In the phrase who says romance is dead?, also and they say romance is dead, and variants, the noun romance denotes romantic love, idealised for its purity or beauty.
Although occasionally used literally, this phrase is chiefly used ironically of something that the speaker regards as prosaic or even thoroughly vulgar—as illustrated by this extract from Confȋdenti@l, by Molly Friedman, published in the Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) of Friday 25th July 2014:
And they say romance is dead.
While Selena Gomez 1 is cavorting around Saint-Tropez with her hunk of man meat, Justin Bieber 2, not to be outdone by his former gal pal, has posted an Instagram photo of a Guess ad, captioned, “Who is this Guess Model. She’s stunning.”
1 Selena Gomez (born 1992) is a U.S. singer, songwriter, actress and television producer.
2 Justin Bieber (born 1994) is a Canadian singer, songwriter and actor.
The earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Daily Bee (Sacramento, California) of Friday 8th January 1869:
In New Orleans two “drunk and disorderlies,” a man and a woman, were locked up in opposite cells. They made each other’s acquaintance through the bars. Their sympathies were probably enhanced by common misfortune, for they fell in love. They were sent to the same prison for the same term; the mutual flame grew warmer, and on being released their first step was to go to a magistrate and be joined in blessed matrimony. Who says romance is dead?
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from Our New York Gossip, by ‘Knickerbocker’, published in the Sunday Dispatch (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Sunday 25th February 1872:
New York, February 22, 1872.
Dear Dispatch:—[…] A couple of women here have revived the old practice of hiring a room, ordering goods sent thither, to be paid for on delivery, getting possession of the merchandise on pretence of exhibiting it to a relative, and then evanishing with the valuables. Eva S. Vallee and Libbie Davis are the pretty names worn by these romantic predators, both of whom are young and pretty, as well as full of audacity. Both had succeeded in a variety of these confidence operations, and finally had been traced to a house in Twenty-second street where they did reside, having signs up as mantua-makers. Miss Eva wore a complete suit of masculine apparel under her feminine gear, so that she had only to doff her hoops and petticoats, mount a stove-pipe hat, and walk out of a house without suspicion while the unconscious clerk was awaiting her return with the “spondulics.” Miss Libbie resorted to no ruse of this kind. When captured she succumbed at once, but Miss Eva showed fight and “science.” She blacked the policeman’s eye in a twinkling, and put a mansard roof over it with singular dexterity. Though a light, slim woman, it took five or six policemen to hold her.
The morning after her arrest, while waiting for a dejeuner she had ordered, in her cell, Miss Eva suddenly concluded to go to the “bowwows” instead of going to court. In pursuance of this resolution—for she seemed to put on a man’s decision with the manly garments—she broke a pane of glass, tied a shawl around her neck, attached it to a bar, and jumped off! She was cut down instanter, and restored. Then she went into hysterics, became furious, and finally had to be tied hand and foot, in order to be conveyed to the hospital. Who says Romance is dead after this? Eva is a regular heroine in her pilfering way. She has spirit and courage enough for half-a-dozen men, as men go now-a-days. But it’s of no use. The prosaic world is “down” on such performances outside of the theatre. Even the “wearing of the green”—breeches—will not justify her acts, and a strait-jacket renders useless all her rehearsals of the rôle of the maniac. It took three men at the hospital to master her. She wouldn’t remove her male habiliments; but, with her streaming hair, her smooth face and her tiny boots, she was a study for a painter when tripped and thrown to the floor, held there till pinioned, and making such vigorous efforts to vanquish the bone and muscle in stalwart shape that encompassed and laughed at her. There’s no Uncle Tom on hand to assist this Eva, and to the penitentiary she goes, sure. The same may be said of her partner, Libbie, who, however, seems to give up in despair, and take it out in tears instead of blows.
The phrase is used literally in a poem titled Romance, published in The North and South Shields Gazette, and Daily Telegraph (South Shields, Durham, England) of Thursday 4th May 1876:
Some people say romance is dead,
Or lives alone in poets’ pages—
That all is said that can be said
By wits and madmen, fools and sages—
That now the world sees nothing new,
And won’t the older that it waxes!
This, peradventure, may be true—
Excepting as to love and taxes!
And yet to me it ever seems—
As constantly this life advances—
No night is fuller of strange dreams
Than day of marvellous romances!
And could we see behind the veil
Which hides society’s emotions,
Romance could often tell a tale
Evolved from dances and devotions.
A very little earnest search
These life romances will discover.
Sometimes they finish in a church,
Sometimes in a discarded lover.
But either way, I’m very sure,
Their charms were great, tho’ evanescent—
That either ending proved a cure—
And—that’s enough romance at present.
The phrase occurs in Romance Wrecked, a poem published in the Morning Journal and Courier (New Haven, Connecticut) of Friday 7th November 1884:
Who says romance is dead? I heard
A supple-throated cat invoke
A song which all my being stirred,
And rung the welkin till it broke;
A song to a disdainful mate,
Which on my kitchen-window sate,
And did not seem to care a dang
How hard the furry songster sang!
The moon was on the smoke-house shed;
A night-cap quaint was on my head;
A boot-jack thick was on the floor,
I thought to stop forever more
That mournful song. Upon my toes
I from the window leaned; my nose
Was greeted by a sudden balm;
I sneezed—my heart, sit still; be calm!
I fell upon the lonely cat;
Its throbbing tail I mangled flat.
With tooth and claw ferociously
That lonely cat it fell on me.
My frightful anguish cowed my voice,
I did not make a bit more noise.
They had the furry songster, yet
The neighbors cried, “Take in your pet!”
And some entreated me with bricks,
And others urged with stove-wood sticks.
All gloated o’er such fell mischance
To him who’d violate Romance!