English and American Poetry in the Nineteenth Century Introduction

Introduction

(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.