Make your own free website on

Romantic Notes



The Romantic Movement 1798-1832

I.          Background

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.

II.         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 is.

III.        England in the Romantic Period

            A.         Rulers

England 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.

             B.         Social Changes

1.         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.”

b.          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.

                         2.         Reformers

a.          Jeremy Bentham—utilitarianism—making political and social institutions run in the smoothest manner possible, not overindulging in any way, political economy.

b.          William Godwin—support of the French Revolution, political theory

c.          Mary Wollestonecraft—rights of women

d.          Edmund Burke—political theory, approved of the American Revolution but not the French

e.          Wellington and Peel—obtained Catholic Emancipation to halt civil war in Ireland.

 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.

                         1.         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.

a.         “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”

He 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.

                                    b.         “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.

 c.          “London 1802”

             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.

                         2.         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.

a.         “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.

b.          “Kubla Khan”

             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:


             Kubla Khan                   Pleasure dome of ice

             Abyssinian maid            Song of paradise

Coleridge                       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.

                        3.         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.

             B.         The second generation

                                    The 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 Revolution.

                        1.          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.

                                                a.         “Don Juan”

                                                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.

 2.         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 Italy.

            a.         “Ozymandias’

             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.

 b.          “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.

                        3.         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.

 a.          “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 particular feeling.

b.          “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.

 c.          “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.