Romanticism: a Brief Background

March 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm Leave a comment

Romanticism does not Mean Literature about Love Affairs!

British romanticism is a literary movement that ran from roughly 1790 to 1830.  As I said, such dates as we reach literature of the past several centuries become a bit arbitrary, however. To say that romanticism ended in 1830 is fallacious–as I claimed in class, our literature in America, for instance, remains dominantly “romantic,” and we are, in many ways, heirs of a romantic tradition in not just literature, but politics and culture.

First, do not confuse the literary term “romantic” or “romanticism” with love stories, Harlequin romances, etc. Although love, as in any literary movement, is important in “romanticism,” the term means something much more different.

Brief Definition

Briefly, Romanticism is an intellectual orientation characterizing many works of literature, music, painting, architecture, criticism and historical work from the late 1700s into the mid 1800s. It is a rejection of the premises of reason, calm, order, rationality and general / abstract thought that epitomized the neoclassicism (or Age of Reason) of the 1700s. Romanticism, consequently, values subjectivity, individuality, irrationality, the Imagination, the personal, the emotional, the visionary, the spontaneous and the transcendental.

Edmund Burke and The Sublime and Beautiful.

One can see romanticism beginning to burgeon in the middle of 1700s. In fact, one of the greatest influences on the growth of romanticism came from one of the most staunch advocates of Reason in the Enlightenment, Edmund Burke. He wrote the famous, The Sublime and Beautiful, in which he argued that there are certain experiences for which Reason cannot understand or articulate. He described “sublime” experiences as anything we encounter in nature or within ourselves that leaves us in a state of awe, dread or terror, such as a great precipice, a giant waterfall, a terrible nightmare, an expansive stretch of the firmament. According to Burke, certain experiences overwhelm the ability of the mind to rationalize what we encounter. Some experiences leave us shocked or awed. Some experiences are simply irrational, or leave us in a “cloud of unknowing.”

Without intending to, Burke sparked a gigantic interest in all things sublime. In the late 1700s, artists become obsessed with painting great waterfalls, gigantic stretches of mountains, dangerous storms–anything that leaves the viewer feeling small, overwhelmed or terrified. As opposed to calm, ordered, rational subjects in literature, cliques of authors begin writing the first ghost stories, Gothic and horror fiction in which bizarre or irrational experience becomes the norm. Too, some artists, writers and musicians become interested in magic, the supernatural–the type of knight-errant “romances” that had not been practiced since the medieval/renaissance period in literature.

A great deal of this “pre-romantic” material before the 1790s, however, was sill not necessarily interested in the individual or emotional experience of the sublime.

The Development of Lyrical Poetry in 1780s and 90s; a.k.a “pre-romanticism.”

Although romanticism did not erupt as a revolutionary literary movement until the late 1790s, there were intimations of romanticism for a few decades prior to Wordsworth and Coleridge. I have already talked about the influence of Edmund Burke’s inquiry into sublimity. Some poets and prose writers in the 1750s began to gravitate toward a simpler, more sincere natural form of expression as opposed to the austerity, nobility and idealization of the neo-classical  writers. Poets such as Thomas Gray and William Collins began to write shorter lyrical poems concerning more folksy topics such as Gray’s ode about his cat, or Collins ruminations concerning the evening. In 1770, Oliver Goldsmith write “The Deserted Village,” a long poem that pined sentimentally about the lost charms of village life as urban culture begins to dominate certain suburbs of London, a theme that George Crabbe continued. Too, the “ballad,” a short, folksy narrative, started to gain popularity over the long, philosophical and abstract poem of the day.

The Age of Sentiment.

In drama in the mid to late 1700s, the sentimental play, where a playwright consciously produces what we would call today a “tear-jerker,” grows popular, and eventually leads into the ubiquitous Victorian novel that revolves around sentimental and melodramatic plots. Some scholars call the period from roughly the 1760s to the 1780s the Age of Sentiment. This refers to a particular literature that is self-consciously sentimental: designed to produce a “gentlemanly tear,” plots revolving around found and lost love, stories about long lost members of a family reuniting.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Lyrical Ballads.

British romanticism was launched with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

Wordsworth is in many ways the father of British romanticism, and the major source of influence for almost all romanticism, including Shelley. But his influence is even more far reaching. He is the direct influence of America’s Walt Whitman in the 1800s, and poets such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams and Ginsberg in the 1900s. At the same time, Whitman is the major inspiration behind nature poetry all the way up until today.

Wordsworth the Rebel.

In many ways, his break with tradition and his rebellion against the Age of Reason derived from his educational experience at Cambridge. He found his entire college experience oppressively rational, logical, mathematical. After receiving his AB in 1791, he discovered that he had to escape the world of logic, mathematics and reason by essentially hitting the road. For a few years he took walking trips throughout England and Europe, living within nature, and trying to find a new perspective on life by essentially being a wayward nomad. Therefore, he begins the romantic tradition so prevalent today of going “on the road” (as Jack Kerouac would title it), of “dropping out” of society, a lifestyle that would become central to such figures as Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan.

Wordsworth’s Formation of a New Poetry of Personal Experience and Nature.

It was during his wayward experiences that Whitman began to cultivate a new vision for poetry as a response to the individual in isolation with the self and in communion with the natural world. He began to develop a poetry that explores the self as an individual in the world, and the self in contact with nature. Such poetry of isolation and self-hood is a radical departure from the poetry of the 1700s that remains focused upon the self within a society or civilization, in which poetry is the expression of philosophical ideas and the poet takes on the role as a public servant and spokesperson for a nation. Instead, Wordsworth come to explore and value a poetry that focuses upon personal experience, the individual attempting to understand him or her self as a unique self.

The Collaboration between Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In the mid 1790s, Wordsworth became friends and a collaborator with the other major purveyor of romanticism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and for a few years they wrote the collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads as a partnership.

They structured the collection around two different perspectives toward the world derived from individual experience: the natural world and the supernatural world. Wordsworth, whose interest always remained primarily nature, took on the natural world. Coleridge, who was interested in Christianity and theology, took on the supernatural world–the world of dreams, visions and altered mental states.

The collection, completed in 1798, was different from anything anyone in England had ever seen. Here were two poets in the age of Reason, science and rationality writing poems about flowers, trees, daydreams, moods, visions, hallucinations, drug trips (yes, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is about his experience tripping on opium). For the most part, the collection was received by the public and critics as weird, outrageous, even pornographic.

Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1802.

Since Wordsworth felt that the public misunderstood the collection, he composed a preface as a means to defend the poems. When an author writes a defense of his or her work, position or beliefs, it is a genre known as the “apology” (not meaning “I’m sorry,” by the way). Wordsworth’s Preface is one of the most important pieces of literary criticism for many reasons. For one, it is one of the first times in which an author or poet adds a preface to his or her own work, beginning a common tradition. Secondly, as a defense of his poems, it begins a prevalent modern tradition in which artists feel the need to argue for the centrality of literature in a growing scientific or industrial age. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Preface is essentially a manifesto for the Romantic movement in literature, where Wordsworth essentially lays out many of the precepts of romantic thought that remain prevalent up until today.

How the Preface Ended the Friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Significantly, his Preface is also important because of the rift it formed between him and Coleridge. Wordsworth wrote and published the new edition of the poems with the Preface without Coleridge’s permission, and on all subsequent printings of the poem, Coleridge’s name is dropped from the title. Additionally, Coleridge wrote in his critical works in the early 1800s many of Wordsworth’s points concerning romanticism with which he disagreed. For the most part, their partnership and friendship came to an end in the early 1800s.


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If You Are Feeling Overwhelemed By Writing. William Blake, the Visionary Poet. Songs of Innocence and Experience.

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