English Literature

 

VI   THE ROMANTIC AGE

Extending from about 1789 until 1837, the romantic age stressed emotion over reason. One objective of the French Revolution (1789-1799) was to destroy an older tradition that had come to seem artificial, and to assert the liberty, spirit, and heartfelt unity of the human race. To many writers of the romantic age this objective seemed equally appropriate in the field of English letters. In addition, the romantic age in English literature was characterized by the subordination of reason to intuition and passion, the cult of nature much as the word is now understood and not as Pope understood it, the primacy of the individual will over social norms of behavior, the preference for the illusion of immediate experience as opposed to generalized and typical experience, and the interest in what is distant in time and place.

A   The Romantic Poets

The first important expression of romanticism was in the Lyrical Ballads (1798) of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, young men who were aroused to creative activity by the French Revolution; later they became disillusioned with what followed it. The poems of Wordsworth in this volume treat ordinary subjects with a new freshness that imparts a certain radiance to them. On the other hand, Coleridge’s main contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” masterfully creates an illusion of reality in relating strange, exotic, or obviously unreal events. These two directions characterize most of the later works of the two poets.

For Wordsworth the great theme remained the world of simple, natural things, in the countryside or among people. He reproduced this world with so close and understanding an eye as to add a hitherto unperceived glory to it. His representation of human nature is similarly simple but revealing. It is at its best, as in “Tintern Abbey” or “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” when he speaks of the mystical kinship between quiet nature and the human soul and of the spiritual refreshment yielded by humanity’s sympathetic contact with the rest of God’s creation. Not only is the immediacy of experience in the poetry of Wordsworth opposed to neoclassical notions, but also his poetic style constitutes a rejection of the immediate poetic past. Wordsworth condemned the idea of a specifically poetic language, such as that of neoclassical poetry, and he strove instead for what he considered the more powerful effects of ordinary, everyday language.

Coleridge’s natural bent, on the other hand, was toward the strange, the exotic, and the mysterious. Unlike Wordsworth, he wrote few poems, and these during a very brief period. In such poems as “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel,” the beauties and horrors of the far distant in time or place are evoked in a style that is neither neoclassical nor simple in Wordsworth’s fashion, but that, instead, recalls the splendor and extravagance of the Elizabethans. At the same time Coleridge achieved an immediacy of sensation that suggests the natural although hidden affinity between him and Wordsworth, and their common rejection of the 18th-century spirit in poetry.

Another poet who found delight in the far distant in time was Sir Walter Scott, who, after evincing an early interest in the ancient ballads of his native Scotland, wrote a series of narrative poems glorifying the active virtues of the simple, vigorous life and culture of his land in the Middle Ages, before it had been affected by modern civilization. In such of these poems as The Lady of the Lake (1810) he employed a style of little originality. His work, however, was the more popular among his immediate contemporaries for that very reason, long before the full stature of Wordsworth’s more impressive poetry was recognized. Some of Scott’s Waverley novels, a series of historical works, have given him a more permanent reputation as a writer of prose.

A second generation of romantic poets remained revolutionary in some sense throughout their poetic careers, unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Scott. George Gordon, Lord Byron, is one of the exemplars of a personality in tragic revolt against society. As in his stormy personal life, so also in such poems as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and Don Juan (1819-1824), this generous but egotistical aristocrat revealed with uneven pathos or with striking irony and cynicism the vagrant feelings and actions of great souls caught in a petty world. Byron’s satirical spirit and strong sense of social realism kept him apart from other English romantics; unlike the rest, he proclaimed, for example, a high regard for Pope, whom he sometimes imitated.

The other great poet-revolutionary of the time, Percy Bysshe Shelley, seems much closer to the grandly serious spirit of the other romantics. His most thoughtful poetry expresses his two main ideas, that the external tyranny of rulers, customs, or superstitions is the main enemy, and that inherent human goodness will, sooner or later, eliminate evil from the world and usher in an eternal reign of transcendent love. It is, perhaps, in Prometheus Unbound (1820) that these ideas are most completely expressed, although Shelley’s more obvious poetic qualities—the natural correspondence of metrical structure to mood, the power of shaping effective abstractions, and his ethereal idealism—can be studied in a whole range of poems, from “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark” to the elegy “Adonais,” written for John Keats, the youngest of the great romantics.

More than that of any of the other romantics, Keats’s poetry is a response to sensuous impressions. He found neither the time nor the inclination to elaborate a complete moral or social philosophy in his poetry. In such poems as “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” all written about 1819, he showed an unrivaled awareness of immediate sensation and an unequaled ability to reproduce it. Between 1818 and 1821, during the last few years of his short life, this spiritually robust, active, and wonderfully receptive writer produced all his poetry. His work had a more profound influence than that of any other romantic in widening the sensuous realm of poetry for the Victorians later in the century.

B   Romantic Prose

Certain romantic prose parallels the poetry of the period in a number of ways. The evolution of fundamentally new critical principles in literature is the main achievement of Coleridge’s Biographia literaria (1817), but like Charles Lamb (Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, 1808) and William Hazlitt (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1817), Coleridge also wrote a large amount of practical criticism, much of which helped to elevate the reputations of Renaissance dramatists and poets neglected in the 18th century. Lamb is famous also for his occasional essays, the Essays of Elia (1823, 1833). An influential romantic experiment in the achievement of a rich poetic quality in prose is the phantasmagoric, impassioned autobiography of Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).