The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)



The late 18th century was a period of revolutionary change across Europe. The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, had fostered the scientific advances that brought about the Industrial Revolution, as well as the various philosophical ideas that had led to the political revolutions in North America and France. The effects of growing industrialization and urbanization on society had a significant impact on the way that many people lived and worked.

During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods, humankind and reason were the twin focuses of cultural interest. But in the early 19th century, the individual came to the fore. Partly as a reaction to the cool rationality of the Enlightenment, a movement in the arts arose, which placed emphasis on subjective feelings and faculties such as intuition, imagination, and emotion. This movement became known as Romanticism.


Romantic literature

Romanticism had its roots in the German Sturm und Drang movement, from which the writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller emerged. In this transition from the classical style of the Enlightenment to 19th-century Romanticism, they introduced the idea of an unconventional protagonist whose actions are less important than his thoughts and feelings. This “Romantic hero” later became more of an anti-establishment figure, epitomizing the rebellious spirit of the period, and a recurrent character in the growing number of novels that appeared at the time. By the mid-19th century, Romanticism had spread across Europe to Russia, and writers such as Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Ivan Turgenev developed the idea into that of the “superfluous man”, whose unorthodox ideas isolate him completely from society.

Another characteristic of Romantic literature was an affinity with the natural world. English poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge offered an antidote to the industrial age by portraying the beauty and power of nature, and celebrating the innocence and impulsiveness of childhood. A similar reaction to urbanization was evident in the work of American transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman who evoked the spirit of humanitarian liberty, culminating in their call to go “back to nature”.

Gothic novels

However, many Romantic writers recognized that nature (and human nature) also has a dark side, and can arouse feelings of terror as well as pleasure. This fascination with the destructive power of nature, and even the supernatural, inspired the genre that came to be known as Gothic literature. The tone was set in Germany by Goethe’s play Faust, and the short stories by E T A Hoffmann, but the genre was most eagerly adopted by English novelists, such as Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. Elements of the Gothic run through many Victorian novels, often stressing the untameable nature of a Romantic hero in a wild landscape, as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, or the grotesque characters in grim urban surroundings that feature in the works of Charles Dickens. The genre also became popular in the USA, as exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre; it also influenced the style adopted by Herman Melville in his haunting short stories and Moby-Dick.

History and identity

As society industrialized, levels of literacy increased, and literature was no longer solely for an educated elite. Novels in particular reached a mass readership in 19th-century Europe and the USA, and many were made available in serial form. Especially popular were historical novels by the likes of Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and James Fenimore Cooper, which catered for an urban public’s desire for romance and adventure, but included graver fare such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There was also an appetite for folk stories and fairy tales which, like historical novels, were often specific to a culture. This focus on regional traditions chimed with the era’s growing nationalism.

As well as a broader readership, increased literacy spawned a greater variety of authors, most noticeably a generation of women writers such as the Brontë sisters and George Eliot of England, who (albeit under pseudonyms) pioneered a female perspective in literature, and the first freed slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Solomon Northup, who gave a voice to the USA’s oppressed black people.




The English Romantic poets


1794 William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience marks the early phase of Romanticism, anticipating the esteem placed by Wordsworth on the purity of childhood and giving a voice to society’s marginalized figures.


1818 Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet about the statue of Ozymandias points to a Romantic interest in the insignificance of man.

1819 Romantic poetry’s link with intoxicants, death, and the imagination is expressed in John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale”.

1818–1823 Lord Byron’s Don Juan – cynical, subversive, and witty – undermines his earlier Romanticism.

William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) were two of the “Lake Poets”, so called because they lived and wrote in the inspirational setting of England’s Lake District. The friends collaborated on the Lyrical Ballads, a collection of Romantic verse with the ambition (stated in the preface of the book’s second edition of 1800) to “follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature”. In part a reaction to the acute rationalism of the industrial age, English Romanticism (c.1790s–1830s) took human experience, imagination, nature, and individualistic freedom as its inspiration.

Democratizing poetry

Lyrical Ballads starts with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge’s seven-part ballad with otherworldly overtones: it was agreed that supernatural poetry with a “semblance of truth” would be this writer’s remit. Wordsworth’s brief was to give “the charm of novelty” to everyday life and awaken the reader to the loveliness of the familiar. Both writers believed that poetry should be written in transparent, unadorned language for the general populace, with simple metre and rhyme, and chose subject matter consistent with this democratizing impulse: the lives of uneducated rustic folk, whose emotions were pure and universal. Poems dealing with royalty or lofty allegory were replaced with themes of poverty, crime, and madness.

Purity and reflection

Some of Wordsworth’s poems focus on children, whom he thought lived closer to nature and form a bond with it – childhood being a time of innocence, impulse, and play. Most of the poems are deeply felt rather than deeply thought, but two have a more reflective manner: Coleridge’s “The Nightingale”, a conversational poem, and Wordsworth’s “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”.

See also: Songs of Innocence and of Experience