English Poets of the Romantic Movement
English Romantic Poets
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The Romantic Poets
You can be forgiven for thinking the Romantic poets are people who write love poems. The name given to describe this famous group of predominantly English poets is deceptive. Specifically it applies to their works created during the period of 1790 - 1820 in England, although in other Western countries the period given to the Romantic movement is much broader. These poets hold a special place in my personal education and artistic development. I find their lives as intriguing as their poems.
The Romantic poets are not famous for their poetic expressions of unrequited or true love. Rather, the poets were political, economic and socially driven reactionaries.
In England, the Romantic movement coincided with the Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th century and lasted until the early 19th century. While the Industrial Revolution improved living conditions for the middle and upper classes, it created a larger gap in living standards between middle and lower classes. The manufacturing of goods previously created in people's homes using hand tools and basic machines,were replaced with mass factory production creating ugly landscapes. Poverty, political oppression, poor working conditions and dirty steam driven landscapes replaced a simpler rural life.
Who are the English Romantic poets?
- William Blake (1757 - 1827)
- William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850)
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)
- John Keats (1795 - 1821)
- Percy B Shelley (1792 - 1822)
- George Gordon (Lord Byron) (1788 - 1824)
- Robert Burns1 (1959 - 1796)
Though Burns, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge lived outside 1790 - 1830, their greatest works were written during this thirty year period.
1Robert Burns is an important Scottish poet often linked to the Romantic movement.
"The Age of Revolution"
The Romantic poets were only a small part of a much larger cultural movement.This movement affected the whole of Europe and America. Great painters such as David, Gericault, Constable and Goya and great composers such as Beethoven and Schubert also arose during this time, influenced by the same revolutions, ideas and feelings as the Romantic poets.
Aside from the negative impact of the Industrial revolution on the working and lower classes, the Romantic poets lived through an era of great political change which influenced their poetic thoughts. The period is sometimes coined the "The Age of Revolution".
The American Revolution began in 1765 with Americans rejecting the imposition of taxes by British Parliament. This resulted in:
- Boston Tea Party in 1773
- American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783
- American Congress signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776
The French Revolution of 1789 actually started two years prior in 1787, with the summoning of notabilities to discuss increase of taxes of the privileged classes. The Revolution did not reach its first climax until two years later. In August 1789. The National Constituent Assembly made two significant legal announcements:
- the abolition of the feudal regime and tithe
- the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The French Revolution continued until 1799.
New political ideas generated from these wars emphasized:
The revolutionary wars promised a great future for arts and humanity in a free society. This excited the Romantic poets and is reflected in the themes of their poetry, especially in poems by Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley.
Six significant ideas of Romantic poetry
- Feelings of empathy and respect for people of the lower economic classes.
- People are generally good even though society can be cruel and degrading.
- A love of nature drawing inspiration from the countryside and other rural landscapes.
- Emphasis on showing feelings, not hiding emotions.
- Deep interest in the irrational, the supernatural and horror.
- Imagination is a rare gift that seizes the moment.
The Lives of the Romantic Poets
One of the key ideas of the Romantic poets was respect for the simple lives of uneducated country folk, which they upheld to be more noble and honorable than the rich. The poets themselves were not uneducated.
- Wordsworth and Coleridge were educated at Cambridge.
- Shelley attended Eton and Oxford.
- Keats trained as a surgeon.
- Blake attended the Royal Academy of Arts a private institution in London.
- Gordon attended Trinity College, a college of the University of Cambridge.
- Burns hailed from Scotland and was the only contemporary poet whose schooling and background was not as lavish.
Many believe Wordsworth (b.1757 - d.1827) to be one of England's greatest poets.With an early interest in politics, he went to France during the revolution (1791-1792) and came close to being executed in the Jacobin terror. Until the rise of Napoleon, Wordsworth was a firm believer in the benefits of the Revolution. He returned to England and moved to the Lakes District, where he met and became friends with Coleridge.
An extract from 'Lines Written in Early Spring'
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet sound when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to mind.
To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Coleridge (b.1772 - d.1834) was the most productive and influential of the Romantic poets. He wrote his best works during the time of his friendship with Wordsworth. His poem Kubla Kahn composed in 1797 was inspired by an opium induced dream. which stimulated Coleridge's imagination. Unfortunately, Opium became Coleridge's fixation for a period and almost destroyed his friendship with Wordsworth, as it did his marriage and health.
John KeatsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Both Keats and Shelley died tragically at an early age. Keats (b.1795 - d.1821) resigned his position as a surgeon after finding it impossible to perform operations on people who were cognizant of their pain. At the age of 23 he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. He moved to Italy, hoping the warmer weather might improve his health. In Italy he was inspired to write his greatest works. He succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 30.
George Gordon (Lord Byron)
Considered one of England's greatest poets, Gordon (b.1788 - d.1824) was born into the English aristocracy. Prior to his self exile in 1816, he lived a flamboyant life in London filled with numerous love affairs, indulgent parties and scandalous rumors about his love interests. Gordon left England for Italy to escape the castigation of English society. It was here he met Shelley through Mary and her sister Claire. Claire was Gordon's latest love affair. Like Wordsworth, Gordon became embroiled in revolutionary politics joining the Greek War of Independence.
Blake (b.1757 - d.1827) was not a popular poet of his time. His works entered into public recognition in the early twentieth century. Most of Blake's life was lived in poverty in South England. Like most of the Romantic poets, Blake had an eccentric manner believing himself to be a Christian prophet and visionary. He used poetry and painting to spread his religious message. A message his readers often found confusing and bewildering as his works were original and distinctive.
An extract from 'London'
I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in ever ban,
The mind forged manacles I hear.
Celebrated as Scotland's greatest poet and lyricist, Burns' (b.1759 - d.1796) poetic works influenced Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. His poetic themes like his English contemporary Romantic poets touched on poverty, class inequities and radical reform. Burns' poems also show a varied emotional landscape which has been attributed to a mentally depressive state. Burns died of ill health at the age of 36 following a dental operation.
The Study of the Romantic Poets
To fully appreciate poetry through its recitation and through the writing of prose and lyrical words, it is important to understand the Poet's life. Having knowledge of their social and physical environments, understanding the themes that influenced their outpouring of words, lends to their writing a depth of understanding that may otherwise be lost in the ink that graces torn textbooks and borrowed pages. All the better are we to contemplate the true virtues of the Romantic poets' song.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley's (b.1792 - d.1822) life was taken tragically in a storm while sailing his schooner in Italy. Shelley lived an emotionally charged life. Expelled from Oxford for writing and distributing an essay supporting atheism, Shelley chose to live on the whim of his emotions. He eloped to Scotland with his first wife, Harriet at the age of 19. Harriet was just 16. He saw his role in their elopement perhaps as that of a knight in shining armor, rescuing the young student from a life she abhorred. Shelley was not content with his marriage and he continued to have other female dalliances. Shelley remarried Mary Wollstonecraft better known as Mary Shelley famous author of the Gothic novel, Frankenstein. With friends they traveled abroad and met up with Lord Byron.
Sonnet: England in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,-
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, -mud from a muddy spring,-
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, -
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,-
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword and to all who wield,-
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless-a book sealed;
A Senate,-Time's worst statute unrepealed,-
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Romantics - Eternity (BBC documentary)
© 2014 Tina Dubinsky