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The Romantic Age Poetry.firstname.lastname@example.org Introduction The Romantic Period by Harley Henry http://www.nexuslearning.net/book s/Elements_of_lit_Course6/The_%2 0Romantic_Period/Romantic%20Per iod%20Intro.htm The Beginning The divine arts of imagination: imagination, the real & eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow. —William Blake The publication of a collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, began the Romantic period in England. During the spring of 1798, two young English poets, aged 27 and 25, sold some of their poems to raise money for a trip to Germany. Each had published books of poetry, but a new joint work was to be anonymous. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the younger of the pair, told the printer: ―Wordsworth’s name is nothing . . . mine stinks.‖ Soon after they left England, their book, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, appeared. Among the ―few other poems‖ was Coleridge’s long narrative The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Collection 8) and a last-minute addition, Wordsworth’s ―Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey‖ (Collection 8). Both of these works are now among the most important poems in English literature. So began what is now called the ―Romantic period‖ in England. Literary historians have found other momentous events to mark its beginning and end, but we should remember the casual, modest appearance of Lyrical Ballads as we consider the Romantic period and the writers associated with it. Definition Romanticism is a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Western Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution. In part, it was a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature, and was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but can be detected even in changed attitudes towards children and education. Important Historical Events Political upheaval in France and the United States touched England as well. Conservative economic and political measures and a lengthy war against Napoleon consolidated the power of the rich. Turbulent Times, Bitter Realities We think about this era in terms of some important historical events. Beginning in America in 1776, an age of revolution swept across western Europe, releasing political, economic, and social forces that produced, during the next century, some of the most radical changes ever experienced in human life. Another way to date the Romantic period is to say that it started with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended with the Parliamentary reforms of 1832 that laid the political foundations for modern Britain. The era was dominated by six poets: Three (William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) were born before the period began and lived through most or all of it, while three others (the ―second generation‖ of Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and George Gordon, Lord Byron) began their short careers in the second decade of the new century but died before 1825. It was a turbulent, revolutionary age, one in which England changed from an agricultural society to an industrial nation with a large and restless working class concentrated in the teeming mill towns. The American Revolution had lost for England her thirteen colonies. This was a great economic loss, but it was also a loss of prestige and of confidence. The more radical revolution in France, which started with the storming of the prison called the Bastille on July 14, 1789, had far more serious repercussions. For the ruling classes in England, the French Revolution came to represent their worst fears: the overthrow of an anointed king by a democratic ―rabble.‖ To English conservatives, the French Revolution meant the triumph of radical principles, and they feared that the revolutionary fever would spread across the Channel. But democratic idealists and liberals like Wordsworth felt exhilarated by the events in France. During the revolution’s early years, they even made trips to France to view the ―new regime‖ at first hand, as if it were a tourist attraction like the Acropolis in Greece. Wordsworth later wrote, ―Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!‖ Even Wordsworth became disillusioned, however, when in 1792 the ―September massacre‖ took place in France. Hundreds of French aristocrats—some with only the slightest ties to the regime of King Louis XVI—had their heads severed from their bodies by a grisly new invention, the guillotine. And that wasn’t the end of it. In the midst of the blood and turmoil and calls from France for worldwide revolution, control of the French government changed hands again. Napoleon Bonaparte, an officer in the French army, emerged first as dictator and then, in 1804, as emperor of France. In the end, Napoleon— whose very name today suggests a tyrant—became as ruthless as the executed king himself. All of these bewildering changes in western Europe made conservatives in England more rigid than ever. England instituted severe repressive measures: They outlawed collective bargaining and kept suspected spies or agitators in prison without a trial. In 1803, England began a long war against Napoleon. English guns first defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar and, finally, in 1815, with the help of allies, sent his army packing at Waterloo, Belgium. The conservatives in England felt they had saved their country from a tyrant and from chaos; the early supporters of the revolution, like Wordsworth, felt betrayed. For them, Waterloo was simply the defeat of one tyrant by another. The Tyranny of Laissez Faire At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was bringing about other changes in English life. Previously, goods had been made by hand, at home. Now, production switched to factories, where machines worked many times faster than human beings could work by hand. Since factories were in cities, the city populations increased, causing desperate living conditions that would appall even the most hardened social worker today. In addition, the communal land once shared by small farmers was taken over by individual owners. Some of these rich owners transformed the fields into vast private parks, generously stocked with deer for their own Christmas hunts. Others divided the land neatly into privately held fields. Whatever happened to the land, it was no longer communally owned. This resulted in large numbers of landless people. Just as some unemployed and homeless do today, these landless people migrated to cities in search of work. Or they went on the dole, or welfare. The economic philosophy that kept all this misery going was a policy called laissez faire, ―let (people) do (as they please).‖ According to this policy, economic forces should be allowed to operate freely without government interference. The result of laissez faire was that the rich grew richer, and the poor suffered even more. The system, of course, had its most tragic effects on the helpless, especially the children. Small children of the poor were often used like beasts of burden. In the coal pits, for example, very small children were even harnessed to carts for dragging coal, just as if they had been small donkeys. Frustrated by England’s resistance to political and social change that would improve conditions, the Romantic poets turned from the formal, public verse of the eighteenth-century Augustans to a more private, spontaneous, lyric poetry. These lyrics expressed the Romantics’ belief that imagination, rather than mere reason, was the best response to the forces of change. Wordsworth spoke of imagination this way: . . . spiritual love acts not nor can exist Without imagination, which, in truth, Is but another name for absolute power And clearest insight, amplitude of mind, And Reason in her most exalted mood. —from The Prelude The poets of the Romantic period responded to social and economic changes caused by rapid industrialization and to governmental policies that ignored the problems of the poor. What Does “Romantic” Mean? The word romantic comes from the term romance, one of the most popular genres of medieval literature. (See ―from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,‖ Elements of Literature in Collection 2.) Later, Romantic writers self- consciously used the elements of romance in an attempt to go back beyond the refinements of neoclassical literature to older types of writing that they saw as more ―genuine.‖ The romance genre also allowed writers to explore new, more psychological and mysterious aspects of human experience. Today, the word romantic is often a negative label used to describe sentimental writing, particularly those best-selling paperback ―romances‖ about love—a subject that many people mistakenly think the Romantic poets popularized. As a historical term, however, romantic has at least three useful meanings, all of them relevant to the Romantic poets. First, the term romantic signifies a fascination with youth and innocence, with ―growing up‖ by exploring and learning to trust our emotions and our sense of will and identity. Second, the term romantic is applied to a stage in the cyclical development of societies: This is the stage when people need to question tradition and authority in order to imagine better—that is, happier, fairer, and healthier—ways to live. Romantic in this sense is associated with idealism. (The 1966–1975 period in the United States might be called a romantic era.) And third, in the so-called Romantic period of the first half of the nineteenth century (up to the Civil War in America), Western societies reached the conditions necessary for industrialization. This demanded that people acquire a stronger and stronger awareness of change and that they try to find ways to adapt to it. In this sense, we still live with the legacy of the Romantic period. The term romantic signifies a fascination with youth and innocence, a questioning of authority and tradition for idealistic purposes, and an adaptation to change. Romanticism is characterized by these general features: • Romanticism turned away from the eighteenth-century emphasis on reason and artifice. Instead, the Romantics embraced imagination and naturalness. • Romantic-era poets rejected the public, formal, and witty works of the previous century. They preferred poetry that spoke of personal experiences and emotions, often in simple, unadorned language. • The Romantics each used the lyric as the form best suited to expressions of feeling, self-revelation, and the imagination. • Wordsworth urged poets to adopt a democratic attitude toward their audiences; though endowed with a special sensibility, the poet was always ―a man speaking to men.‖ • Many Romantics turned to a past or an inner dream world that they felt was more picturesque and magical than the ugly industrial age they lived in. • Most Romantics believed in individual liberty and sympathized with those who rebelled against tyranny. • The Romantics thought of nature as transformative; they were fascinated by the ways nature and the human mind ―mirrored‖ the other’s creative properties. Poetry, Nature, and the Imagination Lyrical Ballads did not remain unnoticed or anonymous for long. In 1800, with Coleridge looking over his shoulder, Wordsworth composed a Preface for the expanded collection. In it he declared that he was writing a new kind of poetry that he hoped would be ―well adapted to interest mankind permanently....‖ The subject matter would be different from that of earlier giants of poetry—like Dryden and Pope—who used poetry to satirize, or to persuade the reader with argumentative techniques. For Wordsworth, good poetry was ―the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.‖ And such poetry should use simple, unadorned language to deal with commonplace subjects for a particular purpose. The form is often a lyric that lends itself to spontaneity, immediacy, a quick burst of emotion, and self-revelation. Furthermore, Wordsworth focused on rural life instead of city life, because in the country ―the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of Nature.‖ Wordsworth found hope in ―certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise . . . certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible.‖ In other words, there is nature, and there are human beings to experience nature. The Romantics are often called nature poets. This description is misleading if it suggests that their poetry is full of charming scenes of forests, mountains, and streams—like the scenic overlooks on highways or the pictures on travel brochures. The Romantics prized experiences of the beauty and majesty of nature. They did not think of nature as hostile, but they had a strong sense of its mysterious forces, and they were intrigued by the ways that nature and the human mind act upon each other. In the Preface, Wordsworth says that the poet ―considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally a mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature.‖ Each of the Romantic poets had his own special view of the creative power of the imagination and of the ways in which the human mind is adapted to nature. You will notice that the poems usually present imaginative experiences as very powerful or moving. This suggests that, in addition to being a special faculty of the mind, the imagination is also a kind of desire, a motive that drives the mind to learn and to know things it cannot learn by rational and logical thinking. So, although the mind is naturally a ―mirror‖ of nature, as Wordsworth thought, the imagination actually moves the mind in mysterious ways to imitate (without being sacrilegious) the powers of its Maker. The purpose of this imitation is to create new realities in the mind and (as a result) in poetry. In the Romantic period, poetry was no longer used to make complex arguments in a witty, polished style. Romantic poets used unadorned language to explore the significance of commonplace subjects, the beauty of nature, and the power of the human imagination. The Idea of the Poet In 1802, in order to clarify his remarks about poetry, Wordsworth added to his Preface a long section on the question, What is a poet? His answer began: ―He is a man speaking to men.‖ If this seems strange, consider what happens in a good many of the poems in the following collections. There is a person in the poem—we will call him the ―speaker‖ to distinguish him from the poet—who is ―speaking to‖ someone or something else: a young Highland girl, a baby asleep in a cottage, a skylark, even a Greek vase or a season of the year. Each poem of this type not only asks us to imagine (pretend) that the ―speaking‖ is taking place, but also makes us consider what kind of speaking is taking place. Is the speaker praising or confessing or complaining or worshipping or expressing envy? That is, what is the speaker doing by ―speaking‖? The speaking in lyric poetry is not the Augustan reasoning in verse. It is a more emotional, passionate speaking from the heart. It has been said that we do not hear lyric poetry so much as overhear it— as if (using our imagination again) we are eavesdropping on a private conversation or on someone talking to himself or herself out loud. The Romantic lyric, then, speaks in what has been called the true voice of feeling or the language of the heart. In writing this way, the Romantics created a kind of poetry that poets today continue to use. Wordsworth’s deceptively simple definition of the poet as ―a man speaking to men‖ was thus a revolutionary concept in a number of ways. If we think of the speaker (not the poet) as an ordinary person, then it is a very democratic definition. Poetry is to be about human experience, about the fundamental relationship between the mind (including the heart and the imagination) and other people and other things. The speaking should be convincing so that it can seem a genuine and sincere account of that experience, no matter how special or extravagant the experience may appear to be. The speakers in Romantic poetry speak in the language of feelings, or of the heart. This exploration of the emotional experiences of ordinary people was revolutionary. The Romantic Poet In saying that the poet is ―a man speaking to men,‖ Wordsworth did not mean that the poet is just a man. In the Preface, it is clear that the poet is a special person, ―endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness . . . a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.‖ Though the word supposed (meaning thought) may suggest that Wordsworth thought his fellow citizens had too low an estimate of much of humankind, all of the Romantic poets described the poet in such lofty terms. For William Blake, for example, the poet was the bard, an inspired revealer and teacher. The poet, wrote Coleridge, ―brings the whole soul of man into activity‖ by employing ―that synthetic and magical power . . . the imagination.‖ Shelley called poets ―the unacknowledged legislators of the world.‖ Keats wrote that a poet is a ―physician‖ to all humanity and ―pours out a balm upon the world.‖ Nothing, wrote Wordsworth in The Recluse, . . . can breed such fear and awe As fall upon us often when we look Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man— My haunt, and the main region of my song. The poet, in sum, is someone human beings cannot do without. The Romantic poets found a way through the imagination to fulfill the poet’s traditional role as “prophet, priest, and king” in a time of change.
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