What is Romanticism?

You get told that Wordsworth and Shelley are Romantic poets, but what does that actually mean?

Broadly, we’re talking about art and literature produced between 1800 and 1850 that focused on feelings and expressing them, as well as being an individual. The emotions they explore did not have to be positive: fear, anger and amazement were focused on too. For a Romantic, nature and stories from the past were glorious, wonderful things for people to enjoy, not study. Mostly we can see Romantic ideas in creative arts, but also in how people study history.


Romanticism is also a reaction. In the fifty years or so before our poets were writing, the Industrial Revolution had begun. Loads of new technology like steam engines, machines that make stuff and factories themselves were introduced for the first time and populations in cities boomed. Larger cities like Birmingham and London became polluted and overcrowded. Conditions in many factories were awful, and writer like Blake who saw this were shocked and saddened by how everything had changed so quickly.


These changes in society brought about new philosophies. Rationalism was one that annoyed many Romantics: being logical was the best way to understand the world, and the only way to understand what is true is to find evidence and not consider any emotions. To a Romantic, the emotions felt by someone were just as important and valid as any measurable, or ‘empirical’ evidence. Classicism was another annoyance as it was an obsession with the literature, imagery and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome. What was wrong with other stories, or people’s own experiences? Realism was another popular theme in Art, where artists painted things as they ‘really were’. No imagination, said the Romantics!


It’s important to think about the French Revolution too. In 1789 the middle class and intellectuals of France led a Revolution that resulted in France being declared a Republic and the monarchy being publicly and dramatically executed. Breaking the rules was any Romantic’s favourite thing to do, and this was the ultimate rule breaking! Things, however, did not go as wonderfully as many hoped. Within two years it all went a bit violent as The Terror broke out, and this disillusioned Romantics all over Europe.


It wasn’t just an artistic thing either. These ideas rubbed off on science too, with a focus on a unity between humans and nature, making sense of the universe in spiritual terms, and working on how humanity can be improved through studying nature. Isaac Newton was an important figure when we look at these types of scientists.


One of the downsides to Romanticism is its link to Nationalism, or the focus on individual countries and why they are important. Today, that can be associated with UKIP, but in the nineteenth century it was about getting in touch with your country’s linguistic and cultural roots.

There you have it. Next time you hear something about King Arthur or Robin Hood, see an old lady enjoying a trip to the park or think about breaking a rule because you’re upset, you’ve got the Romantics to thank.

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