English and American Poetry in the Nineteenth Century Analysis

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The literary nineteenth century is commonly divided into periods or phases, more or less arbitrarily. There was clearly a Romantic period in England from about 1786 to 1832, followed by a more sedate Victorian reaction that itself began to disintegrate after 1860. American literature remained minor and derivative until about 1820, when William Cullen Bryant emerged. While the 1830’s were comparable on both sides of the Atlantic, with significant interaction, Romanticism lasted longer in America—to which it was more applicable. The traumatic American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, however, soon drew American letters toward the increasing pessimism already common in England. During the last third of the nineteenth century, British and American literature were widely separate, and the uniqueness of American writers was generally acknowledged. Nevertheless, the two literatures were deeply interdependent at the beginning of the century, with Britain’s dominating, as the young United States of America were less united than a collection of states with strong ties to Britain and the Continent.

Despite its geographical separation from England, the East Coast of what is now the United States was very strongly British during the eighteenth century, not only politically but also culturally. The American Revolution (1776-1783), which justified itself on grounds derived primarily from British thought, changed nothing in that respect, for though American writers such as John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and Philip Freneau soon turned toward American subjects, they continued to see them through British eyes and to imitate British literary models, which were still of the neoclassical type. Neoclassicism was appropriate to a society in which religious and social values were well assured and stability was more evident than change. However, this stability was vanishing rapidly throughout the latter eighteenth century, in both England and America.

Political, economic, and social revolutions

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

It was an era of revolutions, through which much that has since characterized the West came into being. Not all of these revolutions were sudden or dramatic, but their cumulative force was irresistible. For example, population increased enormously throughout the latter eighteenth century in England and the United States as better sanitation, nutrition, and medicine increased longevity and reduced infant mortality. This larger and healthier population strained available resources, pressured an outmoded economic system, and gave both countries unusually large numbers of the young, who used the increasing availability of books to effect political, agricultural, technological, scientific, and social revolutions on behalf of the abundance and freedom with which their own interests were identified.

Two of the most obvious revolutions were political, as the United States broke away from England in 1776 and France attempted to discard its outmoded monarchy and religious establishment in 1789. Less precipitously, agriculture was revolutionized by the development of improved plows, crop rotation schemes, selective breeding, and (in England) an improved network of canals and turnpikes that allowed farmers to market specialty crops over greater distances. The superior transportation of the latter eighteenth century was also broadly effective in extending the boundaries of urban culture beyond London to provincial and even rural centers, so that authorship (for example) was more widespread. As mail service improved, men of letters everywhere corresponded more meaningfully, and even American colonials such as Benjamin Franklin were effective participants in the European ferment. Other aspects of technological change were also rapid, as both England and the United States responded ever more fully to the development of mechanical power. The steam engine, developed by James Watt, inaugurated the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, which would then transform the two countries for a second time during the nineteenth...

(The entire section is 6,438 words.)