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American and French Revolutions
The French Revolution, which drew upon some of the principles enacted in the American Revolution, resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy of France and the spread of interest in democracy, nationalism, and socialism throughout Europe. On the eve of the revolution, France was in crisis; the monarchy, which claimed to rule by divine right, had spent so much money that the country had a massive deficit. A poor harvest and bitter winter in 1788 plunged the country into famine and drastically increased prices. In addition, British textile makers were underselling their French counterparts, leading to the closure of some French manufacturers and the spread of unemployment among the workers. The increasingly restless poor found that the wealthy nobles, clergy, and upper middle class made good targets for their anger at this situation.
The revolution was not a clean victory for either the poor or democracy, as by 1799 France was a military dictatorship. However, intellectuals throughout Europe were thrilled and inspired by the notion of revolutionaries rising up and demanding their rights. Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and others wrote glowingly of the revolution, and Bysshe Shelley and Byron thoroughly supported its radical principles. In general, the romantics believed in the worth, potential, and freedom of the individual, and exalted this freedom over the thentraditional acceptance of social hierarchy and political repression.
The Industrial Revolution was a period of social and economic change that began in the mid- 1700s and lasted until the late 1800s. This change was instigated by the invention of various mechanical means of producing goods more quickly and cheaply than by hand. For example, textile mills allowed the production of vast amounts of cloth, with far less labor and cost, than if the cloth were produced by the traditional method of individual weavers working in their homes. Factory ironworks produced iron items more quickly than individual craftspeople could, and the “spinning jenny,” a device for spinning thread, could make more cotton thread than many human spinners.
The Industrial Revolution was also fueled by declining mortality rates, which resulted in rapid population growth. The increasing numbers of people provided both a workforce for the factories and a market for the goods produced.
The new factories necessitated improved transportation routes for raw materials and finished goods, as well as housing and other services for the laborers. These needs caused roads and canals to be improved or constructed, and swelled the cities with cheaply built housing. The first British railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was built in 1821.
The factories hired women and children as well as men, and were often unsafe. Housing built for the workers was often substandard and unsanitary. The factories themselves polluted both air and water, belching out smoke from coal-fired furnaces and releasing dye and other wastes into rivers. The regimented hours and repetitive work in the factories were viewed as dehumanizing and numbing by the general populace.
Romantic writers were aware of these changes, which presented such a contrast between the hellish life of the city laborer and the purity and peace of nature. The industrial changes convinced many romantics the natural world was purer than the industrial one, and that nature was a place of spiritual truth, release, and renewal. In The Excursion, Wordsworth applauds the advances in science and technology that made the mills possible, but also criticizes the exploitation of women and children, the dehumanizing work shifts, and the all-encompassing greed of the factory owners.
The Church of England was the official religious body during the Romantic period, but it had lost touch with much of the population. Some parishes were run by parsons who never actually visited them, while other parsons pursued their own material and physical pleasures. The growing urban population of uneducated laborers often went unserved, and in the largest cities many people grew disillusioned of the church. David Jasper notes in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson) that on Easter Day 1800, there were only six worshipers in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Coleridge (as quoted in the Handbook to English Romanticism), whose father was a clergyman, was so skeptical that he wrote about his own son’s baptism, “Shall I suffer the Toad of Priesthood to spurt out his foul juice in this Babe’s face?” and Blake characterized members of the clergy as hypocritical liars. In general, the romantics believed the established church was suffering from staleness and complacency, and they sought other avenues to express their spirituality.
The Unitarians, at the time a small sect that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and believed that Christ was not divine, were highly educated and had a great deal of influence on the romantics. Coleridge, who was a Unitarian for some time, preached in their churches. Romantics were also influenced by the views of Immanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic who promoted a pantheistic worldview particularly attractive to William Blake, who attended a Swedenborgian conference in 1787.
However, of all the churches, the Methodists had the most impact on the romantics, who were moved by the Methodist portrayal of humans as fallen sinners seeking redemption and the grace of God. In addition, the Methodist emphasis on emotional conversion rather than intellectual contemplation, as well as their joy at Christ’s gift of salvation, fit the romantic worldview.
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Rejection of Rigid Poetic Forms
In keeping with their glorification of the unlimited freedom and potential of the individual, the romantics rejected old poetic conventions—such as the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson—and used freer forms of verse like the ode and the verse narrative. They believed that the form of a verse should be shaped by the subject matter, in contrast to the neoclassicists before them, who used rigid forms and shaped their material to fit them.
Emphasis on Poetry
An interesting aspect of the romantic period was the emphasis on poetry. Most of the great romantic writers were poets instead of novelists, as novels were widely regarded as inherently inferior to poetry, which was deemed a loftier form of writing. Critics have offered various reasons for this prejudice. Some suggest it arose from the fact that most novelists were female, and because women were devalued during the romantic period, their work was discounted. Others note that many novels were of poor quality, giving the entire genre a bad reputation. In addition, as Bradford K. Mudge notes in his foreword in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the poets themselves, notably Wordsworth and Coleridge, campaigned against the spread of popular fiction, claiming it would lower the tastes of the reading public and lead them away from poetry. According to Mudge, Wordsworth wrote that newspapers, novels, plays, and even some poetry, would “encourage mental lethargy” and reduce readers to “a savage, uncivilized state.”
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In the Emerson Society Quarterly, James E. Miller Jr. writes, “America has traditionally incarnated the romantic in almost every sense,” and that “The American adventure, the great democratic experiment . . . are the essence of Romanticism.” Romanticism in America flourished between 1812 and the years of the Civil War. Like English Romanticism, its writers emphasized the dignity and freedom of the individual; rebellion against restrictions, whether political, cultural, or social; the importance of emotion over intellect; and the need for a personal relationship with God and the natural world.
However, American Romanticism differed from the English movement because it was shaped by factors unique to American history, culture, and geography. Americans, unlike the English, lived in a democratic, more egalitarian society in which the ordinary individual had political power and was free from the dictates of a king or an entrenched upper class of nobles. In addition, rebellion and freedom of all kinds was encouraged by the presence of an apparently limitless supply of land; if people felt restricted, they would simply move farther west, where there was freedom and opportunity. In small, insular England, this feeling of personal freedom and the lure of “the open road” was nonexistent.
Because the United States was a new country with an extremely diverse population, it did not have an established set of literary forms, traditions, and masters. This lack of a creative structure or ceiling encouraged writers to experiment with new forms, genres, and styles. Americans were proud of their country and its freedoms, felt a certain rivalry with Britain, and wanted to prove that they, like the British, could create works of lasting merit that nevertheless reflected the uniqueness of the American character. Thus, American romantic writers focused on American settings and themes. In addition, the vast and largely unspoiled beauty of the American landscape provided perfect material for romantic musings on nature and spirituality.
Writers considered part of the American romantic movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. According to Mark Bevir in the English Historical Review, these writers differed from their British counterparts in their “close relationship to both Unitarianism and frontier individualism.”
Unitarians opposed the concept of a divine Trinity, and believed that God had a single personality or manifestation. They rejected the concepts of damnation and eternal hell, the innate sinfulness of humanity, and the belief that Jesus had atoned for human sins. Bevir notes these beliefs “readily opened the way to a belief in a single spiritual deity existing within nature, rather than a transcendent God standing outside nature.” He comments that although English romantics believed nature could inspire or renew people, American romantics typically believed God and nature were one, and that God’s purpose was achieved through the action of natural forces.
Many romantics in England and America looked to the past for inspiration. In England, Coleridge believed that a national church could provide stability and balance against the onward forces of social progress, and art critic John Ruskin was interested in reviving the medieval importance of trade guilds and craft skills. However, American romantics such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were inspired by the democratic ideals of United States Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and believed the birth and growth of America as a democratic state was part of a divine plan for the creation of a perfected nation. American romantics emphasized material simplicity, living close to nature, and the honest manual labor of the self-sufficient farmer and frontier dweller. Thoreau—perhaps the greatest proponent of the simple, self-sufficient life—lived alone in a hut by Walden Pond, trying to live so simply that he needed very little, and growing or making whatever he absolutely could not do without.
Compare and Contrast
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Nineteenth Century: Women are not expected or encouraged to have professions or to make a living. There are no women diplomats, lawyers, or judges, and professions such as medicine, law, engineering, architecture, and banking refuse entry to women. A woman must marry to ensure that she will be financially supported. It is considered immoral for an unmarried woman to live alone. If a woman does not marry, she is expected to earn her keep and remain “respectable” by living with and taking care of a male sibling or her parents.
Today: Although there are still differences in pay scale and status between men and women in many fields, women in many countries are now working in all professions and can choose to be educated in any field. In addition, a majority of women are not required to marry and can choose the type of household or family that is most suitable to them.
Nineteenth Century: The Industrial Revolution results in a greater variety of goods for consumers as well as in the growth of cities. It also leads to pollution, urban overcrowding, labor problems, and the exploitation of laborers, including children. The growing blight in the cities leads people to view nature in a new light and to value it for its own sake rather than simply as a resource to be exploited.
Today: Factories are still polluting nature, and people are still trying to find a balance between industrial growth and the preservation of natural resources. However, children in most industrialized nations are no longer permitted to work and laws require factories to provide healthy workplaces. A computer/Internet revolution is occurring, leading to widespread changes in industry, communications, and consumer habits.
Nineteenth Century: Novels are largely regarded as “trash,” not something serious, intelligent people should spend time reading. Many novelists are women. Poetry is considered the highest form of literature.
Today: Novels are written by both men and women and are widely read. They range from light reading to serious, award-winning fiction, and some novelists make millions of dollars on their books. In contrast to the romantic age, poetry has been marginalized in popular culture, and it is difficult for poets to make a living from their art.
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Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Byron published cantos one and two of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, canto three in 1816, and canto four in 1818. The poem is based on Byron’s European travels and describes exotic landscapes and people, along with contemporary military and political events, presenting them from the viewpoint of Childe Harold. Harold is a typical “Byronic” hero: tormented by guilt over an unnamed sin, he is bitter, cynical, and melancholy, but also proud and at times filled with remorse. Because of these feelings, he is isolated from other people, cut off by the intensity of his feelings and by his intense suffering. He wanders in search of some release, but never finds it.
Byron’s descriptions of current political events, such as the Spanish resistance to the French invaders and the battle of Waterloo, allow him to depict the senselessness of war as well as the human drive for freedom from oppression. Through his hero’s unsatisfied wanderings through a great variety of places, he presents the idea that the only human permanence is found in writing and the lofty creations of the human mind.
Early reviewers praised the poem for its originality, despite Byron’s scandalous reputation, and Byron secured lasting fame because of it. It was widely imitated and translated, and was the basis of a symphonic work by Berlioz. According to J. R. Watson in A Handbook to English Romanticism, “It is a poem about Europe, and Europe was delighted to recognize itself in this passionate, elegiac, conservative yet liberal and revolutionary masterpiece.”
Mary Shelley’s novel, published between 1816 and 1818, is classically romantic in its emphasis on: feelings over intellect and the dangers of relying exclusively on intellect; the frightening, aweinspiring nature of the sublime; the loneliness of the sensitive hero; and the sadness inherent in the human ability to corrupt what should be naturally good. In the novel, arrogant scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a man using dead bodies, and animates him. The childlike monster wants only to be loved, but horrifies everyone who sees him.
Shelley subtitled the novel “A Modern Prometheus,” linking Frankenstein to the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Prometheus was ultimately punished by Zeus for meddling in this way. Shelley makes the point that, in taking the power to create life for himself, Frankenstein is heading for a fall. He loses touch with other people and with all human feelings. By the end of the book, Frankenstein is even more alienated than the monster he created. The idea of a protagonist whose ambition defiantly knows no bounds was attractive to other romantic writers, including Shelley’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron.
Frankenstein shocked readers of its time, who were horrified by the idea of digging up the dead and reanimating them. Many initial reviewers attacked the book. However, the book was immediately famous with the general populace, despite its shocking nature. The first stage adaptation of it occurred in 1823, the first film was made in 1910, and adaptations continue being made into the twenty-first century. In Exploring Novels, George V. Griffith wrote, “Frankenstein lives well beyond its young author’s modest intentions to write an entertaining gothic tale to pass some time indoors on a cold Swiss summer evening.”
Pride and Prejudice
Austen’s 1813 novel, which she originally published anonymously, is her second and bestknown work. She wrote it for her family’s amusement, but readers everywhere have enjoyed its wit, amusing dialogue, and insightful characterizations. It is a “novel of manners”; in other words, it portrays comfortable middle-class rural people and dramatizes the complex web of customs and manners holding everyone in their social places. Anyone who transgresses this code is destined for a fall. The novel, like all of Austen’s books, shows a young woman learning how society and human nature operate. Throughout the book, Austen shows the results of improper behavior; some characters learn from their mistakes, while others do not.
Although Austen was not well known during her lifetime, her books influenced later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition, she helped to raise the novel to a respected art form, and paved the way for other women to write even when they did not share the extensive education that was then reserved for men. Despite her relative obscurity during her lifetime, Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice has sold more than 20 million copies since its original publication and has never been out of print.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s long poem portrays the epic struggle between the Greek god Jupiter and the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. In the poem, Jupiter personifies the forces of tyranny and Prometheus is a symbol of liberty, making the poem a commentary on the current political situation in England, as well as a depiction of the human struggle for freedom and truth throughout history.
According to Murray G. H. Pittock in the Reference Guide to English Literature, writer C. S. Lewis called Prometheus Unbound “the best long poem written in English in the nineteenth century.” Pittock himself comments, “Prometheus Unbound is a stupendous vision of human potential,” while the poem also makes clear “human beings are limited by the very desires they so long to fulfil.”
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Blake wrote the earliest poems in his Songs of Innocence prior to 1784, and completed the collection by 1789. In 1793 Songs of Experience was published, and the two collections were combined in 1794. Blake subtitled the combination, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” indicating that they were meant to complement each other.
In Songs of Innocence Blake presents childhood fears and hopes about life, which are usually forgotten or suppressed in adulthood. The poems celebrate the joy of childhood, for, like Wordsworth, Blake believed children were closer to the divine than adults.
Songs of Experience, on the other hand, provide adult perspectives children cannot possibly know or understand, and thus balance Songs of Innocence. Like all of Blake’s poetry, the poems are illustrated, with the words an integral part of the design. In some cases the drawings are so much a part of the poems that the poems cannot be understood without them. In the Reference Guide to English Literature, David Fuller writes that “be it in density of language, power or subtlety of rhythm, or lyric beauty in the line or stanza, the lyrics all share an evident verbal craftsmanship which the drafts in Blake’s notebook show was often painstakingly achieved.”
According to Francois Piquet in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson), this was “the only one of Blake’s books that attracted the admiration of his fellow writers during his lifetime.” Piquet notes that Coleridge said of Blake, “He is a man of genius . . . certainly a mystic, emphatically.”
John Keats’s ode, written in September 1819, was the last ode he wrote that year. According to Douglas Brooks-Davies in the Reference Guide to English Literature, “There is virtually unanimous critical acclaim for the poem’s supremacy among Keats’s works.” “To Autumn” is simply a description of the fall season, and seems to be a conclusion to the odes Keats wrote before it. Like many of his other odes, such as “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poem can be seen as a commentary of grief, most likely in response to the death of Keats’s beloved brother Tom in December 1818.
“To Autumn,” like Keats’s other odes and his poetry in general, expresses his deep love of and sensual connection with nature, and his view of nature as a place of spiritual contemplation and renewal— typical of the romantics. According to Sallé in Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson), “With the odes, Keats invented not only a new and influential mode of symbolic poetry but also discovered the form most appropriate to his agnostic, questing genius.”
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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first filmed by inventor Thomas Edison in 1910 and directed by J. Searle Dawley. This film has since been lost from public archives, but many more versions were made. These include the most famous adaptation, filmed in 1931 by Universal Pictures, which starred Boris Karloff as the monster.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has also spawned numerous spin-offs, including Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1932), Son of Frankenstein (Universal, 1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (Universal, 1942), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (Universal, 1943).
Frankenstein was made into a comedy in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal, 1946) and Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (20th Century Fox, 1974). In 1994, a more serious version, which claimed to be faithful to the book, was produced by Columbia/Tristar, titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was filmed as a television miniseries in 1995 by BBC Television and the A&E Network. It was first shown on the A&E Network beginning in January 1996 and is now available on video and DVD. The program starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. It was directed by Simon Langton.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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Al-Ghalith, Asad, “T. S. Eliot’s Poetry: Intimations of Wordsworth’s Romantic Concerns,” in the Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 1994, p. 42.
Behrendt, Stephen C., “New Romanticisms for Old; Displacing Our Expectations and Our Models,” in the Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2000, p. 145.
Bevir, Mark, “British Socialism and American Romanticism,” in the English Historical Review, September 1995, p. 878.
Brooks-Davies, Douglas, “‘To Autumn’: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Fuller, David, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Greenfield, John. R., Foreword, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 110: British Romantic Prose Writers, 1789–1832, edited by Bradford K. Mudge, Gale Research, 1991.
Griffith, George V., “An Overview of Frankenstein,” in Exploring Novels, Gale, 1998.
Hall, R. Bruce, “Moving beyond the Romantic Biases in Natural Areas Recreation,” in the Journal of Leisure Research, Winter 2000, p. 54.
Mellown, Muriel, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Miller, James E., Jr., “Uncharted Interiors: The American Romantics Revisited,” in the Emerson Society Quarterly, Second Quarter 1964, pp. 34–9.
Moore, Lucy, “Beauty Is Truth,” in the Ecologist, September 2000, p. 36.
Mudge, Bradford K., Introduction, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117: British Romantic Novelists, 1789–1832, Gale Research, 1992.
Pinkerton, James, “Enviromanticism: The Poetry of Nature as a Political Force,” in Foreign Affairs, May–June 1997, p. 2.
Pittock, Murray G. H., “Prometheus Unbound: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Raimond, Jean, and J. R. Watson, eds., Handbook to English Romanticism, St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Curran, Stuart, ed., Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, Cambridge University Press, 1993. This collection of critical essays on Romanticism discusses poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and sociopolitical influences on the movement.
Prickett, Stephen, ed., The Romantics, Holmes, Meier, 1981. This collection of essays is a critical examination of the romantics and their time.
Ruoff, George W., ed., The Romantics and Us: Essays in Literature and Culture, Rutgers University Press, 1990. This collection of critical essays brings together a wide variety of scholars with varying interpretations of romantic literature.
Shaffer, Julie, “Non-Canonical Women’s Novels of the Romantic Era: Romantic Ideologies and the Problematics of Gender and Genre,” in Studies in the Novel, Winter 1996, p. 469. Shaffer examines little-known romantic novels by women and discusses their role in changing society’s view of women.