Lasting Impact of Romanticism

Romantic poets' references to birds reflect their appreciation of nature.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

The Romantic Movement is typically said to have lasted from 1770 to 1840. Romantics themselves determine the 1770 estimation. They announced their own arrival around this time, self-consciously and outspokenly abandoning Enlightenment values of emotional moderation and neoclassical aesthetics. By contrast, Queen Victoria's 1837 ascent to the throne marked the dawn of what would only later be called the Victorian period, making 1840 Romanticism's end date by default. A less arbitrary conclusion for Romanticism, one that refers to a real cultural transformation, is harder to pinpoint -- perhaps because Romanticism's true conclusion has yet to arrive.

1 Nature

Today, it is difficult to imagine considering an uninhabited landscape a subject unfit for painting, although it was a standard 16th-century attitude. The prospect of Parliament abandoning the bill at hand because a bird flew into the room is even stranger, but it happened in 1604. With the 18th-century arrival of Romanticism, Western culture began to view nature as something sacred that would uplift, not degrade, the soul. Poems like Shelley's "To a Skylark" and Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" reflect a Romantic embrace of nature as beautiful and fortifying, which has more in common with the 21st century than the 17th.

2 Childhood

Because Romanticism exalted nature, it prized childhood. For the Romantics, nature was innocent, something to protect against industrial development and urban expansion. This view placed children in a new perspective. The notion of children's proximity to nature remained the same, but its significance changed. The Romantics mourned maturing children's progressive acculturation and alienation from nature. They wished to mitigate the process that predecessors had striven to accelerate. The impulse to protect children's innocence -- the very notion of children's innocence -- is a Romantic legacy.

3 Individualism

Attempts to recover the lost wisdom of childhood led Romantics to reflection and introspection. This fascination with subjectivity contributed to the Romantic Movement's veneration of individualism. Romantic individualism, however, is hardly confined to the period from 1770 to 1840. Writing in 1830, Victor Hugo called Romanticism "liberalism in literature," and despite 21st-century politics' specialized use of "liberalism," the term chiefly denotes an assumption of inborn autonomy, free will and personal liberty. A liberal society concerns itself with circumscribing individuals' freedoms only to the extent that community membership requires, and the individual/society tension that emerges from this fascinated Romantics.

4 Imagination

Creativity was a way for Romantic artists to express their individual freedom. Of course, every artist is creative in some respect. The Romantic difference is an impetus to innovate. Prior to the Romantic period, writers demonstrated skill by conforming to Aristotelian rules. Like sublime landscapes, art appeared to Romantics as a refuge from imposed convention. These writers' practiced introspection enabled them to use their own emotions and memories rather than inherited forms as the substance of their work. One of Romanticism's most enduring legacies is, ironically, its dread of the derivative.

Lily Carroll works for a non-profit children's literacy organization. She has worked as a college composition instructor and ESL tutor. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Mills College in Oakland.