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Intro to The Romantic Period Essay

At the turn of the century, fired by ideas of personal and political liberty and of the energy and sublimity of the natural world, artists and intellectuals sought to break the bonds of 18th-century convention. Although the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin had great influence, the French Revolution and its aftermath had the strongest impact of all. In England initial support for the Revolution was primarily utopian and idealist, and when the French failed to live up to expectations, most English intellectuals renounced the Revolution. However, the romantic vision had taken forms other than political, and these developed apace. In Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1800), a watershed in literary history, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge presented and illustrated a beneficial visual: poetry should express, in genuine language, experience as filtered through personal emotion and imagination; the truest experience was to be found in nature.

The concept of the Sublime strengthened this turn to nature, because in wild countrysides the power of the sublime could be felt most immediately. Wordsworth’s romanticism is probably most fully realized in his great autobiographical poem, “The Prelude” (1805–50). In search of sublime moments, romantic poets wrote about the marvelous and supernatural, the exotic, and the medieval. But they also found beauty in the lives of simple rural people and aspects of the everyday world. The second generation of romantic poets included John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. In Keats’s great odes, intellectual and emotional sensibility merge in language of great power and beauty.

Shelley, who combined soaring lyricism with an apocalyptic political vision, sought more extreme effects and occasionally achieved them, as in his great drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). Lord Byron was the prototypical romantic hero, the envy and scandal of the age. He has been continually identified with his own characters, particularly the rebellious, irreverent, erotically inclined Don Juan. Byron invested the romantic lyric with a rationalist irony. The romantic era was also rich in literary criticism and other nonfictional prose. Coleridge proposed an influential theory of literature in his Biographia Literaria (1817).

William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote ground–breaking books on human, and women’s, rights. William Hazlitt, who never forsook political radicalism, wrote brilliant and astute literary criticism. The master of the personal essay was Charles Lamb, whereas Thomas De Quincey was master of the personal confession. The periodicals Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, in which leading writers were published throughout the century, were major forums of controversy, political as well as literary. ————————————————-

Although the great novelist Jane Austen wrote during the romantic era, her work defies classification. With insight, grace, and irony she delineated human relationships within the context of English country life. Sir Walter Scott, Scottish nationalist and romantic, made the genre of the historical novel widely popular. Other novelists of the period were Maria Edgeworth, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Love Peacock, the latter noted for his eccentric novels satirizing the romantics.

The Romantic period

The nature of Romanticism

As a term to cover the most distinctive writers who flourished in the last years of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, “Romantic” is indispensable but also a little misleading: there was no self-styled “Romantic movement” at the time, and the great writers of the period did not call themselves Romantics. Not until August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s Vienna lectures of 1808–09 was a clear distinction established between the “organic,” “plastic” qualities of Romantic art and the “mechanical” character of Classicism. Many of the age’s foremost writers thought that something new was happening in the world’s affairs, nevertheless. William Blake’s affirmation in 1793 that “a new heaven is begun” was matched a generation later by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The world’s great age begins anew.” “These, these will give the world another heart, / And other pulses,” wrote John Keats, referring to Leigh Hunt andWilliam Wordsworth. Fresh ideals came to the fore; in particular, the ideal of freedom, long cherished in England, was being extended to every range of human endeavour.

As that ideal swept through Europe, it became natural to believe that the age of tyrants might soon end. The most notable feature of the poetry of the time is the new role of individual thought and personal feeling. Where the main trend of 18th-century poetics had been to praise the general, to see the poet as a spokesman of society addressing a cultivated and homogeneous audience and having as his end the conveyance of “truth,” the Romantics found the source of poetry in the particular, unique experience. Blake’s marginal comment on Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses expresses the position with characteristic vehemence: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the alone Distinction of Merit.” The poet was seen as an individual distinguished from his fellows by the intensity of his perceptions, taking as his basic subject matter the workings of his own mind. Poetry was regarded as conveying its own truth; sincerity was the criterion by which it was to be judged.

The emphasis on feeling—seen perhaps at its finest in the poems of Robert Burns—was in some ways a continuation of the earlier “cult of sensibility”; and it is worth remembering that Alexander Pope praised his father as having known no language but the language of the heart. But feeling had begun to receive particular emphasis and is found in most of the Romantic definitions of poetry. Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” and in 1833 John Stuart Mill defined poetry as “feeling itself, employing thought only as the medium of its utterance.” It followed that the best poetry was that in which the greatest intensity of feeling was expressed, and hence a new importance was attached to the lyric. Another key quality of Romantic writing was its shift from the mimetic, or imitative, assumptions of the Neoclassical era to a new stress onimagination. Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw the imagination as the supreme poetic quality, a quasi-divine creative force that made the poet a godlike being.

Samuel Johnson had seen the components of poetry as “invention, imagination and judgement,” but Blake wrote: “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.” The poets of this period accordingly placed great emphasis on the workings of the unconscious mind, on dreams and reveries, on the supernatural, and on the childlike or primitive view of the world, this last being regarded as valuable because its clarity and intensity had not been overlaid by the restrictions of civilized “reason.” Rousseau’s sentimental conception of the “noble savage” was often invoked, and often by those who were ignorant that the phrase is Dryden’s or that the type was adumbrated in the “poor Indian” of Pope’s An Essay on Man. A further sign of the diminished stress placed on judgment is the Romantic attitude to form: if poetry must be spontaneous, sincere, intense, it should be fashioned primarily according to the dictates of the creative imagination.

Wordsworth advised a young poet, “You feel strongly; trust to those feelings, and your poem will take its shape and proportions as a tree does from the vital principle that actuates it.” This organic view of poetry is opposed to the classical theory of “genres,” each with its own linguistic decorum; and it led to the feeling that poetic sublimity was unattainable except in short passages. Hand in hand with the new conception of poetry and the insistence on a new subject matter went a demand for new ways of writing.

Wordsworth and his followers, particularly Keats, found the prevailing poetic diction of the late 18th century stale and stilted, or “gaudy and inane,” and totally unsuited to the expression of their perceptions. It could not be, for them, the language of feeling, and Wordsworth accordingly sought to bring the language of poetry back to that of common speech. Wordsworth’s own diction, however, often differs from his theory. Nevertheless, when he published his preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800, the time was ripe for a change: the flexible diction of earlier 18th-century poetry had hardened into a merely conventional language.



Useful as it is to trace the common elements in Romantic poetry, there was little conformity among the poets themselves. It is misleading to read the poetry of the first Romantics as if it had been written primarily to express their feelings. Their concern was rather to change the intellectual climate of the age. William Blake had been dissatisfied since boyhood with the current state of poetry and what he considered the irreligious drabness of contemporary thought. His early development of a protective shield of mocking humour with which to face a world in which science had become trifling and art inconsequential is visible in the satirical An Island in the Moon (written c. 1784–85); he then took the bolder step of setting aside sophistication in the visionary Songs of Innocence (1789). His desire for renewal encouraged him to view the outbreak of the French Revolution as a momentous event. In works such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93) and Songs of Experience (1794), he attacked the hypocrisies of the age and the impersonal cruelties resulting from the dominance of analytic reason in contemporary thought.

As it became clear that the ideals of the Revolution were not likely to be realized in his time, he renewed his efforts to revise his contemporaries’ view of the universe and to construct a new mythology centred not in the God of the Bible but in Urizen, a repressive figure of reason and law whom he believed to be the deity actually worshipped by his contemporaries. The story of Urizen’s rise was set out in The First Book of Urizen (1794) and then, more ambitiously, in the unfinished manuscript Vala (later redrafted as The Four Zoas), written from about 1796 to about 1807. Blake developed these ideas in the visionary narratives of Milton (1804–08) and Jerusalem (1804–20). Here, still using his own mythological characters, he portrayed the imaginative artist as the hero of society and suggested the possibility of redemption from the fallen (or Urizenic) condition. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, meanwhile, were also exploring the implications of the French Revolution.

Wordsworth, who lived in France in 1791–92 and fathered an illegitimate child there, was distressed when, soon after his return, Britain declared war on the republic, dividing his allegiance. For the rest of his career, he was to brood on those events, trying to develop a view of humanity that would be faithful to his twin sense of the pathos of individual human fates and the unrealized potentialities in humanity as a whole. The first factor emerges in his early manuscript poems “The Ruined Cottage” and “The Pedlar” (both to form part of the later Excursion); the second was developed from 1797, when he and his sister, Dorothy, with whom he was living in the west of England, were in close contact with Coleridge. Stirred simultaneously by Dorothy’s immediacy of feeling, manifested everywhere in her Journals (written 1798–1803, published 1897), and by Coleridge’s imaginative and speculative genius, he produced the poems collected in Lyrical Ballads(1798). The volume began with Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” continued with poems displaying delight in the powers of nature and the humane instincts of ordinary people, and concluded with the meditative “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s attempt to set out his mature faith in nature and humanity. His investigation of the relationship between nature and the human mind continued in the long autobiographical poem addressed to Coleridge and later titled The Prelude (1798–99 in two books; 1804 in five books; 1805 in 13 books; revised continuously and published posthumously, 1850). Here he traced the value for a poet of having been a child “fostered alike by beauty and by fear” by an upbringing in sublime surroundings.

The Prelude constitutes the most significant English expression of the Romantic discovery of the self as a topic for art and literature. The poem also makes much of the work of memory, a theme explored as well in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” In poems such as “Michael” and “The Brothers,” by contrast, written for the second volume of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth dwelt on the pathos and potentialities of ordinary lives. Coleridge’s poetic development during these years paralleled Wordsworth’s. Having briefly brought together images of nature and the mind in “The Eolian Harp” (1796), he devoted himself to more-public concerns in poems of political and social prophecy, such as “Religious Musings” and “The Destiny of Nations.” Becoming disillusioned in 1798 with his earlier politics, however, and encouraged by Wordsworth, he turned back to the relationship between nature and the human mind.

Poems such as “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” “The Nightingale,” and “Frost at Midnight” (now sometimes called the “conversation poems” but collected by Coleridge himself as “Meditative Poems in Blank Verse”) combine sensitive descriptions of nature with subtlety of psychological comment. “Kubla Khan” (1797 or 1798, published 1816), a poem that Coleridge said came to him in “a kind of Reverie,” represented a new kind of exotic writing, which he also exploited in the supernaturalism of “The Ancient Mariner” and the unfinished “Christabel.” After his visit to Germany in 1798–99, he renewed attention to the links between the subtler forces in nature and the human psyche; this attention bore fruit in letters, notebooks, literary criticism, theology, and philosophy. Simultaneously, his poetic output became sporadic. “Dejection: An Ode” (1802), another meditative poem, which first took shape as a verse letter to Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, memorably describes the suspension of his “shaping spirit of Imagination.” The work of both poets was directed back to national affairs during these years by the rise ofNapoleon. In 1802 Wordsworth dedicated a number of sonnets to the patriotic cause.

The death in 1805 of his brother John, who was a captain in the merchant navy, was a grim reminder that, while he had been living in retirement as a poet, others had been willing to sacrifice themselves. From this time the theme of duty was to be prominent in his poetry. His political essay Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal…as Affected by the Convention of Cintra (1809) agreed with Coleridge’s periodical The Friend (1809–10) in deploring the decline of principle among statesmen. When The Excursion appeared in 1814 (the time of Napoleon’s first exile), Wordsworth announced the poem as the central section of a longer projected work, The Recluse, “a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society.” The plan was not fulfilled, however, and The Excursion was left to stand in its own right as a poem of moral and religious consolation for those who had been disappointed by the failure of French revolutionary ideals.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge benefited from the advent in 1811 of the Regency, which brought a renewed interest in the arts. Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare became fashionable, his playRemorse was briefly produced, and his volume of poems Christabel; Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep was published in 1816. Biographia Literaria (1817), an account of his own development, combined philosophy and literary criticism in a new way and made an enduring and important contribution to literary theory. Coleridge settled at Highgate in 1816, and he was sought there as “the most impressive talker of his age” (in the words of the essayist William Hazlitt). His later religious writings made a considerable impact on Victorian readers.

No other period in English literature displays more variety in style, theme, and content than the Romantic Movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, no period has been the topic of so much disagreement and confusion over its defining principles and aesthetics. Romanticism, then, can best be described as a large network of sometimes competing philosophies, agendas, and points of interest. In England, Romanticism had its greatest influence from the end of the eighteenth century up through about 1870. Its primary vehicle of expression was in poetry, although novelists adopted many of the same themes. In America, the Romantic Movement was slightly delayed and modulated, holding sway over arts and letters from roughly 1830 up to the Civil War. Contrary to the English example, American literature championed the novel as the most fitting genre for Romanticism’s exposition.

In a broader sense, Romanticism can be conceived as an adjective which is applicable to the literature of virtually any time period. With that in mind, anything from the Homeric epics to modern dime novels can be said to bear the stamp of Romanticism. In spite of such general disagreements over usage, there are some definitive and universal statements one can make regarding the nature of the Romantic Movement in both England and America. First and foremost, Romanticism is concerned with the individual more than with society. The individual consciousness and especially the individual imagination are especially fascinating for the Romantics. “Melancholy” was quite the buzzword for the Romantic poets, and altered states of consciousness were often sought after in order to enhance one’s creative potential. There was a coincident downgrading of the importance and power of reason, clearly a reaction against the Enlightenment mode of thinking.

Nevertheless, writers became gradually more invested in social causes as the period moved forward. Thanks largely to the Industrial Revolution, English society was undergoing the most severe paradigm shifts it had seen in living memory. The response of many early Romantics was to yearn for an idealized, simpler past. In particular, English Romantic poets had a strong connection with medievalism and mythology. The tales of King Arthur were especially resonant to their imaginations. On top of this, there was a clearly mystical quality to Romantic writing that sets it apart from other literary periods. Of course, not every Romantic poet or novelist displayed all, or even most of these traits all the time. On the formal level, Romanticism witnessed a steady loosening of the rules of artistic expression that were pervasive during earlier times. The Neoclassical Period of the eighteenth century included very strict expectations regarding the structure and content of poetry. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, experimentation with new styles and subjects became much more acceptable.

The high-flown language of the previous generation’s poets was replaced with more natural cadences and verbiage. In terms of poetic form, rhymed stanzas were slowly giving way to blank verse, an unrhymed but still rhythmic style of poetry. The purpose of blank verse was to heighten conversational speech to the level of austere beauty. Some criticized the new style as mundane, yet the innovation soon became the preferred style. One of the most popular themes of Romantic poetry was country life, otherwise known as pastoral poetry. Mythological and fantastic settings were also employed to great effect by many of the Romantic poets. Though struggling and unknown for the bulk of his life, poet and artist William Blake was certainly one of the most creative minds of his generation.

He was well ahead of his time, predating the high point of English Romanticism by several decades. His greatest work was composed during the 1790s, in the shadow of the French Revolution, and that confrontation informed much of his creative process. Throughout his artistic career, Blake gradually built up a sort of personal mythology of creation and imagination. The Old and New Testaments were his source material, but his own sensibilities transfigured the Biblical stories and led to something entirely original and completely misunderstood by contemporaries. He attempted to woo patrons to his side, yet his unstable temper made him rather difficult to work with professionally. Some considered him mad. In addition to writing poetry of the first order, Blake was also a master engraver. His greatest contributions to Romantic literature were his self-published, quasi-mythological illustrated poetry collections.

Gloriously colored and painstaking in their design, few of these were produced and fewer still survive to the present day. However, the craft and genius behind a work like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell cannot be ignored. If one could identify a single voice as the standard-bearer of Romantic sensibilities, that voice would belong to William Wordsworth. His publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 is identified by many as the opening act of the Romantic Period in English literature. It was a hugely successful work, requiring several reprinting over the years. The dominant theme of Lyrical Ballads was Nature, specifically the power of Nature to create strong impressions in the mind and imagination. The voice in Wordsworth’s poetry is observant, meditative and aware of the connection between living things and objects.

There is the sense that past, present, and future all mix together in the human consciousness. One feels as though the poet and the landscape are in communion, each a partner in an act of creative production. Wordsworth quite deliberately turned his back on the Enlightenment traditions of poetry, specifically the work of Alexander Pope. He instead looked more to the Renaissance and the Classics of Greek and Latin epic poetry for inspiration. His work was noted for its accessibility. The undeniable commercial success of LyricalBallads does not diminish the profound effect it had on an entire generation of aspiring writers. In the United State, Romanticism found its voice in the poets and novelists of the American Renaissance. The beginnings of American Romanticism went back to the New England Transcendental Movement.

The concentration on the individual mind gradually shifted from an optimistic brand of spiritualism into a more modern, cynical study of the underside of humanity. The political unrest in mid-nineteenth century America undoubtedly played a role in the development of a darker aesthetic. At the same time, strongly individualist religious traditions played a large part in the development of artistic creations. The Protestant work ethic, along with the popularity and fervor of American religious leaders, fed a literary output that was undergird with fire and brimstone. The middle of the nineteenth century has only in retrospect earned the label of the American Renaissance in literature. No one alive in the 1850s quite realized the flowering of creativity that was underway. In fact, the novelists who today are regarded as classic were virtually unknown during their lifetimes. The novelists working during this period, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, were crafting densely symbolic and original pieces of literature that nonetheless relied heavily upon the example of English Romanticism.

However, there work was in other respects a clean break with any permutation of Romanticism that had come before. There was a darkness to American Romanticism that was clearly distinct from the English examples of earlier in the century. Herman Melville died penniless and unknown, a failed writer who recognized his own brilliance even when others did not. It would take the Modernists and their reappraisal of American arts and letters to resuscitate Melville’s literary corpus. In novels like Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, Melville employed a dense fabric of hinted meanings and symbols that required close reading and patience. Being well-read himself, Melville’s writing betrays a deep understanding of history, mythology, and religion. With Moby Dick, Melville displays his research acumen, as in the course of the novel the reader learns more than they thought possible about whales and whaling. The novel itself is dark, mysterious, and hints at the supernatural. Superficially, the novel is a revenge tale, but over and above the narrative are meditations of madness, power, and the nature of being human.

Interestingly, the narrator in the first few chapters of the novel more or less disappears for most of the book. He is in a sense swallowed up by the mania of Captain Ahab and the crew. Although the novel most certainly held sway, poetry was not utterly silent during the flowering of American Romanticism. Arguably the greatest poet in American literary history was Walt Whitman, and he took his inspiration from many of the same sources as his fellows working in the novel. His publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 marked a critical moment in the history of poetry. Whitman’s voice in his poetry was infused with the spirit of democracy. He attempted to include all people in all corners of the Earth within the sweep of his poetic vision. Like Blake, Whitman’s brand of poetics was cosmological and entirely unlike anything else being produced at the time. Like the rest of the poets in the Romantic tradition, Whitman coined new words, and brought a diction and rhythmic style to verse that ran counter to the aesthetics of the last century.

Walt Whitman got his start as a writer in journalism, and that documentary style of seeing the world permeated all his creative endeavors. In somewhat of a counterpoint to Whitman’s democratic optimism stands Edgar Allen Poe, today recognized as the most purely Romantic poet and short story writer of his generation. Poe crafted fiction and poetry that explored the strange side of human nature. The English Romantics had a fascination with the grotesque and of “strange” beauty, and Poe adopted this aesthetic perspective willingly. His sing-song rhythms and dreary settings earned him criticism on multiple fronts, but his creativity earned him a place in the first rank of American artists. He is credited as the inventor of detective fiction, and was likewise one of the original masters of horror. A sometimes overlooked contribution, Poe’s theories on literature are often required reading for students of the art form. The master of symbolism in American literature was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each of his novels represents worlds imbued with the power of suggestion and imagination.

The Scarlet Letter is often placed alongside Moby Dick as one of the greatest novels in the English language. Not a single word is out of place, and the dense symbolism opens the work up to multiple interpretations. There are discussions of guilt, family, honor, politics, and society. There is also Hawthorne’s deep sense of history. Modern readers often believe that The Scarlet Letter was written during the age of the Puritans, but in fact Hawthorne wrote a story that was in the distant past even in his own time. Another trademark of the novel is its dabbling in the supernatural, even the grotesque. One gets the sense, for example, that maybe something is not quite right with Hester’s daughter Pearl. Nothing is what it appears to be in The Scarlet Letter, and that is the essence of Hawthorne’s particular Romanticism. Separate from his literary production, Hawthorne wrote expansively on literary theory and criticism.

His theories exemplify the Romantic spirit in American letters at mid-century. He espoused the conviction that objects can hold significance deeper than their apparent meaning, and that the symbolic nature of reality was the most fertile ground for literature. In his short stories especially, Hawthorne explored the complex system of meanings and sensations that shift in and out of a person’s consciousness. Throughout his writings, one gets a sense of darkness, if not outright pessimism. There is the sense of not fully understanding the world, of not getting the entire picture no matter how hard one tries. In a story like “Young Goodman Brown,” neither the reader nor the protagonist can distinguish reality from fantasy with any sureness. As has been argued, Romanticism as a literary sensibility never completely disappeared. It was overtaken by other aesthetic paradigms like Realism and Modernism, but Romanticism was always lurking under the surface.

Many great poets and novelists of the twentieth century cite the Romantics as their greatest inspirational voices. The primary reason that Romanticism fell out of the limelight is because many writers felt the need to express themselves in a more immediate way. The Romantic poets were regarded as innovators, but a bit lost in their own imaginations. The real problems of life in the world seemed to be pushed aside. As modernization continued unchecked, a more earthy kind of literature was demanded, and the Romantics simply did not fit that bill.

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