American Literature's Romantic Period -Its history

To understand the Romantic Period of literature, think of topics like nature, love, birth, patriotism, honor, and even death. Romantics write about these subjects to create perfect moments for us to reflect on. More specifically, it 

  • respects feelings and one's intuition over cold reasoning
  • encourages imagination
  • opposes civilization and rigid sophistication
  • searches for primitive nature and natural experiences
  • values freedom over conformity
  • studies nature's beauty to experience spiritual and moral awareness
  • appreciates the supernatural and the intuitive experience
  • values myths and folklore to find truth over science and reason

As you read these Romantic Period authors, look for these qualities and characteristics in their writings. 

Most critics mark the last few years of the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s as the timeline for this Romantic Period and I agree. 

America now has a constitution and commerce and trade are growing. However, another measure of a prosperous country is whether it can produce meaningful literature.

If it is a flourishing country with freedom of expression, a strong economic base, and a respect for education, it will create a desire for and permit people to spend their extra money on books. 

And it did!

The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide

                                             -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,                                    excerpt from "The Sound of the Sea"

photo taken by Diana Boles

Below are the Romantic Period authors of short stories, novels, and poems, along with a description and a recommendation for some of their writings.

America's Romantic Period Writers

  • Washington Irving is known as the Father of American literature. He is best known for writing the highly entertaining short stories,  "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "The Devil and Tom Walker," and "Rip Van Winkle."  

I recommend reading all of these stories. The Devil and Tom Walker is full of folkloric images common still today in America. 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a humorous and scary folktale that possesses all the traditional motifs of horror stories today, and Rip Van Winkle not only has traditional stereotypes from almost 200 years ago, but also possesses historical allusions of how a new nation copes with its new identity. 

  • James Fenimore Cooper authored many books, fiction and nonfiction, in his lifetime. The most romantic and popular of them is The Leatherstocking Tales.

The protagonist, Natty Bumppo, started out as a rough and coarse wilderness scout, but as the popularity of Cooper's first book increased, Cooper developed Natty (Nathaniel) into America's first Romantic Period hero.

Even today, the classic hero possesses qualities of

  • youthfulness and innocence
  • an honor code that is above society's code
  • has a keen, intuitive understanding of people
  • loves nature and avoids cities
  • seeks truth in nature

Although Cooper wrote many other novels during the Romantic Period, it is this series of novels that made him world famous.

The series of five novels called The Leatherstocking Tales were The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1827), The Prairie (1827), Pathfinder (1840), and Deerslayer (1841). 

Watch the clip below and see how many characteristics of the Romantic hero you can identify in this scene from The Last of the Mohicans?

  • Edgar Allan Poe was probably the greatest and most prolific Romantic Period writer. Not only was his poetry lyrical and creative, but his short stories were innovative. Did you know that he created the first detective story in history? Students should read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue,". The exceptionally intelligent detective and the bumbling police official are characters used today, but created by Poe more than 150 years ago.

Poe understood many languages and had a great vocabulary. While many may enjoy his writings for their creativity, his vocabulary and skill with the written word is what give readers their education and appreciation for this man. The link above includes all his works. 

Students are often attracted to Poe for his drug use, but it shows a wretchedly limited understanding of his work. As often is the case with highly intelligent creatures, they suffer greatly when trying to grapple with their knowledgeand thoughts.

Here's what Poe said about his life: 

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge.

It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason.

It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”

                                         - Edgar Allan Poe

"And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming"

excerpt from "The Raven" by E.A. Poe

viagra for the mind

It is impossible to read Poe's work without feeling a sense of awe of his incredible talent. Then, after reading about his sad, and mostly impoverished life, one feels a sense of anger that a life that gave so much beauty and art to the world, received so little in return. 

My minimum short story recommendations are "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Tell Tale Heart," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Gold Bug."

Of his poems, read "The Raven," "Anabel Lee," "The Bells," and "Sonnet - To Science." 

"Sonnet - To Science" is particularly important poem as it helps the reader gain a better understanding of the Romantic Period. Romanticism developed largely as a result of the limitations of Rationalism, which was a movement spurred by the numerous scientific discoveries in the previous decades. Poe understood its limitations. 

And finally, your high schooler should read  the essay, "The Philosophy of Compositon." If she has difficulty understanding the vocabulary, look up the words and break down Poe's ideas in paragraphs to better understand his concepts. It may be helpful to review some of these reading comprehension techniques

How To Analyze Poetry

Not everyone likes to read poetry. So what should one do about that? I do not like poetry that much either, to be honest with you, so I wrote a companion page to help students better understand and appreciate poetry. 

The Fireside Poets

This group of poets --John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell-- were called Fireside poets because their poems were likely to be read while sitting by the fireside.

While their topics address American themes and places, they imitated the popular style of poetry of England. 

Poetry in the Romantic Period not only addressed the beauty of nature, but also personal loss, social and political issues of the time. 

"The Cross of Snow"  is my favorite of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem. It gets its title from the way the snow has fallen that looks like the shape of a cross near or at where his wife is buried. He loved her very much and reflects on how much he still misses her.

Two other poems to read include "Paul Revere's Ride," and "Song of Hiawatha."

Visit the link under his photo to read more about this Romantic Period poet. 

The Cross of Snow 

In the long, sleepless watches of the night, 
A gentle face -- the face of one long dead -- 
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head 
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light. 
Here in this room she died; and soul more white 
Never through martyrdom of fire was led 
To its repose; nor can in books be read 
The legend of a life more benedight. 

There is a mountain in the distant West 
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines 
Displays a cross of snow upon its side. 
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast 
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes 

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"The Cross of Snow" is written in the same style of an Italian sonnet. You can learn more about its rhyme scheme here. 

John Greenleaf Whittier was another Fireside poet who created his poetry out of his deep commitment from the doctrines of the Quaker religion. He became an avid Abolitionist, and his devotion to God are strongly reflected in his poetry. 

excerpt from "SnowBound"

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Oliver Wendell Holmes had a long, influential life, but one of the things he is remembered for is saving the USS Constiution.

It is a ship that was commissioned in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

Evidently, she had developed dry rot, and the Navy was going to sink her in target practice, but Holmes didn't like that, so he wrote this poem. 

In short, he saved her and she is now residing in Boston Harbor today. She serves as a glorious reminder of America's battle for independence and the power of 24 lines of poetry. 

Old Ironsides 

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! 
Long has it waved on high, 
And many an eye has danced to see 
That banner in the sky; 
Beneath it rung the battle shout, 
And burst the cannon's roar; -- 
The meteor of the ocean air 
Shall sweep the clouds no more. 

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood, 
Where knelt the vanquished foe, 
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood, 
And waves were white below, 
No more shall feel the victor's tread, 
Or know the conquered knee; -- 
The harpies of the shore shall pluck 
The eagle of the sea! 

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

Oliver Wendell Holmes

USS Constitution a.k.a. Old Ironsides 

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

While James Russell Lowell is part of this Fireside group of poets, he is definitely the most political of the quartet. He wrote political satire and enjoyed writing criticism of his contemporaries.Here is an example of his Romantic Period poetry.  

A Stanza on Freedom

THEY are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three. 

James Russell Lowell

You can return to other American Literature pages here. 

You can visit the Analyzing Poetry page here. 

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