The Romantic Movement
The Norton Anthology frames the Romantic period between 1785 and 1830, and focuses on only English poets (naturally, since it's the Norton Anthology of English Literature). But Romanticism was actually a European and American movement, as well. It included, among many others, Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau in the United States; Hugo and Rousseau in France; and Schiller and Goethe in Germany.
A clear definition of "Romanticism" is a matter of debate among scholars, but for the purposes of this class, it will help to keep the following criteria in mind:
- Not all Romantic poets are alike; they have major differences in style and doctrine. But they also share similarities.
- All are influenced by the "spirit of the age," i.e., an explosion of artistic and political energy that occurred at the time.
- All are influenced by democratic revolutions. The British and European Romantics were influenced somewhat by the American Revolution (which began in 1776, and had been brewing for a number of years before that), but much more by the French Revolution (which began in 1789 and eventually had huge repercussions on all of Europe). In France, especially, the old regimes and beliefs fell and new, more democratic ideals were constructed. (On the Links Page, there are some links to pages which tell you what happened during the French Revolution, and also a couple of pages explaining its political, social, and cultural effects.)
- Wordsworth sets the basic tone for the Romantics: poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Earlier poets looked for inspiration in the outer world; they subscribed to the "mimetic theory," that the function of art is to imitate life. The Romantics believe, instead, that art should derive from the inner world of the individual poet and his or her internal feelings. Thus, the focus of interest in Romantic poetry is often on the mind, spirit and feelings of the poet. In fact, often in Romantic poetry, the act of composition is the subject of the poem. This is a new trend. In earlier poetry, it was rare for a poet to write about his own creative process. But in a letter to his sister Dorothy dated January 18, 1816, Wordsworth wrote, "Thus the Poetry...proceeds whence it ought to do, from the soul of Man, communicating its creative energies to the images of the external world."
- Being more compatible with personal exploration, the lyric poem, written in the first person, becomes the predominant form.
- For centuries, the purpose of a poem was to produce an effect on its readers; during the Romantic era, that goal disqualifies it as poetry. Keats said, "I never wrote a line of poetry with the least shadow of public thought" (letter, April 9, 1818). According to Shelley, in "Defence of Poetry," "A poet is a nightingale who sits in the darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician."
- Yet, paradoxically, to one degree or another, the Romantic poets see themselves as "prophets," carrying a message of new hope, a new way of thought and life that will eventually produce a Utopia.
- The Romantic poets feel that poetry should not be, in its composition, as structured or tortured as the forms used by earlier generations. (Alexander Pope's heroic couplets were especially unpopular, since the Romantics saw them as passionless--more concerned with form than content.) The poem should be the product of unconscious creativity; the poet must be tapping into "the universal." Freedom of imagination is the vital element. The Romantics consider genuine emotion much more important than perfect form (although, as you'll see, they spent a lot of time getting the form right, too). According to Coleridge, "The poet's heart and intellect should be combined, intimately combined and unified with the great appearances of nature, and not merely held in solution and loose mixture with them" (letter to Robert Southey, 1802).
- The Romantic poets often focus on nature as a subject. "Nature," however, usually serves as a metaphor or a catalyst for an emotional state, problem, or issue. Landscape, thus, is given human qualities. For example, in "I wandered lonely as a cloud," Wordsworth writes,
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
- The Romantic poets believe that Nature gives human beings direct access to God; thus, Nature replaces organized religion as the route to Truth. For this reason, symbolism, both in nature and in Romantic poetry, plays a large role. "A puddle," says Hazlitt, "is filled with preternatural faces" ("On Mr. Wordsworth's Excursion"). The Romantic poets preferred to use symbolism rather than exposition, since they felt that implication and deduction were more effective than overt preaching.
- In keeping with the democratization of the political world, Romanticism glorifies the common. Blake, for example, writes about chimney sweeps; Keats finds universal truths in an ordinary Grecian urn.
- Many of the Romantics were fascinated with magic and the supernatural, especially Coleridge, Blake, Byron, and Shelley.
- Individualism and nonconformity are prized; a common subject is the outcast.
Blake was both an artist and a poet. He designed his own books, writing the poems and carving the engravings that illustrated them. (To see some samples of his artwork, go to the WebMuseum.)
In Blake's poetry, there are a number of recurring themes:
- Blake was especially interested in the relationship of Innocence and Experience--"two contrary states of the human soul," as Blake called them.
- Blake made a practice of deliberately shocking those he considered conventional.
- In Blake's poetry, the Biblical influence is strong, but Blake always puts his own spin on Biblical references.
- Blake saw the French Revolution's violence as purifying, and believed it would lead to redemption, the reunification of human beings, and thus to a new, purer world.
- Blake saw the poet and artist as a prophet.
- Blake believed that we lost "Eden" when we became alienated from our true selves; redemption will only occur, he believed, when we unify our bodily senses and our imagination.
- Blake believed that Nature, when we viewed it correctly through the human imagination, could lead us to Eden.
His poetic masterpieces, among which are "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," "Milton," and "Jerusalem," are too long for us to read in this class; we'll be concentrating on a few of the Songs of Innocence and Experience.
The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are most often, today, read together, as Blake intended they should be. The personae of the Songs of Innocence are often naive, unable to see the truths that the reader, a more experienced adult, can see quite clearly. Thus, these poems can be read as celebrations of youth and innocence, or as satiric or argumentative criticisms of conventions and institutions.
For example, take a look at the Innocence version of "The Chimney Sweeper." The young narrator doesn't resist his fate; instead, he sees the positive in every situation (he advises little Tom Dacre not to cry when his curls are cut off, "...for when your head's bare,/You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair"), and recites the Church's party line at the end of the poem: "So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm." Yet an adult reader can see the injustice of the children's situation ("...my father sold me while yet my tongue/Could scarcely cry ''weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!'"), and the hypocrisy of a Church and a society which holds out to these children, as their only comfort, the promise of eternal life.
Any reader in Blake's time would, as well, be aware of the facts of life for chimney sweeps. Small children were sold between the ages of 4 and 7 to their "masters." They were sold either in groups, by the poorhouse, or individually by their parents, for between 20 and 30 shillings. They were then called "apprentices," and were bound to their masters for 7 years. Chimney sweeps had to be children, the smaller the better, since chimney flues in London were on the average, 7 inches square, often narrow or twisted. The children were often prodded with poles or pins or were scorched with fire to force them further up the chimneys. Many died of suffocation; others grew deformed; many suffered from cancer of the scrotum, known then as "sooty warts." Chimney sweeps began their day before dawn and were finished by noon, when they were turned onto the streets in rags, unwashed and hungry. Most of them were not fed by their masters, and were forced to beg for food. At the end of his "career," the typical chimney sweep was 12 years old, a cripple on crutches, and about 3 feet 7 inches tall. Chimney sweeps were considered beggars, vagrants, and criminals; many ended up in prison after their "apprenticeships" ended (they were unqualified for anything but begging, and begging was a criminal offense), or worked as male prostitutes.
Sweeps were allowed to bathe once a week, on Sunday mornings before church, in the New River in Islington. Once a year, on May 1st, they were granted a "holiday." Their faces were "whitened with meal, their heads covered with high periwigs powdered as white snow, and their clothes bedaubed with paper lace" and ribbons, as a writer of the time notes. They were then paraded through the city banging brushes and climbing tools.
Blake was counting on the contrast between this common knowledge and the voice of the innocent and virtuous little chimney sweeper to expose the guilt of the Church and the government that allowed such injustice, and also the guilt of the reader himself, who was complicit in such injustice every time he had his chimney cleaned.
The Songs of Experience were originally conceived as direct satires of the Songs of Innocence; for each poem in Songs of Innocence, there is a matching poem in Songs of Experience with the same name. Blake attacks the same subject matter in these "matching" poems, but in the Songs of Experience, tells the story from a different, more experienced point of view, often using a sarcastic or bitter tone. Blake once said, "Without Contraries is no progression," and he sets up contraries and oppostions at every turn in these paired poems: the "Experience" plates were etched on the backs of the "Innocence" plates. Blake also used different calligraphy and color for the "Experience" plates. He explores opposing themes: love vs. hate, expansion vs. contraction, opaqueness vs. translucence, reason vs. energy, attraction vs. repulsion. In these poems, Blake's technique of using parallelism and antithesis is obvious.
Wordsworth believed that poetry should write of "emotion recollected in tranquility." In his poetry, almost always, some object or event triggers memories of feelings he experienced in youth. The result is a poem which shows the discrepancy between the "old" and the "young" Wordsworth.
When Wordsworth was 14, he saw the boughs of a tree silhouetted against the bright evening sky. This made a vivid impression on him, and was the beginning of his career as a poet. In his 70s, he wrote, "I recollect distinctly the very spot where this first struck me. It was in the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country." He believed that Nature (for Wordsworth, this meant mostly rural nature: mountains, lakes, fields, the changing seasons) is the crucible through which we must pass before our spirit can be independent. Those separated from Nature have skipped a necessary stage of development. They become unimaginative or require increasingly personal and violent stimuli. The result is a self-alienated, rather than a creative, personality.
Generally speaking, there are a number of ideas or themes that recur in most of Wordsworth's poetry:
- Wordsworth believed that nature and human consciousness are interdependent or "correspondent" powers. In his poems, nature is appreciated not only for its beauty, but for its ability to serve up lessons and trigger the memories and reflections that lead one to profound insights.
- In his poetry, a new attitude is toward consciousness is revealed: the consciousness of consciousness, it might be called. There are sections of poems, even whole poems, whose subject matter follows the process of the speaker's thoughts and the creative process that arises from those thoughts.
- Wordsworth values subjectivity, rather than detachment. He believed that the starting point for authentic reflection is in the individual consciousness, not the empirical or social consciousness. He had a great respect for individual experience, and saw in it extraordinary potential.
- In his poems, memory is more often creative rather than nostalgic; one begins with a memory, and that memory is a catalyst for a sequence of ideas and realizations which leave the speaker (and the reader) wiser.
- Knowledge, Wordsworth, believed, expands previous memory and experience, rather than supplanting it.
- Wordsworth rejects reason, myth, and fable; they dispossess the imagination while civilizing it. Knowledge is rooted in past experience, but the imagination moves us past memory to awareness and consciousness.
- Wordsworth commonly writes of childhood and innocence, but in a different way from Blake. Some critics believe that Wordsworth idealizes childhood, but actually, his focus is on the journey from childhood to adulthood (i.e., full realization and consciousness) that children pass through. In Wordsworth's mind, childhood is closest to divinity, but also to narcissism. For Wordsworth, the issue is how to civilize the soul without losing it; how to bind the child's imagination without destroying it.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge's poetry falls into two general categories: the "demonic" (which would include "Kubla Khan" and "The Ancient Mariner") and the "conversational" (which would include "Frost At Midnight").
The poems in the "demonic" group have in common magical or supernatural elements. Their speakers are on a quest of some sort, but never achieve their goals. The Mariner can tell his story, but never achieve forgiveness; the speaker in "Kubla Khan" cannot even finish his story.
The "conversational" poems speak of the desire to go home to what Hart Crane called "an improved infancy." In each of these poems, the speaker must suffer or fail so that someone he loves may succeed. In "Frost at Midnight," he vows that his newborn child will have a better childhood than he did; he is filled simultaneously with a sense of loss for his own innocence and a joy at the miracle of his own child's limitless potential. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" was tremendously influenced by "Frost At Midnight."
If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Romantic Poetry and Prose, eds. Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling
2. "The Structure of Romantic Nature Imagery," W. K. Wimsatt, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
3. "Blake's Treatment of the Archetype," Northrop Frye, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
4. "Point of View and Context in Blake's Songs," Robert F. Gleckner, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
5. "Nature and the Humanization of Self in Wordsworth," Geoffrey H. Hartman, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
6. "The Lyrical Ballads," Paul Sheats, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
7. "The Immortality Ode," Lionel Trilling, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
8. Blake: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd
9. William Wordsworth: A Poetic Life, John L. Mahoney
10. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rosemary Ashton
11. "The Ancient Mariner," Humphry House, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
12. "Coleridge's Divine Comedy," G. W. Knight, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
13. The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams