Perhaps more useful to the student than definitions will be a list of romantic characteristics or "earmarks," though romanticism was not a clearly conceived system. Among the aspects of the "romantic" movement in England may be listed: sensibility; primitivism; love of nature; sympathetic interest in the past, especially the medieval; mysticism; individualism; and a reaction against whatever characterized neoclassicism. Among the specific characteristics embraced by these general attitudes are: the abandonment of the heroic couplet in favor of blank verse, the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and many experimental verse forms; the dropping of the conventional diction in favor of fresher language and bolder figures; the idealization of rural life (Goldsmith); enthusiasm for the wild, irregular, or grotesque in nature and art; unrestrained imagination; enthusiasm for the uncivilized or "natural"; interest in human rights (Burns, Byron); sympathy with animal life (Cowper); sentimental melancholy (Gray); emotional psychology in fiction (Richardson); collection and imitation of popular BALLADS (Percy, Scott); interest in ancient Celtic and Scandinavian mythology and literature; renewed interest in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Typical literary forms of the romantic writers include the lyric, especially the love lyric, the reflective lyric, the nature lyric, and the lyric of morbid melancholy.
Although the romantic movement in English literature had its beginnings or anticipations in the earlier eighteenth century (Shaftesbury, Thomson, Dyer, Lady Winchilsea), it was not till the middle of the century that its characteristics became prominent and self-conscious (Blair, Akenside, Joseph and Thomas Warton, Gray, Richardson, Sterne, Walpole, Goldsmith, and somewhat later Cowper, Burns, and Blake), while its complete triumph was reserved for the early years of the nineteenth century (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Southey, Byron, Shelley, Keats). A little later in the nineteenth century came the great romantic period in American literature (Bryant, Emerson, Lowell, Thoreau, Whittier, Hawthorne, Melville).
The last third of the nineteenth century witnessed the substitution of a soberer mood than prevailed earlier in the century, and although the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, in both England and America, have been marked by a sharp reaction against the romantic, especially the sentimental, spirit in literature, it is to be remembered that much late Victorian literature was romantic and that the vitality of romanticism is evidenced by the great volume of romantic writing being produced in the twentieth century.
By way of caution it may be said that such descriptions of romanticism as this one probably overstress the distinction between romanticism and CLASSICISM or NEOCLASSICISM, and cannot hope to resolve that confusion over what "romantic" means which Professor A. 0. Lovejoy asserts has "for a century been the scandal" of literary history and criticism. As early as 1824 an effort to discover what the authorities meant by the term proved disappointing, and the succeeding century has increased the number of divergent, often contradictory, senses in which the term is employed. Some writers, like Professor Walter Raleigh and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, have even urged the desirability of abandoning the terms "romantic" and "classic," pointing out that their use adds to the critical confusion and tends to distort the facts of literary history and divert attention away from the natural processes of literary composition. Several have noted that Homer's Odyssey, for example, is cited by some as the very essence of the romantic, by others as a true exemplar of CLASSICISM. Professor Lovejoy, noting that the "romantic" movement has meant different things in different countries and that even in single country "romantic" is often used in conflicting senses, proposes that term be employed in the plural only, as a recognition of the various romanticisms. Even if the term "romantic" were always employed in the se sense and its characteristics could be safely and comprehensively enumerated, it would still be true that one could not use a single characteristic, like the love of wild scenery or the use Of BLANK VERSE, as a "key" for classifying as romantic any single poem or poet.
Yet, viewed in philosophical terms, romanticism does have a definite meaning for the student of literature. The term designates a literary and philosophical theory which tends to see the individual at the very center of all life and all experience, and it places the individual, therefore, at the center of art, making literature most valuable as an expression of his or her unique feelings and particular attitudes (the expressive theory of art) and valuing its accuracy in portraying the individual's experiences, however fragmentary and incomplete, more than it values its adherence to completeness, unity, or the demands Of GENRE. It places a high premium upon the creative function of the Imagination, seeing art as a formulation of intuitive imaginative perceptions that tend to speak a nobler truth than that of fact, logic, or the here and now. It sees in Nature a revelation of Truth, the "living garment of God," and often, pantheistically, a sensate portion of deity itself, and certainly a more suitable subject for true art than those aspects of the world sullied by human artifice (CULTURAL PRIMITIVISM). It differs significantly from the literary movements which were to follow it, REALISM and NATURALISM, in where it finds its values. Employing the commonplace, the natural, the simple as its materials, it seeks always to find the Absolute, the Ideal, by transcending the actual, whereas REALISM finds its values in the actual and NATURALISM in the scientific laws which undergird the actual.
Ultimately, it must be admitted that the conflict of ideas and attitudes which occurred in the eighteenth century and which saw the triumph of romanticism over CLASSICISM, however much exaggerated in standard literary histories, did go a very long way toward the establishment of our modem democratic world, and where REALISM and NATURALISM are significantly different from romanticism, they are closer to it than they are to the classicism with which it broke. Wherever faith in the individual and in freedom from rules, systems, or even from RATIONALISM appears, there one aspect of romanticism speaks. Contradictory as its attributes are and however true Professor Lovejoy's assertion that it should be spoken of always in the plural, romanticisms shape the controlling attitudes of the democratic world.
from A Handbook to Literature by C. Hugh Holman 4th ed.