Discussion of English Romantic poets usually refers to the small handful who wrote in a short period of time around the turn of the nineteenth century. Three poets in particular—Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley—dominate the public's imagination of what a Romantic poet is like. All three were friends and associates, they were gifted and serious about artistry, and all three died relatively young, leaving their poetry to be associated with the compelling blend of youth and doom. Romanticism, in fact, can be seen in almost all poetry, with stylistic strains going back at least to Shakespeare's peer Edmund Spenser (1553-1599), whose allegorical epic The Faerie Queen was to have a profound influence on Keats in the 1800's. It was the generation immediately preceding Keats's, though, that brought Romanticism into its own as a conscious artistic practice. A strong influence on those early Romantics was Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself in 1770, just before his eighteenth birthday, out of despair over the lack of critical reception for his works. Chatterton had a talent for mimicking the penmanship and language of the Middle Ages, and at age fifteen he published a collection of poems attributed to Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century poet he had made up. This nostalgia for the long-ago past became a key element of writing of the time, and is strongly evident in the works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) who is usually considered a quasi-Romantic poet, and of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who started his career writing mediocre poems but became an important part of literary history with historical romance novels. In the last years of the eighteenth century William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began Romanticism as we talk about it today. Both poets were free-thinkers, somewhat radical, ready to change conventional assumptions.
A main influence on them, and on the Romantic movements all over the world and in all different branches of art and philosophy, was the French Revolution. The central force of the Romantic movement was the importance placed on individuality, and the French Revolution was the key moment in world history when the rights of individuals came to be recognized. It marked the shift from a feudal society, where citizens were locked into the social fate that they inherited. Previously, about three percent of the population had owned most of the land in France and held all of the political power, while the other ninety-seven percent worked to pay rent and taxes with no hope of social gain. The American Revolution from 1776 to 1783 prompted the citizens of France to act against this unfair system. It showed them an example of a society in which the monarchy was dismissed in favor of democratic elections that would enact the will of the common person. The French King, Louis XVI, had been supporting the Americans against his long-standing enemies, the British, and had tripled the amount that was due on the public debt. To cover the payments, greater taxes were levied, putting even more pressure on the taxpayers and pushing them even closer to revolution. The revolution began in 1789 when people panicked over the rumor that the nobility, in response to the growing political power being demanded by the commoners, planned to collect all of the nation's grain and ship it abroad, to starve the population. What started with ideals of liberty, equality and respect for all broke down into violence. Nobles, including the King and Queen, were captured and beheaded. Between 1793 and 1794 seventeen thousand people were put to death during a period that came to be known as the Reign of Terror. To take advantage of the violence and confusion in France's political system, enemy nations, Austria, Prussia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sardinia, and Great Britain stayed on the...
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