English Romanticism began in 1798 with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s The Lyrical Ballads and ended in 1832 with Walter Scott’s death. William Blake and Robert Burns also belong to this literary genre, though they lived before the Romantic period.
Romanticism took place during a period of wars and revolutions, of considerable shifts and changes. It was a time of profound political and social reorganisation.
Romantic texts were varied and dealt with the Industrial Revolution and its consequences: a new class system, and a new type of economy. It’s important to emphasize the fact that this is the time when numerous kinds of problems appeared. Famous writers include William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.
Besides the Industrial Revolution, it is impossible to ignore the two major political upheavals that took place at that time, namely the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and the French Revolution (1789), which challenged old systems of social and political organizations.
The French Revolution struck British consciousness at first very favourably. Samuel Coleridge celebrated and praised it in a poem entitled “Destruction of the Bastille”.
Enthusiasm melted away as the war between France and Britain broke out four years later (1793), about the same time as the Reign of Terror started (1793-1794).
Romanticism was a period of constant tensions, observable in some of the poems we will study.
Approaching the poems by Blake as more reflections of their time would be reductive. People usually consider Romantic literature as escapist: it deliberately retreats from reality, through ex-fantasy. It is also something perceived as dreamy and remote, idealising such human feelings as love and affection.
Most romantic poets were involved in politics and some were women, such as Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and gave birth to Mary Shelley (and died during the delivery).
Therefore, Romanticism is not escapist. On the contrary, the poets challenged and contested the dominant values in their writings They do not necessarily deal with politics openly in their poetry but always express the tensions, hopes, and fears of living in that era.
The poets did, obviously, not all choose identical ways to express the anxieties of their time. Some turned to the past (John Keats) or the future (William Blake). Wordsworth examined the countryside as a place of revelation of beauty and the essence of things. Coleridge got involved in the scrutiny of the inner in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
It is a writing that relies heavily on metaphors. Criticism of the social, political and other ills is often expressed through landscapes. Romantic poets were a diverse group of individuals.
The romanticists express a negative opinion towards the existing social or political conditions. They place the individual at the centre of art, as can be seen in Lord Byron’s Byronic Hero.
The keywords of English Romanticism are nature and imagination. English Romantics tend to be nationalistic, defending the greatest English writers. They argue that poetry should be free of all rules.
Overview of Romantic literature
The Romantic period is an age of poetry. Wordsworth and Coleridge are the most representative writers. They explore new theories and innovate new techniques in versification. They believe that poetry could purify individual souls and society.
For further study of their literary theory, please refer to Wordsworth’s Preface to The Lyrical Ballads & Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.
Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey were known as Lake Poets because they lived and knew one another in the last few years of the 18th century in the district of the Great Lakes in Northwestern England. The former two published The Lyrical Ballads together in 1798, while all three of them had radical inclinations in their youth but later turned conservative and received pensions and poet laureateships from the aristocracy.
Other greatest Romantic poets are John Keats, P.B. Shelley and G. G. Byron. Karl Marx likes Byron and Shelley very much. Years ago, Wordsworth and Coleridge were labelled “negative romantic poets” while Byron and Shelley were hailed as “positive (revolutionary) Romantic poets”. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s literary achievements were underestimated for a long time.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Gothic novel is a type of romantic fiction that predominates in the late 18th century and continues to show its influence in the early 19th century. Its principal elements are violence, horror, and the supernatural. Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe are masterpieces of English gothic novels.
English fiction gropes its way amidst the overwhelming Romantic poetry. It revived its popularity in the hands of Jane Austen & Walt Scott.
Walt Scott is noted for his historical novel based on Scottish history and legends. He exerted great influence on the European literature of his time.
Jane Austen is the first and foremost English women novelist. Following the neoclassical tradition, she is unsurpassed in the description of uneventful everyday life.
William Blake (1757 – 1827)
William Blake is famous not only for his poems but for the illuminated plates on which he printed them.
His poetry is highly visual, and reading only the text of the poems without the medium of the illuminated plate is an incomplete experience.
Blake’s spirituality and his views of theological issues frequently filter into his work, perhaps most famously in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Jerusalem.
His most famous works are likely those in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poems often function in pairs, one from the perspective of childlike “innocence”, and the other from the perspective of disillusioned “experience”.
William Blake was a poet and also a painter. He is regarded as the first Romantic poet. His poetry is one of the main characteristics of rebellion against conception. To him, imagination is the creative force.
I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.William Blake
He was a visionary poet. According to him, poets should not be influenced by something already existing. The poet is an imaginative bard (not a god), as opposed to conventions (importance of individual thoughts). He prones creation.
John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Keats was the prodigy of the Romantics. Though dead at age 25, he was enormously prolific.
During his brief career, he was stubbornly (tough fairly successfully) insistent on maintaining his artistic independence and originally, even going so far as to refuse to befriend Percy Shelley out of fear that the slightly older, more established poet might influence his writing.
As a result, Keats’s poetry, though distinctly Romantic in flavour, is unlike any of his contemporaries. He is best known for his sonnets and odes, particularly “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. He is also well-known for his love of the classics of antiquity, which often filters into his poetry.
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)
Wordsworth is the most representative poet of English Romanticism. He was born into a lawyer’s family in 1770 at Cockmouth, Cumberland. His parents died when he was very young.
He was taken care of by his relatives. He got his education at the Grammar School of Hawkshead and then at St. John’s College, Cambridge. He was a worshipper of nature from his childhood. He frequently visited places of beautiful scenery.
A walking tour of the Swiss Alps heightened his addiction to nature. He had great sympathy with the French Revolution. He paid 2 visits to France, during the second visit he fell in love with Annette Vallon, who bore him a daughter.
Wordsworth was disillusioned by the Jacobin dictatorship and the French invasion of other European countries. He became conservative in politics. He was labelled as a “negative Romantic poet” by Karl Marx and was severely criticized by Byron. In 1795 he and his sister Dorothy Wordsworth settled down in Racedown, Dorsetshire. In 1797 he became Coleridge`s friend. The three persons became “three people with one soul” in literary history.
Legend has it that Wordsworth and his sister lived a kind of incestuous life during this period. Dorothy helped Wordsworth turn his eyes to “the face of nature” and “preserved the poet in him”. She served as Wordsworth’s confidante and inspirer. As Wordsworth put it in his poem: She gave me eyes, she gave me ears; And humble cares, and delicate fears; A heart, the fountain of sweet tears; And love, and thought, and joy.
In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads. In 1798 and 1799, he made a tour around Germany. Upon his return to England, he and his sister moved to Dove Cottage in Grasmere, the most beautiful place in the Lake District. Coleridge & Robert Southey lived a stone’s throw from their dwelling place. The three poets came to be known as Lake Poets. In 1802, Wordsworth got married to Mary Hutchingson. In 1813, he got a job as a distributor of stamps.
In 1842, he received the government pension and in the following year, he succeeded Southey as Poet Laureate. He died at Rydal Mount in 1850 and was buried in the Grasmere churchyard.
William Wordsworth’s major works
Wordsworth’s fame lies chiefly in his short poems. His short poems fall into 2 categories: poems about nature and poems about human life. He is a “worshipper of nature”. It is nature that gives him “strength and knowledge full of grace”.
His best-known poems of nature include: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, Tintern Abbey, To the Cuckoo, My Heart Leaps Up, To a Butterfly, An Evening Walk, & The Sparrow’s Nest. His best-known poems about human life include Lucy Poems, The Solitary Reaper and The Old Cumberland Beggar, Michael, & To a Highland Girl.
Wordsworth wrote many sonnets. His famous sonnets are: Earth Has Not Anything to Show More Fair, On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic, & Thought of a Briton on the Subjugation of Switzerland. His best-known long poem is The Prelude. In this poem, Wordsworth analyses the growth of his poetic genius during his childhood and youth and recalls the lessons he owes to nature.
Wordsworth’s greatest contribution to English literature is his poems and his Preface to The Lyrical Ballads. Though The Lyrical Ballads is known as the collaborated work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, all the poems but one (“The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”) are written by Wordsworth. Most of his most quoted poems are taken from this collection.
Preface to Lyrical Ballads
Wordsworth’s Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads is the manifesto of English Romanticism. It is “one of the revolutionary works of criticism, helping usher in the Romantic Age in literature” (Dutton, 1984:50). He is primarily concerned to justify the kinds of poems which he had contributed to Lyrical Ballads.
Key points in his Preface: the definition of a poet. He (the poet) is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul that is supposed to be common among mankind.
The creative process of authentic poetry
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred (similar) to that which before was the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins……
Subject matter and poetic language
The principal object was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language used by men, and at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented in an unusual aspect.
A humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity. The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived.
In conclusion, Wordsworth is the representative poet of English romanticism. Wordsworth’s poetry is distinguished by the simplicity and purity of his language. Wordsworth’s theory on versification has exerted a profound influence on later poets (mimesis–imaginative recreation).
In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, there is a very child-like atmosphere, spontaneous rather than rational. The lonely speaker is seen as a cloud, with a crowd of flowers (and not people). It insists on the capacity of nature to enlighten the human condition. There is a gradation from solitude to communion thanks to the flowers.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834)
Coleridge was born into a clergyman’s family in 1772. He was a great genius. At the age of six, he had read the Bible, Robinson Crusoe and Arabian Nights. He was a mentally precocious boy, full of fantasy and dreams in his mind.
During his Cambridge years, he made friends with Charles Lamb, the great essayist of English Romanticism.
But the campus life bored him. He ran away from the university and enlisted in the army but was discharged after a few months and he returned to Cambridge.
He joined Robert Southey in a utopian plan of establishing an ideal democratic community (named Pantisocracy) in America. The plan resulted in nothing but his marriage to Sara Fricker, which turned out to be an unhappy marriage.
In 1797 he began his friendship with Wordsworth. In 1798 they published The Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge and Wordsworth lived next to each other. Coleridge was like a philosopher, with heaps of theories. He was classical and then romantic.
In 1798 he traveled to Germany with Wordsworth and began to take to German philosophy. Upon his return to England, he became addicted to opium to relieve his headache. He quarrelled seriously with Wordsworth in 1810. Though they were reconciled to each other later, their friendship had never reached its former intimacy. In his later years, he turned conservative and resorted to theology for his spiritual support.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
It is Coleridge’s contribution to The Lyrical Ballads. It tells us a strange story in ballad meter. Three guests are on their way to a wedding party when an ancient mariner stops one of them. The mariner tells of his adventures on the sea. When his ship sails towards the South Pole, an albatross comes through the snow fog and alights on the rigging.
The mariner shoots at it quite thoughtlessly. The killing of the albatross (which symbolically represents Christ, the Saviour) provokes a rupture, a break in the order of the universe. Misfortune befalls. The whole crew, with the only exception of the old mariner, die of thirst as punishment for the act of inhospitality. The albatross is hung around the mariner’s neck. The spell breaks only when the mariner repents his cruelty.
In part 3, “something” is never explained. The skeleton shape symbolises death, life in death, as they play dice. The mariner is the only one to survive. The mariner loses his albatross while the mariner blesses some sea animals (snakes). Although the ship finally goes home, the mariner’s punishment is never over.
Coleridge likes supernatural events (attached to human experience), strange scenery, a story that evokes a scene, and the power of love and generosity. The poem asks the question: is it still possible to re-establish a bond, a link between man and Nature? The themes are crime, punishment, guilt and redemption.
The poem is famous for its beautiful cadence and wonderful imagery. The combination of the natural and supernatural, the ordinary and extraordinary makes it one of the masterpieces of Romantic poetry.
During an illness in 1797, Coleridge retired to a lonely farmhouse. One day he fell asleep as he was reading a passage about Kubla Khan from Pilgrimage by Purchas. While dreaming he composed a poem about 200 or 300 lines. On waking he began to write down the poem. But he was interrupted by a person on business from Porlock and the vision faded. He left a fragment of only 54 lines and never finished the poem.
It tells the story of a sorcerer who casts a spell over a pure young girl. It is written in ballad meter. Its mysterious atmosphere and the Gothic horror may freeze our blood. It is not wholesome to read the poem.
It is Coleridge’s most influential book of literary essays. The main ideas can be summed up as follows: a poem should not be judged as a mirror of truth—as we judge science–but as a thing in itself, almost as a living organism.
Poets are born and not made. Poems should be judged only according to their lights and not according to any established precept or precedent. Coleridge envisages the poet as a man of great integrity as well as special gifts, producing poems which would offer profound insights into man’s imaginative, psychological, and ultimately, moral being.
To conclude, Coleridge is a great Romantic poet. His poetic imagination is unique. He is fond of unusual and supernatural things. Coleridge is one of the first critics to pay close attention to the language of poetry. He maintains that the true end of poetry is to give pleasure “through the medium of beauty”.
George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)
Byron was born into an aristocratic family. His father is profligate. His mother was a passionate Scotswoman. He was born with a clubfoot, which made him feel sore and unhappy all his life. He was a radical supporter of the worker’s movement.
In 1811, Byron took a seat in the House of Lords. He made vehement speeches to attack the English government’s policy for the Luddites (workers who destroy machinery).
Byron left England forever in 1816. He first visited Switzerland, where he made acquaintance with Shelley. He wrote a Sonnet on Chillon in Switzerland. Then he moved to Italy, where he finished Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and wrote his masterpiece Don Juan.
Upon hearing the news of the Greek revolt against the Turks, Byron plunged himself into the struggle. The Greeks made him commander-in-chief of their forces in 1824. Due to months of hard work under bad weather, he fell ill and died. The Greek people mourned over his premature death. Byron was regarded as the “satanic poet” by the English government when he died. It was not until 1969 that a white marble memorial to Byron was erected in Westminster Abbey. Nowadays his name is put in the Poets’ Corner.
Byron’s poetry is based on his own experience. His heroes are more or less pictures of himself. His hero is known as “Byronic Hero”, a proud, mysterious rebel figure of noble origin. For such a hero, the conflict is usually one of rebellious individuals against outworn social systems and conventions.
The figure is, to some extent, modelled on the life and personality of Byron. Byron’s poetry exerts great influence on the Romantic Movement. He stands with Shakespeare and Scott among the British writers who exert great influence over the mainland of Europe.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley was born into an affluent family in Sussex. He got a very good school education, first at Eton and then at Oxford. • In 1811, while he was still a student at Oxford, he wrote a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, repudiating the existence of God.
He was expelled from Oxford for his seditious pamphlet. Then he eloped with Harriet Westbrook to Edinburgh.
When he returned to London, he became a disciple of William Godwin, a radical social philosopher. He fell in love with Godwin’s daughter. Harriet’s drowning enabled him to marry Godwin’s daughter but left him a bad reputation as an immoralist. He left England and went to the Continent.
He made friends with Byron while they were in Geneva, Switzerland. He wrote his best poems during this period. On July 8, 1822, while he was sailing in a small boat along the coast of Italy, a tempest struck his boat and he drowned. He was buried in Rome. The inscription on his tombstone reads: “Percy Bysshe Shelley, COR CORDIUM” (meaning heart of hearts)
Upon his untimely death, one of his opponents writes, “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or not”. Engels thinks highly of Shelley and Byron, He writes, “Shelley, the genius, the prophet, Shelley, and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the proletariat”.
Major works: Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, The Cloud, Prometheus Unbound, Queen Mab, The Masque of Anarchy, The Necessity of Atheism, A Defence of Poetry.
As a conclusion, Shelley grew up with revolutionary ideas under the influence of Hume and Godwin. He held a lifelong aversion to cruelty, injustice, authority and institutional religion. Shelley is one of the greatest English lyrical poets. He expresses his love for freedom and his hatred towards tyranny.
His poems abound with personification, metaphor and other figures of speech. Shelley is one of the most important dramatists of English Romanticism. His greatest achievement in theatre lies in his poetic drama Prometheus Unbound.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The only daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, she met the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812 and eloped with him to France in July 1814.
The couple were married in 1816 after Shelley’s first wife had committed suicide.
After her husband died in 1822, she returned to England and devoted herself to publicizing Shelley’s writings and to educating their only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley.
She published her late husband’s Posthumous Poems (1824); she also edited his Poetical Works (1839), with long and invaluable notes, and his prose works. Her Journal is a rich source of Shelley’s biography, and her letters are an indispensable adjunct.
Mary Shelley’s best-known book is Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, revised 1831), a text that is part Gothic novel and part philosophical novel; it is also often considered an early example of science fiction. It narrates the dreadful consequences that arise after a scientist has artificially created a human being. (The man-made monster in this novel inspired a similar creature in numerous American horror films.)
She wrote several other novels, including Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). The Last Man (1826), an account of the future destruction of the human race by a plague, is often ranked as her best work. Her travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) recounts the continental tour she and Shelley took in 1814 following their elopement and then recounts their summer near Geneva in 1816.
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
Although Jane Austen wrote at a time when the Romantic Period had already begun, there can’t be any of the outbursts of feelings and flights of the imagination like in the books of other great writers of her time.
The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution all seem to have passed her by.
The moment you open her books you are transported into a quiet and well-ordered world of reason and common sense that is much closer in spirit to the eighteenth century (the age of reason) than to the early nineteenth century.
The cause of this can be found in Jane Austen’s life. Jane Austen just wrote about the world as she knew it, and her world was a small one. She didn’t see much more of England than a few small villages and towns in the south of England. She remained unmarried, which made her life a retired and protected one amidst family and friends.
During her life, Jane Austen has written six books: Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.