With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Europe somersaulted towards urbanization with increasing rapidity. The growing emphasis on science and logic, the shifting of the locus from the countryside to the cities and an overall falling of living standards due to increasing population meant the individual found himself/herself increasingly detached from life and nature. Romanticism as a movement came in as a response to all these changes. The Romantic Age of English Literature was ushered in when Romanticism arrived in Britain with the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Wordsworth and Coleridge. The movement lasted till about 1837 and consists of two generations of poets. The first generation of romantic poets included William Wordsworth, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Some of their works are ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ respectively. The second generation consisted of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats with wonderful poems such as ‘Don Juan’, ‘The Cloud’ and ‘Ode to A Nightingale’.
Romanticism was a fervent revolt against the Augustan Neoclassicism. Neo-Classical poetry was the intellectual poetry of the town. The Romantic poets considered the diktats of Neo-Classical composition rigid and inflexible. It controlled their creative autonomy with chalked guidelines. Any creative deviation from the beaten track was slovenly frowned upon. The thraldom to Neo-classical poetry was claustrophobic for the Romantic composers. Thus, they questioned the tradition of Neo-Classical composition and indulged in the quest for a new poetic idiom. W.J Long states, “The romantic movement…is always marked by…free human spirit.”
Romanticism and nature
The poetics of the Romantic period consisted of a reimagined relationship between nature and poetry. This “return to nature” was profoundly inspired by Rousseau. Nature as a distinct revealing entity was seen as sentient and alive, permeated by a spirit whose “dwelling is the light of the sun” and the minds of men. Such constructions of nature have their origins in its wonder and aura, expressed in Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Nature is construed as a friend, philosopher and guide to man. It reveals the universal truth. In this regard Wordsworth was much influenced by the theory of the sublime, codified by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).
The poet, according to Wordsworth is responsible for producing poetry that deals with nature and men who live in close proximity to the natural landscape. Throughout Wordsworth’s poetry, the poet is shown to be inspired by the forms of nature which allow him to inculcate a deep understanding of the working of humanity and the Universe that surrounds it. In ‘The Prelude’, Wordsworth presents nature as a great teacher and enabler of poetic ability. He spiritualizes nature’s many elements in his pantheistic doctrine. Worship is revealed in such poems as ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Immortality Ode’, the Lucy poems et cetera.
While Wordsworth spiritualized the natural forces, Shelley discovered a revolutionary content in it as he describes in ‘Ode to the Westwind’ –
“Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”
In his elegiac poem ‘Adonais’ he writes –
“The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly…”
Keats’s approach to nature is one of acceptance of transience where he acknowledges the cyclical nature of the natural world.
“The poetry of the Earth is never dead.”
Coleridge identifies in nature an element of psychology. He believed that the divine spirit permeates through objects of nature as he writes in ‘The Eolian Harp’–
“O! the one Life within us and abroad…
…A light in sound, a sound like power in light…”
Romanticism and the power of imagination
Another important element in Romantic literature was the emphasis on imagination. For instance, towards the end of Romantic Age, Keats privileged the imaginative faculty over the rational faculty when he declared to his friend Benjamin in a letter dated 22nd November, 1817: –
“O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”
According to Coleridge, foror the Romantic, there was a distinction between fancy and imagination. While the former was merely a logical way of organizing sensory material, the latter was the very act of original and spontaneous creation. In Biographia Literaria, he further divided imagination into primary and secondary modes, the first of which was possessed by everyone while the second uniquely by poets. Coleridge influenced Perce Bysshe Shelley in his ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) where Shelley describes poetry as the expression of imagination. In fact, all romantic poets view imagination as a special faculty of the mind through which they could recreate the world anew. The imaginative sensibility opened up new fields and sights for both the poet and the reader.
The role of the poet and poetry
The romantic tradition highlighted the role of the poet like never before. The Romantic poet used the prowess of his imaginative vision to transform and transfigure ordinary objects into sublime symbols. Romantic poetry came to be associated with a power which was supremely divine, and that enabled the human mind to reach its full transcendental potential. Wordsworth describes the poet as “a man speaking to men.”
Shelley places the poet within the scheme of his revolutionary idealism, capable of bringing about sweeping changes in the social order through his poetic vision. He describes the poet in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ in several ways. At one point he observes, “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”
Romanticism also revolutionized the language of poetry. Wordsworth in his ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’ recommends the specific language of poetry free from “the gaudiness and inane phraseology” of neoclassical writers. The poetry according to Wordsworth should be written in the “selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” He also observed, “There neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and natural composition.”
Other eminent features of Romanticism
The Age of Romanticism inaugurated an age of egalitarianism and emancipation, in which class barriers were challenged. For the first time, poetry offered meaningful representation to the labouring sections of the population and the rustic community. The shepherds and cottagers coloured the poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats and Byron. The gallant lords and gay butterflies of vogue were left to the care of novelists. Wordsworth in the ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ (1802) says that romantic poetry should be based on “incidents and situations from common life…in a selection of language really used by men.” Thus, Wordsworth describes the Reaper’s song in poems such as ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and ‘Lucy’. Blake portrays the Little Black Boy and various other proletariat experiences.
The romantic revival was also characterized by a fascination for the past. Many romantic poets recreated the glory of exotic and unseen cultures, the mystery of medievalism with a sense of wonder. John Keats in particular was the worshipper of Greek culture as he adored the inspiration of aesthetic beauty in Greek art and culture. The distant past was a means of discovering a sense of beauty and simultaneously the spirit of wonder in a significant manner. Coleridge invoked the supernatural elements in many of his poems through a suggestive, psychological and subtle approach. He deftly created an atmosphere and indefiniteness in his poems.
A significant change also took place in the domain of literary criticism. Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads contained valuable observations on poetry, role of the poet, imagination and metrical composition. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria highlights the functions of the poet along with the relevance of imagination in a critical perspective. Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’ created a new approach to the role of the romantic poet and innumerable social functions.
Romanticism as a movement produced one of the greatest literatures and artwork at a time that was otherwise under the tyranny of rationality and industrialization. The Romantics taught us the importance of our flights of fancy and that they can be as important, if not more, than logic. Their work continues to be remembered as one of the finest in the history of art.
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