The Romantic Period summary



The Romantic Period summary


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The Romantic Period summary


The Romantic Period


   The Romantic Period began in 1798 and ended in 1832.

   Two important revolutions: the French Revolution and the English Industrial Revolution.

   The Romantic Movement, whether in England, Germany or France, expressed a more or less negative attitude toward the existing social and political conditions that came with industrialization and the growing importance of the bourgeoisie. The Romantics, who were deeply immersed in the most violent phase of the transition from a decadent feudal to a capitalist economy, saw both the corruption and injustice of the feudal societies and the fundamental inhumanity of the economic, social and political forces of capitalism.

   In essence Romanticism designates a literary and philosophical theory which tends to see the individual as the very center of all life and all experience. It also places the individual at the center of art, making literature most valuable as an expression of his or her unique feelings and particular attitudes, and valuing its accuracy in portraying the individual’s experiences.

The Romantic period is an age of poetry. Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats are the major Romantic poets. They started a rebellion against the neoclassical literature, which was later regarded as the poetic revolution. Wordsworth and Coleridge were the major representatives of this movement. They explored new theories and innovated new techniques in poetry writing. They saw poetry a healing energy; they believed that poetry could purify both individual souls and the society. Wordsworth’s theory of poetry is calling for simple themes drawn from humble life expressed in the language of ordinary people. Wordsworth defines the poet as a “man speaking to men,” and poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, which originates in emotion recollected in tranquility.”

   Imagination, defined by Coleridge, is the vital faculty that creates new wholes out of disparate elements. It is in solitude, in communion with the natural universe, that man can exercise this most valuable of faculties, the imagination.

   Nature, for the most influential 18th-century writers, was more something to be seen than something to be known. But for the Romantics it is just the opposite. The natural world comes to the forefront of the poetic imagination. Nature is not only the major source of poetic imagery, but also provides the dominant subject matter. Wordsworth is the closest to the nature. He conceives of nature as “the nurse/the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ Of all my moral being.” In his view, the natural world is the dominant influence in changing people’s sensibilities: nature to him is a source of mental cleanliness and spiritual understanding; it is a teacher; it is the stepping stone between Man and God.

Lakeside poets: William Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey

  The Romantic period is also a great age of prose. William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

  The two major novelists of the period are Jane Austen and Walter Scott.

  Gothic novel, a type of romantic fiction that predominated in the late eighteenth century, was one phase of the Romantic movement. Its principal elements are violence, horror, and the supernatural, which strongly appeal to the reader’s emotion. With its descriptions of the dark, irrational side of human nature, the Gothic form has exerted a great influence over the writers of the Romantic period.


William Blake

   William Blake (1757-1827) was born and brought up in London. Through all his life, Blake had been both a poet and an engraver. However, his genius in poetry remained unknown in his lifetime, he was recognized only posthumously. Literarily Blake was the first important Romantic poet, showing a contempt for the rule of reason, opposing the classical tradition of the 18th century, and treasuring the individual’s imagination.

   The Songs of Innocence (1809) is a lovely volume of poems, presenting a happy and innocent world, though not without its evils and sufferings. In this volume, Blake, with his eager quest for new poetic forms and techniques, broke completely with the traditions of the 18th century. He experimented in meter and rhyme and introduced bold metrical innovations which could not be found in the poetry of his contemporaries.

   His Songs of Experience (1794) paints a different world, a world of misery, poverty disease, war and repression with a melancholy tone. The benighted England becomes the world of the dark wood and of the weeping prophet. The orphans of “Holy Thursday” are now “fed with cold and usurious hand. The little chimney-sweeper sings “notes of woe” while his parents go to church and praise “God & his Priest & King”---the very instruments of their repression. In “London” the city is no longer a paradise, but becomes the seat of poverty and despair, of man alienated from his true self. A number of poems from the Songs of Innocence also find a counterpart in the Songs of Experience. For instance, the “Infant Joy” is matched with the “Infant Sorrow” and the pure “Lamb” is paired with the flaming “Tyger.” The two books hold the similar subject-matter, but the tone, emphasis and conclusion differ.

   Childhood is central to Blake’s concern in the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, and this concern gives the two books a strong social and historical reference. The two “Chimney Sweeper” poems are good examples to reveal the relation between an economic circumstance, i.e. the exploitation of child labor, and an ideological circumstance, i.e. the role played by religion in making people compliant to exploitation. The poem from the Songs of Innocence indicates the conditions which make religion a consolation, a prospect of “illusory happiness;” the poem from the Songs of Experience reveals the true nature of religion which helps bring misery to the poor children.

   Blake writes his poems in plain and direct language. His poems often carry the lyric beauty with immense compression of meaning. He distrusts the abstractness and tends to embody his views with visual images. Symbolism in wide range is also a distinctive feature of his poetry.

   The Tyger, appearing also in the Songs of Experience, is one of Blake’s better known poems. The apparently simple questions of curiosity and puzzlement, raised one after another but left unanswered, produce the effect of an odd mixture of the simple and the childlike with the serious and the thoughtful, that characterizes most of Blake’s earlier lyrics. There is also a touch of symbolism and mysticism her that prevails over the poet’s later Prophetic Books.


Selected Readings:

  • The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Innocence)
  • The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Experience)


William Wordsworth

   William Wordsworth (1770-1850) had a long poetic career. His first volumes (Descriptive Sketches, an Evening Walk, 1793) were written in the tradition of the 18th-century feeling for natural description. But the Lyrical Ballads differs in marked ways from his early poetry, notably uncompromising simplicity of much of the language, the strong sympathy not merely with the poor in general but with particular, dramatized examples of them, and the fusion of natural description with expressions of inward states of mind. The poems Wordsworth added to the 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads are among the best of his achievements. The Prelude, which began in 1790s, was completed in 1805 and, after substantial revision, published posthumously in 1850. Many critics rank it as Wordsworth’s greatest work. In 1807 Poems in Two Volumes was published the work contains much of Wordsworth’s finest verse, notably the super “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” the autobiographical narrative “Resolution and Independence,” and many of his well-known sonnets. And The Excursion was published in 1814.

   According to the subjects, Wordsworth’s short poems can be classified into two groups: poems about nature and poems about human life.

   Wordsworth is regarded as a “worshipper of nature.” He can penetrate to the heart of things and give the reader the very life of nature. As he is aware of his own sublime communion with all things, nature becomes an inspiriting force of rapture, a power that reveals the workings of the soul. To Wordsworth, nature acts as a substitute for imaginative and intellectual engagement with the development of embodied human beings in their diverse circumstances. It’s nature that gives him “strength and knowledge full of peace.”

   Wordsworth thinks that common life is the only subject of literary interest. The joys and sorrows of the common people are his themes. His sympathy always goes to the suffering poor.

   Wordsworth is a poet in memory of the past. To him, life is a cyclical journey.

   Wordsworth’s deliberate simplicity and refusal to decorate the truth of experience produced a kind of pure and profound poetry which no other poet has ever equaled. In defense of his unconventional theory of poetry, Wordsworth wrote a “Preface” to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, which appeared in 1801. His premise was that the source of poetic truth is the direct experience of the senses. Poetry, he asserted, originates from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Rejecting the contemporary emphasis on form and an intellectual approach that drained poetic writing of strong emotion, he maintained that the scenes and events of everyday life and the speech of ordinary people were the raw material of which poetry could and should be made.

   William Wordsworth is the leading figure of the English romantic poetry, the focal poetic voice of the period. His is a voice of searchingly comprehensive humanity and one that inspires his audience to see the world freshly, sympathetically and naturally. The most important contribution he has made is that he has not only started the modern poetry, the poetry of the growing inner self, but also changed the course of English poetry by using ordinary speech of the language and by advocating a return to nature.


Selected Readings:

  • I Wandered lonely as a Cloud
  • Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
  • She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways
  • The Solitary Reaper


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

   Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772-1834) poems can be divided into two groups: the demonic and the conversational.

   The first group includes the poets three masterpieces: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tells an adventurous story of a sailor who kills an albatross, is punished in the way the other sailor died of thirst, and runs his ship home when he repented finally; “Christabel” is about a tale of a serpent disguised as a beautiful lady to victimize an innocent maiden; and “Kubla Khan” describes the pleasure dome of the Khan, images of a river, and other marvelous scenes, all restored out of a dream but with only 54 lines surviving. The group is characterized by visionary memory, supernatural happenings, and magic powers which are fantastic, and in some places horrable, but also charming in their own way.

   The second group expresses the poet’s thought in a seemingly conversation. For example, “Frost at Midnight,” the most important poem of the group, is a record of his personal thought in a midnight solitude on his infant son, and “Dejection: An Ode” is also an intimate personal piece in which the poet utters his innermost thoughts and sentiments. This group speaks more directly of an allied theme, the desire to go home, and to “an improved infancy.”

   “Kubla Khan” was composed in a dream after Coleridge took the opium. The poet was reading about Kubla Khan when he fell asleep. The images of the river, of the magnificent palace and other marvelous scenes deposited in his unconsciousness were expressed into about two or three hundred lines. But when he was writing them down, a stranger interrupted him and the vision was never recaptured. Only 54 lines survived.

   Coleridge is one of the first critics to give close critical attention to language, maintaining that the true end of poetry is to give pleasure “through the medium of beauty.” He sings highly Wordsworth’s “purity of language,” “deep and subtle thoughts,” “perfect truth to nature” and his “imaginative power.” But he denies Wordsworth’s claim that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and the language spoken by common people. In analyzing Shakespeare, Coleridge emphasizes the philosophic aspect, reading more into the subject than the text and going deeper into the inner reality than only caring for the outer form.

   Coleridge was esteemed by some of his contemporaries and is generally recognized today as a lyrical poet and literary critic of critic of the first rank. His poetic themes range from the supernatural to the domestic. His treatises, lectures, and compelling conversational powers made him one of the most influential English literary critics and philosophers of the 19th century.


Selected Reading:

Kubla Khan

George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)

   On the whole, Byron’s poetry is one of experience. His heroes are more or less surrogates of himself. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is such an example. The poem is about a gloomy, passionate young wanderer who escaped from the society he disliked and traveled around the continent, questing for freedom. It teems with all kinds of recognizable features of Romantic poetry---the medieval, the outcast figure, love of nature, hatred of tyranny, preoccupation with the remote savage, and so on. It also contains many vivid and exotic descriptive passages on mountains, rivers, and seas. With his strong passion for liberty and his intense hatred for all tyrants, Byron shows his sympathy for the oppressed Portuguese under French occupation; he gives his strong support to the Spanish people fighting for their national independence; he laments over the fallen Greece, expressing his ardent wish that the suppressed Greek people should win their freedom; he glorifies the French Revolution and condemns the despotic Napoleon period; and he appeals for the liberty of the oppressed nations, while exalting the great fighters for freedom in history.

   Don Juan is Byron’s masterpiece, a great comic epic of the early 19th century. It is a poem based on a traditional Spanish legend of a great lover and seducer of women. In the conventional sense, Juan is immoral, yet Byron takes this poem as the most moral. He once wrote to his friend like this: “As to ‘Don Juan’…, it may be profligate, but is it not life?” And Byron invests in Juan the moral positives like courage, generosity and frankness, which, according to Byron, are virtues neglected by the modern society. In addition, though Don Juan is the central figure and all the threads of the story are woven around him, he and his adventures only provide the framework; the poet’s true intention is, by making use of Juan’s adventures, to present a panoramic view of different types of society.

   Byron puts into Don Juan his rich knowledge of the world and the wisdom gained from experience. It presents brilliant pictures of life in its various stages of love, joy, suffering, hatred and fear. The unifying principle in Don Juan is the basic ironic theme of appearance and reality, i.e. what things seem to be and what they actually are. Byron’s satire on the English society in the later part of the poem can be compared with Pope’s; and his satire is much less personal than that of Pope’s. for Byron is here attacking not a personal enemy but the whole hypocritical society. And the diverse materials and the clash emotions gathered in the poem are harmonized by Byron’s insight into the difference between life’s appearance and its actuality.

   As a leading Romanticist, Byron’s chief contribution is his creation of the “Byronic hero,a proud, mysterious rebel figure of noble origin. With immense superiority in his passions and powers, this Byronic hero would carry on his shoulders the burden of righting all the wrongs in a corrupted society, and would rise single-handedly against any kind of tyrannical rules either in government, in religion, or in moral principles with unconquerable wills and inexhaustible energies. The conflict is usually one of rebellious individuals against out worn social systems and conventions. Such a hero appears first in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and then further developed in later works such as the Oriented Tales, Manfred, and Don Juan in different guises. The figure is, to some extent, modeled on the life and personality of Byron himself, and makes Byron famous both at home and abroad.

   Byron’s poetry has great influence on the literature of the whole world. Across Europe, patriots and painters and musicians are all inspired by him. Poets and novelists are profoundly influenced by his work. Actually Byron has enriched European poetry with an abundance of ideas, images, artistic forms and innovations. He stands with Shakespeare and Scott among the British writers who exert the greatest influence over the mainland of Europe.


Selected Readings:

  • Song for the Luddites

This is one of the two poems written by Byron to show his support of the Luddites, who destroyed the machines in their protest against unemployment. The poet’s great sympathy for the workers in their struggle against the capitalists is clearly shown.

  • The Isles of Greece (from Don Juan, III)

(Don Juan, the masterpiece of Byron, is a long satirical poem. Its hero Juan is an aristocratic libertine, amiable and charming to ladies. He first falls in love with a married woman Julia. The affair is soon discovered and Juan is sent abroad. There happens a shipwreck; Juan is tossed into the sea and finally cast on the seashore of a Greek island. He is saved by Haidee, the pure and beautiful daughter of pirate. They fall in love, but soon Haidee’s father returns and forcefully separates them. Haidee dies of a broken heart, while Juan is sold as a slave to Constantinople where a Sultana takes fancy to him. Juan managed to escape and joined the Russian Army which is besieging the town Ismail. After the victory, he sent news to St. Petersburg and is favored by Empress Catherine who sent him back to England on a political mission. The last part satirizes the political and social conditions of England. The poem was not completed; originally Byron intended to have Juan fight and die in the French Revolution. The following section, “The Isles of Greece,” is taken from Canto III, which is sung by a Greek singer at the wedding of Don Juan and Haidee. In the early 19th century, Greece was under the rule of Turk. By contrasting the freedom of ancient Greece and the present enslavement, the poet appealed to people to struggle for liberty.)


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

   Shelley grew up with violent revolutionary ideas under the influence of the free thinkers like Hume and Godwin, so he held a life long aversion to cruelty, injustice, authority, institutional religion and the formal shams of respectable society, condemning war, tyranny and exploitation. He believed that his age was one of the war of the oppressed against the oppressors. He felt that the existing despotic governments could be overthrown by revolution, and he showed a constant attention to the development of such movements. Actually he dedicated all his life to the war against injustice and oppression. However, under the influence of Christian humanism, Shelley took interest in social reforms. He realized that the evil was also in man’s mind. Thus he warned that even after a revolution, i.e. after the restoration of human morality and creativity, the evil deep in man’s heart might again be loosed. So he predicated that only through gradual and suitable reforms of the existing institutions could benevolence be universally established and none of the evil would survive in this “genuine society,” where people could live together happily, freely and peacefully.

   Shelley expressed his love for freedom and his hatred toward tyranny in several of his lyrics such as “Ode to Liberty,” “Ode to Naples,” “Sonnet: England in 1819” and so on. One of Shelley’s greatest political lyrics is “Men of England.” It is not only a war cry calling upon all working people to rise up against their political oppressors, but an address to them pointing out the intolerable injustice of economic exploitation. The poem was later to become a rallying song of the British Communist Party.

   Many critics regard Shelley as one of the greatest of all English poets. They point especially to his lyrics. Best of all the well-known lyric pieces is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (1819); here Shelley’s rhapsodic and declamatory tendencies find a subject perfectly suited to them. The autumn wind, burying the dead year, preparing for a new Spring, becomes an image of Shelley himself, as he would want to be, in its freedom, its destructive-constructive potential, its universality. “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” calls Shelley that could not bear being fettered to the humdrum realities of everyday! The whole poem has a logic of feeling, a not easily analyzable progression that leads to the triumphant, hopeful and convincing conclusion: “If Winter comes, can Spring be Spring be far behind?”

   Shelley’s greatest achievement is his four-act poetic drama, Prometheus Unbound (1820). According to the Greek mythology, Prometheus, the champion of humanity, who has stolen the fire from Heaven, is punished by Zeus to be chained on Mount Caucasus and suffers the vulture’s feeding on his liver. Shelley based his drama on Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, in which Prometheus reconciles with the tyrant Zeus: Radical and revolutionary as Shelley, he wrote in the preface: “In truth, I was averse form a catastrophe so feeble as that reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of Mankind.” So he gave a totally different interpretation, transforming the compromise into a liberation. With the strong support of Earth, his mother; Asia, his bride and the help from Demogorgon and Hercules, Zeus is driven from the throne, Prometheus is unbound. The play is an exultant work in praise of humankind’s potential, and Shelley himself recognized it as “the most perfect of my products.

   Shelley is one of the leading Romantic poets, an intense and original lyrical poet in the English language. Like Blake, he has a reputation as a difficult poet: erudite , imagistically complex, full of classical and mythological allusions. His style abounds in personification and metaphor and other figures of speech which describe vividly what we see and feel, or express what passionately moves us.


Selected Readings:

  1. A Song: Men of England

This poem was written in 1819, the year of the Peterloo Massacre. It is unquestionably one of Shelley’s greatest political lyrics. It is not only a war cry calling upon all working people of England to rise up against their political oppressors, but also an address to point out to them the intolerable injustice of economic exploitation.

  1. Ode to the West Wind

It is one of Shelley’s best known lyrics. The poet describes vividly the activities of the West Wind on the earth, in the sky and on the sea and then expresses his envy for the boundless freedom of the west wind and his wish to be free like the wind and to scatter his words among mankind. The celebrated final line of the poem, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” has often been cited to illustrate Shelley’s optimistic belief in the future of mankind

Shelley eulogized the powerful west wind and expressed his eagerness to enjoy the boundless freedom from the reality. He gathered in this poem a wealth of symbolism, employed a structural art and his powers of metrical orchestration at their best.


John Keats (1795-1821)

   “Ode on an Grecian Urn” shows the contrast between the permanence of art and transience of human passion. The poet has absorbed himself into the timeless beautiful scenery on the antique Grecian urn: the lovers, musicians and worshippers on the urn exist simultaneously and for ever in their intensity of joy. They are unaffected by time, stilled in expectation. This is at once the glory and limitation of the world conjured up by an object of art. The urn celebrates but simplifies intuitions of ecstasy by seeming to deny our painful knowledge of transience and suffering. But in the last stanza, the urn becomes a “Cold Pastoral,” which presents his ambivalence about time and the nature of beauty.

   The odes are generally regarded as Keats’ most important and mature world. Their subject matter, however, is the poet’s abiding preoccupation with the imagination as it reaches out to union with the beautiful. In the greatest of these works, he also suggests the undercurrent of disillusion that accompanies such ecstasy, the human suffering which forever questions visionary transcendence achieved by art.

   Keats’s poetry is always sensuous, colorful and rich in imagery, which expresses the acuteness of his senses. Sight, sound, scent, taste and feeling are all taken in to give an entire understanding of an experience. He has the power of entering the feelings of others---either human or animal. He declared once that when he saw a bird on the lawn, he entered imaginatively into the life of the bird. Keats delights to dwell on beautiful words and phrases which sound musical. He draws diction, style and imagery from works of Shakespeare, Milton and Dante. With vivid and rich images, he paints poetic pictures full of wonderful color.


Selected Reading

Ode on a Grecian Urn

   This ode was written in May, 1819, almost at the same time as Ode to a Nightingale. Here the poet gave his commentary on a Greek vase which, as a relic of ancient culture, caught his imagination. On the surface of the vase there was an ornamental band of sculpture with figures of trees, pipes and lovers on it. Though they were quiet forms, they possessed the beauty, the significance and the eternity of art which appealed to Keats. So at the end of the poem, the poet emphasized the relationship between beauty and truth: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, thus declaring his worship of beauty, especially in the field of art.


Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Her works: Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Emma; Northanger Abbey; Mansfield Park; Persuasion

   Generally speaking, Jane Austen was a writer of 18th-century, though she lived mainly in the 19th century. She holds the ideals of the landlord class in politics, religion and moral principles; and her works show clearly her firm belief in the predominance of reason over passion, the sense of responsibility, good manners and clear-sighted judgment over the Romantic tendencies of emotion and individuality. As a realistic writer, she considers it her duty to express in her works a discriminated and serious criticism of life, and to expose the follies and illusions of mankind. She shows contemptuous feelings towards snobbery, stupidity, worldliness and vulgarity through subtle satire and irony. And in style, she is a neoclassicism advocator, upholding those traditional ideas of order, reason, proportion and gracefulness in novel writing.

   Austen’s main literary concern is about human beings in their personal relationships. Because of this, her novels have a universal significance. It is her conviction that a man’s relationship to his wife and children is at least as at least as important a part of his life as his concerns about his belief and career. It reveals his moral quality more accurately and truthfully. If one wants to know about his nature and temper, one should see him at home. Austen shows a human being not at moments of crisis, but in the most trivial incidents of everyday life. It doesn’t mean that this is less fundamental in the study of human nature and life. For life is made up of small things, and human nature reveals itself in them as fully as in big ones. A picnic in the woods shows up selfishness, kindness, vanity or sincerity just as much as a fight in a battlefield.

   As a novelist Jane Austen writes within a very narrow sphere. The subject matter, the character range, the social setting, and plots are all restricted to the provincial life of the late 18th-century England, concerning three or four landed gentry families with their daily routine life: relationships with members of their own family and with their friends, dancing parties, tea parties, picnics, and gossips. In her novels, there is little reflection on the events that stirred the whole Europe at the time, no thrilling adventures, no abstract ideas, no romantic reveries, and even no death scenes. Everything in her novel results in an observation of a quiet, uneventful and contented life of the English country. Here lie her very weak points as well as strong points. Such narrowness apparently comes from the writer’s own limits of her knowledge, it allows the writer to have a close study of characters and a detailed description of recurring situations so that she can portray them with absolute accuracy and sureness. It is no exaggeration to say that within her limited sphere, Jane Austen is unequaled.

   The works of Jane Austen, at once delightful and profound, are among the supreme achievements of English literature. With trenchant observation and in meticulous detail, she presents the quiet, day-to-day country life of the upper-middle-class English. Her characteristic theme is that maturity is achieved through the loss of illusions. Faults of character displayed by the people of her novels are corrected when, through tribulation, lessons are learned. Even the most minor character vividly particularized in Austen’s lucid style. All these show a mind of the shrewdest intelligence adapting the available traditions and deepening the resources of art with consummate draftsmanship. Because of her sensitivity to universal patterns of human behavior, Jane Austen has brought the English novel, as an art of form, to its maturity. And she has been regarded by many critics as one of the greatest of all novelists.


Selected reading:

Pride and Prejudice


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