The literary era we now call the English Romantic Period was short, only the 40 years or so between 1789 and 1832; yet many of the loveliest poems and innovative fictions in our treasury of great literature were written during this time.
For indeed, who can forget, once they read them, so many great moments in works from this era: the solemn ecstasy of Wordsworth praising a field of daffodils, the supernatural thrills of the ghost ship that appears when Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross, the wit and sardonic charm of Byron’s version of the adventures of Don Juan, the spiritual yearning of Shelley gazing at the sublime Mont Blanc, the transcendent longings of Keats as he is swept away by the beauty of a Grecian vase or a nightingale’s song?
Fiction readers too can find their sublimities in this era among novels as different as Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic romantic fantasies, Mary Shelly’s philosophical Gothic novel Frankenstein, Walter Scott’s sweeping historical dramas in both verse and prose, and Jane Austen’s irresistible combination of true love and witty social critique in some of the most famous novels of all time.
Jane Austen’s works in particular have become known as Regency novels because they are set during the particular years known as the Regency. These years from 1811-1820, during which The Prince Regent George, Prince of Wales, ruled England in his incapacitated father’s stead, coincide with the English Romantic period.
English Romantic works are varied, yet several overarching themes and artistic preoccupations appear in almost all. What, then, is English Romantic Literature about?
First, overwhelmingly, English Romantic literature is about Nature.
English Romantics wrote many words about the places where they experienced the power, peace, or sublimity that Nature can bring.
Second, it’s about People, particularly Common People and their folkways.
Narratives featuring common people, speaking in their own language abound.
Third, English Romantic literature is about Freedom and Revolution.
As young writers, many English Romantics were swept with enthusiasm for the French Revolution and its promise of liberty for common people, before the Reign of Terror destroyed their hopes.
Beyond the French struggle, Romantic writers called for revolution of all kinds: to increase the rights of women, to do away with slavery, to elevate and succor common working people, to reconsider religious orthodoxies, and rebuild governmental institutions.
Fourth, Romantic writers sought to invent and practice new ways of writing poetry and fiction, to elevate the creative ability of the poet’s Imagination to create and transmute Nature into organically beautiful works.
English Romantic writers fought to resist the over-mechanized, cold, sterile view of life and mind they believed was promulgated by the Enlightenment thinkers of the previous century. As we have seen, Romantic writers revived much older styles downplayed by 18th century writers, such as ballads, lyric poems, sonnets, and romantic adventure tales akin to medieval tales of chivalry.
Fifth, English Romantic literature is about wrestling with the human condition—with impermanence, sorrow, and mortality.
Keenly aware of the struggles of human life, English Romantics pursued passionately their hopes for transcendence through Beauty, Nature, Intellect, and Spiritual Awareness.
If you would like to dive directly into some of the most beautiful poems and prose ever written, you can click this link to proceed directly to our Timeline and Reading List of 19th Century English Romantic and Regency Literature, where you will find recommendations for readings from most of the great authors of this era. You can also go there to learn much more about individual English Romantic authors and their works.
But if you want to gain more perspective and background on 19th Century English Romantic writing before you start reading some, click “Continue Reading” to see more of this post.
Either way, I hope you will continue to explore the great English literature of the early 19th century!
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.