Romanticism defined

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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

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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 claimed poetry had taken over religion, as did the Victorian Romantic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).

This does not mean that all Romantic poets were antireligious or antiscientific, but rather that they downgraded the rational and the logical and valued the intuitive. One manifestation of this was the trust in childhood states of being, of “innocence” as being a form of truth. This goes back to the Greek philosopher, Plato, who held that the human soul comes straight from heaven, entering a baby uncorrupted. Thus, young children are naturally nearer to heaven in their innocence. “Now We Are Seven” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) are excellent examples of this, as are the poems in Songs of Innocence (1789), by William Blake (1757-1827). By contrast, the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke believed children to be born with nothing, to be “blank slates,” and orthodox Christianity believed children to be born already “fallen” and corrupt.

Generally Romantic poets were Platonists, following a long tradition in English poetry that includes the late Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, the seventeenth century poet John Milton, and the mystics Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne. Classicism tends to build on the thinking of the other great Greek thinker, Aristotle. This Platonism was reinforced by the writings of the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who might well be called the philosopher of childhood. He saw the perfect education as preventing the child’s soul from becoming corrupted, which is essentially by contact with society. The ideal education is homeschooling in a country milieu, in nature, a schooling which, by chance, Wordsworth enjoyed in the Lake District of northern England. Rousseau also suggested that in society, the city was more corrupt than the country. This was at odds with neoclassicism, which was basically an urban culture. The Romantics tended to privilege country people, folkways, and primitivism in general as being less corrupt. This led to an interest in remote cultures and poetry.

Neoclassical theory had emphasized the need for a “poetic diction” distinct from everyday speech. In reaction, Wordsworth proposed a vocabulary and speech of ordinary people. He had in mind particularly the speech of the independent small farmers of his native Lake District, who, like their counterparts in Scotland, would have had some education and an oral tradition. This particular part of the Romantic agenda was never fulfilled, and it was left to modernism to embrace demotic speech and ordinary speech rhythms.

Romanticism vs modernism

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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

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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 interest in primitive, especially Celtic, cultures. When a long poem by the Scottish poet and antiquarian James Macpherson (1736-1796), entitled Ossian, based on the adventures of Oisín, a legendary Celtic hero, purportedly translated from the ancient Gaelic, was published in 1761, it took the country by storm. The staunch neoclassical poet and critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) denounced it as a forgery, and Macpherson was challenged to produce the original documents. A huge furor ensued, giving the poem further publicity. The incident shows the craving for such primitive lost literature. The poem was translated and influenced early German Romanticism, the Storm and Stress movement, as well as German Romantic music. Felix Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave is directly inspired by Ossian.

Also catering to this desire were the forgeries by Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), beginning with a fabricated history of the old Bristol Bridge in 1768 and including Poems Supposed to Have Been Written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and Others in the Fifteenth Century, edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt and published in 1777, after Chatterton’s death. Even Johnson was impressed by this sixteen-year-old’s gifts. Tragically, Chatterton, “the marvellous boy” as the Romantics called him, committed suicide at the age of seventeen, the first in a long list of early deaths that somehow have come to typify the Romantic poet.

Wordsworth and nature poetry

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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 better, more moral person. This statement lies at the heart of Wordsworth’s Romanticism.

The immediate impact of such beliefs was to replace the static Enlightenment concept of Creation, an ordered, even mechanistic creation of a distant God with a concept of nature as divine force. At times, Wordsworth is explicitly pantheistic, although in midlife he became more orthodoxly Christian. However, this dynamic view of nature has stayed within Western culture. This must be considered the beginning of nature poetry as it is now understood.

Even in his own day, Wordsworth succeeded in opening up the Lake District as a tourist destination, just as the Scottish Highlands were also being opened up by the Scottish Romantics. Of these, the most significant was Robert Burns (1759-1796), who has come to be regarded as Scotland’s national poet. From very humble origins, he devised a poetry using local Scottish dialect that was often humorous and often satirical. He also wrote many poems of great lyric beauty or national fervor, such as “Scots, Wha Hae wi’ Wallace Bled.” His first volume of poetry was published in 1786, with his famous “Tam O’Shanter” coming out in 1792.

Other Scottish Romantics are Scott, whose major works include Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803) and The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), and James Hogg, the “Shepherd of Ettrick” (1770-1835). Both these men knew Wordsworth, having collected traditional ballads of the border area between England and Scotland. Scott’s poetry and novels became popular throughout Europe. His The Lady of the Lake (1810), with its typical medieval setting, became the direct inspiration for Keats’s Eve of St. Agnes (1820).

Coleridge and the supernatural

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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 history in English literature, from William Shakespeare’s melancholic Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). This state is often associated with the Romantic poets, perhaps through the famous novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779) of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and perhaps through Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” or “Ode to a Nightingale.” Such states are often near suicidal, and their exploration was part of the growing interest in extreme states of being in which perceptions are altered. One of Wordsworth’s admirers, Thomas de Quincey, wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) which examined altered states of consciousness and became a massive best seller.

Later criticism has linked Coleridge’s interest in the supernatural with subconscious states of being. However, Coleridge was a Unitarian and later spoke up in defense of Christianity. Rather than developing as a poet, Coleridge became a spokesperson for Romanticism, and in his Biographia Literaria (1817) throws out vital clues as to the early thinking of the British Romantic poets, as did Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800). Other Romantics who wrote or lectured to promote Romanticism were Hunt, William Hazlitt (1778-1830), and Charles Lamb (1775-1834).

Keats and Shelley

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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, The Recluse (1888), was to be set domestically in the Lake District and be a meditative poem about the getting of wisdom through nature. What was published in 1888 was a manuscript left at Wordsworth’s death, containing the first book of the first part of the epic poem, which was to have three parts and to contain The Prelude as an introduction. The Prelude is an epic account of Wordsworth’s own poetic formation through epiphanies in nature, education, and the experience of living through the French Revolution. Keats called the type of writing the “egotistical sublime.” It is the poet as the subject of his own epic statement.

By contrast, Keats and Shelley attempted to rewrite John Milton’s great Christian epic, Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), using classical mythology. Keats and Shelley were both atheists and so wanted to reconstruct an epic subject in non-Christian terms. Keats tried with Hyperion: A Fragment (1820), which he gave up as “too Miltonic.” He tried again with The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1856), but failing health precluded its completion. The topic was the revolution of the Olympian gods over the older Saturnian ones. Shelley’s attempt was more successful. Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820) takes the myth of Prometheus, the bringer of civilization to humanity in the face of the gods, as a statement about throwing off religious beliefs and embracing a new spirit of liberty.

Both poets wrote other longer mythological poems, but are better remembered for shorter, more lyric pieces, such as Keats’s odes and his sonnets, and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), his very fine tribute to Keats, who died a year before he did.

Blake, Byron, and others

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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. Byronism threatened to take over Romanticism at one stage, so popular were his autobiographical heroes in their mock-epic quests for self-discovery or adventure, described in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819) and Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826). It can be questioned whether Byron was a Romantic at all. His verse forms are more typically Augustan, as is his mock-heroic satire, and he quite scathingly attacks certain minor Romantic poets, such as Robert Southey (1774-1843).

However, like Shelley, Byron was a revolutionary and an exile, adding to the picture of the Romantic poet as exile or wanderer, ever restless. It could be argued that he developed, with Shelley, what might be called Mediterranean Romanticism, which was carried on by Victorian poet Robert Browning; his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and a host of painters.

Other forms of Romanticism also developed. Oriental Romanticism became as interesting as Celtic Romanticism. Lalla Rookh (1817), a long poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), represents a first step in the newly developing colonial literature of the nineteenth century. Moore was an Irishman, and he exploited Irish folksong, as Hogg (Scottish Pastorals, 1801; The Mountain Bard, 1807), and Scott had done for Scottish folk songs.

Less well-known poets wrote of the English countryside, such as George Crabbe (1754-1832), whose The Borough: A Poem, in Twenty-four Letters (1810) inspired Benjamin Britten’s most famous opera, Peter Grimes (pr. 1945), and John Clare (1793-1864), whose The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems appeared in 1821.

Women writers

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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, although it was not published until 1987, but her other poetry, much like that of many of the other women, is somewhat domestic.

Considering the fact that female novelists, such as Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, had no difficulty winning recognition, if not immediately, then not too long after their deaths, then it is difficult to substantiate a male plot of suppression against female poets. However, barring discovery of a yet-unknown female Romantic poet, it seems best to conclude that the great female Romantic poets appeared a generation later, with the emergence of Emily Brontë, to be followed by Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti.

Legacy

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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 Romanticism before modernism captured the center ground of British poetry. The one colossus representing “the last of the Romantics” was the Irishman, William Butler Yeats, who developed Romantic poetry in significant new ways and made it workable for twentieth century poets.

Bibliography

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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 part of the Cambridge Companions to Literature series, with specially commissioned essays on a wide range of topics and authors.

O’Neill, Michael, ed. Literature of the Romantic Period: A Bibliographical Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. The definitive bibliographical guide to the period.

Wu, Duncan. Romantic Poetry. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002. Perhaps the best introductory guide to Romantic poetry, giving full extracts from the major poets and an overview of Romantic poetry.