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Dark Romanticism

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English Literature

Vampires, ghosts, demons, and the devil are all creatures you’d find in your modern-day horror movie, but did you know that you can find these sinister creatures in written examples of Dark Romanticism, too?

Dark Romanticism Definition

Dark Romanticism is an American literary movement that grew in popularity between 1836 and 1840 but continued to be a popular genre for decades. Dark Romanticism is a subgenre of Romanticism, which is a literary movement that focuses on subjectivity and imagination to emphasize the individual and the sublimity of nature. It is marked by a devotion to beauty, worship of nature, and the superiority of imagination over logic and reason.

Dark Romanticism is different from Romanticism because it focuses on human fallibility and the human tendency to turn to sin and self-destruction, especially in the face of social reforms.

An easy way to remember the difference between Romanticism and Dark Romanticism is that the Romantics were optimistic about the human condition, while Dark Romantics were pessimistic about the human condition. Optimism is the tendency to see the good in any situation, whereas pessimism is the tendency to see the bad in any situation.

Fallibility: The tendency to make mistakes.

The Historical Context of Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism emerged from the Transcendentalist Movement in the nineteenth century, another subgenre of Romanticism. Whereas the transcendentalists believed in the good of people and their inner divinity, dark romantics believed that humans are naturally drawn to the evil forces of life.

Dark romantics rebelled against the Puritans who enforced a religious and moral code on society and judged those who did not conform.

Puritans were English Protestants who wanted to purify the Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because of religious persecution, many Puritans fled England and established themselves in New England, America, where their influence began to spread.

Dark Romantics struggled to conform to the Puritan notion of perfection and instead wanted to write about the sins and evils of humanity.

Transcendentalism was made up of a group of writers and philosophers who believed in the purity and goodness of an individual. They also believed that institutions that were founded for social, educational, and/or religious reasons corrupted the individual. Divinity, according to transcendentalists, could be found in the everyday and spiritual phenomena were in a state of constant change.

Characteristics of Dark Romanticism

When analyzing a Dark Romantic text, many key characteristics distinguish it as a literary genre. The four main elements and characteristics to look for include

  • an individual who is prone to sin and self-destruction,
  • the anthropomorphization of Evil,
  • nature as sinister and spiritual,
  • and an individual’s inability to make changes for the better.

Individuals Prone to Sin and Self-Destruction

Transcendentalists believed that humans possess the ability to attain divine perfection. Dark romantics believed the opposite. They believed humans are naturally prone to commit acts of sin and fall into traps of self-destruction. Many prominent Dark Romantic authors, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, included protagonists in their written works who commit acts of sin. An example can be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil (1836).

“It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament. The subject had reference to secret sit, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest and would fain conceal from our consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect (Part 1).”

In this example, Mr. Hooper, who is a pastor, begins to wear a black veil while he recites sermons and officiates funerals and weddings. It causes general panic through the congregation, with many believing the black veil reveals the holy man must have committed some sin. Here we see a man who may have gone down a dark and sinister path, allowing it to affect his character as a pastor who is supposed to honor and spread the Holy Word of God.

Anthromorphization of Evil

Transcendentalists believed that divinity could be found anywhere. Dark romantics took this idea of an ever-present divinity and created the idea that evil is ever-present. Evil becomes anthropomorphized in the form of ghouls, ghosts, vampires, Satan, and demons.

Anthromorphization: The act of giving nonhuman entities human characteristics, personalities, and forms.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Imp of the Perverse (1845), the main character believes that an “invisible fiend” caused him to commit murder. The same “invisible fiend” then causes the main character to confess his crimes. The invisible fiend is an anthropomorphization of evil as it whispers to humans as a real person would.

I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, ... struck me with his broad palm...

Nature as Sinister and Spiritual

In Romantic literature, nature is seen as a spiritual realm full of beauty, poetry, and the sublime. Transcendentalists further believed nature is a divine force. Dark Romantics, however, saw nature as a hellish place full of decay and mystery.

Nature can reveal spiritual truths about humanity that are dark and sinister. An example of this viewpoint of nature is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab seeks revenge on the whale named Moby Dick who had previously bit off his leg. Throughout the novel, readers can find examples of the truth-telling power of nature, especially in how Melville describes the sea.

Sublime: Having so much beauty as to inspire awe and admiration.

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began (Chapter 58).”

In this excerpt from Moby Dick, we see a perfect example of how the dark romantics viewed nature. Pay close attention to the adjectives Melville chooses to describe the sea and the creatures that lurk beneath the surface. The adjectives conjure feelings of fear, awe, and unease. Nature is not a place for comfort; rather it is a place full of hidden dangers.

An Individual’s Failure to Make Change for the Better

Transcendentalists believed that social reform could help make people and the world better; however, the dark romantics had a more pessimistic point of view on human nature. They believed that no matter how good a person tries to be or how much good they try to enact, they will always be led astray down a darker path. They had no hope that humans can truly achieve goodness.

An example can be found in Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) where Melville demonstrates the harm of charity when done with the wrong motivations. Charity is associated with positive social actions whereby the fortunate give to the less fortunate without an expectation of return. However, in Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville shows us that charity can be used as a system of costs and returns.

“If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange wilfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience (page 10).”

The lawyer who hires the character named Bartleby, an efficient and thorough scrivener, believes that by hiring Bartleby, he is doing an act of charity, thereby giving the lawyer a good conscious. However, he only keeps Bartleby on as an employee because Bartleby will accept the minimum pay but produce excellent work.

Examples of Dark Romanticism Authors: Stories and Poems

The three most famous dark romantics who are considered pioneers in the genre are Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Literary critics have recently begun to include Emily Dickenson as another essential Dark Romantic poet.

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe (1809–1849) is considered an exemplary dark romantic. Poe was a poet, writer, critic, and editor. His short stories and poems are the most famous of his written works. They often focus on mystery, macabre, and death. Murder and paranoia are common in his works as well. The individuals in his short stories and poems are often led astray and commit acts of sin. Poe heavily criticized transcendentalism, famously calling them “Frog-Pondians,” stating that their work was “mysticism for mysticism’s sake.”

Edgar Allen Poe penned the name “Frog-Pondians” after the pond found in the Boston Commons. Boston, Massachusetts, was the center of transcendentalist thinkers and writers.

Some examples of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories and poems include:

The Tell-Tale Heart (1843)

The Black Cat (1843)

“The Raven” (1845)

“Ulalume” (1847)

“Anabel Lee” (1849)

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830–1889) was a little-known poet during her lifetime. At that time, she was known to be reclusive and only published ten poems. After her death, Emily’s sister Lavinia found over 1800 poems written in an unconventional writing style. In 1955, The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published and her work was shared on a larger scale for the first time. Today she is regarded as one of the most important American poets to have ever lived. Her work centers on the themes of death, illness, and immortality and typically include nature and spirituality as motifs.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. (Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1870)

Some of Dickinson’s most famous Dark Romantic poems include:

“If I Should Die” (1955)

“You Left Me” (1955)

“Hope is the Thing with Feathers” (1891)

Herman Melville

Herman Melville (1819–1891) was an American novelist and poet. His novel Moby Dick (1851) is considered to be an essential American classic and is his most famous work. His novels include individuals who are in constant pursuit of becoming superhumans, only to be limited by doubt, the uncertainty between truth and illusion, and morality. He questions God’s existence, nature, the universe’s lack of care, and the problems that arise from evil. His focus on such themes makes him a prolific dark romantic.

Here is an excerpt from Melville’s poem “A Dirge for Mcpherson” (1864), which is about the death of Major General Mcpherson in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Civil War:

“Lay him down within the nave,

The lesson read –

Man is noble, man is brave,

But man’s – a weed.”

Remember how the dark romantics believed everyone is naturally directed toward sin and had a quite pessimistic view of the human condition? Here, Melville subtly alludes to man’s true nature. First, he brings up the Romantic opinion of man: He is noble and brave. He then brings up the Dark Romantic opinion: Man is a weed. Weeds are types of plants that spread quickly and take over areas where they are not supposed to be.

Some of Melville’s novels and poems include:

Moby Dick (1851)

Billy Bud (1924)

Typee (1846)

“A Dirge for Mcpherson” (1864)

“Gettysburg” (1866)

“Gold in the Mountain” (1857)

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) is an American novelist and short-story writer who focused his work on questions of religion, morality, and history. His stories act as cautionary tales about how human nature is inherently full of guilt, sin, and evil. The protagonists of his novels are typically females who have sinned in some way and must face the consequences. He is most famous for his novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), which is about a woman who has a child out of wedlock and must repent for her sinful actions under Puritan law.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was from Salem, Massachusetts, which is famous for the Witch Trials that occurred there. The Salem Witch trials began in 1692 and were the persecution of people who practiced so-called witchcraft. Over 200 people were accused, 30 were found guilty, and 19 were executed. Nathaniel Hawthorne is related to John Hathorne, who was a leading judge during the Witch Trials. Nathaniel wished to distance himself from his family’s shameful past and put a “w” in their last name to erase any associations with Hathorne.

Some novels written by Hawthorne are:

The Minister’s Black Veil (1836)

Twice-Told Tales (1837)

The Scarlet Letter (1850)

The House of Seven Gables (1851)

Interesting Facts: Gothic Literature versus Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism is often confused with Gothic literature. So what is the difference between the two?

Gothic literature is a genre of literature that began in England with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). However, it rose to popularity in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). They are two of the most famous novels in the Gothic literature genre. Gothic literature has a few key elements. The atmosphere of the novel is mysterious and suspenseful. Supernatural events and non-human creatures may appear in the novel. Gothic novels are dark and may inspire horror or an emotional reaction in the reader.

“As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window – Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious grip, almost maddening me with fear" (Wuthering Heights, Chapter 3).”

The ghostly child in the window inspires great fear in the protagonist. The reader may feel unsettled, scared, and horrified by the descriptions of the blood running down the windowpane. This is a perfect example of how Gothic literature inspires an emotional reaction in the reader.

Gothic literature sounds very similar to Dark Romanticism. They share similar elements of horror, fear, and the supernatural. Some of the authors mentioned above, including Edgar Allen Poe, are also considered Gothic writers. However, the main difference between Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism is the underlying message of the texts.

  • Dark romantics emphasize the fallibility of human beings. They believed that all humans are prone to sin and self-destruction.
  • Gothic literature wants the reader to feel an intense emotion while focusing on the sublimity of decay and an element of horror.

Dark Romanticism - Key takeaways

  • Dark Romanticism is a literary subgenre of Romanticism that gained popularity between 1836 and 1840.
  • Dark Romanticism focuses on human fallibility and self-destruction. Dark romantics believed that humans are inherently prone to sin and evil.
  • The dark romantics grew out of Transcendentalism, which is also a subgenre of Romanticism.
  • The four main elements in Dark Romanticism are an individual who is prone to sin and self-destruction, the anthropomorphization of Evil, nature as sinister and spiritual, and an individual’s inability to make changes for the better.
  • The main difference between Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism is the underlying message of the texts. Dark romantics emphasize the fallibility of human beings. Gothic literature wants the reader to feel an intense emotion while focusing on the sublimity of decay and an element of horror.

Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism began in the nineteenth century. It grew in popularity between 1836 and 1840. 

Dark Romanticism is an American literary movement that focuses on human fallibility and the human tendency to turn to sin and self-destruction. 

This is the difference between Romanticism and Dark Romanticism: Romanticism is marked by a devotion to beauty, worship of nature, and the superiority of imagination over logic and reason. Dark Romanticism is different from Romanticism because it focuses on human fallibility and the human tendency to turn to sin and self-destruction, especially in the face of social reforms.

Dark Romanticism is similar to Gothic literature.

The main difference between Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism is the underlying message of the texts. Dark Romantics emphasize the fallibility of human beings. They believed that all humans are prone to sin and self-destruction. Gothic literature wants the reader to feel an intense emotion while focusing on the sublimity of decay and an element of horror.

Final Dark Romanticism Quiz

Question

What is Dark Romanticism?

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Answer

an American literary movement that focuses on human fallibility and the human tendency to turn to sin and self-destruction, especially in the face of social reforms.   

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Question

What is Dark Romanticism a subgenre of?

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Answer

Romanticism

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Question

What is Romanticism?

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Answer

a literary movement that focused on subjectivity and imagination to emphasize the individual and the sublimity of nature. It was marked by a devotion to beauty, worship of nature, and the superiority of imagination over logic and reason. 

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Question

Why is Romanticism optimistic?

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Answer

It focuses on the positive sides of the human condition

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Question

Why is Dark Romanticism pessismestic?

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Answer

It focuses on the negative qualities of the human condition

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Question

What does fallibility mean?

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Answer

The tendency to make mistakes 

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Question

What is trascendentalism?

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Answer

a group of writers and philosophers who believed in the purity and goodness of an individual and believed that institutions corrupted the individual.  

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Question

Who were the Puritans?

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Answer

English Protestants who wanted to purify the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Because of religious persecution, many Puritans fled England and established themselves in New England 

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Question

What are the four key elements of Dark Romanticism?

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Answer

an individual who is prone to sin and self-destruction, the anthropomorphization of Evil, nature as sinister and spiritual, an individual's inability to make changes for the better.  

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Question

Who is an example of a Dark Romantic author?

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Answer

Edgar Allen Poe, Emiy Dickenson, Herman Melville, and Nathanial Hawthorne

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Question

What is the difference between Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism?

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Answer

Dark Romantics want to emphasize the fallibility of human beings. Gothic literature wants the reader to feel an intense emotion while focusing on the sublimity of decay and an element of horror.   

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Question

What does sublime mean?

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Answer

Having so much beauty as to inspire awe and admiration.  

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Question

What is Anthromorphization?

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Answer

The act of giving non-human entities human characteristics, personalities, and forms. 


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Question

When did Dark Romanticism begin?

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Answer

Dark Romanticism began in the 19th century and grew in popularity between 1836 and 1840. 

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