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Middle Ages
16th century
17th century
18th century
Early 19th century
     Revolution and reaction
     Jane Austen
     Second-generation Romanticism

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This page by Adrian Lashmore-Davies

Rapid social and political change in late eighteenth-century Europe is accompanied by a shift from faith in reason to an emphasis on the senses, feelings, and imagination, and an interest in untamed nature. Romantic Literature, an artistic and philosophical movement typified by its emphasis on inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual, seeks to come to terms with this changing environment.

The first generation of Romantic authors, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, inspired by the revolutionary overthrow of old regimes in America and France, attempt to articulate a new demotic language expressive of the primary human feelings as found in the 'language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’. In doing so, they fashion exciting revolutionary theories of their own, partly in reaction against the neo-classicism of Augustan literature.


Revolution and reaction,1789-98

William Blake, the first of the Romantic authors, a self-taught engraver and visionary poet, publishes Songs of Innocence in 1789. Drawing on biblical tradition, the poetry of John Milton, Bunyan, Dante, and Nonconformist literature, Blake voices his fervent belief in spiritual and political liberty. Short lyrical poems with hand-coloured plates including titles such as ‘The Little Girl Lost’ and ‘The Little Girl Found’, express Blake’s prophetic sense of the trials of precarious innocence in a world of adult corruption and cruelty.

In the following year, Blake publishes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a prose work written as a rejection of Emanuel Swedenborg’s theological views. Arranged as a collection of aphorisms, it explores Blake’s ideas about contraries, ‘Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate’, which he claims are necessary to human existence, and without which there is ‘no progression’. The Marriage includes the provoking statement that Milton, in writing with such energy and verve about devils and Hell in Paradise Lost, was ‘a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it’. Blake ends this collection with the apocalyptic ‘Song of Liberty’, calling for the revolutionary overthrow of all tyrannies.

In 1795 Blake further explores the theme of man’s divided nature by extending his Songs of Innocence, adding parallel ‘Songs of Experience’ to emphasise the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul: the interlocking of innocence and experience, vitality and repression, desire and guilt. The ‘Songs of Experience’ include the celebrated poem, The Tyger:
   Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
   In the forests of the night,
   What immortal hand or eye
   Could frame thy fearful symmetry?.

The topic of childhood innocence in a fallen world is also a feature of the Lake poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their innovative use of the ballad tradition in Lyrical Ballads (1798). Poems such as ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, written in a simple - some said puerile - style, celebrate the knowingness of a child’s-eye view. The preface to the Lyrical Ballads provides a manifesto for the burgeoning Romantic movement, declaring the incidents and situations of ‘low and rustic life’, rendered in the language ‘really used by men’, to be the proper subject of poetry. Here the ‘essential passions of the heart’ are more readily identifiable, claims Wordsworth, than in the metropolis. The collection included landmark poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner plays out struggles in Coleridge’s own psyche. An aged mariner having returned from a sea voyage unburdens his soul to a man going to a wedding, describing how he shot an albatross flying above his ship after which a curse fell on the ship. As a mark of the mariner’s guilt, the dead albatross was hung about his neck. Mysteriously, all of the crew died except the mariner who returned home safely, but he is for evermore condemned to wander from land to land and teach love to ‘Both man and bird and beast’.

Kubla Khan (composed 1797; first published 1816) famously incorporates its own creation myth. Coleridge claimed that it was a mere fragment of a much greater piece recovered upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. Upon waking he was aware of having composed two or three hundred lines of the poem whilst asleep, and immediately began to set these down on paper. Before finishing he was disturbed by an unidentified ‘person…from Porlock’; when he afterwards attempted to recall the remainder he found that he had forgotten everything.

One of the most remarkable features of Romantic poetry is the extent to which the consciousness of the poet is centre stage. In 1798-9 Wordsworth writes The Prelude, a two-book version of the long philosophical poem finally published in full only in 1850. Originally conceived as a preamble to a greater work, The Recluse, the Prelude describes the ‘Growth of a Poet's Mind’.

The poem records the ebb and flow of Wordsworth’s inner-life, first as a boy at Hawkshead, then in subsequent, expanded versions, his experience at university in Cambridge, time spent in France in 1791 when he became inspired by the French Revolution, and his reading and travel; it includes retrospectives on the ‘Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man’, and on ‘Imagination and Taste, How Repaired and Restored’. The Prelude is a ground-breaking psychological epic on a scale with Paradise Lost and is often regarded as Wordsworth's crowning achievement as a poet.


Jane Austen and the English novel,1802-18

The daughter of a vicar, the Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen extended and questioned the eighteenth-century tradition of the novel of sentiment, and is now regarded as the most important novelist of the Romantic period. Her novels view with an ironic but sympathetic eye upper-middle-class English society. Austen delights in exploring subtle nuances of language and minute turns of phrase.

Her earliest novel, Northanger Abbey, begun in 1798, is sold to a publisher in 1803 but not published until 1818. The heroine of the novel is Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old girl addicted to Gothic novels, a literary form that thrived in Britain from the 1790s to the 1820s. Austen comically juxtaposes elements of the Gothic form such as castles and desolate landscapes with the realities of life as normally found ‘in the Midland counties of England'.

In 1811, she publishes Sense and Sensibility. The novel explores the contradictory characters of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, one the picture of good sense, the other swayed by a giddy and romantic sensibility. The novel examines the psychology of romantic love and the constraints placed upon individual desire by prudence, honour and duty.

In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, Austen revises an earlier work, ‘First Impressions’, refused by the publisher in 1797. The novel, the most popular of Austen’s works as well as being her personal favourite, follows the adventures of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth succeeds in winning the dashing Fitzwilliam Darcy, ‘Mr Darcy’, the archetypal romantic hero. Pride and Prejudice makes love its main focus, and is the first of a new sub-genre of the novel, the romance novel. Only two more of her novels were published during her lifetime, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). Persuasion was published like Northanger Abbey in 1818, the year after her death.


Second-generation Romanticism: Byron, Keats, and the Shelleys

In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a second generation of Romantic writers emerges, led by Byron, Keats, and Percy Shelley, all of whom were at school when Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads (1798). The intervening years, between that landmark publication and Byron’s explosion onto the European literary scene with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812), witness a cooling of revolutionary spirit in Europe. In 1804 Napoleon is crowned emperor and in 1814 the Bourbon monarchy is restored in France.

The younger Romantics, in seeking to redefine Romanticism, challenge the Lake poets. Shelley accuses Wordsworth of betraying the hopes of the Revolution, and Keats questions Wordsworth's concept of ‘the egotistical sublime’, while Byron regrets that Wordsworth confined his muse to ‘such trifling subjects.’ (Review of Wordsworth’s Poems, Monthly Literary Recreations, 1807.)

George Gordon Byron (often referred to as Lord Byron, being the 6th in that line), publishes his first collection of poems in 1807; unremarkable in terms of quality, they are roundly attacked by reviewers. In 1809, he takes up his seat in the House of Lords then spends the next two years touring Spain, Malta, Greece, and the Levant. During this period the Peninsular War (1807–14), provoked by France’s invasion of Spain and Portugal, forces Britain to take a more active role in the Napoleonic Wars. Whilst the British government sees itself as engaged in a war in defence of liberty against tyranny, Byron considers the British position hypocritical and continues to sympathise with the republican ideals of the French Revolution, even retaining a measure of respect for Napoleon whom he regards as a flawed and misunderstood hero.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18), an unfinished poem written in Spenserian stanzas, is a meditation on the Peninsular War and on the European crisis in general, and considers wider questions connected with freedom, nature, and heroism. The poem recounts the travels of a misanthropic, self-exiled pilgrim, Childe Harold, the first of the Byronic heroes. The central character has much in common with Byron though he repeatedly denied any identification with Harold. Byron wrote in the Preface that had he proceeded to finish Childe Harold, the protagonist’s character ‘would have deepened’. Indeed, in subsequent poems such as The Corsair, Manfred and Don Juan, Byron returns to the same theme though with little significant development of his hero.


In 1815, after a passionate affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron marries Annabella Milbanke, Lady Melbourne's niece. The marriage is short-lived and the following year, amid rumours of his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, he separates from his wife and leaves England permanently, spending time with the Shelleys in Geneva. During these years in exile, Byron composes his masterpiece, Don Juan (1819–24). The poem describes the adventures of a gallant young man shipwrecked on a Greek island, and is a powerful critique of social and sexual conventions, as well as criticism of other Romantic writers and of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s vanquisher at Waterloo. Byron died in 1824 of a fever in Missolonghi, where he was giving support to Greek insurgents in their fight for independence.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, a committed atheist and son of a baronet and member of Parliament, was expelled (1811) from Oxford University for writing an antireligious pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. In the same year he married Harriet Westbrook, a pupil at the same school as Shelley’s sister, but three years later, in 1814, he abandoned her and their young child to elope with Mary Godwin, the daughter of the atheist philosopher William Godwin and the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

Shelley first comes to public attention as a serious poet in 1813 with the publication of Queen Mab, which imagines a future society founded on principles of free love, atheism, and vegetarianism. In 1816 he publishes a visionary poem, Alastor, or, The Spirit of Solitude. The poem explores the dilemma facing the solitary poet who, in pursuit of his intellectual ideals, attempts to live without human sympathy and dies alone. On a summer visit to Geneva later that year, Shelley and Mary Godwin first meet Byron. In December 1816 Shelley’s estranged wife, Harriet, commits suicide, and shortly after he marries Mary.

With the death in 1817 of Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince of Wales, the succession to the British throne is put in danger. In the same year, Shelley writes a sonnet, Ozymandias, the Greek name for Ramses II. The poem, which was a contribution to the then popular trend of Romantic Orientalism, reflects on the inevitable decline of all leaders. A decayed statue of Ramses bears the legend: ‘”Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The last three lines of the sonnet make Shelley's point.
   Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
   Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
   The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Whilst on holiday in Leghorn, Shelley composes To a Sky-lark (1820). Written as an ode, a form at which Romantic poets excelled, it celebrates the freedom and intensity of a bird. In 1821, he writes a pastoral elegy Adonais (1821) on the death of his friend, John Keats, from consumption. Shelley would himself be dead within a year, drowned off Leghorn.

Percy Shelley’s summer in Geneva with Mary and Byron in 1816 provided the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). Mary afterwards recounted how one cold and rainy night in June she wrote the novel as part of a ghost-writing competition. Frankenstein is modelled on the classical story of Prometheus who defied the gods by stealing fire from them and created man from clay. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist, manufactures a life-like monster out of corpses, and is later killed by his creation. The book was an overnight success and single-handedly inaugurated the science fiction genre.

John Keats, one of a new group of Romantic writers known pejoratively by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine as the ‘Cockney School’, first rises to prominence in 1818 having abandoned a career in medicine to dedicate himself to poetry. Endymion (1818), is a four-book poem based on a mythical story about a beautiful young man so beloved by the moon that she descends from the skies every night to be with him. Keats alters the story into a Romantic quest for ideal beauty, by representing the young man as going down to the underworld in search of the moon. In 1818, Keats falls in love with Fanny Brawne. Keats’s letters to Fanny, Shelley and others, are among the most important in literary history.

In Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820), Keats meditates on an image of bucolic bliss portrayed on an Attic vase. He is moved to reflect on the contrast between things eternal and transient.    Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
   Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.
The poem contains the immortal lines, in which Keats strives for some equivalence between the two:
    Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
   Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Keats died in Rome in 1821. His tombstone bears the line: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'.


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