March 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm Leave a comment

A picutre of books, for no particular reason.


In order to understand the sea-change that “romanticism” brought to literature in the late 1700s, one must have some understanding of the literary history that came before the romantics.

In a cursory manner, English literature can be divided up into the following periods.

500 – circa 900:     Old English / Anglo-Saxon.

900 – mid-1400s:             Medieval.

1400 – 1660:               Renaissance.

1660 – 1790:               Enlightenment / Age of Reason.

1790 – 1850:               Romanticism (Including transcendentalism in America).

1850 – 1900:               Victorian / Realism.

1900 – 1945:               Modernism.

1945 – Now:               Post-modernism.

The dates are fairly rough, but as you can see, Romanticism falls after the Enlightenment and just before what we know as “modern” literature. Like most “movements” in literature, Romanticism was a reaction to the movement that came before it, the Enlightenment. Yet, Romanticism was far more of a sudden, revolutionary break with the past than had occurred previously in the more protracted and gradual transitions between medievalism and the renaissance.

The Years Leading up to the Enlightenment.

Throughout the 1500s and early 1600s, along with great advancements in art, writing and thinking (the “humanism” associated with the renaissance), England also suffered bitter and bloody struggles and civil war over religious and political issues. The violence culminated when the Puritans rose up against the monarchy, and beheaded King Charles I in 1630. For two decades, England was for the first and only time a Republic, headed by a Puritan parliament. Bur the republic failed, and in 1660, Charles II returned to England from exile and restored monarchy to England.

For almost two decades, England was not a monarchy, but a republic, headed by Oliver Cromwell and parliament.

After such a period of strife and war that brought not just England but most of Europe to the brink of collapse, people wanted to create an ordered and decorous civilization. Philosophy and literature began to quickly share a “worldview” that valued Reason over Passion as a means to maintain an ordered world.

Enlightenment – The Age of Reason.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, Europe maintained a worldview in which Reason must remain the chief faculty over Passion. Reason, particularly in the 1700s, refers to rational thought, clear thinking, order, decorum. Literature and philosophy emphasized civilization and a cohesive society as opposed to individual interest; Passion refers to personal emotions, dreams, desires, fantasy, carnality, the irrational and, as we will see, the unconscious.

Particularly with rapidly growing scientific thought in the 1700s, the Enlightenment emphasized a literature of restraint, order, and classicism. Most poets followed the “rules” of ancient poets, such as Horace. Imitating and making the best of Tradition was valued over poetic inventiveness.

With his emphasis upon clear, practical thinking and writing, and his dedication to invention, Benjamin Franklin was the epitome of Enlightenment in America in the 1700s.

As modern Americans living in 2009, it is hard for us to wrap our mind around a vision toward poetry in which emotions and the Imagination are both suspect and dangerous. Imaginative writing in the Enlightenment was meant to express general and abstract truths concerning the world in an ordered fashion—hence, almost all poetry for over two centuries was written in the very organized structure of the Heroic Couplet to emphasize decorum and restraint.

Role of the Poet in the Enlightenment.

The poet was not considered an individual writing about personal feelings detached from the world, but a sort of custodian of civilization, writing about general truths concerning society as a whole. (Most authors shared a vision in which the writer sequestered away from the world signified madness.) Therefore, there was an emphasis in poetry upon politics, social issues, religion—anything that dealt with and promoted civilization as a whole while ridiculing those things that could damage an ordered world: personal feelings, dreams, desires, irrational or unbalanced thinking.

In a sense, the emphasis on logic and rationality was a means to both restrain and repress any of those human impulses that could threaten to bring about the collapse of civilization that had been such a possibility in the previous century.

Transition to Romanticism: 1750s – 1790s.

The literature of the late 1700s began to show both a loosening of the order and restraint of the written form, and a growing “sentimental” strain in writing.

Certain Enlightenment authors, like Edmund Burke in his essay on the Sublime, began to question the limits of rational thought. What does Reason fail to address? becomes a prevalent question.

Additionally, poets began to explore a more sentimental side to life, addressing such issues as death or lost love, emotions that the restraint of rational thought tends to avoid. However, most poets before 1790 wrote about emotion as a “civilized” experience, writing pieces that might “shed a gentlemanly tear,” containing feelings within a structured, decorous framework.

Some poets, like Robert Burns, begin to explore different poetic and imaginative forms that breaks up the monotony and artifice of such rational structures as Heroic Verse.


In some ways, the explosion of a literary attitude and philosophy focusing upon feeling and expression seems like a logical act of rebellion against the repressive dominance of logic and rationality.

In particular, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, two university educated young men, teamed together and wrote a collection of poems in 1798, Lyrical Ballds, that, as an experiment in a new, emotional, personal and visionary form of expression. In a daring group of poems, they suggested a new way of writing, in which poetry is not a “mirror” of an objective world, but the record of a poet’s subjective mind constructing personal impressions of that world.

Wordsworth and Coleridge divided the poems between themselves into two different categories: poems about nature and poems about dreams/imagination.

Wordsworth tackled poetry about nature. Spending several years studying mathematics and science at Cambridge, he felt a personal disgust toward the tedium of rational thought. After college, he sort-of dropped out of society and spent a few years hiking around England, and coming to a personal awareness of nature and the ways in which the natural world works as a conduit to an understanding of selfhood.

In contrast to Enlightenment poets, Wordsworth rejected the strict meter of the poetic verse—particularly Heroic Verse—and the use of inflated and abstract diction. His poems about nature reflected his personal, individual experience within the natural world, creating a private world of subjectivity for the reader to view. Additionally, instead of depicting nature in the Enlightenment manner as ordered, cultivated, dominated by human hands, he portrayed nature in its pure, often wild and “natural” state.

As his poetry develops, nature and the poet’s mind become analogous to an interior, private, often unruly and irrational state, a landscape in which the poet attempts to gain self-knowledge. But Wordsworth’s self-knowledge does not entail the Enlightenment notion of “how to I understand who I am in the context of a social world, so that I can become integral and effective member of society.” Wordsworth’s exploration of the self develops into the modern notion of, “Who am I as a person, my identity, my problems, my hopes, dreams, etc.” In many ways, Wordsworth develops an early notion of art serving as emotional and psychic therapy.

Coleridge tackled poetry about dreams, visions, and the glories and dangers of the imagination. His poems do not explore an objective, outside world that, in an Enlightenment fashion, the human can rationalize and represent, like a “mirror held up to nature.” Instead, he explores an interior, irrational, often nightmarish dream world—the unconscious, if you will—a plane of experience that, in many ways, cannot be rationalized. Poems, such as “Kublah Kahn,” explore a vision and dream state, almost completely detached from a recognizable world. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner depicts a supernatural narrative, resembling traditional epic poetry, yet leaving the meaning almost hopelessly ambiguous.

His work in Lyrical Ballads will develop into his more intellectual and philosophical explorations concerning the centrality of the Imagination in the formation of poetry and knowledge in his massive Biographia Literari, much of which has some of the greatest influence on modern literary thinking. For Coleridge, the Imagination, which had been considered suspect and dangerous in previous centuries, becomes the source of all knowledge and inspiration. Instead of coming to meaning and understanding of the world through objective, rational thought, Coleridge incepts the notion that the individual arrives at meaning and understanding through one’s imagination and the processes of imaginative thinking.

Oppositions between Enlightenment and Romanticism.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge set up the helpful (but sometimes too simple) contrasts between literature of the 1600 – 1700s and Romanticism. The oppositions tend to run as follows.


Reason                                                            Passion

Thought                                                         Feeling

Rationality                                                   Irrationality

Decorum                                                       Experimentation

Order                                                              Expressive

Nature as ordered.                                   Nature as wild.

Civilization / Society                              The individual

Self                                                                  Self as concerns one’s own selfhood.

Objective                                                     Subjective

Scientific                                                     Artistic

Impersonal                                                Personal.


Entry filed under: WEEK ONE.


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