A printing press in William Hone's best-selling Political House that Jack Built (1819) shows the faith of reformers in language's power to produce political change.Romanticism emerged amidst political tumult, as evidenced by the French Revolution (1789) and First Reform Act (1832) that conventionally bookend this literary-historical period. And yet, at the same time, Romanticism has repeatedly been associated with escape and fantasy, with the individual’s flight into the realms of vision, self-involvement, and retrospection. No better symptom of this view exists than the way the term “romantic” has come to stand as the antithesis of "realist."
But renewed attention to the historical conditions that grounded Romanticism has challenged this simplification. In the last 30 years, research has shown how the era’s economic realities, social concerns, and political contests found expression in Romantic poetry, novels, drama, and other forms of writing. Rather than emphasize the common humanity that the Romantics addressed, this contextual scholarship has explored the ways in which literature refracted the changes that were upending Europe and the world at the time.
This website offers an introduction to some vectors of "Romantic Politics." The political and industrial revolutions that shake the period are one obvious place to start. The French Revolution spread the idea that politics and public morality might be decided not only by elites but also by the general populace. Discontent with the status quo led to escalating attacks on and worries over religion's role in keeping "things as they are," as Godwin put it. Likewise, the extension of education became a fraught topic and children were increasingly seen as a battleground where the different classes fought for the future of society. The industrial revolution heightened economic stratification, leading to ambivalence about increasing urbanization and a revalorization of the environment. The quickening of commercial expansion also meant that Britain was less and less insular, as its imperial ambitions grew and it confronted other peoples and cultures, in particular, through the scandal of slavery. The question of exploitation abroad reverberated domestically, as discrimination against women came to the fore. Feminist thinkers also reconsidered the status of women as both mothers and members of society. In these various ways, the Romantic period witnessed redefinitions of citizenship key to our own modernity. In this process, poets and writers played a fundamental role as "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," in Percy Shelley's famous words.