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Emotion in Romantic Modern Literature

Nancy has a degree in English, a love of literature, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

'"Romeo and Juliet" 1884

'"Romeo and Juliet" 1884

Emotion in Romanticism

The poetry of the early modern period into the age of enlightenment forged the way for romantic literature. William Shakespeare’s sonnets of the 17th century and William Blake’s and William Wordsworth’s poetry of the 18th century follow the romantic formula of expressing emotion through the delightful language, rhythm, and meter of the written word. These three writers of romanticism have emotional ties to the idea of memories and the wistful, happy, and sometimes sorrowful connections people have to the past.

Emotion and Memories

The idea of memories holding emotional power has been told in literature for generations. Literary masterpieces share common threads that relate to the human experience in ways that engage the reader while broadening their perceptions of the concepts written about. Wistful memories are something that every person considers. These memories may be about the joys of childhood, the regrets of past mistakes, or the hope of a person’s memory living on after he or she is gone. Memories stir powerful emotions, and great literature is a way to relive the times of the past while connecting to the romanticism of the present.


Romantic literature does not necessarily follow the modern idea of romance. Modern “romantics” consider the idea of hearts and flowers with poetry about love as romanticism. The Romanticism movement in literature of the 17th and 18th centuries was a shift in writing from an imitation of life to a reflection on the self. The imagination, individual, and focus on feelings and intuitions were more evident in romantic writing (Brooklyn College English Department, 2009). Looking at nature and creativity were also facets of this form of literature. The focus on writing about human behavior and deities, as in the early works such as Dante, Hesiod, and Genesis, became a thing of the past. The focus on human emotion and our place in nature, such as the writings of Henry David Thoreau, are evidence of these shifts.


The poetry of this time of romanticism reflects the changing ideas of literature. Poetry was an excellent vehicle for portraying these new ideas. Poetry offers a musical quality with rhythm and language. Although not altogether necessary, a poem can have a rhyming quality that makes the words read like a song. The meter and rhythm of a poem serve as a way the author can create feeling in the words beyond the use of language. The captivating romantic poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries exhibits these factors.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Masterpieces of Poetry

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was an early writer of romantic poetry. In the 17th century, during the early modern period of literature, Shakespeare was a pivotal writer of Romanticism. His sonnets are filled with the relations between people and his inner musings on emotion. Shakespeare’s notable lines on memory focus on creating his long-lasting imprint on the world. His idea for doing this involves a son “but as the riper should by time decrease, his tender heir might bear his memory” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 1, lines 3-4). This emotion of fear of being forgotten once he is deceased resonates with many people. Memories often bring the realization of one’s own mortality. Shakespeare considers how his words will be remembered once he is gone “if I could write the beauty of your eyes and in fresh number all your graces, the age to come would say ‘this poet lies such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces’ so should my papers, yellowed with their age, be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue, and your true rights be termed a poet’s rage and stretched metre of an antique song. But were some child of yours alive that time you should live twice – in it and in my rime” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 17, lines 5-14). An heir, or child, would be his evidence to the world of his existence. The child would relate the memory of Shakespeare which will quell the emotion of fear of being forgotten.

William Blake painting by Thomas Phillips 1807

William Blake painting by Thomas Phillips 1807

William Blake

Another emotion created through memory is happiness and joy. William Blake provides evidence with his reflections of an elderly gentleman “Old John with white hair does laugh away care, sitting under the oak, among the old folk, they laugh at our play, and soon they all say, such such were the joys when we all girls & boys in our youth-time were seen on the Ecchoing Green” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et. Al., 2008, p. 2153, 11-20). The romantic nature of reflection and looking inward has created a wistful memory of days gone by for old John. Wordsworth also relates the idea of joyful youth “though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills; when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et. Al., 2008, p. 2157, 66-68). Wordsworth’s poem also focuses on nature, popular in the Romantic Movement.

William Wordsworth painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon 1842

William Wordsworth painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon 1842

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth's poetry describing him revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour in 1798 also shares the sadness that also comes with memories, “with many recognitions dim and faint, and somewhat of a sad perplexity” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et. Al., 2008, p. 2155, 59-60). Memories can create many different emotions. Often sadness over time gone by, regrets over time lost, and a longing for the past can happen when remembering past events. The emotions of literature of the Romantic Movement are often written with poignant detail as the writer looks inward to share his or her innermost feelings.

Memories in Literature Prior to the 17th Century

Memories have been used in literature since ancient time, but the use of memories in relation to emotions have been less evident prior to the introduction of individuality as seen in later writings. Homer writes an entire epic in “The Iliad” giving a memorable account of the gods and their actions “sing goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation…since that time when first there stood division of conflict Atreus; son the lord of men and brilliant Achillues” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et. Al., 2008, p. 140, 1-8). Although this quote gives strong ideas to the reader, the emotions of recounting the story are not evident. The entire epic is written as a formal account with no personal reflection by the narrator. Another example is the writing of Genesis.

The account of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden given in chapter three gives little insight into the role of human emotion, “and the woman saw that the tree was good for eating…she took of its fruit and ate, and she also have to her man and he ate, and the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et. Al., 2008, p. 64, para. 2). This ancient writing did not give any insight into how this profound action affected the emotions of Adam and Eve. It is not until we read the 17th century version of this story in “Paradise Lost” by John Milton that readers are given an idea of how the couple felt. An exceptional example of emotion comes when Eve is faced with the fact that she has sinned and wishes Adam to join her because she is fearful of being alone in her sin “confirm’d then I resolve, Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe: so dear I love him, that with him all deaths I could endure, without him live no life” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et. Al., 2008, p. 1790, 830-833). It is evident that the later writing of offers far greater example of emotion than that of the past. The memories of ancient literature do not express feelings of happiness, joy, regret, or remorse, as in the case Eve in “Paradise Lost”, they merely offer the reader an account of deeds done by the characters. Readers are left to consider for themselves how the actions affected the characters.

Emotion and Romanticism

The literary masterpieces of the 17th and 18th centuries were written at a time when romanticism was changing the way authors were writing. The dry accounts of the ancient times shifted as writers became more focused on the individual. With consideration of the individual, there was more focus on feelings, emotions, and nature. The significant works of poetry of this time period give excellent insight into emotions. Memories and the emotions that they create are a common focus of the time of romanticism. Memories evoke different emotions in different people, and the literature of this time captures these emotions allowing readers to explore these emotions and relate to others in their own humanity.


Brooklyn College English Department. (2009). Romanticism. Retrieved from

Damrosch, D., Alliston, A., Brown, M., duBois, P., Hafez, S., Heise, U.K., et al. (2008). The Longman anthology of world literature: Compact edition. New York, NY: Pearson Longman


m r shetty on January 08, 2014:


Memory= Emotion Rhyme Rhythm

m r shetty

Delia Almestica from United States Virgin Islands on November 28, 2013:

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