The best books to understand how romanticism transformed western culture

Michael K. Ferber Author Of Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction
By Michael K. Ferber

Who am I?

I fell in love with the British Romantic poets when I took a course about them, and I fixated like a chick on the first one we studied, William Blake. He seemed very different from me, and in touch with something tremendous: I wanted to know about it. Ten years later I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Blake, and then published quite a bit about him. Meanwhile there were other poets, poets in other countries, and painters and musicians: besides being accomplished at their art, I find their ideas about nature, the self, art, and society still resonate with me.

I wrote...

Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

By Michael K. Ferber,

Book cover of Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

In this book I explore Romanticism during the period of its incubation, birth, and growth, covering the years from 1760 to 1860. It incorporates not only the English but the Continental movements, and not only literature but music, art, religion, and philosophy. It sheds light on such subjects as the "Sensibility" movement, which preceded Romanticism; the rising prestige of the poet as inspired prophet; the rather different figure of the "poetess"; Romanticism as a religious trend; Romantic philosophy and science; and Romantic responses to the French Revolution, the Orient, and the condition of women. Some two hundred people are cited or quoted, many at length, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Hugo, Goethe, Pushkin, Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, and Delacroix.

The books I picked & why

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Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature

By M. H. Abrams,

Book cover of Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature

Why this book?

When I was a student I found this book an inspiration. Beautifully written, it brings out deep affinities between the poetry and ideas of Wordsworth, Shelley, and other poets in England and the idealist philosophers in Germany, and the ways both groups rewrote the cosmic ideas of Christianity and ancient esoteric systems. It continually sets off sparks with its surprising comparisons. In the fifty years since it appeared, scholars have complained about how many writers the book leaves out, but given that its theme is “The High Romantic Argument” and not all of Romanticism, I am still impressed by how much it takes in.

The Roots of Romanticism

By Isaiah Berlin,

Book cover of The Roots of Romanticism

Why this book?

Though he declines to define it, Berlin says “The importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world.” In this brief set of lectures he dwells mainly on German writers, since Germany was arguably the homeland of romanticism. Berlin seems to know everything, but his erudition does not interfere with his lively style. What the book lacks in thoroughness it more than makes up with sharp and provocative ideas.

Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background, 1760-1830

By Marilyn Butler,

Book cover of Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background, 1760-1830

Why this book?

This is much more interesting than its dull subtitle would suggest. In fewer than 200 pages Butler gives a surprisingly thorough account of the major British writers of the time, not only their works but their lives, their connections with each other, and their opinions about politics as well as literature. She deals with many more writers than Abrams does, though unlike him she does not explore themes at much length. The “background” in the subtitle includes the French Revolution and the industrial revolution, the two greatest events of the modern world, not over yet. 

The Consecration of the Writer, 1750-1830

By Paul Bénichou, Mark K. Jensen (translator),

Book cover of The Consecration of the Writer, 1750-1830

Why this book?

France also had a rich Romantic movement (Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, to name a few writers, not to mention Delacroix and Berlioz), though it flowered later than those in Germany and England, probably because of the distraction of the Revolution. Bénichou’s book traces the origin of the “consecration” of the poet and creative genius, an idea fundamental to romanticism and still with us in our skeptical times. It is the first of four volumes on French romanticism, and it is a pity that the other three have yet to be translated.


By David Blayney Brown,

Book cover of Romanticism

Why this book?

Art history also knows a Romantic movement, as does music history. Brown’s book has 250 color plates, mostly of painting from Constable, Turner, Blake, Friedrich, Delacroix, Goya, and many others, but also of some architectural wonders. Brown makes continual connections to the poetry and philosophy of the time, and to political events, as he organizes his chapters by theme: the cult of the artist, the religion of nature, the sense of the past, orientalism, and the exotic, and so on. There are several fine books on Romantic painting, but this is probably the best place to begin.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Romanticism, 18th century, and France?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Romanticism, 18th century, and France.

Romanticism Explore 37 books about Romanticism
18th Century Explore 108 books about 18th century
France Explore 544 books about France

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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