Essay on Romanticism in American Literature
The American Romantic period formed a movement away from rationalism and toward more imaginative thoughts, focused on nature, the human mind and transcending reality. The various writers of the Romantic period used their beliefs to immerse their audience in a world where rational thought didn’t directly apply and encouraged them to open their minds to nature, perplexing Gothic worlds, or religion. Several instances of this include the poets William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Other instances include Dark Romantics Nathanial Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Lastly, a group of men known as the Transcendentalists believed that in order for one to find the true meaning of existence, one must think beyond the physical world such as Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote novellas and essays about this topic.
The Poets of the Romantic period often looked to nature for a starting point into their various works. A poem called “Thanatopsis” by Bryant describes the continuous cycle of life and death. The poem reads, “The flight of years began, have laid them down / In their last sleep - the dead reign there alone. /So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw / In silence from the living, and no friend / Take note of thy departure? All that breathe / Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh / When thou art gone, / the solemn brood of care / Plod on, and each one as before will chase / His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave / Their mirth and their employments, and shall come /And make their bed with thee. As the long train / Of ages glide away, the sons of men, / The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes / In the full strength of years, matron and maid, / The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man— / Shall one by one be gathered to thy side, / By those, who in their turn shall follow them” (Bryant). The poem goes over how everything eventually dies, by relating it to the cycle of life and death - a common theme often seen in Romantic poetry. “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” by Longfellow also draws inspiration from nature, comparatively the tide to the passage of time. Longfellow wrote, “The tide rises, the tide falls, / The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; / Along the sea-sands damp and brown / The traveller hastens toward the town, / And the tide rises the tide falls… / The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls / Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls; / The day returns, but nevermore / Returns the traveller to the shore, / And the tide rises, the tide falls” (Longfellow). Longfellow weaves the cycle of the tide with the passage of time, more focusing on nature than the imagination - contrasting it with “Thanatopsis” but still following the common rules on poetry in American Romanticism.
Other writers of the Romantic Period fall under the specification of the “Dark Romantics” due to their more dark, Gothic themed novels, turning more away from nature and to the exploration of the human mind. Novelist Nathanial Hawthorne wrote a short story called “The Minister’s Black Veil” that reflects on the literary standards of the Romantic Period. Hawthorne wrote: “It [The sermon] was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper's temperament… Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought… So sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister, that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger's visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Hooper” (Hawthorne). The passage explores the psychological effect on a group of people with hardcore religious beliefs and how they would react if one of them did an act as simple as putting on a black veil. Another prime example of Dark Romanticism goes by the name of “Moby Dick” written by Herman Melville. Melville wrote, “‘Aye, aye! It was that accursed whale that razeed me; made me a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!’ Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: ‘Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope and round the Horn and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for men! to chase that white whale… until he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men…’ ‘Aye, Aye!’ shouted the harpooners and sea-men…” (Melville). The passage details a man gone insane with rage, beyond rational thought, whose only goal becomes achieving vengeance on an unthinking whale. Both passages parrot the dark explorations of the human mind in Gothic literature. These authors wrote about the darker side of Romanticism but still relating to the literary theme of the time.
Finally, a small group of writers classifies as the “Transcendentalists”, who follow the more religious and naturistic side of Romanticism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his essay “Nature” or “Self-Reliance”, which explores the religious side of Romanticism and its place in society provided examples of this. Emerson wrote the following: “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars… seen in the streets of the cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile” (Emerson). The quote pertains to a common theme amongst the Transcendentalists, talking about Nature and how it relates to divinity and society. Emerson emphasized on the beauty of the stars, and how God created them with such magnificence in the passage, relating to the common Transcendentalist point of view. He wrote another great example of this in his essay “Self-Reliance”. The passage goes as follows, “Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events” (Emerson). The quote relates less to nature and more to how the Transcendentalists view God and his place in society. Both of these examples provide insight into what the Transcendentalists described in their works, their beliefs and how they relate to Romanticism.
To wrap things up, the Romantic Period produced many great authors, each of them with differing ideologies and ways of thinking but producing many great works nonetheless. The poets, such as Bryant and Longfellow with their naturistic metaphors and comparisons with life and death. Others, like Dark Romantics Melville and Hawthorne, wrote about dark Gothic themes and the Transcendentalists with their views of nature, God and society. All of these authors contributed and fall under the head genre of Romanticism, helping push American Literature forward into its next phase.