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British Romanticism

Published onMar 02, 2024
British Romanticism

British Romanticism

What is “Romanticism”?

By Stephanie Forward
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Today the word “romantic” evokes images of love and sentimentality, but the term “Romanticism” has a much wider meaning. It covers a range of developments in art, literature, music and philosophy, spanning the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The ‘Romantics’ would not have used the term themselves: the label was applied retrospectively, from around the middle of the nineteenth century.

“Romanticism” can be considered a rebellion against the conservative thought and literature of the eighteenth-century Age of Reason, a period that looked to ancient Rome and classical forms for models of perfection. The eighteenth-century Age of Reason was politically conservative and monarchic; other features, especially in terms of literature, include decorum, conventionality/ models, harmony, artificiality, logic, and objectivity. Romanticism is neither romance nor the desire for prettiness or sentimentality; instead, it is closer to being anti-eighteenth century, or a repudiation of what went before. The idea of liberalism, to which Hugo referred, is expressed in the Romantic desire for an egalitarian (as opposed to monarchic) government, and for the freedom of the individual.

In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared in The Social Contract: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ During the Romantic period major transitions took place in society, as dissatisfied intellectuals and artists challenged the Establishment. In England, the Romantic poets were at the very heart of this movement. They were inspired by a desire for liberty, and they denounced the exploitation of the poor. There was an emphasis on the importance of the individual; a conviction that people should follow ideals rather than imposed conventions and rules. The Romantics renounced the rationalism and order associated with the preceding Enlightenment era, stressing the importance of expressing authentic personal feelings. They had a real sense of responsibility to their fellow men: they felt it was their duty to use their poetry to inform and inspire others, and to change society.

When reference is made to Romantic verse, the poets who generally spring to mind are William Blake (1757-1827), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821). These writers had an intuitive feeling that they were ‘chosen’ to guide others through the tempestuous period of change.

This was a time of physical confrontation; of violent rebellion in parts of Europe and the New World. Conscious of anarchy across the English Channel, the British government feared similar outbreaks. The early Romantic poets tended to be supporters of the French Revolution, hoping that it would bring about political change; however, the bloody Reign of Terror shocked them profoundly and affected their views. In his youth William Wordsworth was drawn to the Republican cause in France, until he gradually became disenchanted with the Revolutionaries.

The Romantics were not in agreement about everything they said and did: far from it! Nevertheless, certain key ideas dominated their writings. They genuinely thought that they were prophetic figures who could interpret reality. The Romantics highlighted the healing power of the imagination, because they truly believed that it could enable people to transcend their troubles and their circumstances. Their creative talents could illuminate and transform the world into a coherent vision, to regenerate mankind spiritually. In A Defence of Poetry (1821), Shelley elevated the status of poets: ‘They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit…’ He declared that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. This might sound somewhat pretentious, but it serves to convey the faith the Romantics had in their poetry.

Wordsworth was concerned about the elitism of earlier poets, whose highbrow language and subject matter were neither readily accessible nor particularly relevant to ordinary people. He maintained that poetry should be democratic; that it should be composed in ‘the language really spoken by men’ (Preface to Lyrical Ballads [1802]). For this reason, he tried to give a voice to those who tended to be marginalised and oppressed by society: the rural poor; discharged soldiers; ‘fallen’ women; the insane; and children.

Blake was radical in his political views, frequently addressing social issues in his poems and expressing his concerns about the monarchy and the church. His poem ‘London’ draws attention to the suffering of chimney-sweeps, soldiers and prostitutes.

For the world to be regenerated, the Romantics said that it was necessary to start all over again with a childlike perspective. They believed that children were special because they were innocent and uncorrupted, enjoying a precious affinity with nature. Romantic verse was suffused with reverence for the natural world. In Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ (1798) the poet hailed nature as the ‘Great universal Teacher!’ Recalling his unhappy times at Christ’s Hospital School in London, he explained his aspirations for his son, Hartley, who would have the freedom to enjoy his childhood and appreciate his surroundings. The Romantics were inspired by the environment, and encouraged people to venture into new territories – both literally and metaphorically. In their writings they made the world seem a place with infinite, unlimited potential.

A key idea in Romantic poetry is the concept of the sublime. This term conveys the feelings people experience when they see awesome landscapes, or find themselves in extreme situations which elicit both fear and admiration. For example, Shelley described his reaction to stunning, overwhelming scenery in the poem ‘Mont Blanc’ (1816).

Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge were first-generation Romantics, writing against a backdrop of war. Wordsworth, however, became increasingly conservative in his outlook: indeed, second-generation Romantics, such as Byron, Shelley and Keats, felt that he had ‘sold out’ to the Establishment. In the suppressed Dedication to Don Juan (1819-1824) Byron criticised the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, and the other ‘Lakers’, Wordsworth and Coleridge (all three lived in the Lake District). Byron also vented his spleen on the English Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, denouncing him as an ‘intellectual eunuch’, a ‘bungler’ and a ‘tinkering slavemaker’ (stanzas 11 and 14). Although the Romantics stressed the importance of the individual, they also advocated a commitment to mankind. Byron became actively involved in the struggles for Italian nationalism and the liberation of Greece from Ottoman rule.

Notorious for his sexual exploits, and dogged by debt and scandal, Byron quitted Britain in 1816. Lady Caroline Lamb famously declared that he was ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know.’ Similar accusations were pointed at Shelley. Nicknamed ‘Mad Shelley’ at Eton, he was sent down from Oxford for advocating atheism. He antagonised the Establishment further by his criticism of the monarchy, and by his immoral lifestyle.

Female poets also contributed to the Romantic movement, but their strategies tended to be more subtle and less controversial. Although Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) was modest about her writing abilities, she produced poems of her own; and her journals and travel narratives certainly provided inspiration for her brother. Women were generally limited in their prospects, and many found themselves confined to the domestic sphere; nevertheless, they did manage to express or intimate their concerns. For example, Mary Alcock (c. 1742-1798) penned ‘The Chimney Sweeper’s Complaint’. In ‘The Birth-Day’, Mary Robinson (1758-1800) highlighted the enormous discrepancy between life for the rich and the poor. Gender issues were foregrounded in ‘Indian Woman’s Death Song’ by Felicia Hemans (1793-1835).

Reaction against the Enlightenment was reflected in the rise of the Gothic novel. The most popular and well-paid 18th-century novelist, Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), specialised in ‘the hobgoblin-romance’. Her fiction held particular appeal for frustrated middle-class women who experienced a vicarious frisson of excitement when they read about heroines venturing into awe-inspiring landscapes. She was dubbed ‘Mother Radcliffe’ by Keats, because she had such an influence on Romantic poets. The Gothic genre contributed to Coleridge’s Christabel (1816) and Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (1819). Mary Shelley (1797-1851) blended realist, Gothic and Romantic elements to produce her masterpiece Frankenstein (1818), in which a number of Romantic aspects can be identified. She quotes from Coleridge’s Romantic poem The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. In the third chapter Frankenstein refers to his scientific endeavours being driven by his imagination. The book raises worrying questions about the possibility of ‘regenerating’ mankind; but at several points the world of nature provides inspiration and solace.

Romanticism set a trend for some literary stereotypes. Byron’s Childe Harold (1812-1818) described the wanderings of a young man, disillusioned with his empty way of life. The melancholy, dark, brooding, rebellious ‘Byronic hero’, a solitary wanderer, seemed to represent a generation, and the image lingered. The figure became a kind of role model for youngsters: men regarded him as ‘cool’ and women found him enticing! Byron died young, in 1824, after contracting a fever. This added to the ‘appeal’. Subsequently a number of complex and intriguing heroes appeared in novels: for example, Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (both published in 1847).

Romanticism offered a new way of looking at the world, prioritising imagination above reason. There was, however, a tension at times in the writings, as the poets tried to face up to life’s seeming contradictions. Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794). Here we find two different perspectives on religion in ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’. The simple vocabulary and form of ‘The Lamb’ suggest that God is the beneficent, loving Good Shepherd. In stark contrast, the creator depicted in ‘The Tyger’ is a powerful blacksmith figure. The speaker is stunned by the exotic, frightening animal, posing the rhetorical question: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793) Blake asserted: ‘Without contraries is no progression’ (stanza 8).

Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798) juxtaposed moments of celebration and optimism with lamentation and regret. Keats thought in terms of an opposition between the imagination and the intellect. In a letter to his brothers, in December 1817, he explained what he meant by the term ‘Negative Capability’: ‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (22 December). Keats suggested that it is impossible for us to find answers to the eternal questions we all have about human existence. Instead, our feelings and imaginations enable us to recognise Beauty, and it is Beauty that helps us through life’s bleak moments. Life involves a delicate balance between times of pleasure and pain. The individual has to learn to accept both aspects: ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ [1819]).

The premature deaths of Byron, Shelley and Keats contributed to their mystique. As time passed they attained iconic status, inspiring others to make their voices heard. The Romantic poets continue to exert a powerful influence on popular culture. Generations have been inspired by their promotion of self-expression, emotional intensity, personal freedom and social concern.

Romanticism in Literature

By Bonnie J. Robinson
British Literature II: Romantic Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

As a literary movement in England, Romanticism could be said to have fired its first salvo in 1801 with William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads. Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poetry that Wordsworth co-published with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The term "Romanticism," describing this movement, came after the fact. Romanticism lasted until the mid-1820s, with the deaths of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824).

In his preface to Hernani (1830), Victor Hugo wrote that "Romanticism was nothing more than liberalism in literature." Romanticism can be considered a rebellion against the conservative thought and literature of the eighteenth-century Age of Reason, a period that looked to ancient Rome and classical forms for models of perfection. The eighteenth-century Age of Reason was politically conservative and monarchic; other features, especially in terms of literature, include decorum, conventionality/ models, harmony, artificiality, logic, and objectivity. Romanticism is neither romance nor the desire for prettiness or sentimentality; instead, it is closer to being anti-eighteenth century, or a repudiation of what went before. The idea of liberalism, to which Hugo referred, is expressed in the Romantic desire for an egalitarian (as opposed to monarchic) government, and for the freedom of the individual.

This revolutionary spirit was inspired by actual revolutions, including the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1790s). These revolutions occurred within a wealth of intellectual thought and new ideas on what were human rights and what role government and society played in securing these rights. Some influential works were Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract (1762), which questioned the efficacy of existing political systems; Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which considered the consequences of revolution to the status quo; and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791-92), which suggested that all humans possessed inherent rights, rights that governments could potentially or actually threaten. Universal human rights existed independently of people's social position, or class. They considered the qualities that all humans shared, regardless of family, history, or income. The Romantics thought that all humans shared emotions and imagination. For the Romantics, these qualities served to validate human equality.

Romanticism regarded as values subjectivity and individuality—indeed, individual subjectivity. It shifted the eighteenth century's focus on outward action to a new focus on inward action, that is, to action in the mind. Romantic literature scrutinized feelings and the relation of feeling to the outer world. Sincerity, openness, transparency, and spontaneity allowed that relationship to be more apparent, and the lyric, or song-like expression of an individual's emotions, became a characteristic Romantic genre. The imaginative individual created from the external impressions of natural beauty and human civilization an ideal of perfection within themselves, the embodiment of which they then sought to find in the external world. The Romantic image—of the skylark, nightingale, midnight frost—epitomizes their quest for a union of the organic and the imaginative (through imaginative perception). The "closet drama," or dramas not intended to be (or even able to be) performed, and the historical novel, in which time and place could be conflated, were genres well-suited to Romantic expression. Related qualities of the unformulated, or innocent; the unconscious; and the mysterious (and even "exotic") actuated Romantic focus on, or interest in, children, and the child-like; nature, and those perceived as being close to nature, like agricultural workers; and the imaginative, or the poet.

The imaginative individual's response to nature, even to the possibility of animism in nature, reflected the importance of emotion over logic and order, for uncultivated nature. And nature in its most awe-inspiring "inhuman" forms inspired a range of emotions, from love to terror. In such moments of extreme emotion, the Romantic writer often felt connected with the sublime, with something beyond themselves, and so could see more deeply into the world than could "insensitive" individuals or those who accepted conformity or imitation. The ability to see things beyond the routine, to express thought and feeling combined, to be authentic individuals uncorrupted or made numb by society characterized the Romantic's attitudes towards and use of children and poets as touchstones. Because children— and Romantic writers—did not conform yet to societal pressures, their imaginations were truer, more active, and even prophetic in their power. Romanticism lauded and upheld the imagination as a form of individual power and freedom for all humans.

The different pressures placed upon the actual individual power and freedom of women, blacks, Roman Catholics, the rural poor, and the displaced, among others, also received nuanced attention and expression. William Blake's (17571827) ironies, Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) "monstrous" creativity, and Charlotte Smith's (1749-1806) anti-slavery activism, for example, demonstrated the fragility and tentativeness of any powers and any freedoms as well as the possible futility and danger of prophecy.

The Romantic era was characterized by revolutions, including the American, the French, and the Industrial. The American Revolution had an impact on all of Europe. Its causes included the desire for political freedom and economic stability that the colonialists saw King Georgia III as menacing. England saw the American colonies as a source of materials and goods not in England proper and as a market for goods produced by England. Much against which the colonists objected were British laws endeavoring to maintain this economic balance. When England forcefully repressed protests and rebellion, the colonies directed their ire against King George III in their Declaration of Independence. And in the Declaration, individual freedom and independence were added to economic freedom as social and moral claims.

In addition to the American Revolution, England experienced its own economic revolution—commercial, agricultural, in transportation with new roads and canals, in industrialization. The Industrial Revolution became visible to many people about the mid-1700s. It was a revolution in methods, organization, and economic principles. Before industrialization, England functioned by a Medieval code of minute regulations in business and trade and restrictions on mobility and labor.

Comparatively few people in England at that time had actual, independent rights, particularly of possession. People who had lived on the land for centuries were tenants, not owners. With progress in manufacture, particularly in textiles, came the Enclosure movement, that is, the enclosing of land which previously had been available to everyone. Landowners threw out their tenants and enclosed their land for raising sheep, because wool was a profitable commodity. Agriculture consequently declined and tenants moved to cities to work in new factories and mills.

The shift in employment opportunities—or lack thereof—through increasing mechanization resulted in riots such as The Peterloo Massacre. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) responded with poems like "England in 1819" that supported the working class. While working men suffered, women also faced restrictions, as they had almost no legal rights and few, if any, educational opportunities.

The French Revolution evoked the American Revolution and England's Glorious Revolution during which Charles I was beheaded. The French Revolution smashed institutions, destroyed the monarchy and aristocracy, and built a new (though not permanent) order. An ideal of the French Revolution was to let the individual freely develop, so it opposed the institutions that checked individual rights.

Nations such as Austria and Prussia allied against the revolution and were defeated by the Revolutionary Army that spread over Italy and Germany. Under the impact of war, counter-revolutions sprung up, and the Committee of Public Safety (1793) was formed. Through its Reign of Terror (1793-94), the Committee suppressed revolt and counter-revolution. 20,000 heads were struck off by the guillotine. The bicameral legislative government, called the Directory (1795), came into power but fell to a coup d'etat (1799) run by its own general, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).

The early Romantic writers at first greatly sympathized with the French Revolution. They were convinced that a revolution for moral change would occur in England. It seemed to them that the new millennium had arrived. William Blake saw it as the creation of a new world and himself as its prophet. Coleridge and Wordsworth responded with peons of joy, declaring, "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" (Wordsworth The Prelude). Both went to France and even fell in love with French women. They returned chastened by the Reign of Terror. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution condemned the Revolution as an attempt to methodize anarchy. Reaction in England soon set in. English freedom became increasingly restricted through such acts as the Proclamation Against Seditious Writing. Parliament suspended habeus corpus, making possible imprisonment without trial, and passed the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act (1795). Reaction against reform was stiffened by the ensuing Napoleonic Wars.

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