Romantic Literature - Shepherd U

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                        British "High" Romanticism, 1770-1832

                               Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt

Characteristics of the Period: The period of "high British Romanticism" is as much an
extension of the Neoclassical period as a reaction to it. Romanticism is a movement that touches
the fields of music, the visual arts, philosophy, and history; it is a movement highly influenced by
the German Romantic movement and Eastern Transcendentalism, and it is in large part a reaction
against the negative characteristics of the Industrial Revolution. Some generalizations about
British Romanticism are

     1. Emphasis on the Pantheistic and Transcendental (an organic, rather than
     mechanistic view of Creation and the Universe) - The Spiritus Mundi (World Spirit) or
     Over-Soul is both part of the Creation (immanent) and apart from it (transcendent), as
     opposed to a deistic (Neoclassical) or orthodox Christian view of deity. The "sense" world
     is rife with spirit and thus a conduit for ultimate knowledge (Correspondence). To know
     spirit, one need only look toward the world of nature or look within because the individual
     microcosm is reflective of the Universal Macrocosm (Swedenborg). Hence, much
     Romantic literature is reflective and introspective.

     2. Emphasis on Emotion and Intuition - Under the influence of Kant's Critique
     of Pure Reason, the Romantic recognizes three levels of cognition: knowledge
     coming through the senses; intellectual reason (Verstand) which orders, arranges, and
     analyzes sense knowledge; and a Supra-rational knowledge (Vernunft) which
     transcends the rational--an intuitive "knowing" which is at the heart of the Romantic
     imagination and Romantic art.

     3. Emphasis on the Individual - The Romantic character and personality is
     iconoclastic, eccentric, individualistic, typified in the concept of the Byronic hero:
     alienated, rebellious, an individual with a tendency to "go beyond the bourn"
     (Frankenstein and Manfred) or an individual decidedly unique and adventurous (Don
     Juan or Childe Harold). The passions and feelings of the Romantic are more intense,
     more rhapsodic, more in tune with the natural world around him/her (Dorothy
     Wordsworth or Percy Shelley).

     4. Admiration of Primitivism - The natural setting (Nature) and the natural life
     (Rousseau's "noble savage" or Wordsworth's rustic) are idealized. The Romantic sees as
     beautiful nature untouched by the hand of man, by plow or spade. The "unspoiled" in
     nature and in people is the ideal: the magnificence of the "Lake Country," the naturalness of
     the child or the peasant; what moves the heart of the Romantic are the monuments of nature
     (the Alps and the vastness of the sea) rather than the monuments of men (Versailles and its
     neoclassical gardens). The sources for this idealization of the primitive are Jean Jacque
     Rousseau (Emile) and William Godwin (Political Justice)

     5. A Distinctive Aesthetic Approach - The concept of the Sublime (that lofty and
     ultimate essence of beauty) is at the center of the Romantic aesthetic consciousness. The
     quest for beauty "beyond the bourn" (Shelley), for the ideal (Wordsworthian
     Neoplatonism), for potential "perfectibility" (Godwin and Shelley)--all reflect this
     appreciation for the sublime. The authorial stance is subjective rather than realistic/
     objective as in the Neoclassical period; Keats' idea of negative capability is this
     subjectivism in the extreme. Poetic diction becomes less artificial; the language of poetry
     is more natural in the Romantic voice, the metrical cadence is often iambic pentameter with
     no rhyme (blank verse). No longer does the poet feel a slave to rules of poesy or to the
     couplet of the Neoclassical period.

     The major poetic form is lyrical verse, with sonnets and odes particularly memorable.
      The important influences on the Romantic poets are Shakespeare, Spenser, and
     Milton. Under Milton's influence, each great Romantic attempted major "epic"
     works, though none created an epic per se. Such works as "Milton," "Jerusalem,"
     "The Prelude," "Prometheus Bound," "Endymion," even Frankenstein, which is said
     to be a "retelling of Paradise Lost," are basically "internalized [epic] romances."

     The tone of Romantic literature is paradoxically both positive/idealistic and
     pessimistic/world weary (weltschmerz). Subjects deal with nature, nationalism,
     adventure, the unusual, bizarre, melodramatic, anything remote in time and place.
     The visual art of Delacroix and Turner and the musical art of late Beethoven, Brahms,
     Schubert, Schumann, and Wagner parallel Romantic literature in tone, spirit, and


1. William Cowper (1731-1800) and Robert Burns (1759-1796) - While both writers are
satirists, their work reflects the coming age of poetry. Cowper ("The Task") reveals an interest in
the common, ordinary, domesticity of village life at the end of the century. Burns too portrays
simple human relationships in the village setting ("The Cotter's Saturday Night,") while his songs
written in dialect reflect common, everyday language and themes ("Red, Red Rose," "Auld Lang
Syne," "Scots Wha Hae").

2. Thomas Gray's (1716-1771) "The Bard" and "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," Bishop
Thomas Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry"), James Macpherson's (1736-1796)
Ossianic poems, and Thomas Chatterton's Rowley poems--all reveal signs of the Romantic
interest in antiquity and in the reliques of poets past.

3. The sentimental novels of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) and Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831)
and the gothic tale of Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis
(1775-1818) reveal Romantic interest in the mysterious, while those novels of William Godwin
(Caleb Williams), Elizabeth Inchbald (A Simple Story), and Maria Edgeworth (The Absentee)
reveal the influence of Rousseau and the Romantic spirit of reform.


1. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) - Scott turned from Romantic poetry ("Lady of the Lake,"

"Marmion," "Lay of the Last Minstrel") to novel writing (Waverley novels) after he became
convinced that a young Lord Byron could outshine him in the poetic venue. Scott is the earliest
historical novelist, often placing his characters in the romantic age of chivalry (Ivanhoe and
Kenilworth). Scott preferred to classify his novels as "romances," though many are marred by
historical distortions and anachronisms. Nonetheless, the pageantry and passions of the past
illuminate such works as The Bride of Lammermoor.

2. William Blake (1757-1827) - Blake is the unique visionary and genius of the Romantic
period. Intensely individualistic in his visual art as in his written art, he sought to create a
distinct poetic landscape. He wrote in Jerusalem, "I must create a System or be enslaved by
another man's." The "system" he created is based on a completely new cosmology and unique
mythology. Under the influence of Milton but wishing to turn away from Judeo/ Christian
myth, Blake's work, in essence, presents a radical reinterpretation of the Fall (a "fall" away
from self--or a fragmentation of self--rather than the traditional "fall" into sin), and his mythic
world is peopled by creatures derived from this reinterpretation and from his extraordinary
imagination (Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, Los, Albion, etc.).

Major Works: Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,"
"The First Book of Urizen," "The Four Zoas," Milton, Jerusalem, "Visions of the Daughters of
Albion," "The French Revolution," and "America, a Prophecy."

3. William and Dorothy Wordsworth - The Lake Poets--William and Dorothy, in
collaboration with Coleridge--formally revised the notion and idea of poetry in their joint
production of Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the 1800 edition Wordsworth articulated their new
poetic vision and redefined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling . . .
recollected in tranquility." Wordsworth's poetry also articulates transcendental ideas such as
"correspondence" and "compensation," and reveals strong Neoplatonic tendencies. Hartlean
"associationism" (where a particular setting or memory generates some profound philosophic
meditation or "spot of time") is also an influential idea in the many of the poems. Some of
these ideas are seen in ". . . Tintern Abbey," "Intimations . . ." ode, "Lucy" poems, "Michael,"
"Resolution and Independence," "The Excursion," "Recluse," the "Ecclesiastical Sonnets," and in
The Prelude, Wordsworth's magnum opus (his spiritual "unfolding of the poet's mind"). The
germ for many Wordsworthian poems are to be found in Dorothy's journals (Grasmere,
Alfoxen), and sometimes whole sections of poems and lines are discernible in the journals.

4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) - Coleridge's contribution to Lyrical Ballads are the
supernatural and imaginative poems such as "Christabel," "Kubla Khan," and "The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner." For a ten-year period (1798-1808) the collaboration between Coleridge and
the Wordsworths bore remarkable poetic fruit. When their friendship became strained and
Coleridge moved forever from the Lake Country, he turned his attention more toward
metaphysics, drama and prose works, often being referred to as the "Sage of Highgate" where he
lived in London.

Coleridge's magnum opus is the Biographia Literaria. In this prose piece (highly influenced by
Kant and the German idealistic philosophers and poets), Coleridge propounds an array of
philosophic and literary ideas:
      1. The distinction between "fancy," "secondary" and "primary" imagination--the latter
the source of the artistic creative imagination and directly emanating from the "infinite I am."

      2. Coleridge's praise of Shakespeare, whose talent for characterization, he believes,
embodies the bard's true genius.
      3. Coleridge's praise for Milton and the brilliance of his portrayal of Satan in Paradise
Lost, Satan achieving the real heroic energy in the piece, according to Coleridge.
      4. Coleridge's criticism of Wordsworth's LB preface, in particular Wordsworth's ideas
about using the language and sentiments of the rustic--Coleridge believed that the language of
poetry would only be found in the refined mind of the well-educated and creative imagination of
      5. Coleridge's belief that great literature comes from the imaginative mind that can create
"a willing suspension of disbelief," totally absorbing the reader in the story no matter how

Other critical ideas in Coleridge's canon include his distinction between "organic" literature
(Shakespeare) and "mechanic" literature (Dryden or Pope).

5. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) - Idealistic, Platonic, iconoclastic, Shelley's work evinces
the influence of Godwin, Goethe, Wollstonecraft, and a host of others. The most important ideas
      1) his notion of literature as the great vehicle of morality in that it teaches us to
empathize and therefore humanizes us, the poet as true "legislator" of the world ("The Defence
of Poetry," "Ode to the West Wind"),
      2) his idealization of the female as a source of inspiration and representation of
intellectual beauty ("Epipsychidion"),
      3) his belief in the saving power of love and the possibility of perfectibility ("Prometheus
      4) his quest for the ideal and beauty beyond the bourn, again embodied in the female
form ("Alastor"),
      5) his interest in Platonic idealism ("Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"),
      6) the defamation of orthodox religion and an the anthropomorphic portrayal of God
("Queen Mab")
      7) his condemnation of the patriarchy and expression of the idea of androgyny ("The

Upon the death of John Keats, Shelley wrote one of the most beautiful elegies in the English
language ("Adonais"). Though Matthew Arnold refers to Shelley as that "beautiful and
ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain" and though Shelley appears
excessively idealistic in those moments when he "falls upon the thorns of life," there is high
moral integrity expressed in many of the poems and an exquisite appreciation for beauty.

6. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) - Mary Shelley is best known for her gothic
romance Frankenstein, which is a treasure trove of Romantic ideas: her monster embodies
Rousseau's "noble savage," Godwin's ideas about education and the corrupting influences
of social institutions, the idea of the doppleganger (one's other, darker self or alter ego).
Shelley uses a brilliant, three-tiered narrative structure that succeeds in creating a "willing
suspension of disbelief." The novel has also inspired an array of psychological,
deconstructionist, and feminist interpretation--from Frankenstein as the "retelling of Paradise
Lost," as a "birth myth," to the work as "revisionist myth-making" and a portrayal of the
"misogynistic intent" of Milton's epic.

After Percy Shelley's death, the novelist devoted her talents to producing an edition of her
husband's complete poetical works (with copious autobiographical notes) and continued novel
writing (The Last Man, Lodore, etc.) in order to support herself and her son, Percy Florence.

7. George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) - Byron's poetic temperament vacillated between
the Neoclassicism and Romanticism. His poetic models were Pope and Dryden, his best work,
as their, satire--yet (despite protestations to the contrary) his poetry is deeply infused with the
influence of Wordsworthian transcendentalism ("Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and many of the
lyric poems). Byron's heroes--or "anti-heroes"--become the prototype for the notion of the
Byronic hero: the world wearied, alienated, and tragic Manfred, Sardanapolus, or Cain; the
flippant, iconoclastic Don Juan. Such Romantic themes as mutability and the quest for
experience "beyond the bourn" link Byron to his close friend Shelley. Byron's Oriental Tales
("Giaour," "The Bride of Abydos," and "The Corsair") place him firmly in the Romantic
tradition. Yet Byron's best work is his satire: "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," "Beppo,"
"The Vision of Judgement," and "Don Juan," the latter his best poem in mock epic style.

Byron was well aware of his inconsistencies, saying of himself shortly before his death that he
was "such a strange melange of good and evil." Upon his death, Goethe ranked Byron foremost
among all English poets.

8. John Keats (1795-1821) - Despite his short life, Keats has been perhaps the most influential
of all Romantic poets. His aesthetic ideas and appreciation for beauty did most to inspire the
Pre-Raphaelites of the Victorian age, the aesthetic movement of Pater and Wilde in the 1890s,
and the "neo-Romanticism" of such 20th century writers as Yeats and Fitzgerald. Keats early on
wished to shake the influence of Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt and their colloquial use of
language: "Why should we be owls," he wrote, "when we can be eagles." For one so young,
Keats evolved a sophisticated repertoire of ideas, some of which distinguish him from his fellow
       1) Keats' abandonment of the "egotistical sublime" for the "material sublime"--he
wrote in his poetic epistle for J. H. Reynolds: ". . . would that all our colors from the rainbow
take." Poems such as his ode "To Autumn" are a riot of color and extraordinary lyrical
       2) The tension between "thought" and "sensation" (Endymion).
       3) Negative Capability or the ability of the poet to negate self to the point where he
"becomes" the subject of the poem. The poet, Keats wrote to his brother Tom, is "chameleon" in
his ability to become his subject; the poetic character "has no character"--it is as much an
Imogene as a Lady Macbeth or Iago.
       5) Keats' warning of the danger of "going beyond the bourn," of questing after the ideal
at the expense of one's earthly humanity and natural limitations (Endymion, "La Belle Dame San
Merci"). "There never lived a mortal man," he writes at the end of Endymion, "who bent / His
appetite beyond his natural sphere / But starved and died."
       6) Keats' appreciation of beauty--"A thing of beauty is a joy forever," he writes in
Endymion. Exquisite sensual details punctuate his poems ("Eve of Saint Agnes," "Eve of St.
Mark," and "Isabella"). Such attention to detail inspired and influenced Tennyson and Pre-
Raphaelite painters and poets such as Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti.

. Romantic Prose - the Essayists and Magazines Writers:

       1) Charles Lamb (1775-1834) - Utilizing the "familiar" style of essay, Lamb wrote his
recollections and personal vignettes that became popular prose pieces of the day ("Confessions of
a Drunkard," "Recollections of Christ's Hospital," and "Superannuated Man"). Lamb is best
remembered for his "Elia" essays appearing in The London Magazine. Lamb and his sister Mary
are famous for producing one of the most popular prose versions of Shakespeare's tales for
children, Tales from Shakespeare (Mary Lamb is the author of most of the tales).
       2) William Hazlitt (1778-1830) - Hazlitt too adds the personal touch to his magazine
writing, albeit an often cantankerous one. In terms of literary criticism he was one of the first to
initiate the trend of criticizing on the basis of personal "likes and dislikes" and
idiosyncratic prejudices--often basing literary evaluations upon moral issues or personality
traits of the writer. Hazlitt's Shakespeare criticism follows Coleridge's in terms of lauding praise
on the bard for his superb sense of characterization. His best collections of essays include
"Table-Talk," "The Spirit of the Age," and "My First Acquaintance with Poets"; and his literary
ideas are often influenced by his appreciation for the visual arts ("On Gusto").
       3) Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) - De Quincey is noted for his brilliant, sometimes
stream-of-consciousness prose style and the highly personal, self-revelatory character of his
essays. "The Confessions of an English Opium Eater" is perhaps the best example of this style.
De Quincey is also noted for some fine insights on Shakespeare's style ("On the Knocking on the
Gate in Macbeth") and for his distinction between the "literature of power" (literature that moves
us, that gives us insight) and the "literature of knowledge" (literature that merely teaches, that is