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What Is the Difference Between Classicism and Romanticism?

Classicism originated in ancient Greek and Roman societies.
Romanticism writers celebrated outcast and the unlikely hero in their literature.
Romantics were more likely to indulge in effusive emotional statements, as John Keats did in "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "More love! More happy, happy love!"
While Classicism emphasized the beauty in order, Romantic poets like Wordsworth sought the beauty of untamed emotions.
A romantic character named Edward Rochester was Jane Eyre’s love interest in Charlotte Bronte's novel "Jane Eyre."
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  • Written By: Emily Daw
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
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  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2014
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Classicism and Romanticism are artistic movements that have influenced the literature, visual art, music, and architecture of the Western world over many centuries. With its origins in the ancient Greek and Roman societies, Classicism defines beauty as that which demonstrates balance and order. Romanticism developed in the 18th century — partially as a reaction against the ideals of Classicism — and expresses beauty through imagination and powerful emotions. Although the characteristics of these movements are frequently at odds, both schools of thought continued to influence Western art into the 21st century.

The name "Classical" was given to the Greeks and Romans retroactively by Renaissance writers. Artists and thinkers of the Renaissance, which literally means "rebirth," saw themselves as the heirs of that world following the Middle Ages. Its ideals continued to exert strong influence into the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In literature, Classicism values traditional forms and structures. According to legend, the Roman poet Virgil left orders for his masterpiece The Aeneid to be burned at his death, because a few of its lines were still metrically imperfect. This rather extreme example demonstrates the importance placed on excellence in formal execution. Such attention to detail can also be seen in the work of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, whose Divine Comedy contains over 14,000 lines written in a strict rhyming pattern known as terza rima. Other characteristics of the movement include balance, order, and emotional restraint.

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Romanticism may be a somewhat confusing term, since modern English speakers tend to associate the word "romance" with a particular variety of love. As an artistic movement, however, it celebrates all strong emotions, not just feelings of love. In addition to emotion, Romantic artists valued the search for beauty and meaning in all aspects of life. They saw imagination, rather than reason, as the route to truth.

The treatment of emotion is one of the primary ways in which Classicism and Romanticism differ. The Romantics placed a higher value on the expression of strong emotion than on technical perfection. Classicists did not shy away from describing emotionally charged scenes, but typically did so in a more distant manner. Romantics, however, were more likely to indulge in effusive emotional statements, as John Keats did in "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "More love! More happy, happy love!"

Furthermore, these movements have different attitudes toward the grotesque. William Shakespeare, writing before the onset of Romanticism, occasionally used deformed characters in his plays, such as Caliban in The Tempest; they are used primarily for comedic effect or as a foil to the physical perfections of another character. Romantics, however, celebrated the grotesque and the outcast through the form of a Byronic hero, named after the English poet Lord Byron. One well-known example of this character type is Edward Rochester, the love interest in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre, who reaches spiritual perfection only after undergoing physical deformation.

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