European Romanticism: Late 18th - Early 19th Centuries
ca. 1785/1789 to 1830
(Outline - ENG 109 - Spring 2007)
URL of this webpage:
Required background reading: See ENG 109 Course Plan, Spring 2007:
“The Nineteenth Century: Romantic Self & Social Reality" (Davis and others 530-547).
See also: European Enlightenment Overview: Mid- & Later 18th Century" Enhanced Print Version
of Presentation Outline:

See also: European Enlightenment Overview: Mid- & Later 18th Century" Enhanced Print Version (handout)

The literary period and movement known as "Romanticism" (c. 1785/1789 - 1830) emerged in an Age of Revolutions and instituted revolutions in literature marked by sharp and conscious departures from past literary philosophies and practices. However, literary movements do NOT emerge out of nowhere and the roots of Romanticism can be traced back to earlier 18th century developments.

From Cora Agatucci's Week #1 "European Enlightenment Overview" presentation & handout, you learned that the 18th Century is often called the "Age of Enlightenment" and the "Age of Reason," due to an increasingly dominant "trust in human reason" to solve problems, challenge authority and tradition, and achieve progress (Abrams 52-53; emphasis added).  You also read the famous definition of the age written by philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in What Is the Enlightenment? (1784):  "'man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another,'" asserting that individuals should "Dare to reason independently and question authority" (qtd. in Davis and others 13; emphasis added).

Kant advocated the philosophy of Individualism: that authority could be located in the self (rather than in society, tradition, and received knowledge), yet he did not believe that individuals should look only to the "light of reason" for guidance.  In 1781, Kant also published his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he questioned the power of Reason to provide the most significant forms of knowledge, and asserted that Feeling or Sensibility also offered a powerful guide to individuals engaged in ethical struggles to locate, experience, and represent the good.  Reacting against negative views of human nature as innately selfish with a self-serving "drive for power and status" that dominated 17th century and early 18th century thought, other moral philosophies arose asserting that "benevolence," or "wishing other persons well," "is an innate human sentiment and motive, and that central aspects of the moral experience are the feelings of sympathy and 'sensibility'--that is, a hair-trigger responsiveness to another person's distresses and joys. . . . 'Sensibility' also connoted an intense emotional responsiveness to beauty and sublimity, whether in nature or in art, and such responsiveness was often represented as an index to a person's gentility--that is, to one's upper-class status" (Abrams 190; emphasis added).  Contesting Europe's "expanding commercialism" and brutal exploitation of human beings at home and abroad during the 17th and 18th-centuries, these counter-philosophies emphasized "the human capacities of sympathy" and "benevolence" and "were important in developing social consciousness and a sense of communal responsibility" (Abrams 190; emphasis added), which spawned powerful humanitarian movements and reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Literature of "SENSIBILITY" Influenced by these mid- and later 18th-century philosophies asserting the innate human capacity for "benevolence," "exaggerated forms of sympathy and benevolence became a prominent aspect of eighteenth-century culture and literature.  It was a commonplace in popular morality that readiness to shed a sympathetic tear is the sign of both polite breeding and a virtuous heart, and such a view was often accompanied by the observation that sympathy with another's grief, unlike personal grief, is a pleasurable emotion, hence to be sought as a value in itself . . ." (Abrams 190).  Famous examples of the "novel of sensibility" include The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German, 1749-1832); and Henry MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling (England, 1771).  Young Werther has exquisitely heightened "aesthetic sensitivities" to beauty and the sublime, experiences painful "emotional tribulations" over his unrequited love for a woman betrothed to another, cannot "adapt his sensibility to the demands of ordinary life," and ends by shooting himself (Abrams 191).  MacKenzie's hero is likewise "a hero of such exquisite sensibility that he goes into a decline from excess of pent-up tenderness toward a young lady, and dies in the perturbation of finally declaring to her his emotion" (Abrams 191).  The fashion of novels of sensibility declined by the end of the 18th century:  Sense and Sensibility (begun 1797; published 1811) is period novelist Jane Austen's satiric treatment of a young Englishwoman of "sensibility" [Marianne Dashwood] contrasted with her sister of "sense" [Elinor Dashwood].

Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU (France, 1712-1778) influenced the European Romantic movement.  Rousseau believed that human beings (male human beings, any way, for Rousseau did not necessarily apply this view to female human beings) are born innately good in a natural state of innocence (vs. the traditional Christian view that human beings are born weighted with the burden of original sin).  But children, however naturally good and innocent they begin, must grow up in a corrupt world; and the longer they live in, and the more experiences they acquire from living in, the corrupted adult world of so-called "civilization," the more corrupted they themselves become.  "God makes all things good," Rousseau states, but "man meddles with them and they become evil."  However, a man of "feeling," as Rousseau believed himself to be, who stays attuned to heart and emotion, can resist these corrupting influences [a precurser of our contemporary efforts to access our "inner child," one might argue].  Rousseau's novel Julie, or the New Héloise (1761) dealt with lovers of "sensibility," and in his great autobiography, The Confessions (written 1764-70; published 1781-1788), Rousseau "represented himself, in some circumstances and moods, as a man of extravagant sensibility" (Abrams 191).  The Confessions is also a ground-breaking assertion of individuality: Rousseau claims that his story is unique (rather than an illustration of "general [human] nature" ), guided by the ancient classical Greek maxim "Know thyself."   Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782) describes his feelings of tortured alienation and spiritual awe induced by Nature, which became a persistent subject of later Romantic poetry.

PRIMITIVISM:  Rousseau was also at the center of 18th-century "Primitivism." M. H. Abrams defines "Primitivism" as "the preference for what is conceived to be 'nature' and 'the natural' over 'art' and 'the artificial' in any area of human culture and values" (170; emphasis added).  Abrams outlines the characteristics of "Primitivism" as follows:

"Primitivists" preferred "natural" or innate "instincts and passion" vs. "the dictates of reason and prudential forethought" (170);
"Primitivists" preferred "simple and 'natural' forms of social and political order" vs. "the anxieties and frustrations engendered by a complex and highly developed social organization" (170);
"Primitivists" preferred "outdoor 'nature,' unmodified by human intervention" vs. "cities or artful gardens" (170);
"Primitivists" preferred "spontaneity, the free expression of emotion, and the intuitive products of 'natural genius'" vs. mannered, reasoned literary and other arts that conformed to "'artificial' forms, rules and conventions" (170). 

Expressions of later 18th- and early 19th-century PRIMITIVISM included the following:

The idea of a vanished "golden age," variously identified as a "lost Garden of Eden" or the "era of classical Greece" located in humanity's distant past when people "lived naturally, simply, and freely" in a happy, innocent "state of nature" "before society and civilization had even begun," while certainly not a new idea, gained prominence in the 18th century (Abrams, 171, 170; emphasis added).  Human history was viewed as a long, steady decline and fall from that ideal state, to the so-called highly "civilized" present with its "increasing degree of artifice, complexity, inhibitions, prohibitions, . . . anxieties and discontents" (Abrams 170, 171). 

Note, however, that this "Primitivist" view of human history contended against 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century European belief in "progress": that is, "the doctrine that, by virtue of the development and exploitation of art, science, and technology, . . . [as well as] wisdom, the course of history represents an overall improvement in the life, morality, and happiness of human beings from early barbarity to the present stage of civilization"; and some believed that "this historical progress of humanity will continue indefinitely--possibly to end in a final state of social, rational, and moral perfection" (Abrams 170-171). Enlightenment belief in progress came to be viewed as not just a possibility but also a responsibility; and, together with philosophies of "sensibility" (human capacities for sympathy and benevolence) discussed above, fueled 18th and 19th-century humanitarian reform movements, including abolitionist movements to outlaw slavery [see Equiano] and women's rights movements [see Wollstonecraft].

The "cult of the Noble Savage--who is conceived to be 'naturally' intelligent, moral, and possessed of a high dignity in thought and deed" (Abrams 170; emphasis added).  In American thought and literature, "the American Indian was sometimes identified with the legendary Noble Savage, and the American pioneer was often represented as a new Adam who had cut free from the artifice and corruptions of European civilization in order to reassume a 'natural' life of freedom, innocence, and simplicity" (Abrams 170).
The "vogue of 'natural' poetry written by supposedly uneducated peasants or working folk" (Abrams 170; emphasis added).  In the era of Grimms' fairy tales, folklore and popular arts of the presumably "uncultivated" and spontaneous volk, or common folk, were much admired, including folk songs and ballads.
The reputation of William Shakespeare began to soar in this era, in part because of Primitivist myths that he was a popular, untutored, rule-breaking, original genius.

  The FRENCH REVOLUTION (1789 - 1795)
& the
 Review French Revolution (1789 - 1795)
1789-1792: Phase 1 - Idealistic Hope & Possibility
Phase 2 - Disillusionment
See also "European 'Enlightenment': Mid- & Later 18th Century" Enhanced Print Version (handout)

"The French Revolution had an important influence on the fictional and nonfictional writing of the Romantic period, inspiring writers to address themes of democracy and human rights and to consider the function of revolution as a form of apocalyptic change" ("Summary"; emphasis added). 

1789-1792: French Revolution Phase 1 - Idealistic Hope & Possibility
"In the beginning, the French Revolution was supported by writers because of the opportunities it seemed to offer for political and social change" ("Summary").  A heady climate of new beginnings and infinite possibilities was created by the first idealistic phase of the French Revolution, 1789-1792, infusing Romantic era writers "with the high excitement of a religious awakening" ("Introduction"). For example, William Blake welcomed both the American and French Revolutions as heralds of a new millenium.

1792-1795: French Revolution Phase 2 - Disillusionment
Later phases of the French Revolution brought disillusionment and feelings of betrayal.  Thousands were guillotined, including the King and Queen of France, during the violent excesses of the Reign of Terror, 1792-1795.  Years of economic chaos, the rise of nationalism, and European wars of aggression followed, during with Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and ultimately crowned himself Emperor in 1804.

Napoleon Bonaparte (France, 1769-1821)
See also Davis and others 538;
Madame de Stael on Napoleon (in Davis and others 1311-1315)

Napoleon Bonaparte, son of a Corsican attorney and thus a commoner, rises to power as a brilliant military strategist in the French Army (which swelled its size through universal conscription & enabled commoners like Napoleon to move up in military rank and social status).
When the French Revolution began (Phase 1), Napoleon Bonaparte, who was serving in the French army far from Paris, welcomed the changes transforming the country.
--1794: The Terror (Phase 2 of the French Revolution) ends when leader Robespierre is guillotined, and France emerges with a new constitutional government.  Meanwhile, European reactions against the French Revolution and its excessive violence harden. 
--By 1795:
Armies of the kings of Europe - Austria, Spain, Prussia, Great Britain – prepare to destroy the new French Republic, and France prepares for war, promising to help "all peoples rise against their rulers."
--1796: General Napoleon defeats the Austrian army of Francis I in Italy, is at first hailed as the great liberator by Italians; but Napoleon's tyrannical policies - including shooting dissenters, pillaging Italian towns, and looting Italy's great works of art - soon turn conquered Italians against Napoleon. By the time he returns to Paris the conquering hero, Napoleon is convinced that he is destined to become a great leader.
--1799-1800: Bonaparte establishes a new government, rewrites the Constitution, and makes himself head of state under the title First Consul. As 1800 begins, Napoleon Bonaparte, now 30 years old, is the most powerful man in
France: "The Revolution is over," Bonaparte declares. "I am the Revolution."

1804 - 1815: Napoleonic Era
--1804: Napoleon crowns himself Emperor Napoleon I, and thus his betrayal of Revolutionary & Republican ideals (of French Revolution's Phase 1) is complete. 
--1806: Napoleonic Code is established and widely disseminated throughout Europe and the United States.

Dramatic excesses of Napoleon's dangerous unbounded ambition, including his desire for world conquest, are played out.  He will become emperor of most of Europe, a tyrannical dictator who abolishes the power of hereditary monarchs and aristocracy, only to replace their rule with his own and members of his own family.

--1815: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo.

Napoleon and St. Bernard
by Jacques–Louis David

Learn more from: “Napoleon.” Empires series.  Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). 1995 – 2004.  4 April 2004

"The Napoleonic Code . . . enacted the revolutionary platform of abolishing serfdom, promoting religious freedom, and establishing public education. At the same time, it enforced a male–dominated, hierarchical society."  Many modern legal systems, including that of the United States, are based upon the Napoleonic Code.  Recommended resources for more information:
The complete text of the Napoleonic Code:
An encyclopedia of the many revolutions of 1848:
A guide to the emancipation of women in England from 1750 to 1920:

The French Revolution & the Napoleonic Era
both haunted and inspired Romantic writers:

The French Revolution Phase 1, as well as the American Revolution, fill Romantic era writers with sense of new beginnings & limitless human possibilities to regenerate the imperfect human world and make it right.
The French Revolution Phase 2, the rise of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Era force Romantic era writer to recognize that taking the dangerous "road of excess" can lead to horrifying outcomes like the Reign of Terror, and that limitless aspiration spurred by insatiable ambition like Napoleon's, can lead to betrayal of revolutionary & republican ideals.
BUT even "after what they considered to be the failure of the revolutionary promise" of the French Revolution and Napoleon, Romantic writers "did not surrender their hope for a radical reformation of humankind and its social and political worlds" ("Introduction") and admired even imperfect over-reaching failures like Napoleon for their vision and willingness to take the "road of excess" and risk everything, believing it more courageous and glorious to risk all and fail, than to risk nothing and achieve nothing.
Romantic writers believe in the power of the imagination not only to democratize and revolutionize literature, but also in the power of visionary literature to radically transform society and the world.
they transferred the basis of that hope from violent political revolution to a quiet but drastic revolution in the moral and imaginative nature of the human race" ("Introduction"; emphasis added).  Romantic writers turned inward, shifting their focus from "faith in a violent outer transformation to faith in an inner moral and imaginative transformation--a shift from political revolution to a revolution in consciousness--to bring into being a new heaven and a new earth" ("The French Revolution"; emphasis added).  
Romantic poets "used the spirit of revolution to help characterize their poetic philosophies" ("Summary").  "Romantic poets [practiced and] presented a theory of poetry in direct opposition to representative eighteenth-century theories of poetry as imitative of human life and nature by suggesting that poetic inspiration was located not outside [the self] . . ., but inside the poet's mind, in a 'spontaneous' emotional response" ("Summary"; emphasis added). 

The “Romantic” Revolution:
General Characteristics of Literary “Romanticism”

Romantics view C18 Enlightenment Reason, rationalism, scientific empiricism as limited, superficial sources of knowledge; 

Romantics are critical of Industrial revolution, Middle Class materialism & exploitation of poor;

Romantics reject artifice, elitism of Neo-classical “decorum” & “imitation.”

Romantics celebrate imagination and feeling
. . . as ways to connect with world & oneself;
. . . as liberating modes of truth that

--free the mind from bondage of everyday separate existence in external world,
--free the human heart from unnatural restraints & injustices of social convention
--free the citizen from chains of political tyranny
--free the artist from rules and convention

New sources of "Romantic" literary inspiration:

bullet         common folk’s life & language,
bullet         “natural,” intuitive, original genius
bullet         innocent child and simple peasant
bullet         noble savage
bullet         exotic past/places,
bullet         irrational, supernatural
bullet         sublime Nature

Poetry is redefined as “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions” (>Williams Wordsworth) of the intuitive, inspired original genius
bullet Lyric Revival: personal expression of state of mind, emotion, thought process of poet-speaker “I”
bullet Ballads, Children’s & folk songs, common language, simplicity, “natural” genius  
bullet Innovation & experimentation in subject, form, style
bullet Mix genres, break “rules; “Organicism” (> S.T. Coleridge)

Poet-Seers turn inward – seek universal truth in solitude, especially in sublime Nature, private reverie & self-reflection;
bullet Individual authority, subjective experience, emotion & intuition, visionary imagination
BUT paradoxically . . .
bullet Engaged with social and political issues - Inspired by French Revolution Phase 1
Romantic writers hoped their poetry & philosophy could transform society and misguided values by transforming the individual consciousness.
Private reverie resonates with social and historical aspiration to replace self-interest and greed with human sympathy & love.

Literary Settings: exotic, remote times & places; “Romantic” associated with medieval & Gothic;
“Romance” genre = colorful, adventurous, heroic, fantastic, idealized / sensationalized views of life; 

“Strange” stories of the non-normative, original, imaginative, extra-ordinary
Worlds of fantasy, myth, dream, magic

Literary "Dark Romanticism" - Solitary Quests & dangerous Self-Explorations
bullet  motivated by longing for the infinite, for elusive ideals, for higher wisdom & "invisible" truths
 Explorations of dark side of self & the unconscious, hidden, subterranean
bullet  "Dark" heroes - Satan, Prometheus, Cain - outlaws, rebels, outcasts, non-conformists, exiles
 Journeys into hell & human nature’s dark side, confront “warring contraries”
bullet   Solitary quests & dangerous self- exploration often doomed to failure, like search for the “Holy Grail”, but self-conscious meditation on failure to obtain goal can yield reward of higher wisdom & “invisible” truths.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H.  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers- Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1993.
Agatucci, Cora, ed.  "European Enlightenment Overview: Mid- & Later 18th Century Period." [Enhanced
         Print Version.]  3 Apr. 2007. English 109: Western World Literature: Modern, Central Oregon
         Community College, Spring 2007. 3 Apr. 2007 <

Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer. Compact 6th ed. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2003.

Davis, Paul, and others. Western Literature in a World Context: Vol. 2: The Enlightenment through the Present.  Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 1995.

"The French Revolution - Apocalytic Expectations: Overview."  "The Romantic Period: Topics." Norton Topics Online, Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton, 2003-2005.  27 Dec. 2005 <>.

"Introduction." "The Romantic Period: Topics." Norton Topics Online, Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton, 2003-2005.  18 Feb. 2005 <>.

"Literary Gothicism: Overview." "The Romantic Period: Topics." Norton Topics Online, Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton, 2003-2005.  27 Dec. 2005 <>.

"Romantic Orientalism: Overview." "The Romantic Period: Topics." Norton Topics Online, Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton, 2003-2005.  27 Dec. 2005 <>.

"The Satanic and Byronic Hero." "Literary Gothicism: Texts and Contexts." "The Romantic Period: Topics." Norton Topics Online, Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton, 2003-2005. 27 Dec. 2005 <>.

"Summary." "The Romantic Period: Topics." Norton Topics Online, Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton, 2003-2005.  27 Dec. 2005 <>.

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