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Critical Overview

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The writers who are now called “romantic” did not consider themselves to be part of a movement while they were writing. The term “romantic” was applied to them much later. At the time they were writing, their work received a mixed reception. Some works, like Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience were immediately praised, and others, such as Austen’s novels and Blake’s other work, did not receive recognition until long after their original publications.

As John R. Greenfield points out in his foreword in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, contemporaries of the romantic poets saw them “not as a monolithic movement all agreeing upon the basic premises of Romanticism, but as belonging to various schools with different orientations concerning taste, religion, and politics.” Greenfield also notes that much literary criticism was based not on the work in question but on the writer’s political stance; if the critic objected to a writer’s politics, he simply gave the writer a bad review. The critics divided the poets into various schools: a “radical circle” of Blake, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; the “Lake Poets,” including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey; the “Cockney School,” which included Keats and Leigh Hunt; and the “Satanic School” of Percy Shelley and Byron. The latter group received its name because of Byron’s scandalous reputation and Shelley’s atheism and radical beliefs, which shocked readers of the time.

In the early twentieth century, Romanticism was strongly criticized by writers such as T. S. Eliot, T. E. Hulme, and Cleanth Brooks. In Midwest Quarterly, Asad Al-Ghalith writes, “Throughout most of his writing career, Eliot attempted to write poetry that would reflect his antiromantic taste and preferences,” and that Eliot

wanted to break away from the romantic development of poetic structure. However, despite Eliot’s dislike of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets, he shared with [Wordsworth] a profound kinship in his concern for spirituality within nature, in his stress on the present in relation to past and future, and in the emphasis on the role of memory to recapture the fleeting moments of childhood.

Recent critical work on the romantics has focused on resurrecting the almost-forgotten contributions of women writers, many of whom have historically been marginalized. In Midwest Quarterly, Stephen C. Behrendt points out that readers “are beginning to study a ‘British Romanticism’ that looks and feels very different from the one that most of their predecessors studied.” Behrendt and other scholars have focused on the connections among romantic writers, instead of studying them as if they lived and wrote in isolation. Behrendt also observes Romanticism “involved women far more prominently than has traditionally been acknowledged.” He maintains the traditional critical image of the romantic poet was that of “the lone male poet whose visionary experience places him beyond domesticity,” a view that has persisted since the romantic period, when cultural values prevented people from seeing women’s contributions as equal to those of men. Women who dared to enter the “male” territory of poetry were considered unnatural. They were allowed to write novels because novels were considered unimportant. According to Behrendt, this idea of male poets and female novelists has persisted to the present day, but, he comments, “a whole new model has to be generated, one that incorporates men and women authors alike, in all genres.”

Despite occasionally falling from critical favor when literary tastes change, the major romantic writers are still considered among the greatest poets and novelists in the English language. Their work continues to influence writers into the twentyfirst century.

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Essays and Criticism