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The Dawn of Romanticism in Literature: Etymology and Early Influence in Europe

Long after the dominance of the rationalist thinkers whose beliefs were turned to the glorification of the human mind and the essence of reason, a newborn movement started to bloom at the end of the eighteenth century in many regions of Europe as a reaction to the dogmatism of their predecessors. Empiricism and rationalism of the Enlightenment were soon to be transgressed and the focus was altered towards zooming on human feelings and emotions, the celebration of nature, and the importance of imagination into the artistic process of creation.

When it comes to defining the origin of the noun romanticism, the English Professor and author Michael Ferber (2010) enunciates the word itself “from the adjective Romanus had come to a secondary adjective Romanicus, and from the adjective had come to the adverb Romanice, meaning ‘in the Roman manner’.” (p. 23). The word Romanice later evolved into romauns, the early Latin ascendance of the word that would years later become known as romance. The word “roman”, which stands for novel in French, was borrowed by the Germans, the Russians, and other languages, except for the English whose preference was more turned out towards the Italian word of “novella”, meaning a new story. However, throughout the years, scholars differed in the usage of the word romantic, a descendant of the word romance, in their approach to create a new literature.

After the appearance of the word “romantique” in French in parallel with the word “romantick” in English in the seventeenth century, they were not valorized, not until the mid-eighteenth century through the poem of James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1746), whereby a focus on elements of nature was attributed to romantic. Towards the 1790s, a group of German writers, among them Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, viewed romantic literature as thoroughly distinct from classic literature, for they thought that romantic went hand in hand with modern. To some extent, they advocated this ideology but were reluctant to name writers who composed romantic literature and being so-called romantic back then.

Moreover, they estimated that writers of that time could write romantic literature, in other words, modern narratives and being classic writers as well. After a few decades, controversies about the newly established literary movement, known later as Romanticism, paved the way for many writers, painters, and other artists to call themselves Romantics. For instance, in England, Wordsworth and Coleridge, before the emergence of later writers, such as Keats, Shelley, and Lord Byron, considered themselves as the Romantics.

The source of the word “romantic ultimately derives from Latin Roma, the city of Rome,” announces (Ferber, 2010, p.22) when referring to the painting of the famous British romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner, known as Colosseum by Moonlight (1819), which illustrates the Roman ruins through the reflection of the moonlight. The figure of the Moon over Rome is very much appreciated by romantic writers, such as “Chateaubriand’s René (1802), August Wilhelm Schlegel’s ‘Rom: Elegie’ (1805), Staël’s Corinne (1807), Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 4 (1812)” claims (Ferber, 2010, p.22-23).

The French Revolution (1789-1799) had a significant influence on the birth of Romanticism, especially among the European pioneering writers of literature and poetry allowing them to voice themselves in their writings through another perception of reality, that of the dominance of emotions over reason and mind. Thanks to Rousseau’s social contract theory, mostly inspired by Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s ideologies, it reshaped the norms of the eighteenth century, focusing on the values of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Nevertheless, to what extent did the French Revolution influence the appearance of the Romantic movement in Europe?

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (2013) explains that the eighteenth century was, surely, a century characterized by “a belief in the application of universal reason both to human affairs and to artistic practice, to morals, to politics, to philosophy” (p.31). That is to say, a certain kind of routine at which the Western world used to follow as an unquestionable way of life until the emergence of the French Revolution that debunked those pre-conceived thoughts and called for a re-evaluation of the very meaning of reason, justice, and the essence of life.

Nonetheless, according to Berlin, the Romantic movement had been inspired by what the French Revolution brought as principles at that time, such as fighting for one’s life, fighting for liberty and justice, but did not fight for the same principles: Principles that Berlin (2013) estimated “not at all connected with the sense of uniqueness, the profound emotional introspection, the sense of the differences of things, dissimilarities rather than similarities, with which the Romantic movement is usually associated.” (p.32).

The influence of the Romantic movement was found in Germany, before France and England. Initially, the work of the German poet Goethe, entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther and published in 1774, shed light on themes related to the inner-self and the relationship between man and nature as a process of healing and self-discovery.

In fact, the thematic spectra in Goethe’s novel gave birth to the late eighteenth-century German literary movement, known as the Sturm und Drang movement, influenced by Rousseau and the German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann, and whose main ideas are the importance of Nature, human feelings and a focus on human individualism.

The period between 1760 until 1830 in many parts of Western Europe was characterized by self-consciousness and raising awareness of the emerging Romantics against the established norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and so they reacted to such conventional societies by an artistic revolution through highlighting in their literary writings “a love of atmospheric landscapes”, “a nostalgia for the past”, “a love of the primitive”, including folklore, in addition to that “the cult of the individual hero figure”, “mysticism”, and “a fascination with death” (“Romanticism, Its Influence on French Revolution”, 2017, Feb 24).

In fact, those themes had a strong and revolutionary impact on changing the conception of literary art. Tracing back the elements of early romantic influences in literary works were found in other European parts. The example of the pre-romantic collection of epic poetry, composed in two consecutive volumes as Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763) and later known as the Poems of Ossian, published and translated by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from the Old Gaelic, were subject to debate over the authenticity of the work itself as Macpherson claimed his authority over the epic collection of poems, glorifying the Scottish heritage over the Irish one.

In England, the Lyrical Ballads (1798-1800) encompasses poems written by William Wordsworth and Samuel Tylor Coleridge, who are considered as the precursors of the Romantic movement in England. The work demonstrates not only the illustration of the genius of Wordsworth through enhancing the importance of nature and the sublimity of human emotions but also the imagination of Coleridge in his perception of nature through the power of meditation.

Furthermore, in France, the literary contribution of Victor Hugo shaped into four books of poems, “Les Feuilles d’automne (1831; “Autumn Leaves”), intimate and personal in inspiration; Les chants du crépuscule (1835; “Songs of Twilight”), overtly political; Les Voix intérieures (1837; “Inner Voices”), both personal and philosophical; and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840; “Sunlight and Shadows”), states (Barrère, n.d.), reflected notions of romanticism, such as a focus on the intimacy between man and nature through human reflections in the French poetry.

Altogether, the emergence of Romanticism constituted an intellectual and spiritual upheaval for classicist writers, whose ideologies were limited to the praise of reason and the power of the mind in their works. In every distinct part of Europe, the early Romantics did not only revolutionize a new age of literary composition and creation in their approach to the Self through their perception of nature, but the impact of their ideas also prepared the ground for later Romantic writers to contribute further much into advocating the principles and concepts of Romanticism in literature.

Image Source:

Ferber, M 2010, Colosseum by Moonlight, Turner, J.M.W, Oxford University Press, New York.

Ferber, M 2010, Illustration in an 1844 edition of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, Oxford University Press, New York.


Barrère, J-B. (n.d). Victor Hugo. Britannica.

Berlin, I. (2013). In Search of a Definition. In Ed H. Hardy (Ed). The Roots of Romanticism (2nd ed, pp. 1-25). U.S.A: Princeton University Press.

Ferber, M. (2010). The Meaning of the Word. Romanticism A Very Short Introduction (pp. 20-31). New York: Oxford University Press.

Romanticism, Its Influence on French Revolution. (2017, Feb 24). Retrieved from


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Neyra Behi

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