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The British Romantic Period (1785 - 1830)

H i s t o r i c a l  B a c k g r o u n d :

- revolutionary and Napoleonic period in Fr. (1789 – 1815)

- the storming of the Bastille (14th July), the Rev. begins (1789)

- King Louis XVI executed, En. joins the alliance against Fr. (1793)

- the Reign of Terror under Robespierre (1793 – 94)

- Napoleon crowned emperor (1804)

- Napoleon defeated at Waterloo (1815)

- Br. slave trade outlawed (1807); slavery abolished throughout the empire in 1833

- the Regency = George, Prince of Wales, acts as regent for George III (1811 – 20)

- accession of George IV (1820)

T h e  B r i t i s h  R o m a n t i c  P e r i o d :

- establ. the canonical figures of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and William Blake

- only G. G. Byron instantly famous x W. Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) publ. anonym.

- the period marked by a multitude of political, social, and economic changes

T h e  R e v o l u t i o n  a n d  R e a c t i o n :

C h a r a c t e r i s t i c s :

- the Romantic period: 1785, W. Blake and Robert Burns publ. their 1st poems – 1830, major writers of the 18th c. dead or no longer productive

- change from an agricultural society with wealth and power concentrated in the landholding aristocracy to a modern industrial nation

- in the context of rev., 1st the Am. and then the much more radical Fr.

T h e  E a r l y  P e r i o d  o f  t h e  F r e n c h  R e v o l u t i o n   > Enthusiasm:

- the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” > the storming of the Bastille to release imprisoned political offenders

- radical pro-revolutionaries incl. Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790, justified the Fr. Rev.), Tom Paine (Rights of Men, 1790, advocated the rev. for En.), and William Godwin (Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793, foretold an inevitable x but: peaceful evolution of society to democracy > infl. Romantic poets)

T h e  L a t e r  P e r i o d  o f  t h e  F r e n c h  R e v o l u t i o n > Disenchantment:

- En. in war against Fr., the Reign of Terror under Robespierre, the emergence of Napoleon as a dictator and his defeat > a reactionary despotism throughout continental Eur.

- political changes in En.: harsh repressive measures

- social changes: Benjamin Disraeli’s Two Nations = the 2 classes of capital/the rich x labour/the poor

- economic changes: the Industrial Rev., incl. the power-driven machinery and Watt’s steam engine to replace hand labour; enclosing of open fields into privately owned agricultural holdings > a new landless class

T h e  F i r s t  M o d e r n  I n d u s t r i a l  D e p r e s s i o n     ( 1 8 1 5 ) :

- the social philos. of laissez-faire (= let alone) = the government left people to pursue their private interests > harsh working conditions, child labour, etc. > petitions, protest meetings, agitation, and hunger riots; dispossessed workers destroyed machines > more repressive measures

- the Peterloo Massacre (1819) = workers demanded a parliamentary reform, charged by troops: inspired P. B. Shelley’s poems for the working class, “England in 1819”, “A Song: ‘Men of England’”, and “To Sidmouth and Castlereagh”

- but: suffering confined to the poor x the Br. Empire expanded to become the most powerful colonial presence in the world

- the Regency Period = in London a time of lavish display and moral laxity for the leisure class, in provinces the gentry almost untouched by inter/national events: Jane Austen’s novels

- women = regarded as inferior to men > little opportunities for education and work, almost no legal rights: M. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), advocated the equality of the sexes

- the 1st Reform Bill (1832): extended the vote; universal adult suffrage in 1928

T h e  ‘ S p i r i t  o f  t h e  A g e ’ :

- the term ‘Romantic’ applied to the writers of the period ½ a c. later by E historians x in their lifetime treated as individuals or grouped into separate schools:

(a) ‘The Lake School’: W. Wordsworth, S. T. Coleridge, R. Southey (< settled in the Lake District)

(b) ‘The Cockney School’: Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and associated writers incl. J. Keats (< settled in London)

(c) ‘The Satanic School’: G. G. Byron, P. B. Shelley

- the ‘spirit of the age’ = the writers’ sense of a distinctive intellectual and imaginative climate of their age marking a lit. renaissance:

< W. Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age, a coll. of essays conc. with the political, social and lit. rev.

> P. B. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, the lit. spirit as an accompaniment of political and social rev.

- a general preocc. with the rev.

- older generation, incl. R. Burns, W. Blake, W. Wordsworth, S. T. Coleridge, R. Southey, and M. Wollstonecraft: sympathetic

- younger generation, incl. W. Hazlitt, L. Hunt, P. B. Shelley, and G. G. Byron: disappointed x but: still for the rev. purged of its errors as humanity’s best hope

- the sense of limitless possibilities survived the shock of the 1st disappointment to 1798 (i.e. W. Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge’s publ. of Lyrical Ballads, revolutionising the theory and practice of poetry)


T h e  R o m a n t i c  P o e t r y

W .  W o r d s w o r t h ’ s  “ A d v e r t i s e m e n t ”:

= in the 2nd ed. of the Lyrical Ballads as a “Preface”

- a critical manifesto, statement of poetic principles, organising isolated ideas into a coherent theory based on explicit critical principles

- opposed the 18th c. lit. tradition of John Dryden (1631 – 1700) and Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), who imposed on poetry artificial conventions and distorted its free and natural expression

- S. T. Coleridge agreed with W. Wordsworth x but: corrected some of his statements in Biographia Literaria (1817)

P o e t r y  a n d  t h e  P o e t :

- 18th c. theorists: poetry = ‘a mirror held up to nature’ x W. Wordsworth: poetry = ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’

- source of a poem = not in the outer world x but: in the individual poet > emphasis on the mind, emotions, and imagination of the poet

- subject = not external objects x but: the inner feelings of the author, or external objects transformed by the author’s feelings

- form = esp. the lyric poem in the 1st person bearing traits of the poet’s own personality: W. Wordsworth’s Prelude, a poem of epic length conc. with the growth of the poet’s own mind

- speaker = a ‘Bard’, a poet-prophet < modelled on John Milton (1608 – 74) and the prophets in the Bible: W. Wordsworth’s Prelude; the visionary poets W. Blake, early S. T. Coleridge, and P. B. Shelley

- central lit. form = a long work about the formation of the self, an interior journey in quest of one’s true identity: W. Wordsworth’s Prelude, W. Blake’s Milton, P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, J. Keat’s Endymion and The Fall of Hyperion + autobiog. presented as fact in S. T. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria; and E. Barrett-Browning’s Aurora Leigh

P o e t i c  S p o n t a n e i t y  a n d  F r e e d o m :

- W. Wordsworth: the composition of a poem orig. from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, may be preceded and followed by reflection x but: the immediate act of composition must be spontaneous, free from all rules and manipulation to foreseen ends

x W. Blake: claims to write from ‘Inspiration and Vision’, his long ‘prophetic’ poem Milton was given to him by an agency not himself and ‘produced without Labour or Study’

R o m a n t i c  ‘ N a t u r e  P o e t r y ’ :

- W. Wordsworth: the necessity of looking steadily at one’s subject => a sensuous poetry with natural phenomena described with an accuracy of observation with no earlier match

- Romantic poetry = nature poetry? x W. Wordsworth: to observe and describe objects accurately not at all a sufficient condition for poetry

- nature = a stimulus to thinking! > meditative poetry: W. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Ode: Intimations of Immortality; S. T. Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight and Dejection; P. B. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind; and J. Keats’s Nightingale

- landscape endowed with human life, passion, and expressiveness > natural objects correspond to an inner or a spiritual world > tendency to write a symbolist poetry with objects endowed with a significance beyond themselves: W. Blake, P. B. Shelley, & oth.

T h e  O r d i n a r y  a n d  t h e  O u t c a s t :

- W. Hazlitt on W. Wordsworth: W. transl. the political changes into poetical experiments > W. = the lit. equivalent of the Fr. Rev.

- W. Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads:

> form = ‘to choose incidents and situations from common life’ and to use a ‘language really spoken by men’, the source and model being ‘humble and rustic life’: <=> R. Burns

> subject = ‘peasants, peddlers, and village barbers’, even the ignominious, the outcast, the delinquent, i.e. ‘convicts, F vagrants, gypsies, idiot boys, and mad mothers’ x G. G. Byron the only to maintain his lit. allegiance to aristocratic proprieties and to traditional poetic decorum

> aim = not simply to repres. the world as it is x but: to present ‘ordinary things in an unusual aspect’; to refresh our sense of wonder and divinity in the everyday, the commonplace, the trivial, and the lowly > to awaken the child’s sense of wonder, the ‘freshness of sensation’ in the repres. of ‘familiar objects’

T h e  S u p e r n a t u r a l :

- wonder in the familiar: W. Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge

- wonder achieved by violation of natural laws and the ordinary course of events in poems incl. supernatural ‘incidents and agents’: S. T. Colerige’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan

- modern adaptations of old ballad and romance forms: J. Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci and The Eve of St. Agnes

- ballad imitations: W. Scott’s verse tales and historical novels

=> a medieval revival

- typical setting in a distant past or faraway places, or both: S. T. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, set in the Middle Ages and the Orient

- unusual modes of experience > ‘addition of strangeness to beauty’ (W. Pater)

(a) visionary states: W. Blake, W. Wordsworth, and S. T. Coleridge

(b) hypnotism: S. T. Coleridge

(c) dreams and nightmares: S. T. Coleridge (< addicted to opium)

(d) satanic hero: G. G. Byron

(e) ambivalence of pleasure and pain, destructive aspects of sexuality, longing for death: J. Keats

=> anticipated the Gothic fiction of 18th c., and the Eur. decadence of the late 19th c.

I n d i v i d u a l i s m ,  I n f i n i t e  S t r i v i n g ,  a n d  N o n c o n f o r m i t y :

- 18th c.: humans = limited beings in a strictly ordered world; the mind = a mirrorlike recipient of a universe already created x Romanticism: emphasis on individualism, on human potentialities and powers; the mind = an active creator of the universe it perceives

- human refuses to submit to limitations > ceaseless activity, a striving for the infinite (< Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust): P. B. Shelley’s Alastor, J. Keats’s Endymion, and G. G. Byron’s Manfred

(a) writers deliberately isolated from society to give scope to their individual vision: W. Wordsworth’s masterwork The Recluse

(b) a solitary protagonist separated from society because he has rejected it, or because it has rejected him > the theme of exile, of the disinherited mind unable to find a spiritual home anywhere: G. G. Byron, P. B. Shelley, and to a certain extend S. T. Coleridge

(c) a solitary protagonist as a great sinner (a) made realise and expiate his sin: S. T. Colerige’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and W. Wordsworth’s Guilt and Sorrow and Peter Bell x (b) remains proudly unrepentant: G. G. Byron’s Manfred, and P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound

- new forms:

> W. Blake’s symbolic lyrics and visionary ‘prophetic’ poems

> S. T. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a haunting ballad narrative

> W. Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an epic-like spiritual autobiog.

> P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, a cosmic symbolic drama

> J. Keats’s sequence of odes conc. with the conflict in basic human desires

> G. G. Byron’s Don Juan, a satiric survey of Eur. civilisation

M i l l e n n i a l  E x p e c t a t i o n s :

- enthusiasm with the Fr. Rev. = hope of humanity and the regeneration of the human race, modelled on biblical prophecy

- the Bible’s concl. = the book of “Revelation”, i.e. the Apocalypse and return to the Edenic felicity; symbolised by a marriage btw the New Jerusalem and Christ the Lamb: W. Blake’s The French Revolution (1791) and America, a Prophecy (1793)

- disenchantment by the Fr. Rev. = political rev. > spiritual rev. = new ways of seeing

- regarded as the restoration of a lost earlier way of seeing; symbolised by the marriage btw the mind and the external world: S. T. Coleridge’s Dejection: An Ode, W. Wordsworth’s Prospectus to The Recluse, P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

=> apocalypse = not a change of the world x but: a change of the worldview


T h e  R o m a n t i c  D r a m a

< William Shakespeare = the idolised example

> P. B. Shelley = the most capable dramatist

(−) licensing to 1843 > only the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres allowed to produce spoken drama

(−) the Romantic genius ill adapted to the theatre

(a) stage drama:

> G. G. Byron’s exhibitions of various aspects of the Byronic hero, readable x but: weaker on stage

> S. T. Coleridge’s Remorse, a tragedy, a minor hit

> P. B. Shelley’s The Cenci (1819), a true story of the It. Renaissance, a monstrous father violates his daughter, she murders him

(b) closet drama: G. G. Byron’s Manfred and P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound


T h e  R o m a n t i c  N o v e l

T h e  G o t h i c  N o v e l :

< the term derived from the frequent setting of Gothic novels in a gloomy Middle Age castle

- inaugurated by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) > flourished in the closing y. of 18th c.

- reacted against comfort and security, political stability, and commercial progress by resisting the rule of reason

- Edmund Burke: (a) the sublime related to vastness, infinity, and astonishment; i.e. wild and mountainous scenery in nature, castle ruins and medieval cathedrals in architecture, (b) modified danger and pain produce a ‘delightful horror’ < infl. by Aristotle’s tragedy as an evocation of pity and fear to purge of these emotions: J. Milton’s Paradise Lost and W. Shakespeare’s tragedies

- subject = exploitation of mystery and terror, supernatural phenomena, dark and irrational side of human nature, perverse impulses, etc.

- protagonist = homme fatal, i.e. a villain torturing oth. because being himself tortured by an unspeakable guilt; with elements of diabolism, sensuality, and sadistic perversion: Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Undolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1794)

- setting = somewhere in the past, in sullen landscapes and decaying mansions with dark dungeons, secret passages, and stealthy ghosts

- Gothicism in poetry: S. T. Coleridge’s Christabel; J. Keat’s Eve of St. Agnes; G. G. Byron’s hero-villains; and P. B. Shelley’s interest in the fantastic, the macabre, and in the unconscious mind, incl. incest

T h e  N o v e l  o f  P u r p o s e :

- propagated the new social and political theories

- frequently with Gothic elements

> William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), conc. with the persecution by a wealthy squire of his young secretary revealing evidence that the squire has committed murder <=> the lower class as a subject to power of the upper class

> M. Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), conc. with a fabricated monster <=> the moral distortion imposed on an individual rejected by society because of his diverging from the norm

> M. Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), anticipated the Br. regional novel and the Br. historical novel

T h e  N o v e l  o f  M a n n e r s :

- J. Austen

T h e  H i s t o r i c a l  R o m a n c e :

- W. Scott


T h e  R o m a n t i c  E s s a y

- the Enlightenment > an explosion of potential readership

- reviews = issued 4x yearly; publ. lit. essays and essays on contemporary issues

- magazines = a monthly; publ. more miscellaneous materials

- the ‘familiar essay’ = a commentary on a non-technical subject written in a relaxed and intimate manner; often autobiog., reminiscent, and self-analytic

- the essayists incl. C. Lamb, W. Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey

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