Romanticism: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, How Do I Love Thee?
How Do I Love Thee?

Romanticism - Study Guide

We're not talking love novels here. Romanticism is an influential genre that caused many subsequent genres to emerge. We hope this guide is particularly helpful for students and teachers to teach and learn its roots and exemplary works.

Overview of Romanticism, Exemplary Works, Etymology & Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments

Ode to a Nightingale
Ode to a Nightingale

Overview of Romanticism

Romanticism is totally different from Romance novels. Inspired by the German Strum und Drang (storm and stress), the movement was a reaction to the constraints of rationalism and scientific thought from the Enlightenment. Romanticism is the belief that emotions and intuition are more important than logic and facts; the individual comes first and is primarily good, and nature is meant to be worshipped. Contrast this with Realism (its polar opposite) and Dark Romanticism-- both emphasize human fallibility (they are pessimists). Lyrical Ballads (1798) by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge marked the beginning of the Romantic Age. Soon followed Sir Walter Scott with his chivalrous, medieval tales about King Arthur and his Knights, in The Talisman. To be considered a Romantic author, one must be an optimist, focus on feelings, the senses, imagination, and generally enjoy describing his/her experiences in the natural environment, particularly enjoy individual freedoms of expression. Romantics reject strict religious traditions and prescribed moral rules.

The genre of Romanticism in art, literature, and music emerged in Europe in the late 18th century to early 19th century and migrated to America, influencing politics, art, and particularly American literature between 1830-1865. Romantic writing styles focused on the effects of events (spiritual forces) rather than facts or details, created imaginery worlds, relied on contrasts (e.g., good vs. evil, light vs. dark), and saw God as an external force. Romanticism led to the Transcendental Movement, very similar in their embrace of the innate goodness of man, except Transcendentalists felt man had a personal relationship with God and could achieve perfection. This prompted a reaction: Dark Romanticism (we are predisposed to sin) and its even darker cousin, Gothic Literature (torment, graphic morbidity, and the supernatural).

Exemplary Romantic Poets: John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

Exemplary Romantic Prose Authors: James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), Herman Melville (Moby-Dick; or the Whale), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Hans Christian Andersen (The Little Match Girl), Victor Hugo (Les Miserables), Oscar Wilde (The Selfish Giant), and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women).

Many of the works referenced above cross into the genre of Dark Romanticism, as their characters confront self-destructive forces and societal norms.

Romanticism: Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Little Women

Exemplary Works

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville is one of the most recognized novels in the genre of Dark Romanticism. Melville's Captain Ahab is the prototype of human fallibility, and he draws upon amble Biblical allusions (including his character names) centering on themes of judgement, guilt, sin, souls, and the end of the world. See Moby-Dick - Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne exemplifies Dark Romanticism in its themes of imposed judgement and punishment for those who commit sin, resulting in alienation and self-destruction. Hawthorne's most famous novel examined the human soul and our morality-- certainly a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-intended social reform and blind religious fervor. While Hawthorne dappled in numerous genres, including Transcendentalism and Romanticism, he found his niche in Dark Romanticism, albeit on the less pessimistic side. He believed that for all of our weaknesses, hypocrisy and suffering, "the truth of the human heart" usually prevails.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a semi-autobiographical story about four sisters who adore their father, set during the American Civil War.

Emily Dickinson challenged the definitions of poetry and exemplify Romanticism, particularly Dark Romanticism. It's well-known that she led an increasingly reclusive life, afflicted by severe depression, and never saw success during her lifetime (she died at 56). Yet, her creative energy, willingness to fight conventions (no titles, short lines), and prolific writing (she published nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime) established her literary prowess and blazed a trail for other poets and women writers to follow.

Two American short story authors whose works were published after 1870 deserve inclusion as part of the American Romantic Movement: O. Henry and Kate Chopin. Their respective canons offer characters with emotional complexity, intuition, and an ability to express individual freedoms in the face of repressive forces or social conventions.

Romanticism: Emily Dickinson, The Railway Train
The Railway Train

Etymology & Historical Context

The etymology of the word "Romanticism" is from the Latin word "romant" which means "in the Roman manner." It became known as a style of art, literature, and music that drew on emotions, intuition, and imagination, rather than rationality and science.

American authors embracing the Romantic Movement were most prolific between 1830-1870. The country was in its infancy as an independent nation, the industrial revolution brought many practical and efficient inventions, and "manifest destiny" was on full-tilt. Americans wanted to break away from European thoughts and philosophies to create unique forms of emotional expressions. Two opposing sub-genres emerged that were uniquely American: the optimists who believed in human goodness and spirituality, grew in to the Transcendentalism Movement; the pessimists, who embraced human fallibility and our predisposition towards sin, grew into the Dark Romantic Movement. Authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about free choice and the wrongful persecution of minorities in America, as in The Scarlet Letter.

During the American Romantic Movement, the short story emerged as a particularly well-suited American form of writing, celebrating the freedom of individuals, the rise of the common man after industrialization, and expressions of hope and promise, in a compact story, rather than a lengthy, laborious novel. These stories were often published in serial form in newspapers and magazines, making them more accessible to a broad range of American readers. Expanding literacy to "the masses" fit within America's political and moral values as well.

Romanticism: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hymn of Pan
Hymn of Pan


Explain the specific qualities of each quote as an exemplar of Romanticism:

Discussion Questions

1. Identify the characteristics of Romanticism. How is it different from "Romance" in meaning and expression.

2. Compare "Romanticism" and "Dark Romanticism." Provide examples to support your answer.

3. What made American Romanticism particularly unique from European Romanticism?

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne began his writing career considered a Romantic author, then moved towards Transcendentalism, before rejecting it in favor of the genre of his greatest success: Dark Romanticism. Find an example of his work from each of these genres and discuss their contrasting styles.

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen

5. Read The Last Dream of Old Oak and discuss how the story is indicative of Romanticism. Also analyze Andersen's use of anthropomorphism as the ephemera and the oak discuss quality of life and that time is all relative.

6. Discuss Emily Dickinson's seemingly contradictory voices as a poet. Select at least two poems, identify elements of depression/hope, resilience/morbidity, and love/loss.

7. Provide an example of Romanticism's characteristic "hero worship." Compare it to a modern day equivalent (Wonder Woman, Marvel comic heroes?)

8. Discuss the timeless appeal of emotional stories (dramas) compared to documentaries (facts or persuasive pieces). Is the Romantic Movement still alive and well in modern times (and why do we love emoticons on our smart phones so much?)

9. Consider how illustrated and lyrical poetry falls into the genre of Romanticism, specifically William Blake's collection, Songs of Innocence

Romanticism: Songs of Innocence
Songs of Innocence

Teacher Resources
A Teacher's Work Is Never Done

Notes/Teacher Comments

We need to hear from you! Please share your lesson plans, questions, or pitfalls to avoid while teaching this genre in pursuing our common interests of helping more students enjoy reading classic literature! Contact us via Facebook or Twitter

Visit our Teacher Resources, supporting literacy instruction across all grade levels

American Literature's Study Guides

Return to American Literature Home Page

facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest