The generation of a new interest in the Middle Ages was one of the hallmarks of the Romantic Movement in England, as in the rest of Europe. Heine went so far as to define romanticism as the reawakening of the Middle Ages. H. A. Beers in A History of English Romanticism (1902) was also mainly concerned with the revival of medievalism. It is, however, too lop-sided an interpretation of romanticism which was, in fact, a very complex and composite phenomenon.
Why were most romantic poets interested in the Middle Ages? The answer to this question is not far to seek. The romantics were, essentially, critical of intellectualism, sophisticated civilisation, and harsh humdrum reality. The desire to get rid of them made them “amorous of the far.” They sought an escape into regions and states of beings as far removed in time and space as possible. It is this love of the remote, the strange, and the mysterious which induced in them an interest in the Middle Ages. The romantic poet is impatient of the real and the earth-bound. He is often discontented with the state of things as they are. Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Scott are notably so. Being dissatisfied with oppressive reality they either sing of the glorious past or project their imagination into the womb of futurity to raise a shape that answers their own desire. Thus Keats sings of the glory that was Greece; Scott endeavours to recapture the splendour of the past ages, particularly, the Middle Ages; Shelley sings of the golden age to come; and Coleridge is lost in a world of his own making. Says Shelley:
We look before and after
And pine for what is not.
And pine for what is not.
Samuel C. Chew observes about the romantics’ interest in the Middle Ages: “With such currents of thought and feeling flowing, it was natural that the Middle Ages were regarded with a fresh sympathy, though not, be it said, with accurate understanding. It is true that there were those who, like Shelley, seeking to reshape the present in accordance with desire, did not revert to the past but pursued their ideal into a Utopian future. But to others the Middle Ages offered a spiritual home, remote and vague and mysterious. The typical romanticist does not ‘reconstruct’ the past from the substantial evidence provided by research, but fashions it a new, not as it was but as it ought to have been. The more the writer insists upon the historical accuracy of his reconstruction the less romantic is he.” Thus some romantics who love the Middle Ages not only try to escape from the real and present world but from the real medieval world too; they fashion it a new as it ought to have been, ignoring its unpalatable features known to all historians. They glorify its splendour and chivalry and forget its dirt, disease, squalor, superstition, and social oppression.
As to what led most romantic poets to make their spiritual home in the Middle Ages is explained by Walter Pater in the following words: “The essential elements of the romantic spirit are curiosity and the love of beauty, and it is as the accidental effect of these qualities only, that it seeks the Middle Ages, because in the overcharged atmosphere of the Middle Ages there are unworked sources of romantic effect, of a strange beauty to be won by strong imagination out of things unlikely or remote.” Romanticism is interpreted by Pater as the addition of the sense of strangeness to beauty. “Strangeness” implies the combination of the emotional sense of wonder and the intellectual sense of curiosity. Both these senses are gratified by the romance-clad, remote, and mysterious Middle Ages.
Not All Romantic Poets Are Medievalists:
In spite of the views of Heine and Beers already referred to, medievalism is not an essential feature of all romantic poetry, even though it be one of the hallmarks of the Romantic Movement in England. Many important poets did not, for different reasons, evince much interest in the Middle Ages; but they were “romantics” all the same. Among such poets must be mentioned the names of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron. Wordsworth found a constant spiritual anchor in Nature. He was as keenly dissatisfied with the world of humdrum reality as any other romantic poet. But whereas others escaped to the remote in time and space, Wordsworth found in the healing power of Nature a balm for all his pains and frustrations. Why should he have looked to the Middle Ages when the panacea for all his ills was present right in front of him? There is not any strong element of romantic agony and earning in Wordsworth’s poetry as Nature led him “from joy to joy.” Medievalism for Wordsworth, then, was an utter irrelevancy. As regards Shelley, the absence of interest in the Middle Ages may be explained by his persistent “futurism.” He found his spiritual home not in the supposedly near-ideal bygone ages but in the golden age to come. He looked “after” rather than “before”; the unborn tomorrow appealed to him as more real than the dead yesterday. He, however, did love to dwell upon mystery, spirit foreign lands, and remote times. At any rate, the love of the Middle Ages does not manifest itself as a specific and noteworthy element in his poetry. Byron’s temper and approach were in many respects quite different from those of most romantic poets. But the love of the remote was equally shared by him with others. However, he was much more interested in the Orient than in medieval Europe. His “Oriental Tales”-77ze Giaour, The Bride ofAbydos (both 1813) and The Corsair (1817) have for their background the world of Oriental romance; however, their interest resides not in the romantic atmosphere but the personality of the hero in each case. Only in Lara (1814) do we find Byron employing, to quote-Samuel C. Chew, “the Gothic mode for the delineation of the Byronic hero.” Thus, on the whole, Byron manifests little interest in medievalism.
Difference from the Gothic Romancers:
The medievalism of romantic poets was quite different from that of the Gothic romancers who had earlier shown in their crude Gothic stories new interest in the Middle Ages. Horace Walpole and Mrs. Ann Radcliffe were the most important among them. Walpole, like some other dilettanti of the second half of the eighteenth century, did something practically Gothic by erecting an actual castle (not one in the air) after the Gothic style-at least, what he thought was the Gothic style. Critics are forward enough to dub his Gothicism-both that of his architecture and his Castle of Otranto-as, sham. These Gothic novelists had little real knowledge of the Middle Ages. They were crude sensation-mongers who found the Middle Ages a convenient repository in which all supernatural and blood-curdling events and characters could be dumped with impunity. Their approach to the Middle Ages was neither sincere nor psychological, nor artistic. For one thing, none of them really believed in all that he wrote about. Walpole was an enervated intellectual who cultivated the creed of Gothicism just to kill boredom. Mrs. Radcliffe, wife of a journalist, wrote her stories just to keep herself occupied during the frequent hours of leisure. None of the Gothicists made the Middle Ages his or her spiritual home. Coleridge, Scott, and Keats on the other hand, dealt with the Middle Ages with extreme sensitiveness and psychological integrity. Coleridge and Keats, at least, believed in their own “romanticised” versions of the Middle Ages. They breathed the very air of the period and made themselves quite at home in that atmosphere. Their approach to the Middle Ages was not the approach of a painstaking historian or cold dilettante. They transported themselves into the spirit of those times though without bothering about fidelity to historical details. Their interest lay in living rather than describing the Middle Ages.
Coleridge was the pioneer in the psychological and artistic handling of the Middle Ages. His medievalism and supernaturalism go hand in hand. The Middle Ages for him provide a very appropriate period for his poems which contain supernatural and mysterious events rich in romance. His greatest poems-Christabel and The Ancient Mariner-have both for their backdrop the England of the Middle Ages. In the former we have the usual medieval accoutrements-such as an old-fashioned castle, a feudal lord, mystery, superstition, magic, and terror. The castle is surrounded by a moat and is “ironed within and without/’ There is the witch woman Geraldine who casts her evil spell on the chaste Christabel who is every inch the beautiful and young heroine of a typical medieval romance. The medieval atmosphere, along with Coleridge’s subtle and imaginative handling of his subject, gives the poem a colour of credibility. It also enables him to dispense with any elaborate machinery for the generation of eerie and remote terror. As is usual with him, Coleridge works in Christabel through subtle suggestion rather than explicit description. It must be noted that Coleridge values the Middle Ages not for their own sake but for their capacity to provide a suitable setting for the supernatural which it is his purpose to hint at or to display openly. Only once does he go beyond this-while describing the shadowy picture in Christabel of
The charm carved so curiously
Carved with figures strange and sweet
For the Lady’s chamber meet.
Carved with figures strange and sweet
For the Lady’s chamber meet.
Otherwise, the medieval atmosphere is kept vague rather than concretely depicted, though it permeates everything. Even when he alludes to the trials by combat in Part II of Christabel he does not give precise details. Contrast his approach with Keats’s description of Madeline’s chamber in The Eve of St. Agnes and we will find the difference between Coleridge and other romantic poets in this particular.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is, likewise, provided by Coleridge with a medieval setting. The references to the crossbow, the vesper bell, the shriving hermit, the prayer to Mary-all point to the medieval setting of the poem. The deliberate archaisms Iike eftsoons”, “countree,” and “swound” serve the same purpose. The supernatural events in the poem find a befitting backdrop in this medieval setting.
In his medievalism and supernaturalism Scott followed in the footsteps of Coleridge and found atumultuous response from the reading public. Scott was a very copious and versatile writer, better known as a novelist than a poet. As a historical novelist he covered in his novels the history of England and Scotland from the Dark Ages to the then recent eighteenth century. He was at home in the past, particularly the Middle Ages in which he created an unprecedented interest and even enthusiasm.
The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Scott’s first important original work, has for its setting the England-Scotland border of the mid-sixteenth century with all its feuds and suggestions of magic and mystery. A Tale of Flodden Field Marmion (1808) is, likewise, set in the year 1513 and is based on some historical incidents generously peppered with many others of the poet’s own creation. The Lady of the Lake (1810), which like the two above-mentioned works is a poem in six cantos, also like them transports the reader to England and Scotland of the Middle Ages and has for characters chivalrous knights who participate in numerous feuds for the hand of a beautiful maiden. Scott’s treatment of the Middle Ages is somewhat less artistic and delicate than Coleridge’s. He is much more interested in action and vigorous narration than in subtle and psychological suggestions.
Keats, like most romantic poets, revelled in the past. He was most pleased with the Middle Ages and the ancient Greece with all its glory, splendour, and beauty. His most important poems conceived in the medieval setting are the incomparable The Eve of St. Agnes and the ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The former is based on the medieval legend of St. Agnes. “The Eve of St. Agnes, “says a critic, “is a glorious record of the fondness of Keats for all that is understood by the phrase ‘medieval accessories.” There are very obvious “medieval accessories” such as an old castle, an adventurous, love-struck knight, a young lady who looks like the typical heroine of amedieval romance, the beadsman, and family feuds and enmity. All this is certainly medieval. “But,” observes a critic, “it is medievalism seen through the magical mist of the imagination of Keats.” Keats’ s approach to the Middle Ages is conditioned by his sensuous temper. He loves this period for its romance and mystery, no doubt, but also for its picturesqueness and its appeal to the senses. His treatment lacks the subtlety and psychological veracity of Coleridge’s. “The reliance,” says Samuel C. Chew, “upon elaborate and vivid presentation rather than upon suggestion differentiates the quality of Keats’ s romanticism from Coleridge’s.”
The setting of La Belle Dame Sans Merci is also medieval and is equally charged with the spirit of chivalry and the supernatural. The love-lorn knight-at-arms who is smitten by the sight of the femme fatale-“a faery’s child”-the “elfin grot”, and the mysterious incidents are all abundantly suggestive of the Middle Ages. The whole poem has, unlike The Eve of St. Agnes, the naivete of a medieval lay.