Romanticism defined (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
The related terms “Romantic,” “Romance,” and “Romanticism” are often used very loosely, and need some definition. First, the terms are used with a capital letter, to distinguish them from “romance” and “romantic,” terms that are usually applied to love stories or erotically heightened situations. Although Romances often contain a love interest, that is not what defines them. Likewise, Romantic poets deal with the whole gamut of human experience, not just love affairs or the experience of being in love.
The British Romantic poets of this period never used the term “Romantics” to describe themselves. It was the next generation, the Victorians, who applied the term to them. They used, in certain situations, the term “Romance,” to designate a certain traditional genre of literature that can be traced back to medieval times. This genre deals with tales of wonder and adventure, often involving the marvellous and the supernatural. It can be written as either prose fiction or as verse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) as such a Romance, part of a long tradition of magical voyages.
However, it is best to set this genre aside in thinking of the terms “Romantic” and “Romanticism.” Although generalizations are difficult, the best way to come to an understanding of the terms is by seeing how Romanticism differs from the cultural movement against which it reacted in the first place, and the cultural movement that succeeded it, in which contemporary poetry finds its place.
Romantic vs. classical (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
The cultural movement that preceded Romanticism is known by a variety of names. At its widest, it can be called the Enlightenment, which can be seen as an artistic, philosophical, and scientific movement that privileges the human reason, seeing humankind as self-sufficient in its ability to discover truth of whatever sort. The supernatural is either banished altogether as “superstition” or put into the background as no longer necessary. Thus, Christianity became Deism or atheism. Excessive shows of emotion were seen as antirational and to be suppressed. Intuition, the feminine, and the spiritual were demoted to the second rank of worthwhileness in human study and endeavor.
In terms of literature, the expression of this cultural movement was usually termed classical or neoclassical, since its models went back to Greek and Roman literature. The study of Roman and Greek language, culture, and literature has always been known as studying the classics. In the history of English literature, sometimes the term “Augustan” is used to denote the particular period of the Roman emperor Augustus as the peak of classical civilization.
Romanticism, by contrast, sought to privilege the imaginative and the intuitive as ways to truth. The term “imaginative truth” was coined, and this truth was claimed to be of equal worth to scientific and philosophical truth, or even higher. Poets were seen as truth tellers and prophets to their generation, often taking on a quasi-religious role as members of a new priesthood. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and other anti-Christian Romantics in fact...
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Romanticism vs modernism (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Generally, the Romantic poets kept to traditional and classical verse forms and genres. Thus, they used sonnets, lyrical verse, odes, epic forms, and especially blank verse and rhymed heroic couplets. They tended to revert to classical imagery, although their concept of Greek and Roman myths was of something dynamic and truth bearing rather than merely ornamental, as it had become in later neoclassical poetry. John Keats (1795-1821) and Shelley, for example, were both fascinated with Greek mythology.
By contrast, twentieth century modernism completed the revolution in speech rhythms and freer verse forms. In modernism, imagery also broke away from either nature imagery or classical mythology. Although Romantic poetry had at first sought engagement with the more sordid aspects of reality, as in Blake’s Songs of Experience, it quickly withdrew from this, and it was left to modernist poets to reengage with urban, ugly, and sordid scenes and experiences. Romanticism sought to see itself as “uplifting” in its idealism and views on the perfectability of human beings.
In political dimensions, Romantic poets had embraced revolutionary and radical stances. To some extent, these were actually born out of the Enlightenment, with its stress on the dignity of humankind and concepts of human rights. Wordsworth totally embraced the French Revolution at first, as he recounts in his autobiographical long poem The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850). Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) supported Greek freedom from the Turks.
After the excesses of the French Revolution, the older generation of Romantic poets became conservative, although Wordsworth never lost certain radical views. However, the younger generation of Romantic poets, as Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron, and Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), held the faith and either went into exile or finished up in prison on sedition charges. Nevertheless, it was left to modernist poets to reengage with radical politics, although the record here has been as patchy as with the Romantics.
Early moves (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Romantic poetry did not suddenly arrive in Britain with the publication of Blake’s Songs of Innocence or Wordsworth and Coleridge’s joint venture, the Lyrical Ballads (1798). There had been a growing interest in different types of poetry to do with three topics: nature, heightened feelings, and primitive cultures.
There had been a long tradition of nature poetry in British poetry, some of it in the classical pastoral tradition, but some of it involving more of a nature mysticism, as in the poetry of Vaughan. In the eighteenth century, there was a growing interest in cultivating nature as well as the well-designed garden. The Seasons (1730), a long blank-verse poem by James Thompson (1700-1748), marks a high point of such interest.
An example of the poetry of heightened feelings can be seen in the very popular The Complaint: Or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742-1744; commonly known as Night-Thoughts), by Edward Young (1683-1748). These were meditations on death and mutability set in a graveyard. Such meditations were to provoke sensations of fear, dread, and also the sublime. There was, in fact, an intense discussion as to the nature of sublimity and how it might be expressed in art and poetry. This ran parallel to discussion on the nature of beauty. Both were conducted in a neoclassical setting but proved central to Romantic poetry.
There was also a growing...
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Wordsworth and nature poetry (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Wordsworth is probably the best-known British Romantic poet. For much of Wordsworth’s own lifetime, he had only a small, if admiring, audience. His poetry was eclipsed by that of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and that of Lord Byron in popularity and sales, and he was dependent on gifts, bequests, and government appointments. It took him until 1830, with the help of Coleridge, to gain sufficient recognition to be seen as a major poet, and it was not until nearly before his death, that he received general recognition in his appointment as poet laureate by Queen Victoria’s request.
At first, Wordsworth’s poetry offended literary taste by seeming too ordinary, even too childish. The Lyrical Ballads was a collection of ballad-type poems about country folk who often had suffered some misfortune and it used deliberately simplistic language. Some characters are decrepit, and some are mentally retarded or unbalanced. However, they are survivors and are meant to show how those living close to nature can have moral courage in the face of the worst circumstances.
One poem in Lyrical Ballads, which Wordsworth added to the collection at the last moment, was completely different: “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” It spoke of mystical experiences, epiphanies of nature, and the belief that there was a divine spirit working in and through nature. Through memory and meditation, the perceptive receiver would become a...
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Coleridge and the supernatural (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
When Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s task was to write tales of the supernatural. This built on an already existing audience for the gothic, stemming partially from Night-Thoughts. Coleridge’s major contribution was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which subsequently became one of the most famous long poems in the English language. Again the theme is nature, but this time, nature as a retributive force if it is wantonly destroyed.
Coleridge wrote other mystical poems, including “Kubla Khan” (1816), which was probably written under the influence of opium. He also wrote a number of poems exploring the state of melancholy, a state that has a long...
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Keats and Shelley (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Sometimes the British Romantic poets are divided into the older generation of Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge and the younger generation of Byron, Shelley and Keats. While the older generation lived long, the second generation died young, in fact before the first generation. The period in which the two generations coincided, 1810-1820, is one of the most productive periods in the whole of British poetry.
The usefulness of setting the younger Romantics apart is that they can be differentiated by some distinctive developments, especially in terms of using classical mythology for inspiration and subject matter. This is nowhere better seen than in the attempt to write an epic poem. Wordsworth’s great unfinished epic,...
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Blake, Byron, and others (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Both Blake and Lord Byron stand slightly apart from the other Romantic poets. Both were highly eccentric, but that is not relevant. Although Blake’s earliest poetry predates Lyrical Ballads by a decade, it was self-published and not widely known until the first decade of the nineteenth century. As such, it had no real appreciable influence on the other poets. Apart from the very simply written ballads of Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), most of his other poems are long, some of epic proportions, after his hero, Milton. Many are highly symbolic and set out Blake’s own mystic theology, based on his version of Neoplatonic Christianity.
Byron’s eccentricity was to do with self-image....
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Women writers (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Efforts have been made to set up a school of female Romantic poets. Volumes such as Jennifer Breen’s Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832: An Anthology (1992) are typical of this enterprise. Certainly, there were a great many women poets of the period, including some quite famous writers such as Hannah Moore, the social reformer. However, whether these writers were really Romantic, or whether they have been suppressed in a male-dominated canon is open to debate.
Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), might seem an obvious candidate, as her brother actually published some of her poems in his collections. Her Grasmere Journals has become rightly famous as an important Romantic document,...
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Legacy (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Romanticism between 1780-1830 was not confined to Britain or even to literature. German Romanticism pre-dates it, having occurred in the Storm and Stress period, which included the early Goethe, and Romantic artists John Constable and William Turner revolutionized British painting as much as the poets did poetry.
In Victorian times, Byron and Scott reigned supreme in popular taste, with a solid recognition of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley. Keats needed some rehabilitation, as did Blake. Tennyson and Browning took various aspects of Romanticism and worked within that, as did other Victorian poets.
The Georgian poets of the first decade of the twentieth century represent a last sentimental flowing of...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Abrams M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971. A groundbreaking study of the Romantic revolution set against its critical fortunes.
Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background, 1760-1830. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Attempts to account for the rise of Romanticism in the light of its historical and cultural context.
McLane, Maureen N., and James Chandler, eds. The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. This volume is...
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