Characteristics of Romanticism in English Literature
Love of Nature, Animals, Landscape
It may seem strange to us to imagine life without flowerbeds. However, it was not until a French Queen introduced the idea to England in the 13th century, that garden design began.
It was a novel idea, because no one had thought of it, and no one prior to the implementation of beautiful garden design could see the point of doing it.
The definition of romanticism is a bit like this too. The appreciation of what is right in front of us, reordered and given higher purpose. In the case of garden design, it is the artistic arrangement of the natural. In the case of the Romantic movement, it is the same. That's why I think, the roots of Romanticism lie, strangely enough, in the five centuries of garden gazing that went on before the movement began.
The Timeline of Literary Periods
Before The Romantic Period We Have:
14th to 17th century Renaissance: critiques on authority especially state and religious rulers. Key writers include Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Robert Southwell.
1603 - 1625 Jacobean: intense writing on belief systems and the status of the common man. The era of William Shakespeare and John Donne with John Milton's Paradise Lost leading into an era known as Commonwealth (1697 onwards).
1630 - 1760 Colonial Literature of America: With Anne Bradstreet's The Author to Her Book illustrating that while America was meant to be a free land the rights of women were very suppressed. Puritan belief systems were questioned.
1660 -1689 Restoration: Authors such as Abraham Cowley reacted to ideas that sobriety was a good moral in his sombre poem Drinking. The role of the Church in England alongside the new view that those saved by Christ were those who deserved it saw Jonathan Swift's poem A Desciption of The Morning propose the idea that house servants were horribly treated and had little in the way of human rights.
1668 - 1800 Enlightenment: The significant work of this period was Denis Diderot's Encyclopedie which was a collection of knowledge. Perhaps one could say the founding idea for modern internet retrieval systems and wiki collections.
1780 - 1830 The Romantic Movement: The beginning of modern thinking about spirituality in terms of there being more than one deity and religion. A philosophical explosion of new ideas including Immanuel Kant and Jean Jacques Rousseau moving ideas from the objective to the subjective. This meant that romantic artists and poets explored nature as if they were present within it, and not looking at it. This could be said to be an era of empathy. The French Revolution was the impetus for political and social change as the underclass of Europe revolted against their impoverished circumstances. Romanticism paintings in oil flourished alongside romanticism in literature and poetry.
There is a really good Literary Periods Timeline chart here if you are a more visual type of learner.
History of the Romantic Period
When Thomas Love Peacock wrote The War-Song of Dinas Vawr (1829) about the battle between the common Welsh people and the English Kings who conquered Wales, he was alluding to the impact of the French Revolution on English society. In his poem the English soldiers crow; "the mountain sheep are sweeter, but the valley sheep are fatter; we therefore deemed it meeter, to carry off the latter." The invading English royal forces can see that the riches of Wales, the countryside, the natural resources and the spoils of war are worth the bloodshed they'll have to commit; "We there, in strife bewlid'ring, spilt blood enough to swim in: we orphan'd many children and widow'd many women."
The French Revolution (1798 - 1799) is seen as the impetus for the flourishing Romantic movement and the lasting and enduring impact it had as a school of thought. Earlier, I referenced gardening, and how it was an occupation no one was familiar with in the 13th century. Land law was so prohibitive in the Romantic Period that it was unheard of to have a private garden unless you held land freehold, which was all owned by aristocrats.
The emerging wealth of the mercantile class, or nouveau riche, saw much pressure to alter legislation concerning ownership of freehold title, and this was seen to in the late 1800s under the reign of Queen Victoria. Prior to this, poets, artists, philosophers and political activists were claiming that ordinary people had a right to their share of the wealth. The Romantic Movement strengthened as public sympathy aligned with French Revolutionaries, and a rich industrial and merchant class paying rent to crown estates grew fed up watching idle aristocrats playing with wealth that appeared undeserved.
French citizens were impoverished, to which their frivolous and spendthrift Queen Mary supposedly said; "Let them eat cake!" She lost her head, and the French lost the rule of the royal family.
The Romantic Poets
Romanticism was essentially a movement of thought which had its philosophical roots in Europe and its artistic expression in England. The ways the English Romantic poets expressed these ideas were quite interesting.
1835 Badger - the story of badger baiting, a prevalent English practice
John Clare wrote this in heroic couplets combined with sonnet stanzas. Clare was the son of a farmer and part of the laboring class who lamented the demise of the English countryside.
The Industrial Revolution heralded some cruel practices against animals like the badger. Men would steal them from their homes, bring them to the town centre and set them to fight with dogs. A badger would try to find its way home and if it did the badger "won". Usually they died violently and cruelly.
1797 Kubla Khan - the imaginative story of a trip to the pleasure dome meant to reflect man's link with the natural world
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was said to be under the influence of laudnum, an opiate drug at the time of writing this. He called the poem a "vision in a dream" yet the technical aspects include internal rhymes, alliteration and tempo adjustments that are very creative.
Describing a world at once terrible and yet divine, Coleridge embodies Kant's philosophy on the subjective, agreeing that the imagination and how we interpret the world around us is more true than holding to the teachings of divine beings or gods.
1814 She Walks in Beauty - said to be inspired by the vision of Byron's cousin in her wedding gown.
Lord George Gordon Byron wrote this poem in third person omniscient heralding a supernatural detachment from the wonder of beauty whether it be women or nature.
The most superior beauty can be described using nature as metaphor, rhyme and rhythm as expressions of internal heartbeats, and very much anchors "romantic" expression as adoration of the opposite sex.
1802 Composed Upon Westminster Bridge September 3 1802 - written on a train as Wordsworth travelled to France in homage to the beauty of man's creation powers.
William Wordsworth was well known for his lyrical and melodic poetry about nature and the Lake District in particular. This poem is a departure from that and an attempt to express that man can now make beauty.
Captures the paradox that although nature is beautiful man made structures can also be beautiful. Draws upon Romantic metaphors comparing the city to "majesty" and "temples" and "glittering" skies.
1794 The Tyger - William Blake wrote about the beauty of the animal tiger, which could be seen displayed in the new menageries that were at the Tower of London.
William Blake questions whether fearesome animals are truly of the devil, which was the prevailing theory about animals that turned into man eaters. He wrote about the beauty of creation and tried to illustrate how if horrible things existed perhaps they were part of the divine plan after all.
A fan of Jean Jacques Rousseau's theory that "Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains" and the idea that civilization fills people with unnecessary wants and seduces them away from nature's freedoms. Blakes work featured the struggle between man and the inner nature of freedom.
The Great Romantic Novel - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Born to a feminist philosopher mother, Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher journalist father William Godwin, it was no wonder that Mary Shelley wrote the most famous novel of the Romantic period. In 1818 she published , a macabre tale of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein who longs to create life from lifeless corpses, which he collects and patches together to create "The Monster". Frankenstein
The creature develops sentience, in line with philosophical ideas of the time, and eventually the capacity to love drives the creature to distress. Romanticism in literature at its finest.
"I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create."
The novel poses the ultimate Romantic era question - does God create us or are we our own masters? The birth of humanist philosophy takes root in her writing, along with the influence of Erasmus Darwin, a philosopher and doctor of the time who was said to have successfully animated lifeless flesh. Looking back, many regard Frankenstein as the first text in the genre of Science Fiction, which if you think about it, usually has a romantic element attached to the plots.
The Future Should Be Built on Reason
The Romantics believed that man was born to think for himself. This led to mass experimentation with emotions, be they erotic, dreamlike, admiring of beauty or fascinated with the macabre. Freedom and liberty for the individual including the right to express thought led to a movement and a set of ideas that rooted deeply into the psyche of society. The legacy of the romantic movement, the romantic poets and philosophers, and the artists who painted landscapes and fantasy characters is that they gave birth to the right to question the march of civilization and industrialization.
Jean Jacques Rousseau Philosophy BBC documentary extract
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© 2012 Lisa McKnight