Dark Romanticism: A Brief Introduction

We’ve all heard a great deal about Romanticism. Whether we’re talking about poetry, music or art, most people have a rather concrete picture in their mind whenever anyone mentions the word. But what about its gloomier cousin, Dark Romanticism?

For the last article of October – and the final Halloween-themed one – I want to introduce you to a movement in the arts which not that many people have heard about, although most will probably be familiar with some of the works or artists I’ll mention.

As the word implies, Dark Romanticism is closely related to Romanticism. And like Romanticism, it has had a stark influence on many contemporary artworks, including novels, film, music and more. But enough of the introduction – let’s dive right into the world of the Dark Romantics!

What is Dark Romanticism?

Much like its lighter-hearted cousin, Dark Romanticism grew out of a resistance to the Age of Enlightenment, to the Industrial Revolution and general rationalisation, placing special emphasis on raw emotion, pure aesthetic experiences and other forms of intense feeling. But taking a gloomier turn from there, Dark Romanticism focuses on all the negatives of this approach. This includes irrationality as the end-result of a resistance to absolute rationality, demonic and grotesque aspects of human nature, and some of the darkest possible themes – suicide, death, madness, terror.

Consequently, many of the motifs we can find in Dark Romanticism are part of the realm of the uncanny. Love becomes lust, imaginative experience becomes escapism, nature features mist and lightning, buildings often feature haunts and ruination.

Dark Romanticism also involves other elements, such as demons and ghosts, pseudo-sciences, alchemy and magic, occultism, drugs (especially opium or alcohol), nightmares, melancholy and depression, resignation, despair, possessiveness, decay and personified evil.

Isn’t it just Gothic fiction?

If you’ve been following the article this far you’ve probably been wondering whether there’s any difference between Gothic fiction and Dark Romanticism – and there is! Gothic fiction is more of a wide-reaching genre which can refer to particular works of art over a wide period.

As such, Dark Romanticism can be classified as a part of Gothic fiction. The latter can refer to works from any period of time, whereas the former is tied to its relation with ‘regular’ Romanticism. Consequently, we would classify Edgar Allan Poe as a late Dark Romanticist, whereas Bram Stoker is too Victorian to be considered one. Meanwhile, both are indisputably members of Gothic fiction.

But there are also differences in the types of media used. Gothic fiction is usually literary or related to film, whereas Dark Romanticism lies within the realm of literature and visual art (and some Romantic music, although that is probably debatable).

Furthermore, as with every artistic movement, the differences are often fleeting, and so we might classify even something contemporary as heavily inspired by Dark Romanticism – making it questionable as to how useful the distinctions are beyond using them to define a particular type of art in a particular moment in history.

Also, within Romanticism itself it’s difficult to distinguish succinctly between dark and ‘regular’ Romanticism; few artists were as consistently uncanny and dark as Poe – perhaps E.T.A. Hoffman or the Marquis de Sade; others less frequently so, such as Lord Byron or John Keats.

Dark Romantic Music

To complicate matters even further, let’s have a brief look at Dark Romantic music. The reason why this complicates things is that, of course, Romanticism in music incorporates the entire 19th century, rather than just the late 18th/early 19th century as in literature and the visual arts.

I’d feel slightly inclined to classify primarily parts of early Romantic music as Dark Romanticism because it’s in the early 19th century that Romantic music was closest to the ‘roots’ of Romanticism (and Dark Romanticism is part of the ‘roots’ of Romanticism). Anything along the lines of darker pieces by Schubert or Schumann, or even late Beethoven, falls under this category.

To give you a couple of examples, here’s Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death). The theme is obviously perfectly suitable for Dark Romanticism and the constant onslaught of uncanny, darker harmonies and the threatening underscore of the Dies Ira melody make this an excellent piece for those in a gloomy mood.

A second example is Franz Schubert’s Der Tod und das Maedchen (Death and the Girl), a haunting Kunstlied (song) about the coming of… well, death. It contains a brilliant contrast between the quick-paced voice of the dying girl and the dark, solemn tone of Death. Always haunting and eerie, it gives you a brilliant sense of inevitable tragedy.

Dark Romantic Visual Arts

Since Romanticism in the visual arts is much more narrowly defined than in music, it’s a lot easier to make a case whether a piece can be seen as Dark Romanticist or not. To point out the obvious, a lot of Dark Romanticist art is so-called because it uses darker scenes and colours – and because it enables the artist to depict the ‘dark’ subject matter directly, such as death, darkness and general depictions of morbidity.

Indeed, it probably boils down to the depicted scenes. If a work deals with the sublime, exaltations of any kind and general feelings of joy, it’s probably ‘regular’ Romantic; if it deals with death, madness, melancholy or related themes, it’s Dark Romanticism. In the visual arts, we can literally see death: people dying, yelling for help, shipwrecks, storms, darkness engulfing all.

In other words, a William Turner depicting a ship during a storm is Dark Romantic. A Henry Fuseli is more often than not Dark Romantic through his depiction of witches, demons, and scenes of madness. Again to give you a couple of examples, here’s one from the Belgian painter and sculptor Antoine Joseph Wiertz. After the death of his mother, he painted his famous Deux jeunes filles – La Belle Rosine, which captures the confrontation of death and beauty (much like Schubert’s Der Tod und das Maedchen).

A second example is Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. This haunting picture features a woman lying asleep in an uncomfortable pose with an imp-like figure sitting on her chest. Its dreamlike depiction of uncanny eroticism was a huge success after its first exhibition in 1782 – and it leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Is the picture the manifestation of her nightmare, or is this a vision she has during her sleep?

Dark Romantic Literature

I don’t want to go into too much detail about literature related to Dark Romanticism since I already covered a lot of Romantic horror-like literature earlier this month. Nevertheless, since horror and Dark Romanticism aren’t exactly the same, it might be nice to provide a brief list of literary works which might be considered Dark Romanticist:

  • Marquis de Sade: Justine. This 1791 novel depicting a young woman recounting her story on her way to punishment and death after attempting to live a moral life. It’s an exploration of how trying to be good can end with dire consequences

  • Matthew Lewis: The Monk. This is a 1796 novel about a monk falling into sin. It was criticised by many for its heresy and obscenity

  • Lord Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Featuring the first Byronic hero, this poem published between 1812 and 1818 explores the travels and reflections of its hedonistic protagonist

  • Mary Shelley: Frankenstein. See my other article for more information

  • Anything by Edgar Allan Poe. Esp. The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-tale Heart or The Raven, all of which deal with anxiety, ruin, depression, and overall gloom

  • Charles Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du mal. Okay, I’m cheating with this one. It’s actually a rather late work, having been published in 1857. But French symbolism was rooted in Romanticism, and this scandalous volume deals with eroticism and hedonism – a wonderful combination in the arts

Closing thoughts

Due to the wide-reaching nature of Dark Romanticism, this article is hardly a comprehensive list of all features and examples from the movement. But they may have given you a good overview as to what elements define something as Dark Romantic art and will let you go on your own journey to discover its pleasures.

If you fancy listening to, looking at or reading something which is old, solemn and serious but with a touch of the eerie and uncanny, Dark Romanticism is for you. It’s also an excellent way to discover some of the roots of our contemporary Gothic fiction and horror. Thus, it’s perfect to finish off this Halloween-inspired month.

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