The Romantics. Your book calls them Rebels and Dreamers, and they are. In the bleakness and poverty that characterized the Industrial Revolution and in the wake of two major revolutions, the American Revolution and the French Revolution, faith in reason, for some, was shaken. Romantic writers were excited by and supported these revolutions because of the ideals they espoused: “all men are created equal,” “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” and “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
I think it helps to use a mnemonic device I call the Five I’s of Romanticism to help remember what Romantics valued not only in their art, but in their personal lives.
The first of these values is imagination. Einstein once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” By that, he didn’t mean that we should not worry about education; rather, he was saying creative thought is critical. We can look up information or learn it, but that spark of creativity is necessary. These writers felt imagination was the supreme faculty of the mind. They believed it was the human equivalent to the divine power of creation. It is dynamic and necessary for creating all art. The poet Wordsworth believed we not only perceive the world around us but also create it. The poet Coleridge called imagination “intellectual intuition.” They believed our imagination helps us make sense of our world.
Intuition is the second of these values. Intuition refers to the idea that our hearts or guts or whatever you want to ascribe it to tells us truths that our reason or our mind doesn’t necessarily tell us. Our emotions are important. They help us make decisions. New brain studies indicate that emotion has a profound impact on how the brain makes decisions. You’d think that if you removed emotions from the equation, you’d have the perfect, rational being, but what the studies, which were conducted with subjects who lost their emotional ability due to brain tumors, for example, concluded is that people with no emotions basically lose their ability to make decisions. Romantics viewed emotions as critical for creating art. Wordsworth’s definition of poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
The third value is idealism, the idea that we can make the world a better place. The human spirit can’t be conquered. In fact, philosopher Immanuel Kant, from whom Ralph Waldo Emerson took the term Transcendentalism, believed that we as people create the world in the image we want it to be. A pessimist would probably call that lying to ourselves, but an optimist would call it idealism. What is important to know is that these writers had strong ideals and lived by them. Byron, for instance, believed in the cause of the Greek War for Independence against the Ottoman Empire and actually fought in the war. He’s considered a national hero in Greece.
The fourth value is inspiration. Romantics viewed themselves as inspired creators rather than technical masters. Art should not be a mirror of the external world but a source of illumination of the world within. The Romantic artist favored spontaneity over precision. Listen to a classical composer like Mozart, for example, with not a note out of place and compare it to Tchaikovsky, a Romantic composer, and you’ll hear the difference.
The Romantics valued the individual. They developed the concept of the artist as hero. You begin to see first-person lyric poetry become more prominent than it ever had before. Romantic writers examined the inner journey and development of self. They valued the unique, even the eccentric. As I’ve mentioned before in this class, they viewed Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost because of what they viewed as his noble defiance of God. They valued experimentation over following the rules. They didn’t necessarily reject religion or philosophy, but they did reject absolute systems, meaning they felt individuals should create a system by which to live rather than follow a system.
The timeline for Romanticism is problematic. Most books you’ll encounter date it from 1798, the publication of Lyrical Ballads, which I’m going to talk about in a minute, and 1832, the death of Sir Walter Scott, a popular Romantic novelist who wrote a book called Ivanhoe. The reason these dates are a problem is that Robert Burns and William Blake, whom we often call Romantic poets, don’t fit neatly within these dates, and if they’re not Romantic, then it’s difficult to say what they are. Another problem is that the two major Revolutions in America and France were so influential to the ideals of the Romantics, and both occurred before that 1798 date. For those reasons, it makes more sense to date the beginning of Romanticism to about 1770, and I have placed the end date for England at about 1850 -- the death of William Wordsworth, although I admit that’s an arbitrary date. Romanticism extended for a much longer period in America. Also, it extended for a longer period in art and music than it did literature. Some might argue it never really ended.
Lyrical Ballads was a collection of poetry written mostly by William Wordsworth with four contributions by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As I mentioned, many people date the beginning of Romanticism with this volume. It was very influential. The poetry was experimental in many ways. The poets used vernacular language and celebrated the simple, uneducated individual as the subject of their poetry. What Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to do with this work was overturn what they viewed as the priggish, learned and highly sculpted forms of eighteenth century English poetry and bring poetry within the reach of the average man by writing the verses using normal, everyday language. They place an emphasis on the vitality of the living voice that the poor use to express their reality. Using this language also helps point out the universality of man's emotions. Even the title of the collection recalls rustic forms of art -- the word \"lyrical\" links the poems with the ancient rustic bards and lends an air of spontaneity, while \"ballads\" are an oral mode of storytelling used by the common people.
This statement appears in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.
These four writers, Robert Burns, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are what we usually call the Early Romantics.
Robert Burns was a Scottish poet. His entire life span, as you can see, falls before 1798, but once we read his poems, I think you’ll agree he really doesn’t fit with the Neoclassical/Restoration poets we just finished studying. He wrote in a vernacular dialect that’s a mix of English and Scottish Gaelic called Scots. We will read these first two poems “To a Louse,” the singular of lice, and “To a Mouse.” These two others you’ve heard, though you might not realize it. “Auld Lang Syne” is typically sung every December 31 around midnight (sing: Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never brought to mind? / Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And auld lang syne? /CHORUS: For auld lang syne, my jo, / For auld lang syne, / We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, / For auld lang syne.) The other poem is the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. It comes from Holden’s mistaken remembrance of the poem, which is also a song, as “If a body catch a body comin’ thro’ the rye.” The line is “If a body see a body comin’ thro’ the rye.”
William Blake was a really interesting guy. He was a poet, painter, and printmaker. Some critics have called him England’s greatest artist. He created a collected of poetry and art entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience. We will read two poems contained in that volume. Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work.
How lucky to have the last name Wordsworth and become a poet! William Wordsworth is simply one of the most important poets in the English language. His influence on poetry was profound. He was England’s Poet Laureate for seven years. The job of the Poet Laureate is to compose poetry for important national occasions by the request of the government. Of course, as you know at this point, he wrote Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a friend of William Wordsworth’s and fellow writer of Lyrical Ballads. One of the four poems he contributed to that collection was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” that contains the famous line “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” It is a poem about a mariner who appears at a wedding and stops one of the guest to tell the story of his voyage, which was a total disaster. We’ll read this poem, so I won’t give away the plot now. The other poem I mention here, “Kubla Khan” has an interesting story. Apparently Coleridge wrote it under after having a dream under the influence of laudanum, a form of opium he regularly used. He was interrupted in the middle of composition by a houseguest and lost his train of thought. He never finished it because he forgot the rest of the dream.
These writers, not all poets, are often called Later Romantics, particularly Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Mary Shelley is sometimes not lumped in with these writers because she was not a poet but a novelist. Jane Austen is often hard to classify because she didn’t tend to value the same things as the Romantics. She is sometimes referred to as a Regency writer, which is a reference to the English Regency from 1811-1820 after King George III had gone mad and was deemed unfit to rule, while his son George IV ruled by proxy and was referred to as the Prince Regent.
Byron is just the most interesting character ever. One of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” It is from Byron’s own character, and not one of the characters he created, that we get the term Byronic hero to describe those bad boy types that we root for anyway. We’ll learn more about Byronic heroes as we progress through the semester. He inherited the Barony of Byron at the age of ten and then became Lord Byron. Sometimes you see his name given as Lord Noel Byron. He changed it at the request of his mother-in-law as stipulated in her will so he could inherit half of her estate. You hear all kinds of crazy rumors about Byron. Some folks say he carried on an incestuous relationship with his sister, but the main source for that rumor is Caroline Lamb, who was really angry when he ended their relationship. In fact, she never really recovered from being dumped by Byron. Another rumor you hear about him that’s probably true is that he was bisexual. He did eventually marry Caroline Lamb’s cousin Augusta Milbanke and he and his wife had a daughter named Augusta Ada. She would grow up to be Ada Lovelace, the first programmer. She wrote programs -- using code and symbols -- for a machine Charles Babbage was designing, which he called an analytical engine. If he had ever managed to get it off the ground, it may have become the first computer. As it is the computer language Ada was named after Ada Lovelace. Byron died while fighting in the Greek War for Independence. He fell ill, and the typical medical treatment of bleeding probably gave him sepsis. Some people speculate that had he lived, he would have been declared King of Greece, he was so popular with the Greeks. He is, as I said earlier, still a national hero in Greece. In this picture of Byron, he’s wearing traditional Albanian dress. Romantics loved the exotic.
Shelley was also a member of the aristocracy. If he had lived longer, he would have inherited the Baronetcy of Shelley, but he unfortunately died young. He was fairly unconventional. He was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet in favor of atheism. He married and had two children, but then sought out the philosopher William Godwin and met and fell in love with Godwin’s daugher, Mary. The two eloped, and Shelley’s wife Harriet committed suicide out of grief. It was quite a scandal. He married Mary a couple of weeks after Harriet’s death. They had one son, Percy Florence Shelley, named for his father and the city in which he was born, Florence, Italy. He remained even after the marriage a rather free spirit, in favor of such seemingly 1960’s ideals as free love. He drowned off the coast of Italy. His body washed ashore several days later and was cremated on the beach. Legend has it his heart would not burn, so his friend Edward Trelawney snatched it from the fire and gave it to Mary, who kept it for the rest of her life and had it interred next to her own grave in England. His ashes are interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome under a pyramid with the Latin inscription Cor Cordium, or Heart of Hearts, with a few lines from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Shelley knew how to die like a true Romantic poet!
Keats, unlike Byron and Shelley, was not an aristocrat. He was apprenticed to an apothecary following the death of his parents. He developed tuberculosis, a disease that ran rampant through his family and indeed killed about every other person in the nineteenth century. Like Shelley, he is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with the inscription, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Shelley felt an article in the Quarterly Review attacking Keats’s poem Endymion was to blame for Keats’s death. He wrote a poem Adonais for Keats. Byron must have agreed with Shelley because he wrote a poem on the same theme as Adonais with the line “snuffed out by an article” in it, though that could just be Byron poking fun at Shelley. Byron is known not to have admired Keats’s poetry as much as Shelley did.
Now, I know all about Mr. White’s injunction against trivia, but if you take the birth and death dates of the five most eminent Romantic writers, you get an interesting pattern. Wordsworth was born earliest in 1770 and died latest in 1850. His friend Coleridge was born two years later in 1772 and died sixteen years earlier in 1834. Byron was born sixteen years after Coleridge and died ten years before him in 1824. Shelley was born four years after Byron and died two years before him in 1822. And finally, poor Keats was born three years after Shelley and died the year before him. Thus, you get the inverted triangle of life with the Romantic poets. It means absolutely nothing, but it’s a weird coincidence, and for some reason I always remembered this particular detail after my college professor shared it, so now it will probably be the only thing you remember about the Romantics in 20 years.
Mary Shelley was the same Mary Shelley who married Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was, as I have said, the philosopher William Godwin. Her mother was early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died during Mary’s birth. Mary Shelley is most known for writing the novel Frankenstein. When she and Shelley were vacationing with Byron, his doctor John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire in Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the weather was just awful, and Byron got the idea they should all write scary stories. Mary wrote Frankenstein. John Polidori wrote the first vampire novel called The Vampyre (lots of folks think Byron was the model for the title character), and the others wrote nothing of consequence.
Finally, we have Jane Austen. Austen has remained a popular novelist for two hundred years. Her books are often made into movies. Her masterpiece is considered to be Pride and Prejudice, but you’ve probably heard of at least some of these other novels. We will be reading Sense and Sensibility. Emma was adapted by Amy Heckerling into the movie Clueless. Austen was more of a realist than her contemporaries. Sometimes she is not described as a Romantic writer at all. In fact, she is considered to be a transition writer -- she is writing basically Realist novels in the Romantic time period. Her novels were published anonymously, and so she earned little wealth or recognition for her talents, but a huge cult of followers who call themselves Janeites are devoted to her works today.
What is Romanticism?
Imagination emphasized over reason
Backlash against Neoclassical Age of Reason
Imagination necessary for creation of all art
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “intellectual intuition”
Intuition, or feelings and instincts, emphasized
Emotions important in Romantic art
William Wordsworth: Poetry is “the spontaneous
overﬂow of powerful feelings”
World can be made a better place
Emphasis of spirit, language, and mind over matter
Immanuel Kant: the mind forces the world we
perceive to take the shape of space and time
Artists, musicians, writers are “inspired creators”
rather than “technical masters”
Spontaneity favored over precision
Importance of the individual, unique, even
Bold, Romantic hero
Rejection of absolute systems (religion,
1798-1832: from publication of Lyrical Ballads to
death of Sir Walter Scott
Problematic: Robert Burns and William Blake?
“Age of Revolutions”: American (1776) and
French (1789) Revolutions predate 1798
1792, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor
Considered beginning of English literary
Simple, uneducated people as subjects
The majority of the following poems are to be considered as
experiments. They were written chieﬂy with a view to ascertain
how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower
classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Scottish poet, Scots dialect
Well known poems:
“To a Louse”
“To a Mouse”
“Auld Lang Syne”
“Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”
Poet, painter, printmaker
Songs of Innocence and