Readers of Romantic literature: Did they discover themselves?

Published 20 Feb 2017

They had four decades to make it happen. Did they? Didn’t they? If they did, how did they manage it? And if they didn’t, how did they escape it?

Romanticism was an extraordinary movement, to say the least. Imagine an explosion of the most beautiful fireworks, a display that left you satiated yet craving for more. It was a revolt, a performance and a parade all rolled into one.The social, economic and political norms of the previous years had gotten oppressive. Nature, life and its emotions were all being put through the test of rationalization. It was high time the romantics emerged and brought some relief. Out of this period in the history of literature, came a revolution that is hard to fathom. It roped in artists, writers and intellectuals and one can only imagine the lethal combination.

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Romantic literature in particular, succeeded in igniting the revolution further. The literature of almost every country in America and Europe were striking examples of the movement.

If one had to pick the peak of the period, it would be from 1820-1860. At the beginning of the 18th century, the word ‘romantic’ took on a different meaning. It implied the whimsical and far-fetched nature of romantic tales and characters in these medieval romances. It didn’t take the writers of the Romantic movement too long to change that idea.

Various aspects of romantic literature are bound to attract the reader, but one that stands out is its attempt to be an experience. Romantic literature was far from just a story or a poem. It was intended to take the reader on an emotionally stimulating journey, and the pit stops were sure to be equally sensational. Subjects, truths and venues were secondary and emotion was pedestalised. Expression, the romantics believed were what could turn the society around.

One could say then, that Romantic literature had set itself a target – the self, emotions belonging to the self, and the discovery and acknowledgement of both. The question is, was Romantic literature able to achieve the target it set for itself or had the Romantics aimed too high? Were they able to convince a generation that had been wrapped around the finger of science and pure rationale that life could center on art inspiration and aesthetic voyages? Were the Romantics, with their literature and what their critics called ‘flights of fancy’ into the realm of hope and macabre reality, able to discover and develop the self? After having drawn a parallel between the self and nature, were they able to make the connection for their readers?

To determine the answer to this question, I have picked two primary texts. The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the category of prose and Because I could not stop for death by Emily Dickinson in the category of poetry.

One of the most prominent writers of the Romantic era, Ralph Waldo Emerson, beautifully encapsulates the period in his essay “The Poet”.

“For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”

Emerson’s entire essay centers on a character that could have easily been the mascot of the Romantic era – the poet. A reader enters the beautifully sensitive and heightened world of the poet’s journey. His essay wasn’t about “men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in meter, but of the true poet.” Written between 1841 and 1843, peak years of the Romantic era, Emerson describes all the characteristics that a poet is almost born with. He charts out a plan of action for the ‘umpire of taste’ and empathetically draws the distinction between poets and the rest, between partial and complete men. Emerson splits the masses into three distinct classes – the knower, the doer and the sayer and the poet

‘…is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre… The poet does not wait for the hero or the sage, but, as they act and think primarily, so he writes primarily what will and must be spoken, reckoning the others, though primaries also, yet, in respect to him, secondaries and servants; as sitters or models in the studio of a painter, or as assistants who bring building materials to an architect.’

After having drawn lines around the poet, and defining him/her for his readers, Emerson then does the unexpected. He calls out to prospective poets and conveys the need for more poets in the United States of America.

“Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung.”

In the other primary text of my choice, Emily Dickinson, the American poet that came to be seen in the same league as Walt Whitman, describes another journey. In most interpretations, the poem is seen as Dickinson’s journey towards the destination that she sought in most of her writing – Death. But one wonders, precisely what is Dickinson journeying toward? Or rather, journeying away from? She passes the world, with all its elements of life – ‘a school where children played, the fields of gazing grain, houses, labor, leisure’ – and without a murmur she accepts that she is headed ‘toward eternity’.

In both of the above texts, prime writers of the Romantic era had succeeded in describing a journey, an experience and yet, both had bordered on the personal. While Emerson glorified the existence of a poet, whom he clearly identified with, he had also succeeded in drawing the boundary between the ones who could and could not. He had extended an invitation and yet the fine print seemed to mention quite clearly the characteristics of those who could arrive. Emily Dickinson on the other hand was moving away, from the very people she needed to address. The Romantics were great at what they did, but one can’t help but wonder if they were being elitist about their targets.
During the era of Romantic literature, readers craved knowledge of the self. With access to an increasing volume of material on the subject, the reader had set out on the journey to self-discovery. And in her essay on the Romantic Period, Kathryn VanSpanckeren says,
The development of the self became a major theme; self-awareness a primary method. If, according to Romantic theory, self and nature were one, self-awareness was not a selfish dead end but a mode of knowledge opening up the universe. If one’s self were one with all humanity, then the individual had a moral duty to reform social inequalities and relieve human suffering. The idea of “self” – which suggested selfishness to earlier generations – was redefined. New compound words with positive meanings emerged: “self-realization,” “self-expression,” “self- reliance.”

The attributes that the Romantics had settled on were perfect, but in the process of trying to spread these attributes, they had intimidated one too many. It was restricted to the essayists and the poets themselves. The readers had been excluded out of the arena.

A reader could have loved what he was reading, but he also had to accept the fact that it was a world he could only look at from afar, not be an intrinsic part of. The writers either advertently or inadvertently had alienated the reader instead of aiding in the process of self-discovery had turned them in the opposite direction. The good that came out of this movement can not be denied, but could inclusive writing have been the key to so much more? Readers had been set on the path of togetherness and mutual belief in the distinct characteristics of Romanticism, but at the end of the path they found themselves far away from the group that could fuel the journey itself.
It also resulted in the triumph of the class which invented, fostered, and adopted as its own the romantic movement: the bourgeoisie.

In another way too, the Romantics were ambivalent toward the “real” social world around them. They were often politically and socially involved, but at the same time they began to distance themselves from the public. As noted earlier, high Romantic artists interpreted things through their own emotions, and these emotions included social and political consciousness–as one would expect in a period of revolution, one that reacted so strongly to oppression and injustice in the world. So artists sometimes took public stands, or wrote works with socially or politically oriented subject matter. Yet at the same time, another trend began to emerge, as they withdrew more and more from what they saw as the confining boundaries of bourgeois life. In their private lives, they often asserted their individuality and differences in ways that were to the middle class a subject of intense interest, but also sometimes of horror. (“Nothing succeeds like excess,” wrote Oscar Wilde, who, as a partial inheritor of Romantic tendencies, seemed to enjoy shocking the bourgeois, both in his literary and life styles.) Thus the gulf between “odd” artists and their sometimes shocked, often uncomprehending audience began to widen. Some artists may have experienced ambivalence about this situation–it was earlier pointed out how Emily Dickinson seemed to regret that her “letters” to the world would go unanswered. Yet a significant Romantic theme became the contrast between artist and middle-class “Philistine.” Unfortunately, in many ways, this distance between artist and public remains with us today.

No doubt the movement brought about an influx of writers and artists who identified with the prevalent theme of self-expression and emotion. As far as the masses were concerned however, the gap had come into existence and bridging it… what was that again?


  • From Revolution to Reconstruction… and what happened afterwards. 15th May, 2007. Department of Humanities Computing.
  • Romanticism. March 11, 1998. Brians, Paul.
  • Romanticism. May 15, 2007. English Department, Brooklyn College.
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