Romanticism is, in its most basic form, an emotional response to rationalism. Whereas rationalism was dominated by logic and reason, romanticism is more emotional, less controlled. We have come to define the term simply in terms of stories of love and romance (it’s almost impossible to talk about the type of story without using the word!), but that is OUR problem and limitation, not the concept’s.
Romantics believed in a world greater than what could be seen or measured by science. Their works were imaginative. They broke down barriers and tried new things, just because they could. They believed in truth and beauty and justice and all the other abstract aesthetic notions that can’t really be quantified. “Something is beautiful because you see it as beautiful” to the romantics. And the romantic artist then has the obligation to try to share that vision, that notion, with his/her audience.
Romantic authors tended to focus on characters and their interactions, not detailed descriptions and long passages filled with facts. They loved to write poems about love and nature. They wrote fictional stories which rationalists saw as being lies since they didn’t really happen, why write about them? Romantics saw that being able to control characters’ behaviors, to emphasize certain patterns or notions, gave the writer greater power to communicate.
Be careful about Sentimentality and Bathos, however. These are romanticism taken to an extreme. If a poem or story is JUST about emotion, without any underlying meaning or theme, it is not usually considered proper romanticism. Hawthorne’s famous comment about the “damned mob of scribbling women” that he couldn’t compete with in the book market is not a condemnation of women authors (even though it seems like it is). Hawthorne was frustrated because sentimental writers (who were mainly, but not entirely female) were selling to much wider audiences than his more artistic, less extreme, and more realistically drawn romantic works. Stories about drunken husbands and the problems they create and the adventures of the poor orphaned girl who must overcome great obstacles before marrying the perfect man are sentimental tales, not romantic. Basically, if you find yourself describing the work by its plot it’s sentimental. If you describe and discuss it primarily in terms of its themes and ideasit’s romanticism.
Romantics were fascinated by nature. They believed that by studying nature, one could come to a greater understanding of the world. Not like rationalists, however. They didn’t want to classify all the plants and animals into scientific families the romantics wanted to understand nature as a system, as a thing unto itself. Thus, romantics feel free to use nature symbolically because to them, nature IS symbolic of greater truths.
Here are some additional links to what others think about American Romanticism: