Renoir Young Girl Reading

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:

William Blake

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:

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 (" 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.

William Wordsworth

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:

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