Romanticism and the Romantic Poets
Our modern impression of “romantic, romance, romanticism” immediately brings love and sentimentality to mind, particularly as it relates to other human beings. Indeed, that is one correct definition. However, when referring to the poetry written by the Romantic poets during the artistic movement known as Romanticism, which began in the late 1700s, the definition encompasses so much more.
“In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet’s thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.” ~William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads
Pinpointing an exact start for Romanticism is difficult as the movement was felt across the European continents in varied peaks and waves. Broadly speaking, the Romantic era coincided with the Industrial Revolution, which began in England late in the 18th century. The dramatic upheavals of the American and French Revolutions, which came on the heels of the Age of Enlightenment, paved the way for new philosophies. Romanticism was greatly influenced by and rooted in the German movement Sturm und Drang, translated “storm and drive,” which preferred intuition and emotion to rationalism. Essentially the opposite of Enlightenment characteristics, as outlined on the chart below.
As a movement, the emphasis was on intense physical and emotional passion, individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural. Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics. While seen most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, Romanticism impacted politics, education, social and natural sciences, and philosophy. Compared to other cultural movements, Romanticism was relatively short —roughly the 1780s to the mid-1830s in England— and it wasn’t a single unified movement consolidated around any one person or group, place, or specific manifesto. There were many schools of thought, styles, and stances in England and elsewhere in Europe. Yet all the products of Romanticism embraced the concepts of individual liberty and authenticity as a sure way to change society and help one’s fellow man.
In the realm of poetry, the chart below is a terrific reference, but the themes can be summed up in these six ideals:
- Feelings of empathy and respect for people of the lower economic classes.
- People are generally good even though society can be cruel and degrading.
- A love of nature drawing inspiration from the countryside and other rural landscapes.
- Emphasis on showing feelings, not hiding emotions.
- Deep interest in the irrational, the supernatural and horror.
- Imagination is a rare gift that seizes the moment.
The Romantic poets did not agree on everything, but they each truly believed they were prophetic figures who could, through their writings, give hope, illuminate, transform, and regenerate mankind spiritually.
“They [poets] measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit. . . Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” ~Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821)
Many of the Romantic poets were highly educated and of the wealthy social class, but they did not look down on the simple man. In fact, they held great respect for the lives of country folk, believing them to be more noble and honorable than the rich. As an art, their poetry consisted of new literary forms, ideas explicit and allegorical, common language as opposed to polished diction, and topics from everyday life. Romantic poems could be trivial or fantastic, succinct or meandering, fragments or long sonnets and odes, comic or cosmic. In other words, drawing on unrestrained imagination meant there were no limits.
The number of Romantic poets is quite long and include writers outside of England, even in America. For the purpose of this blog I am focusing on Britain, and the ones noted below are inarguably considered the most influential.
William Blake (1757-1827)
Lord Byron (1782-1824)
John Keats (1795-1821)
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
John Clare (1793-1864)
Robert Burns (1759-1796)
A cursory glance at the wealth of poems left for our enjoyment cover an incredible breadth of subject matters. And, while “romance” as we narrowly envision it today was not the defining feature of poetry from this movement, human love and passion are often a theme. After all, love is an intense emotion, as the vast majority of the Romantics experienced in their personal lives. Shelley and Byron, for example, were notorious for their salacious works, and scandalous romances!
With this in mind, as well as the encompassing meaning of “romantic” in poetry, it seemed appropriate to launch this Valentine season with a blog on romantic poetry. In November I posted a blog on Romance Poet Anna Seward. Later this week I will highlight John Keats, and then John Clare the following week, with plans to cover other poets and artists from the period in the future. Something to look forward to!