Romantic Poetry


1798 (Photo credit: Eva the Weaver)

The Romantic Period: The Political Background “Revolution & Reaction” 

Following the common usage of historians of English literature, we shall denote by the “Romantic period” the span between the year 1798, in which Wordsworth and Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads, and 1832, whenSir Walter Scott died, when other major writers of the earlier century were either dead or no longer productive, and when passage of the first ReformBill inaugurated the Victorian era of cautious readjustment of political power to the economic and social realities of a new industrial age. This was a turbulent period, during which England experienced the ordeal f change from a primarily agricultural society, where wealth and power had been concentrated in the landholding aristocracy, to a modern industrial nation, in which the balance of economic power shifted to large-scale employers, who found themselves ranged against an immensely enlarging and increasingly restive working class. And this change occurred in a context of the American revolution and then of the much more radical French Revolution, of wars, of economic cycles of inflation and depression, and of the constant threat to the social structure from imported revolutionary ideologies to which the ruling classes responded by heresy hunts and the repression of traditional liberties.

Human Rights declaration of 1789

Human Rights declaration of 1789 (Photo credit: Harald Groven)

The early period of the French Revolution, marked by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the storming of the Bastille to release imprisoned political offenders, evoked enthusiastic support from English liberals and radicals alike. Two influential books indicate the radical social thinking stimulated by the Revolution. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-92) justified the French Revolution against Edmund Burke’s attack in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and advocated for England a democratic republic which was to be achieved, if lesser pressures failed, by popular revolution. More important as an influence on Wordsworth, Shelley, and other poets was William Godwin’s Inquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), which foretold an inevitable but peaceful evolution of society to a final stage in which all property would be equally distributed and all government would wither away. Later, however, English sympathizers dropped off as the Revolution followed its increasingly grim and violent course: the accession to power by Jacobin extremists; the “September, Massacres” of the imprisoned and helpless nobility in 1792, followed by the execution of the royal family; the invasion by the French Republic of the Rhineland and Netherlands, and its offer of armed assistance to all countries desiring to overthrow their governments, which brought England into the war against France; the guillotining of thousands in the Reign of Terror under Robespierre; and, after the execution in their turn of the men who had directed the Terror, the emergence of Napoleon first as dictator and then as emperor of France. As Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude

become Oppressors in their turn,

Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence

For one of Conquest, losing sight of all

Which they had struggled for ….

The French Revolution promoted new ideals that...

The French Revolution promoted new ideals that influenced local criollos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Wordsworth and other English observers of liberal inclinations, these events posed a dilemma which has become familiar since the 1920s, in our parallel era of wars, revolutions, and the struggle by competing social ideologies – liberals had no side they could wholeheartedly espouse. Napoleon, the child and champion of the French Revolution, had become an arch aggressor, a despot, and the founder of a new dynasty; yet almost all those who opposed him did so far the wrong reasons, with the result that his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 proved to be the triumph, not of progress and reform, but of reactionary despotisms throughout continental Europe.

The Spirit of the Age: 

Attempts at a single definition of Romanticism fall far short of matching the variegated facts of a time which exceeds almost all other ages of English literature in the range and diversity of its achievements. No writer in Wordsworth’s lifetime thought of himself as a “Romantic”; the word was not applied until half a century later, by English historians. Contemporary critics and reviewers treated them as independent individuals, or else grouped them (often invidiously, but with some basis in fact) into a number of separate schools: “the Lake School” of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey; “the Cockney School,” a derogatory term for the Londoners Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and associated writers, including John Keats; and ” the Satanic School” of Byron, Shelley; and their followers.

Many of the major writers, however, did feel that there was something distinctive about their time-not a shared doctrine or literary quality, but a pervasive intellectual and imaginative climate, which some of them called “the spirit of the age.” They had the sense that (as Keats said in one of his sonnets) “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning,” and that there was evidence all about of that release of energy, experimental boldness, and creative power which marks a literary renaissance. In his Defense of Poetry Shelley claimed that the literature of the age “has arisen as it were from a new birth,” and that “an electric life burns” within the words of its best writers, which is “less their spirit than the spirit of the age.” Shelley explained this literary spirit as an accompaniment of political and social revolution and other writers agreed .The new poetry of the school of Wordsworth, he maintained, “had its origin in the French Revolution… It was a time of promise, a renewal of the world-and of letters.”

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The imagination of Romantic writers was, indeed, preoccupied with the fact and idea of revolution. In the early period of the French Revolution all the leading English writers except Edmund Burke were in sympathy with it. Later, even after the first boundless expectations had been disappointed by the events in France, the younger writers, including Hazlitt, Hunt, Shelley, and Byron, felt that its example, when purged of its error, still comprised humanity’s best hope. The Revolution generated a pervasive feeling that this was a great age of new beginnings when, by discarding inherited procedures and outworn customs, everything was possible, and not only in the political and social realm but in intellectual and literary enterprises as well. In his Prelude Wordsworth wrote the classic description of the intoxicating spirit of the early 1790s, with “France standing on the top of golden hours, /And human nature seeming born again,” so that “the whole Earth, / The beauty wore of promise.” Something of this sense of suddenly limitless possibilities survived the shock of first disappointment at events in France and carried over to the year 1797, when Wordsworth and Coleridge, in excited daily communion, set out to revolutionize, on grounds analogous to the politics of democracy, the theory and practice of poetry. The product of these discussions was the Lyrical Ballads of 1798.

Poetic Theory & Poetic Practice: 

Wordsworth undertook to justify the new poetry by a critical manifesto or statement of poetic principles, in the form of an extended Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800, which he enlarged still further in the third edition of 1802. In it he set himself in opposition to the literary ancient regime, those writers of the preceding century who, in his view, had imposed on poetry artificial conventions that distorted its free and natural development. Many of Wordsworth’s later critical writings were attempts to clarify, buttress, or qualify points made in his first declaration. Coleridge declared that the Preface was “half a child of my own brain”; and although he soon developed doubts about some of Wordsworth’s unguarded statements, and undertook to correct them in Biographia Literaria (1817), he did not question the necessity of Wordsworth’s attempt to overturn the reigning tradition. In the course of the eighteenth century there had been increasing opposition to the tradition of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, and especially in the 1740s and later, there had emerged many of the critical concepts, as well as a number of the poetic subjects and forms, that were later exploited by Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Wordsworth’s Preface nevertheless deserves its reputation as a turning point in English literature, for Wordsworth gathered up isolated ideas, organized them into a coherent theory based on explicit critical principals, and made them the rationale for his own massive achievements as a poet. We can conveniently use the concepts in this extremely influential essay as points of departure for a survey of distinctive elements in the theory and poetry of the Romantic period.

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the French Revolution of 1830 (July Revolution) on 28 July 1830. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Concept of Poetry and the Poet:

Eighteenth-century theorists had regarded poetry as primarily an imitation of human life-in a frequent figure, “a mirror held up to nature”- which the poet artfully renders and puts into an order designed to instruct and give artistic pleasure to the reader. Wordsworth, on the other hand, repeatedly described all good poetry as, at the moment of composition, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Reversing earlier theory, he thus located the source of a poem not in the outer world, but in the individual poet, and specified that the essential materials of a poem were not external people and events, but the inner feelings of the author, or at any rate, external objects only after these have been transformed or irradiated by the author’s feelings. Other Romantic theories, however diverse in other aspects, concurred on this crucial point by referring primarily to the mind, emotions, and imagination of the poet, instead of to the outer world, for the origin, content, and defining attributes of a poem. Many writers identified poetry (in metaphors parallel to Wordsworth’s “overflow”) as the “expression” or “utterance” or “exhibition” of emotion Blake and Shelley described a poem as an embodiment of the poets’s imaginative vision, which they opposed to the ordinary world of common experience. Coleridge introduced into English criticism an organic theory of the imaginative process and the poetic product, based on the model of the growth of a plant. That is, he conceived a great work of literature to be a self-originating and self-organizing process that begins with a seed like idea in the poet’s imagination, grows by assimilating both the poet’s  feelings and the diverse materials of sense-experience, and evolves into an organic whole in which the parts are integrally related to each other and to the whole  ….. Continue reading: The Age

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