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Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in England, the youngest daughter of a Hampshire clergyman. Her six novels were set in the world in which she lived, that of the comfortable, rural middle class, and were often based on her observations of people she knew and her assessments of human character. The novels depict young women entering society, many of whom make mistakes or become confused but ultimately find their way to a happy marriage.

Austen began writing as a teenager and initially shared her writing only with family and friends. When she eventually published, she did so anonymously. Not well known in her own time, she soon garnered a reputation for her precision, irony, and delicate touch as a writer. Her best-known works are Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Emma (1816). She influenced many later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Austen’s books have endured to the present day as some of the few “classics” widely read for pleasure. She died from illness on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, England. William Blake (1757–1827)
Artist and visionary poet William Blake, born November 28, 1757, in London, England to a hosier, was apprenticed at age fifteen to engraver James Basire, for whom Blake made drawings at Westminster Abbey. In 1783, Blake’s Poetical Sketches were printed, and in 1789, he engraved Thel and The Songs of Innocence. The increasing turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the war between Britain and France influenced Blake to engrave America (1793) and The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). In the following year, he produced the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience, Europe, and The First Book of Urizen. In 1803, Blake was accused of sedition (inciting resistance or insurrection against lawful authority). He was tried in 1804 but acquitted of the charge. During this time, he finished Milton and began Jerusalem. However, for the next two decades his life became increasingly despairing, poverty-stricken, and obscure. He was regarded as insane by some observers, and eked out a living by illustrating a pottery catalog and selling his print collection. However, late in his life he found supporters and patrons, and in 1820 Jerusalem was finally engraved. He died August 12, 1827, in London. While he was known primarily as an artist and engraver during his lifetime, Blake became known as an important writer after his death, influencing other poets such as William Butler Yeats.

Lord Byron (1788–1824)
George Gordon Byron was born January 22, 1788, in London, England, inheriting his title of the sixth Lord Byron when he was ten years old. He grew up at the family estate near Nottingham, Newstead Abbey, and received an education at Harrow and Cambridge. His first publication, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was based on a tour of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey he took between 1809 and 1811. The work was immediately successful, and he followed it with a series of tales featuring exotic Middle Eastern settings and hero-villains.

Byron’s marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815 lasted only fifteen months, largely due to rumors spread by Byron himself about his homosexuality and incestuous relations with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. In 1816 he left England permanently, undergoing a series of travels which inspired cantos three and four of Childe Harold (1816, 1818). Eventually, he settled in Venice, Italy, where his immersion in the Italian language and culture would have a profound influence on his work, particularly Don Juan (1819–1824). While in Italy, he was the lover of Countess Teresa Guiccioli and became involved with Italian independence movements. In 1823 he went to Greece to participate in the Greek movement for independence from the Turks. He died during a voilent electrical storm on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, Greece, after suffering from fever-induced illness for almost two weeks. His body was returned to England, but he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey because of his scandalous past. He was eventually buried in his family’s vaults near Newstead Abbey. In his time, Byron’s work was noted for its emphasis on freedom, its overtly sexual themes, its pessimism, and its use of tormented, villainous heroes.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born October 21, 1772, in Ottery St. Mary, Devon, England, the youngest child of a clergyman and his wife. At the age of ten he entered Christ’s Hospital School in London, where he read a wide variety of classical and political works. In 1791, he entered Jesus College in Cambridge, and became interested in revolutionary politics and Unitarianism. He left school without earning a degree. In 1794, he met poet Robert Southey, with whom he planned a utopian community to be built on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States. As part of this plan Coleridge married Southey’s sister-in-law Sara Fricker.

In 1794, he published his first poetry in the Morning Chronicle. In 1795, he began giving a series of lectures to finance the utopian scheme, but when the idea was abandoned, he returned to writing poetry. From 1797 to 1798, he lived at Nether Stowey in Somerset, and completed the poems “The Ancient Mariner,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Fears in Solitude,” and “Kubla Khan,” some of his best-known works. In 1798, with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, he traveled to Germany, where he became deeply interested in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Coleridge’s addiction to opium gradually overtook him and his marriage. He traveled to Malta in 1804 in an attempt to restore his mental and physical health, as well as his marriage. He returned to England in 1806, but by then his marriage had fallen apart.

By 1813, he had returned to Christian beliefs and was being treated for his opium addiction. He began working on Biographia Literaria (1817), a discussion of poetry and a critique of Wordsworth drawing on the work of German philosophers such as Kant and Fichte. He died July 25, 1834, in Highgate, England.

John Keats (1795–1821)
John Keats was the youngest of the major romantic poets. He was born October 31, 1795, in London, England, to a lower-middle-class family. His father’s accidental death in 1804, and his mother’s death in 1809 after a long bout with tuberculosis, marked him with a sense of the precariousness of life—a theme that recurs in his poetry. He was apprenticed to a surgeon, and in 1816 was licensed as an apothecary and surgeon. This training in science helped to ground his poetry in the sensory details of nature and everyday life.

His first published poem was “O Solitude,” which appeared in The Examiner in 1816, and aroused the interest of Leigh Hunt, the periodical’s editor, who encouraged him to quit his medical practice and devote his life to poetry. He viewed this as the most noble goal one could have and was filled with a deep sense of the continuity of poetry and literature through the ages, a great love for the English language, and a desire to return poetry to its roots in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Spenser. His first published collection entitled simply Poems 1817 (1817) was dedicated to Leigh Hunt. His second work, Endymion (1818), fell short of his own expectations, but his third collection, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) contained “some of the greatest poems in the English language,” according to Jean-Claude Sallé in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson). Keats died of tuberculosis Feburary 23, 1821, in Rome, Italy, at the young age of twenty-five.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). She was born August 30, 1797, in London, England. The daughter of two well-known authors, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary’s early years were unstable. Her mother died ten days after her birth, and she was raised by her father and stepmother. In 1812 she met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a friend of her father’s, and in 1814 they ran off together, though Percy was married. During Mary and Percy’s subsequent travels in Europe, Mary began work on Frankenstein. Percy’s wife Harriet committed suicide in 1816, and shortly afterward Percy and Mary were married. Four years after Frankenstein was published, Percy drowned. Mary died of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851, in London.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)
Percy Bysshe Shelley was the oldest child and only son of a baronet. He was born August 4, 1792, in Horsham, Sussex, England. He attended Eton, where he was mercilessly harassed because of his acute sensitivity and distaste for physical activity. He then attended University College in Oxford, but was expelled after a few months because he published a pamphlet promoting atheism. Shortly after his expulsion, he eloped with Harriet Westbrook as part of a plan to help her escape from her boarding school.

By 1914, his marriage was failing, and when Shelley met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin through a friendship with her father, he traveled to Europe with her. Harriet committed suicide in 1916, and shortly after this Shelley married Godwin. By 1818 the couple, with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, decided to move to Italy, and Shelley never returned to England. He and Mary wandered throughout Italy, and between 1818 and 1822, Shelley wrote some of his most important work, including Prometheus Unbound (1820) and his odes and lyrics. His work is noted for its reflections on a great variety of fields—including science, history, philosophy,— and for his attempts to synthesize seemingly conflicting theories in these fields. Shelley was drowned in a storm while sailing on the bay of La Spezia July 8, 1822. His body was cremated on the beach a few days later.

William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
William Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England. His father was a law agent, and after his mother’s death in 1778, he was sent away to school, where he enjoyed a great deal of freedom. His father died in 1783, leaving Wordsworth and his four siblings in the care of relatives. Throughout his life, Wordsworth remained very close to his sister Dorothy.

Wordsworth began writing poetry as a young man, but his most notable works were composed after 1803 and many of them were collected in Poems in Two Volumes (1807). These volumes include the famous “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and “Resolution and Independence.” His long poem The Excursion was published in 1814 and was widely read. In 1835, a major collection of his poems was published, and in 1843 he became poet laureate of England.

Wordsworth’s poetry is notable for his vision of the sublime, or the divine, in ordinary people and places. He believed wholeheartedly in the redeeming power of nature, and saw mystery and wonder in both people and natural things. Wordsworth died after a bout of pleurisy on April 23, 1850, in Rydal, Cumbria, England.

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