Romantic Movement 1798-1832
As with any literary age, dates are
not “absolute.” The beginning
date for the period is the date of the publication of the Lyrical Ballads
of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The
ending date is the death of Sir Walter Scott, who died about the time that any
other living Romantics had quit writing or had become discouraged about what
they were doing. Romanticism came
about as a reaction to NeoClassicism. Writers
and philosophers who were part of the NeoClassic movement believed that order
and form were the most important aspects of the world; emotion, inspiration, and
creativity simply took second place. NeoClassic
literature dealt with the elevated positions of society—sometimes in
opposition to those positions, as in Swift and Defoe, but not considering the
point of view of the common man. Romanticism
sought to deal with these omissions.
Romanticism, a definition
As it applies to literature,
Romanticism is that part of literature that deals with imagination, the
supernatural, emotion, individual values, the common man and the rural life, and
freedom (both personal and political). It draws inspiration from the medieval stories of knights and
mythical, perfect kingdoms; yet it uses the language and life of the common man
as its medium. Romantic poetry does
not sacrifice emotional strength to form. The
writers see themselves as men talking to other men about feelings and emotions;
they do not see themselves as writers or artists.
It differs from classicism in that it does not emphasize order, and it
differs from realism in that it describes life as we wish it to be, not how it
England in the Romantic Period
was ruled by three kings during the Romantic period. The early part of the period is the end of King George
III’s reign. Since he was mad,
his son, George IV, was regent in his father’s place from 1811-1820.
George IV ruled in his own right from 1820-1830, and then his brother
William IV took the throne. Most
people thought George III a decent, if somewhat dull, man who couldn’t help
his problem. The prince regent, however, was fat, immoral, and
extravagant, and regency society followed his lead.
The upper classes in London and on country estates cared little for the
poor or the working classes, and they lived extravagantly.
When George IV died, his brother William, who was even less prepared than
he had been, took over. He was
cheerful, but had been a career Navy man and knew nothing of politics. The years
of the Romantic movement thus suffered from weak leadership.
Revolution—In this period, two revolutions occurred that had a profound
effect on England
a. The first was a political revolution—the French Revolution which began in 1789. Many Englishmen were more affected by the French Revolution than the American Revolution. The American Revolution was a revolt of distant colonies; the French Revolution was a breakdown of government from within, a frightening prospect. Many of the English Romantics were excited by the French Revolution, for at first. It looked as if the common man were throwing of the chains of the repressive upper class and its government. However, when the king was executed and Robsepierre began his Reign of Terror in 1793, Romantics became alarmed at the bloodshed. With the rise of Napoleon, a dictator, in 1799 and the resulting tightening of the British government, the Romantics felt that their ideas of liberty and equality had been torn away. When the British forces finally halted Napoleon’s imperial conquests at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, many Romantics simply saw it as “the defeat of one despotic power by another.”
The second revolution occurred in England (and Europe)—the Industrial
Revolution. More than anything else, this movement helped bring the world
into modern life. Before,
everything in manufacturing has to be done by hand.
With the revolution came factories and some degree of automation.
England was not prepared for the change that this would bring.
Workers crowded into cities that soon became sprawling and filthy.
Workers had low wages, and even children worked.
Because of the political revolution scare, any groups that tried to meet
to better standards were suppressed. When
more people moved into urban areas, agricultural practices had to change.
Public lands were “enclosed,” and many people were forced to move.
Throughout this era, government did little.
Finally, in 1832, the First Reform Bill was passed, giving more rights
and freedoms to citizens and cutting down on the freedoms of the aristocracy.
However, the Romantic age was over by then.
a. Jeremy Bentham—utilitarianism—making political and social institutions run in the smoothest manner possible, not overindulging in any way, political economy.
William Godwin—support of the French Revolution, political theory
Mary Wollestonecraft—rights of women
Edmund Burke—political theory, approved of the American Revolution but
not the French
Wellington and Peel—obtained Catholic Emancipation to halt civil war in
IV. The English Romantics
Generally, the Romantics
fall into two generations, the first generation of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and
their contemporaries, and the second generation of Byron, Shelley, and Keats,
the darker Romantic poets. Drama
did not flourish in this era, but essayists like Lamb and DeQuincey were
popular, as were novelists like Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott (poet and
novelist), and Mary Shelley.
A. The first generation
Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798.
Their purpose, according to Wordsworth in the Preface, was to use “real
language” and common subjects transformed by the poet’s interpretation into
a poem. Coleridge, while agreeing
with this approach, took a somewhat different direction.
His purpose was to relate supernatural events in such a manner that the
reader would suspend disbelief and cooperate with the experience of the poem.
In this way, the natural and supernatural were wedded to make us aware of
their effect on human emotions.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Wordsworth was a “country boy”
who grew up in the Lake District of northwest England. Nature was always a major influence on his life.
He was orphaned at the age of thirteen, and the money that he and his
siblings were left was tied up in court and they did not receive it for many
years. He attended Cambridge, but
found it stifling. He graduated
without honors and went to France, which was embroiled in the Revolution.
He supported it. He fell in
love with Annette Vallon and they had a child, but were prevented from marrying
because of the Revolution. Wordsworth
always felt guilty about his “abandonment” of them, but he always provided
for their welfare. Because of this
guilt and the disillusionment over the failure of the Revolution, Wordsworth was
near a nervous breakdown. In 1795
he and his sister Dorothy moved to southwest England.
There he met Coleridge, who greatly encouraged his work.
The two began a collaboration that resulted in the Lyrical Ballads,
which changed the face of English poetry. Wordsworth
later married a childhood friend, but the years to come were full of problems.
One of his brothers died, two of his children dies, and he and Coleridge
had a falling out in 1810 (they reconciled many years later).
While he wrote his best poetry during 1797-1807, he became poet laureate
in 1843 at age 73. He died in 1850. After
his death, his masterpiece The Prelude, a long work on the growth of a
poet’s mind, was published.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
returns to a favorite natural spot five years later.
The beauty of the scene has remained.
We get a kind of “double vision” in the poem: his memories of it, and his new sight of it; plus his sight
and vision through Dorothy’s eyes. The
memories of this place have comforted him in the past and they will in the
future, too. He recognizes part of
his soul in nature.
“My Heart Leaps Up”
paradox—child is the father of man, but it is true because what your childhood was like profoundly influences what you become as an adult. He wants to always love nature.
Addressed to Milton—England needs him at the present.
Instead of flowing waters, indicative of change and freedom, she is a
swamp—inspiration is missing. He
catalogues all the parts of English society that are suffering:
altar—church; sword—fighting within and with France; pen—writers;
fireside—homes. All parts of life
are stagnant. They need Milton’s
godliness and wisdom to return to them. Star—sparks
of identity against the nothingness of everyday life.
One of Wordsworth’s major subjects was the struggle of the soul for
identity—who it was against the nothingness of everyday life.
He went through this, feeling the loss of childlike innocence and
inspiration. Nature gives a
reflection of the soul and helps the longing heart find itself.
d. from “Ode: Intimation of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” part v
We come from a glory—a different life—to here at birth.
We were fulfilled, angelic, godlike before we come to earth. Prison-house—the world of experience, the body and its
beliefs, loss of childhood innocence. We
see beyond the body in our joy, but soon the delights of nature become
commonplace and we cease to pay attention to them and thus lose our innocent
view of the universe and nature.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
He was the son of a preacher who
died when Coleridge was ten. He was
then sent to London to school, where he was a brilliant student.
However, he did not finish college.
He failed miserably at being a soldier, and with a friend, decided to
establish a Utopian society in America. To
help with the idea, he became engaged to his friend’s sister-in-law.
This society never got off the ground, but Coleridge married anyway and
was extremely unhappy. He and
Wordsworth began their literary collaboration in 1795.
In 1800, Coleridge began an unhappy period: he fell in love with Wordsworth sister-in-law, who did not
return his affection; he began to suffer from rheumatism and was prescribed
opium, to which he became addicted; his creative and critical powers began to
fail; and he quarreled with Wordsworth. By
1816, Coleridge was a well-known lecturer and critic (his writing about
literature far outnumbers his literary efforts), and he moved in with a London
doctor who helped him recover from his addiction.
He remained in the doctor’s care until his death in 1834.
In the last years of his life, many people visited him to hear his
lectures and conversations. One visitor who was very influenced was Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Coleridge’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads was to bring the
supernatural into everyday life through the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
This is a good of example. Coleridge
uses the traditional ballad form—stanzas that rhyme abcb—but occasionally he
adds a line or goes into an interlocking rhyme scheme to add interest and
tension and to keep the poem from becoming “sing-songy” or boring.
Basis for the poem is the wandering Jew story (a merchant denied Christ
water on the road to Calvary; his punishment is to wander the earth forever,
retelling and reliving the story). The
Mariner is the same way; he had no reason to shoot the albatross, and he makes
no attempt to explain why he must tell the story.
Coleridge helps us suspend our disbelief in the supernatural by having us
overhear the tale and by giving us a careful plotting of the voyage—adding
facts to fiction. If we consider
the background of the story, we understand the nature of the Mariner’s sin.
Just as the Jew offended God by injuring
the Son, the Mariner offended Nature by injuring the bird, the symbol of nature.
The realization that he can love everything is his saving grace—he
tells the story because it changes the listeners.
When the Mariner sees the approach of the ghost ship, he is looking for
help, a sense of home, as the wedding at the beginning.
He gets the opposite. His
fate is decided by a roll of the dice, not by anything that makes sense.
It is interesting that Life is a greater punishment in the story.
The reactions of the Wedding Guest in Parts I and VII serve as a frame
for the story.
After taking a dose of opium, Coleridge fell asleep one afternoon and
dreamed a very creative dream, based on a book he was reading at the time.
In his sleep he composed a long poem.
When he woke, he immediately began to write it down, but was interrupted
by a knock at the door. When “the
visitor from Porlock” left, he could not recapture his poem, and this fragment
is all we have left of what surely would have been a most interesting long poem.
The poem gives us something of Coleridge’s theory of poetry.
The creative imagination reconciles opposites or unrelated elements into
a united whole. Here we have three
creators and three creations:
Pleasure dome of ice
Song of paradise
Poem that unites both, though they are unrelated
Kubla builds his pleasure dome to preserve his garden, the beauty of
nature in multiplicity, yet even as it preserves it, there are forces at war to
destroy—the fountain that bursts the land, the far-off voices of war,
The idea that the river flows into and out of the caverns is an old
one—we are the river, the cavern is life and we do not know what comes before
or after. The maid is a creator, a
woman of origins, whose song, if it could be recaptured, would allow the poet to
create, too. Coleridge uses these
varied themes to show us the “holy” or “mad” craft of the poet—to make
us see the unseeable, as he does in this poem.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
One of the greatest novelists of the Romantic era, yet her work is in the
spirit of Pope, for she writes in the “comedy of manners” style. She was the daughter of a preacher, and lived her entire life
within a few miles of where she was born. She
never married. In her later novels,
Austen explores some of the societal problems of her day: snobbery,
illegitimacy; single women who depend upon relatives. At times, she is satiric of the burden her society places
upon women, but through all her works, the spirit of fun prevails.
The second generation
poets of the second generation of Romantics did not live as long or produce as
much work as those of the first. What
they produced, however, lived on as important in the development of English
poetry. They acknowledged their
debt to Wordsworth and Coleridge, but the younger poets criticized the older
ones for they felt that Wordsworth and Coleridge had become to conservative, and
had fallen away from the cause of liberty after the failure of the French
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
If one poet symbolizes the
perception of the Romantic era, it is Byron.
He was the product of a poor marriage—a rake for a father, a strict
Calvinist for a mother. In
addition, he was born with a clubfoot. Determined
that the deformity would not detract from his looks, Byron became an excellent
athlete. When he inherited his
title, be began his famous (or infamous) lifestyle.
He dressed expensively, entertained lavishly, and pursued (and was
pursued by) the women of society. His
love affairs are a thing of legend, but they brought him heartache.
He married Annabella Millbanke, a very “straight” young woman.
After their child, August Ada, was born, Lady Byron threw him out because
of his continuing affairs. He was
socially banished when society found out that one affair had been with his half
sister (they were reared apart and met as adults).
He went to Geneva with Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her sister, with whom
he also had an affair and a child. Later
he went to Greece to help with the Greek war for independence.
He died of a fever there. He
represented the hero of the age (or the Byronic hero) a sensitive man who is
searching for answers but is haunted by the sins of the past.
This is Byron’s comic masterpiece, based loosely on the opera Don
Giovanni about the famous Italian lover.
Byron writes with humor in mind; even the poetic scheme is funny because
the poem is written in hudibrastics, a form in which the final few syllables of
a line will rhyme with those of another. In
this section, he is satirizing epic poetry in general while criticizing other
Romantics. He gives reasons why he
dislikes each one. He discusses
himself and elaborates on the feeling that he has wasted too much of his life.
He concludes with a digression on the stability of fame.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley was born into an upper-class family, attended a good school, but
was thrown out of Oxford for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism.
He married Harriet Westbrook, had two children with her, and left her for
Mary Godwin. Shelley and Mary lived
in Geneva because of his bad reputation at home, and they married after Harriet
drowned herself. The courts denied
him custody of his children, and feeling outcast, the Shelleys went to Italy.
There they were poor, sick, and two of their children died.
Shelley and a friend drowned in a boating accident off the coast of
Shelley tells a tale within a tale. He heard it from a traveler from an “old” land. Two legs stand in the desert. Near them, in the sand, is a broken head with a sneer on its face. The inscription is the words of a proud man—there are no mighty works. Implicit within the sonnet is the idea that tyranny is empty and leaves nothing lasting behind.
“Ode to the West Wind”
Stanzaic form is an invention of Shelley’s—4 tercets in the
interlocking terza rima pattern followed by a couplet—this is a cross between
sonnet and terza rima. The idea is
a direct apostrophe to the west wind—creator and destroyer.
Shelley does not feel as confirmed in nature as does Wordsworth, yet he
sees its power. He shows the
effects of the wind:
1) seeds land by carrying pods
2) moves the clouds
3) tide moves with the winds
He now moves from the literal to the metaphorical:
If there is a destructive force in the lives of man, the wind, like with
the earth, promises that there is the possibility that misery, despair, and
wickedness will be blown away. He
compares himself to the leaf: he is worn out with life, care, and materialism.
He is heavy with a spiritual weight.
Thus, for the moment, the wind cannot renew him. Yet there is hope.
Note the prophecy is in the form of a question—an almost desperate one.
He hopes to believe it, but is just not sure.
John Keats (1795-1821)
Keats’s untimely death robbed English literature of a talent that, with
time, might have rivaled that of Shakespeare.
He was born into a poor family (his father was a stable keeper) but his
guardian saw that he was educated (tried to push him toward pharmacy).
His early poetry is forgettable, but he took the critics’ advice and
read and worked to improve his craft. According
to his friends, he was fun to be around and very kind—had a lot of physical
energy packed into a small frame (he was 5’2”).
He nursed his brother Tom until he died of tuberculosis, and he fell in
love with Fanny Brawne, but died of tuberculosis before they could marry.
Keats had an interesting poetic theory.
He said that the ideal attitude is forgetting oneself and concentrating
on the subject of the poem. He
called the attitude negative capability—the idea that the poet can be
in the midst of uncertainty without grabbing reason.
“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”
He had not had a classical education and had read Homer only in a weak
translation that lost the power and force of the work.
He had been told it was magnificent, but found Homer so only after
reading a translation by Chapman. He
says that he is well read—has been many places in his mind—but had no idea
of what awaited him in Homer. Gives
two great comparisons: Reading
Chapman is like 1) being a man who had studied the stars all his life and sees a
new planet with the naked eye and 2) how Cortex (wrong explorer, should be
Balboa) felt when he discovered the Pacific.
This is an Italian sonnet—octave is generalization; sestet is
“When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be”
This is a Shakespearean sonnet. Critics
say that he was aware he was dying when this was written.
This is a statement of negative capability—when he fears that he will
die before he has written and read all he wants, before he can marry the girl he
loves, he suppresses the fears. They
get in the way of his artistry, so he contemplates the whole of life until his
personal desires for love and fame sink away.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Keats was fascinated by ambiguity, which is reflected in this poem. He describes an urn, edged with flowers, with two scenes: a young man pursuing a young girl, and a priest with a heifer ready for sacrifice. He also describes a scene NOT on the urn—a town whose residents are attending the sacrifice. One important idea he brings out is that the imagination of something is always better than the real thing: unheard melodies are sweet; and the girl, though the man will never catch her, will never lose her beauty to old age. The final lines are disputed because of punctuation. One early edition had all of them in quotes; the other had only the part to the dash. If it is all quoted, the whole thing is the urn’s message. If not, the part after the dash is Keats’s conclusion. If it is his conclusion, it is an unusual one for him, because he usually expresses that the pain of knowing things is a fair trade for the joy in life.