The best books to understand how romanticism transformed western culture

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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Michael K. Ferber Why did I love 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.

By M. H. Abrams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Natural Supernaturalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this remarkable new book, M. H. Abrams definitively studies the Romantic Age (1789-1835)-the age in which Shelley claimed that "the literature of England has arisen as it were from a new birth." Abrams shows that the major poets of the age had in common important themes, modes of expression, and ways of feeling and imagining; that the writings of these poets were an integral part of a comprehensive intellectual tendency which manifested itself in philosophy as well as poetry, in England and in Germany; and that this tendency was causally related to drastic political and social changes of the…


Book cover of The Roots of Romanticism

Michael K. Ferber Why did I love 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.

By Isaiah Berlin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Roots of Romanticism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Roots of Romanticism, one of the twentieth century's most influential philosophers dissects and assesses a movement that changed the course of history. Brilliant, fresh, immediate, and eloquent, these celebrated Mellon Lectures are a bravura intellectual performance. Isaiah Berlin surveys the many attempts to define romanticism, distills its essence, traces its developments from its first stirrings to its apotheosis, and shows how it still permeates our outlook. He ranges over a cast of some of the greatest thinkers and artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Kant, Rousseau, Diderot, Schiller, the Schlegels, Novalis, Goethe, Blake, Byron, and Beethoven.…


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

Michael K. Ferber Why did I love 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. 

By Marilyn Butler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Age of Revolutions and its aftermath is unparalleled in English literature. Its poets include Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats; its novelists, Jane Austen and Scott. But how is it that some of these writers were apparently swept up in Romanticism, and others not? Studies of Romanticism have tended to adopt the Romantic viewpoint. They value creativity, imagination and originality - ideas which nineteenth-century writers themselves used to
promote a new image of their calling. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries puts the movement in to its historical setting and provides a new insight in Romanticism itself, showing that one…


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

Michael K. Ferber Why did I love 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 Paul Bénichou, Mark K. Jensen (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Consecration of the Writer, 1750-1830 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Consecration of the Writer is the definitive study of the first stages of a phenomenon that has profoundly affected world literature: the process by which modern writers ceased to speak as representatives of some religious or political power and instead seized the mantle of spiritual authority in their own right, speaking directly to and in the name of humanity. Paul Benichou identifies three great moments in this process: the advent of the Enlightenment faith in philosophy and the rise of its literary concomitant, the man of letters; the literary creations of the counterrevolution and their surprising involvement in the…


Book cover of Romanticism

Michael K. Ferber Why did I love 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.

By David Blayney Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Romanticism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Romanticism was a way of feeling rather than a style in art. In the period c.1775-1830 - against the background of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - European artists, poets and composers initiated their own rebellion against the dominant political, religious and social ethos of the day. Their quest was for personal expression and individual liberation and, in the process, the Romantics transformed the idea of art, seeing it as an instrument of social and psychological change.

In this comprehensive volume, David Blayney Brown takes a thematic approach to Romanticism, relating it to the concurrent, more stylistic movements…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Romanticism, Western culture, and France?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Romanticism, Western culture, and France.

Romanticism Explore 76 books about Romanticism
Western Culture Explore 51 books about Western culture
France Explore 858 books about France