Romanticism in England

In England, the ground for Romanticism was prepared in the latter half of the eighteenth century through the economic, political, and cultural transformations mentioned in the preceding chapters. The system of absolute government crumbled even earlier in Britain than elsewhere; nationalistic sentiment sharpened, imperialistic endeavors widened, and the century saw an increasing growth of periodical literature which catered to the middle classes. The ideals of neoclassicism, such as decorum, order, normality of experience, and moderation, were increasingly displaced by an emphasis on individual experience. The moral function of literature was increasingly counterbalanced by an emphasis on aesthetic pleasure and the psychology of the reader’s response to beauty and sublimity. An emphasis on originality and genius supplanted the primacy of imitation of classical authors or nature. Thinkers such as Locke, Hume, and Burke had been instrumental in these shifts of taste and philosophical orientation. Critics such as Edward Young, William Duff, and Joseph Warton produced influential treatises: Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) and Duff’s An Essay on Original Genius (1767) stressed the claims of originality, genius, and the creative imagination. Poets and critics of this period, such as Richard Hurd, idealized the Middle Ages and expressed an admiration for primitive societies and a native literary tradition, in which the figures of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare were accorded prominence. The artist Sir Joshua Reynolds praised the genius and sublimity of the Renaissance painter Michelangelo.

The early British practitioners of Romanticism included Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, and Robert Burns. The English movement reached its most mature expression in the work of William Wordsworth, who saw nature as embodying a universal spirit, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, drawing on the work of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, gave archetypal formulation to the powers of the poetic imagination. Like their European counterparts, the English Romantics reacted at first favorably to the French Revolution and saw their own cultural and literary program as revolutionary. As many critics, ranging from Lukács to Abrams and Raymond Williams, have noted, the Romantics saw themselves as inheriting a world disfigured by the squalor of bourgeois economic and political practice, a world fragmented by dualisms such as individual and society, past and present, sensation and intellect, reason and emotion; their task was to seek once again a unifying vision, usually through the aesthetic and cultural realms.

5s1.jpgThe first major figure of English Romanticism, William Blake (1757–1827), had recourse to mysticism and a mythical vision of history; he saw the world as inherently harboring opposites and contradictions, which it was the poet’s task to harmonize. His own idiosyncratic religious views were presented in poems such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). In other poems, he expressed powerfully a vision of the new urban world as plagued by social injustice, and he railed against what he saw as the oppressive rationality embodied by figures such as Voltaire and Rousseau. In his Pursuits of Literature (1794–1798) the writer Thomas James Mathias accorded to literature an explicitly ideological function. Other writers such as the liberal William Hazlitt attempted to separate the political and aesthetic realms, though he saw the literature of the new era as no longer subservient to the forces of absolutism. The literary-critical insights of Wordsworth and Coleridge, concerning the nature of poetry, language, and the imagination, in the context of their ideological orientations, will be discussed below. The other English Romantics included Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855), who authored letters, poems, and a series of journals, and who had a considerable influence on her brother and Coleridge; John Keats (1795–1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), Mary Shelley (1797–1851), author of Frankenstein (1818), and George Gordon Lord Byron (1788–1824).

Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry is a powerful and beautifully expressed manifesto of fundamental Romantic principles, detailing the supremacy of imagination over reason, and the exalted status of poetry. Keats’ brief literary-critical insights are centered around the notion of “negative capability.” In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats suggests that, in poetic creation, the poet acts as a catalyst for the reaction of other elements, stating that “Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect . . . they have not any individuality, any determined Character.”1 Writing to Richard Woodhouse, Keats distances himself from “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”: “the poetical Character . . . has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character . . . A Poet . . . has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body” (Letters, 386–387). The idea behind this “annihilation” of character is that the poet’s mentality infuses, and is infused by, everything. Deploying what Keats calls the “negative capability” of abstaining from particular positions or dogmas, it loses itself wholly among the objects and events of the external world which are its poetic material (Letters, 184, 386–387). The ego, then, should not interpose itself between the poet and his “direct” sensations. Keats’ apparent identification of beauty with truth in his Ode on a Grecian Urn has received much critical attention. Though the Romantics are often viewed as writing confessional poetry and expressing personality, it is significant that both Keats and Shelley rejected this notion. Like Shelley, Byron rebelled against conventional beliefs, and in his poems such as Don Juan engaged in pungent satire of the hypocrisy and corruption of those in power. His stormy and eccentric life ended in the struggle for Greek independence.

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