The Romantic period is the most fruitful period in the history of English literature. The revolt against the Classical school which had been started by writers like Chatterton, Collins, Gray, Burne, Cowper etc. reached its climax during this period, and some of the greatest and most popular English poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats belong to this period.
This period starts from 1798 with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the famous Preface which Wordsworth wrote as a manifesto of the new form of poetry which he and Coleridge introduced in opposition to the poetry of the Classical school. In the Preface to the First Edition Wordsworth did not touch upon any other characteristic of Romantic poetry except the simplicity and naturalness of its diction. “The majority of the following poems”, he writes “are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertaining how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adopted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” In the longer preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, where Wordsworth explains his theories of poetic imagination, he again returns to the problem of the proper language of poetry. “The language too, of these men (that is those in humble and rustic life) has been adopted because from their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple, unelaborated expression.”
Wordsworth chose the language of the common people as the vehicle of his poetry, because it is the most sincere expression of the deepest and rarest passions and feelings. This was the first point of attack of the artificial and formal style of Classical school of poetry. The other point at which Wordsworth attacked the old school was its insistence on the town and the artificial way of life which prevailed there. He wanted the poet to breathe fresh air of the hills and beautiful natural scenes and become interested in rural life and the simple folk living in the lap of nature. A longing to be rid of the precision and order of everyday life drove him to the mountains, where, as he describes in his Lines written above Tintern Abbey.
The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
By attacking the supremacy of the heroic couplet as the only form of writing poetry, and substituting it by simple and natural diction; by diverting the attention of the poet from the artificial town life to the life in the woods, mountains and villages inhabited by simple folk; and by asserting the inevitable role of imagination and emotions in poetry as against dry intellectualism which was the chief characteristic of the Classical school, Wordsworth not only emancipated the poet from the tyranny of literary rules and conventions which circumscribed his freedom of expression, but he also opened up before him vast regions of experience which in the eighteenth century had been closed to him. His revolt against the Classical school was in keeping with the political and social revolutions of the time as the French Revolution and the American War of Independence which broke away with the tyranny of social and political domination, and which proclaimed the liberty of the individual or nation to be the master of its own destiny. Just as liberty of the individual was the watchword of the French Revolution, liberty of a nation from foreign domination was the watchword of the American War of Independence; in the same manner liberty of the poet from the tyranny of the literary rules and conventions was the watchword of the new literary movement which we call by the name of Romantic movement. It is also termed as the Romantic Revival, because all these characteristics—the liberty of the writer to choose the theme and form of his literary production, the importance given to imagination and human emotions, and a broad and catholic outlook on life in all its manifestations in towns, villages, mountains, rivers etc. belonged to the literature of the Elizabethan Age which can be called as the first Romantic age in English literature. But there was a difference between the Elizabethan Age and the Romantic Age, because in the latter the Romantic spirit was considered as discovery of something which once was, but had been lost. The poets of the Romantic periods, therefore, always looked back to the Elizabethan masters—Shakespeare, Spenser and other —and got inspiration from them. They were under the haunting influence of feelings which had already been experienced, and a certain type of free moral life which had already been lived, and so they wanted to recapture the memory and rescue it from fading away completely.
In the poems which were contributed in the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth dealt with events of everyday life, by preference in its humblest form. He tried to prove that the commonplace things of life, the simple and insignificant aspects of nature, if treated in the right manner, could be as interesting and absorbing as the grand and imposing aspects of life and nature. To the share of Coleridge fell such subjects as were supernatural, which he was “to inform with that semblance of truth sufficient to procure for those shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.” Wordsworth’s naturalism and Coleridge’s supernaturalism thus became the two important spearheads of the Romantic Movement.
Wordsworth’s naturalism included love for nature as well for man living in simple and natural surroundings. Thus he speaks for the love that is in homes where poor men live, the daily teaching that is in:
Woods and rills;
The silence that is in the starry sky;
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
Coleridge’s supernaturalism, on the other hand, established the connection between the visible world and the other world which is unseen. He treated the supernatural in his masterly poem, The Ancient Mariner, in such a manner that it looked quite natural.
Associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge in the exploration of the less known aspects of humanity was Southey who makes up with them the trail of the so-called Lake Poets. He devoted himself to the exhibition of “all the more prominent and poetical forms of mythology which have at any time obtained among mankind.” Walter Scott, though he was not intimately associated with the Lake poets, contributed his love for the past which also became one of the important characteristics of the Romantic Revival.
Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Scott belong to the first romantic generation. Though they were in their youth filled with great enthusiasm by the outburst of the French Revolution which held high hope for mankind, they became conservatives and gave up their juvenile ideas when the French Republic converted itself into a military empire resulting in Napoleonic wars against England and other European countries. The revolutionary ardour, therefore, faded away, and these poets instead of championing the cause of the oppressed section of mankind, turned to mysticism, the glory of the past, love of natural phenomena, and the noble simplicity of the peasant race attached to the soil and still sticking to traditional virtues and values. Thus these poets of the first romantic generation were not in conflict with the society of which they were a part. They sang about the feelings and emotions which were shared by a majority of their countrymen.
The second generation of Romantic writers—Byron, Shelley, Keats, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt and others—who came to the forefront after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, revolted from the reactionary spirit which was prevailing at that time in England against the ideals of the French Revolution. The result was that the second generation came in conflict with the social environment with which their predecessors were in moral harmony. Moreover, the victorious struggle with the French empire had left England impoverished, and the political and social agitations which had subsided on account of foreign danger, again raised their head. The result was that there was a lot of turmoil and perturbation among the rank and file, which was being suppressed by those who were in power. In such an atmosphere the younger romantic generation renewed the revolutionary ardour and attacked the established social order. Thus Romanticism in the second stage became a literature of social conflict. Both Byron and Shelley rebelled against society and had to leave England.
But basically the poets of the two generations of Romanticism shared the same literary beliefs and ideals. They were all innovators in the forms well as in the substance of their poetry. All, except, Byron, turned in disgust from the pseudo-classical models and condemned in theory and practice the “poetical diction” prevalent throughout the eighteenth century. They rebelled against the tyranny of the couplet, which they only used with Elizabethan freedom, without caring for the mechanical way in which it was used by Pope. To it they usually preferred either blank verse or stanzas, or a variety of shorter lyrical measures inspired by popular poetry are truly original.
The prose-writers of the Romantic Revival also broke with their immediate predecessors, and discarded the shorter and lighter style of the eighteenth century. They reverted to the ponderous, flowery and poetical prose of the Renaissance and of Sir Thomas Browne, as we find in the works of Lamb, and De Quincey. Much of the prose of the Romantic period was devoted to the critical study of literature, its theory and practice. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Lamb, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt and De Quincey opened up new avenues in the study of literature, and gradually prepared the way for the understanding of the new type of literature which was being produced.
As the Romantic Age was characterised by excess of emotions, it produced a new type of novel, which seems rather hysterical, now, but which was immensely popular among the multitude of readers, whose nerves were somewhat excited, and who revelled in extravagant stories of supernatural terror. Mrs. Anne Radcliffe was one of the most successful writers of the school of exaggerated romances. Sir Walter Scott regaled the readers by his historical romances. Jane Austen, however, presents a marked contrast to these extravagant stories by her enduring work in which we find charming descriptions of everyday life as in the poetry of Wordsworth.
Whereas the Classical age was the age of prose, the Romantic age was the age of poetry, which was the proper medium for the expression of emotions and imaginative sensibility of the artist. The mind of the artist came in contact with the sensuous world and the world of thought at countless points, as it had become more alert and alive. The human spirit began to derive new richness from outward objects and philosophical ideas. The poets began to draw inspiration from several sources—mountains and lakes, the dignity of the peasant, the terror of the supernatural, medieval chivalry and literature, the arts and mythology of Greece, the prophecy of the golden age. All these produced a sense of wonder which had the be properly conveyed in literary form. That is why some critics call the Romantic Revival as the Renaissance of Wonder. Instead of living a dull, routine life in the town, and spending all his time and energy in to midst of artificiality and complexity of the cities, the poets called upon man to adopt a healthier way of living in the natural world in which providence has planted him of old, and which is full of significance for his soul. The greatest poets of the romantic revival strove to capture and convey the influence of nature on the mind and of the mind on nature interpenetrating one another.
The essence of Romanticism was that literature must reflect all that is spontaneous and unaffected in nature and in man, and be free to follow its own fancy in its own way. They result was that during the Romantic period the young enthusiasts turned as naturally to poetry as a happy man to singing. The glory of the age is the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley and Keats. In fact, poetry was so popular that Southey had to write in verse in order to earn money, what he otherwise would have written in prose.
Summing up the chief characteristics of Romanticism as opposed to Classicism, we can say that Classicism laid stress upon the impersonal aspects of the life of the mind; the new literature, on the other hand, openly shifts the centre of art, bringing it back towards what is most proper and particular in each individual. It is the product of the fusion of two faculties of the artist—his sensibility and imagination. The Romantic spirit can be defined as an accentuated predominance of emotional life, and Romantic literature was fed by intense emotion coupled with the intense desire to display that emotion through appropriate imagery. Thus Romantic literature is a genuinely creative literature calling into play the highest creative faculty of man.
Romantic poetry which was the antithesis of Classical poetry had many complexities. Unlike Classical poets who agreed on the nature and form of poetry, and the role that the poet is called upon to play, the Romantic poets held different views on all these subjects. The artistic and philosophic principles of neo-classical poetry were completely summarised by Pope, and they could be applied to the whole of Augustan poetry. But it is difficult to find a common denominator which links such poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The reason of this was that there was abundance and variety of genius. No age in English literature produced such great giants in the field of poetry. Moreover, it was the age of revolutionary change, not only in the view of the character and function of poetry but in the whole conception of the nature of man and of the world in which he found himself. The evenness, equanimity and uniformity of the Classical age was broken, and it was replaced by strong currents of change flowing in various directions. One poet reacted to a particular current more strongly or sympathetically than the other poet. Thus each poet of the Romantic period stands for himself, and has his own well-defined individuality. The only common characteristic that we find in them is their intense faith in imagination, which could not be controlled by any rules and regulations.
In fact the most distinctive mark which distinguished the Romantic poets from the Classical poets was the emphasis which the former laid on imagination. In the eighteenth century imagination was not a cardinal point in poetical theory. For Pope, Johnson and Dryden the poet was more an interpreter than a creator, more concerned with showing the attractions of what we already know than with expeditions into the unfamiliar and the unseen. They were less interested in the mysteries of life than in its familiar appearances, and they thought that their task was to display this with as much charm and truth as they could command. But for the Romantics imagination was fundamental, because they thought that without that poetry was impossible. They were conscious of a wonderful capacity to create imaginary worlds, and they could not believe that this was idle or false. On the contrary, they thought that to curb it was to deny something vitally necessary to the whole being.
Whereas the Classical poets were more interested in the visible world, the Romantic poets obeyed an inner call to explore more fully the world of the spirit. They endeavoured to explore the mysteries of life, and thus understand it better. It was this search for the unseen world that awoke the inspiration of the Romantics and made poets of them. They appealed not to the logical mind, but to the complete self, in the whole range of intellectual faculties, senses and emotions.
Though all the Romantic poets believed in an ulterior reality and based their poetry on it, they founded it in different ways and made different uses of it. They varied in the degree of importance which they attached to the visible world and in their interpretation of it. Coleridge conceived of the world of facts as an “inanimate cold world”, in which “object, as objects, are essentially fixed and dead”. It was the task of the poet to transform it by his power of imagination, to bring the dead world back to life. When we turn to The Ancient Mariner and Christable it seems clear that Coleridge thought that the task of poetry is to convey the mystery of life by the power of imagination. He was fascinated by the notion of unearthly powers at work in the world, and it was this influence which he sought to catch. The imagination of the poet is his creative, shaping spirit, and it resembles the creative power of God. Just as God creates this universe, the poet also creates a universe of his own by his imagination.
Wordsworth also thought with Coleridge that the imagination was the most important gift that the poet can have. He agreed with Coleridge that this activity resembles that of God. But according to Wordsworth imagination is a comprehensive faculty comprising many faculties. So he explains that the imagination:
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind
And Reason in her most exalted mood.
Wordsworth differs from Coleridge in his conception of the external world. For him the world is not dead but living and has its own soul. Man’s task is to enter into communion with this soul. Nature was the source of his inspiration, and he could not deny to it an existence at least as powerful as man’s. But since nature lifted him out of himself, he sought for a higher state in which the soul of nature and the soul of man could be united in a single harmony.
Shelley was no less attached to the imagination and gave it no less a place in his theory of poetry. He saw that the task of reason is simply to analyse a given thing and to act as an instrument of the imagination, which uses its conclusions to create a synthetic and harmonious whole. He called poetry “the Expression of the Imagination”, because in it diverse things are brought together in harmony instead of being separated through analysis. Shelley tried to grasp the whole of things in its essential unity, to show is real and what is merely phenomenal, and by doing this to display how the phenomenal depends on the real. For him the ultimate reality is the eternal mind, and this holds the universe together. In thought and feeling, in consciousness and spirit, Shelley found reality. He believed that the task of the imagination is to create shapes by which this reality can be revealed.
Keats had passionate love for the visible world and at times his approach was highly sensuous. But he had a conviction that the ultimate reality is to be found only in the imagination. What is meant to him can be seen from some lines in Sleep and Poetry, in which he asks why imagination has lost its power and scope:
Is there so small a range
In the present strength of manhood, that the high
Imagination cannot freely fly
As she was wont of old? prepare her steeds
Paw up against the light, and do strange deeds
Upon the clouds? Has she not shown us all?
From the clear space of ether, to the small
Breath of new buds unfolding? From the meaning
Of Jove’s eyebrow, to the tender greening
Of April meadows.
Through the imagination Keats sought an ultimate reality to which a door was opened by his appreciation of beauty through the senses. For him imagination is that absorbing and exalting faculty which opens the way to an unseen spiritual order.
Thus the great Romantic poets agreed that their task was to find through the imagination some transcendental order, some inner and ultimate reality which explains the outward appearance of things in the visible world and the effect which they produce on us. Each one gave his own interpretation of the universe, the relation of God, the connection between the visible and the invisible, nature and man, as he saw it through the power of his imagination. Each set forth his own vision through the power of his imagination. Each set forth his own vision through the richness of his poetry, and gave it a concrete individual shape. They refused to accept the ideas of other men on trust or to sacrifice imagination to argument. By means of their creative art they tried to awaken the imagination of the reader to the reality that lies behind and in familiar things, to rouse him from the dead and dull routine of custom, and make him conscious of the unfathomable mysteries of life. They tried to show that mere reason is not sufficient to understand the fundamental problems of life; what is required is inspired intuition. Thus their view of life and poetry was much wider and deeper than that of their predecessors in the eighteenth century, because they appealed to the whole spiritual nature of man and not merely to his reason and common sense whose scope is limited.