Romanticism was a highly complex literary and artistic movement that began roughly in the mid-eighteenth century and reached its full flowering in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Literary historians usually distinguish between the Romantic movement or Romanticism and a more generic ‘‘romanticism’’ that can be found in later literature, including that written in the twenty-first century.
Defining Romanticism has been a challenge for generations of scholars, for the artists whose work embodied Romantic themes and ideals— most of them poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and John Keats—were a diverse group of writers. Despite the difficulties, certain common characteristics can be identified, and a number of these commonalities can be found in Scott’s work, including Ivanhoe, whose full title at the time of publication was Ivanhoe: A Romance.
One characteristic of Romanticism that scholars agree on is that it was a reaction to the Classicism of the work that preceded it. Classicism, so called because it was modeled on the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, valued such characteristics as order, structure, unity, and calm. Much of the literature produced during the Neoclassical period that preceded Romanticism was highly intellectual and relied on precisely defined formal structures.
Romantic literature, in contrast, was less ordered and structured. It was marked by a kind of wildness, with free rein given to the author’s imagination. If Neoclassical literature was rational and sober, Romantic literature valued the irrational and the emotional. Ivanhoe overflows with this type of Romantic excess. It is peopled with characters from all walks of life, from King Richard I to Gurth the swineherd and Wamba, the jester; with commoners, villains, outlaws, knights, peasants, farmers, soldiers, priests—the entire range of medieval society, all driven by their passions and desires, whether for good or ill, and all speaking in their unique voices. The novel is packed less with rational wisdom than with sentimentalism, primitivism, a love of nature, and feats of derring-do. While Neoclassicists wrote about mankind in the abstract, Romantics wrote about men and women in particular. Neoclassicists wrote about the universal; Romantics wrote about the particular and the idiosyncratic.
A second feature that scholars of the Romantic movement agree on is that it often directed its attention to the medieval period, the so-called Dark Ages that ran from the fall of the Roman Empire to, roughly, the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The period of the Crusades, from the last decade of the eleventh century to the last decade of the thirteenth, represented a high point of medieval life. Romantic authors, particularly in Great Britain, reveled in the island’s past. They valued the picturesque and the antique. They recreated medieval castles and ruins, moss-covered priories and monasteries, and ancient feudal architecture. British authors celebrated the ‘‘merry England’’ of the past that Scott refers to in the opening sentence of Ivanhoe, with its forests, glades, and stands of ancient oaks. All of this—the chivalric knights in shining armor, the jousting and feats of heroism, the beautiful damsels, the castles, the medieval church—were recreated through the lenses of sentimentalism and nostalgia. Among Scottish writers such as Scott, one of the goals of this effort was to assert Scottish nationalism. Scotland, these writers seem to say, is not an appendage of England but rather a nation with its own history and culture, one reflected in its folk tales, songs, ballads, and poetry, all suffused with heroism and adventure. Thus, Scott, along with many of his contemporaries, took great interest in finding and preserving Scotland’s folk literature.
Scott, however, was no mere imitator of other Romantic writers. It is true that he combined some of the strands of Romanticism that preceded him. He drew on novels of sentiment published in the late 1700s. Scott admired the fiction of Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, who wrote Gothic novels filled with moldy castles, mysterious villains, and extended passages celebrating the sublimity of nature. Most importantly, he reveled in the tales and ballads of adventure from the Scottish Highlands. Yet he was not a slave to history. He freely ignored or altered historical fact to suit the demands of his stories. More importantly, novels such as Ivanhoe were not just costume dramas. As Russell Noyes points out in English Romantic Poetry and Prose:
“Beneath the borrowed garments and trappings of other times and climes, his characters are true flesh and blood. Scott in fact created a new synthesis in fiction. He gathered up the threads of romance . . . and delighted his readers by giving them the same sense of real life as found in the eighteenth-century novelists but with a romantic setting of place and time. . . . Beneath a casing of romance there is a core of realism.”
Yet another element of the Romantic temperament bears mentioning. Politics played a role in forging the Romantic movement. The key event was the French Revolution, which erupted in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris and led to the beheading of King Louis XVI, the elimination of aristocratic privilege, and reduction of the power of the church and its hierarchy. Through the ensuing ten years of violence and turmoil, the fundamental social structure of France was overturned. In the Americas, the United States was forged from revolution against Britain. In the British Isles, industrialization was altering the social structure, creating a class of city wage earners at the expense of yeoman farmers and landowners. In England there was widespread discussion about the nation’s social-political structure, with radical (for the time) proposals to extend voting rights to a much larger percentage of the population. Scott, though, was deeply conservative, and it was perhaps his conservative temperament that motivated his desire to recreate and celebrate a picturesque past.
Nevertheless, the spirit of revolt found its way into Ivanhoe in such characters as Locksley, or Robin Hood, and his band of ‘‘merry men.’’ Robin Hood is a member of the supporting cast in the novel. He and his men form a counterpoint to the corruption and venality of such characters as de Bois-Guilbert and Front-de-Boeuf. As romantic revolutionaries, they do not overthrow the monarchy but work with the monarch in the person of King Richard to achieve a more just social order. Their headquarters are in the forests rather than in the castles at Torquilstone and Templestowe, where evil resides and corruption festers. Robin Hood, therefore, represents the superiority of nature over artificial structures of church and government—a point of view that pervades the writing of the Romantics in poetry and prose.
The conclusion of Ivanhoe, too, reveals Scott’s Romantic temperament. Recall that Rebecca is on trial for witchcraft. In chivalric fashion, she is given hope by the possibility of a champion who will defeat de Bois-Guilbert in a trial by combat. The reader suspects that Ivanhoe will be that hero, and as Ivanhoe arrives on horseback at the Templar stronghold at Templestowe, the reader’s expectations are so far fulfilled. However, Ivanhoe does not defeat his adversary by force of arms. Rather, he collapses from his horse in fatigue. Then, the modern reader is likely to be astonished by de Bois-Guilbert’s death—not from a home thrust from Ivanhoe’s lance or sword but from his intense emotions. This type of ending would likely not have been possible during any era other than the Romantic era. Readers at the time found the ending plausible, for it was an example of the Romantic emphasis on the power of emotion. De Bois-Guilbert is allowed to die a good death, for his genuine love for Rebecca mitigates to some degree the villainy of his character.
Although it is difficult to attach precise dates to literary movements and styles, Sir Walter Scott’s death in 1832—not the death of any of the great English Romantic poets—has conventionally been used to mark the end of the Romantic movement. In this small way, literary historians give recognition to the firm stamp that Scott placed on the Romantic movement.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Sir Walter Scott, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Michael J. O’Neal, Critical Essay on Ivanhoe, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010