American and French Revolutions
The French Revolution, which drew upon some of the principles enacted in the American Revolution, resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy of France and the spread of interest in democracy, nationalism, and socialism throughout Europe. On the eve of the revolution, France was in crisis; the monarchy, which claimed to rule by divine right, had spent so much money that the country had a massive deficit. A poor harvest and bitter winter in 1788 plunged the country into famine and drastically increased prices. In addition, British textile makers were underselling their French counterparts, leading to the closure of some French manufacturers and the spread of unemployment among the workers. The increasingly restless poor found that the wealthy nobles, clergy, and upper middle class made good targets for their anger at this situation.
The revolution was not a clean victory for either the poor or democracy, as by 1799 France was a military dictatorship. However, intellectuals throughout Europe were thrilled and inspired by the notion of revolutionaries rising up and demanding their rights. Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and others wrote glowingly of the revolution, and Bysshe Shelley and Byron thoroughly supported its radical principles. In general, the romantics believed in the worth, potential, and freedom of the individual, and exalted this freedom over the thentraditional acceptance of social hierarchy and political repression.
The Industrial Revolution was a period of social and economic change that began in the mid- 1700s and lasted until the late 1800s. This change was instigated by the invention of various mechanical means of producing goods more quickly and cheaply than by hand. For example, textile mills allowed the production of vast amounts of cloth, with far less labor and cost, than if the cloth were produced by the traditional method of individual weavers working in their homes. Factory ironworks produced iron items more quickly than individual craftspeople could, and the “spinning jenny,” a device for spinning thread, could make more cotton thread than many human...
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Rejection of Rigid Poetic Forms
In keeping with their glorification of the unlimited freedom and potential of the individual, the romantics rejected old poetic conventions—such as the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson—and used freer forms of verse like the ode and the verse narrative. They believed that the form of a verse should be shaped by the subject matter, in contrast to the neoclassicists before them, who used rigid forms and shaped their material to fit them.
Emphasis on Poetry
An interesting aspect of the romantic period was the emphasis on poetry. Most of the great romantic writers were poets instead of novelists, as novels were widely regarded as inherently inferior to poetry, which was deemed a loftier form of writing. Critics have offered various reasons for this prejudice. Some suggest it arose from the fact that most novelists were female, and because women were devalued during the romantic period, their work was discounted. Others note that many novels were of poor quality, giving the entire genre a bad reputation. In addition, as Bradford K. Mudge notes in his foreword in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the poets themselves, notably Wordsworth and Coleridge, campaigned against the spread of popular fiction, claiming it would lower the tastes of the reading public and lead them away from poetry. According to Mudge, Wordsworth wrote that newspapers, novels, plays, and even...
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In the Emerson Society Quarterly, James E. Miller Jr. writes, “America has traditionally incarnated the romantic in almost every sense,” and that “The American adventure, the great democratic experiment . . . are the essence of Romanticism.” Romanticism in America flourished between 1812 and the years of the Civil War. Like English Romanticism, its writers emphasized the dignity and freedom of the individual; rebellion against restrictions, whether political, cultural, or social; the importance of emotion over intellect; and the need for a personal relationship with God and the natural world.
However, American Romanticism differed from the English movement because it was shaped by factors unique to American history, culture, and geography. Americans, unlike the English, lived in a democratic, more egalitarian society in which the ordinary individual had political power and was free from the dictates of a king or an entrenched upper class of nobles. In addition, rebellion and freedom of all kinds was encouraged by the presence of an apparently limitless supply of land; if people felt restricted, they would simply move farther west, where there was freedom and opportunity. In small, insular England, this feeling of personal freedom and the lure of “the open road” was nonexistent.
Because the United States was a new country with an extremely diverse population, it did not have an established set of literary forms, traditions, and masters. This lack of a creative structure or ceiling...
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Compare and Contrast
Nineteenth Century: Women are not expected or encouraged to have professions or to make a living. There are no women diplomats, lawyers, or judges, and professions such as medicine, law, engineering, architecture, and banking refuse entry to women. A woman must marry to ensure that she will be financially supported. It is considered immoral for an unmarried woman to live alone. If a woman does not marry, she is expected to earn her keep and remain “respectable” by living with and taking care of a male sibling or her parents.
Today: Although there are still differences in pay scale and status between men and women in many fields, women in many countries are now working in all professions and can choose to be educated in any field. In addition, a majority of women are not required to marry and can choose the type of household or family that is most suitable to them.
Nineteenth Century: The Industrial Revolution results in a greater variety of goods for consumers as well as in the growth of cities. It also leads to pollution, urban overcrowding, labor problems, and the exploitation of laborers, including children. The growing blight in the cities leads people to view nature in a new light and to value it for its own sake rather than simply as a resource to be exploited.
Today: Factories are still polluting nature, and people are still trying to find a balance between industrial growth and the...
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Topics for Further Study
Read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and watch one or more of the many films that were inspired by the book. How do the book and film differ? How are they the same? In particular, how is the character of the monster portrayed in each?
During the romantic period, opium was cheap and widely available, and people did not know its use could be harmful. Read some works by romantic writers who claimed to be inspired by opium, such as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). Write an essay explaining the ways the drug may have affected the writing, citing specific examples from the work.
Read Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and write your own poetry in the same style. Or, write an ode in the style of Keats.
Read about the life of Mary Shelley or Jane Austen. Write an essay explaining how they were affected by cultural attitudes and expectations of women in their time period? How did they rebel against those attitudes and expectations?
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Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Byron published cantos one and two of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, canto three in 1816, and canto four in 1818. The poem is based on Byron’s European travels and describes exotic landscapes and people, along with contemporary military and political events, presenting them from the viewpoint of Childe Harold. Harold is a typical “Byronic” hero: tormented by guilt over an unnamed sin, he is bitter, cynical, and melancholy, but also proud and at times filled with remorse. Because of these feelings, he is isolated from other people, cut off by the intensity of his feelings and by his intense suffering. He wanders in search of some release, but never finds it.
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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first filmed by inventor Thomas Edison in 1910 and directed by J. Searle Dawley. This film has since been lost from public archives, but many more versions were made. These include the most famous adaptation, filmed in 1931 by Universal Pictures, which starred Boris Karloff as the monster.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has also spawned numerous spin-offs, including Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1932), Son of Frankenstein (Universal, 1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (Universal, 1942), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (Universal, 1943).
Frankenstein was made into a comedy in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal,...
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What Do I Read Next?
Christopher Hibbert’s The Days of the French Revolution (1999) discusses the political and social ideals underlying this revolution that influenced the romantic movement.
Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life provides a fascinating biography of the now popular author.
Renowned critic Harold Bloom’s The Visionary Companion: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1971) delves into the works of many of the great English Romantic Poets, such as Keats, Shelley, Byron, Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1976) has all 1,775 poems arranged in the chronological order of their writing (as far as could be...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Al-Ghalith, Asad, “T. S. Eliot’s Poetry: Intimations of Wordsworth’s Romantic Concerns,” in the Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 1994, p. 42.
Behrendt, Stephen C., “New Romanticisms for Old; Displacing Our Expectations and Our Models,” in the Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2000, p. 145.
Bevir, Mark, “British Socialism and American Romanticism,” in the English Historical Review, September 1995, p. 878.
Brooks-Davies, Douglas, “‘To Autumn’: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Fuller, David, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Overview,” in...
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