The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner The Romantics

(Above: Abbey in the Oak Forest (1809) by Caspar David Friedrich)

In order to understand British Romanticism as a genre, one must first understand what the British Romantics were not. The Romantic movement is often construed as a reaction against the Enlightenment's focus on the logical in favor of the purely emotional. Additionally, it is sometimes confused with the lower-case "romantic", denoting an idealistic focus on love. In fact, the Romantic movement was rooted deeply in the Enlightenment's focus on reason, and often portrayed love as tormented and unreachable. Perhaps the best way to describe the Romantic movement is as "the rebellious child of the Enlightenment" - it embraced, and then departed from, the period's concentration on empiricism and logical thought.

The Romantic era spanned approximately 1798 to 1832, although many contemporary scholars extend the dates to varying degrees on either end. The movement arose during a time when print culture was continuing its sharp rise, one comparable to the rise of today's internet culture in terms of the dissemination of information. Printed materials were available to a wide audience instead of on a manuscript basis, inspiring writers to delve into "ordinary" themes and characters. However, this is not to say that the quality of the Romantics' writing was less than those preceding them, mundane, or low quality. Rather, it strove to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. Some major themes of the Romantic movement include the subjectivity of experience, the marriage of pleasure and pain, the location of the infinite or sublime in nature and a corresponding reverence for the natural world, and liminal spaces and states. The above painting by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich encapsulates several of these themes. In this work, Friedrich has quite literally located the religious in nature, as reflected in the painting's very title: Abbey in the Oak Forest. Note how the scene's holiness seems to stem not from its religious symbols (the Abbey, the gravestones, and the monks), but rather from the glory of the sunset and the ominous majesty of the trees. The setting is perfectly Romantic: natural, awesome, and lonely. It also takes place at a liminal time of day, either sunrise or sunset, to emphasize the fact that the scene also balances the physical and the metaphysical, as well as the natural and the spiritual. Note also how the humans in the picture are dwarfed by nature's sublimity so that they are noticeable only upon close inspection, and even then are barely distinguishable from the gravestones.

The typical progression of a Romantic narrative describes the hero's journey from a state of innocence to one of sad wisdom, attained through realizations that occur in a liminal space and often involve magical or spiritual intervention. Most notably, the tale is told from the hero's individualistic perspective. While contemporary readers take the prevalence of the word "I" in literature for granted, it was not so pervasive before the Romantic movement; stories focused on a protagonist's experience as didactic and universal. The Romantics, drawing on the Enlightenment focus on empirical evidence, placed great importance on their protagonists' subjective experience of the world. The greatest example of Romantic individualism is Wordsworth's much-revised Prelude, in which he wrote thousands of lines about his personal experiences of his surroundings.

The major Romantic poets are usually listed as follows: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the famously precocious John Keats. However, the movement was in actuality much larger and included many others, including Thomas DeQuincey and Mary Shelley, as well as a host of other female writers whose works have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve. Romantic musicians include the likes of Ludwig von Beethoven and Franz Peter Schubert. Romantic artists who focused on the visual include Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Turner, as well as William Blake himself.