Definition of Romanticism: Master Artists and their Shaping Influences

"I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me."

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Romanticism has been variously defined. Some consider it s the Renascence of Wonder’, some as ‘a revolt against tradition and authority’; others take it as ‘a return to Nature’ or ‘addition of strangeness to beauty’ or ‘liberty’.

The limits of the Romantic Age in English literature are generally set at 1789 (i.e., the beginning of the French Revolution) or 1798 (i.e., the publication of the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge) and 1832 (i.e., the year of Scott’s death and the introduction of the Reform Bill which granted voting right to the middle-class people). Its span, therefore, extends to three or four decades.

Intellectuality marked a violent reaction to the Enlightenment, that is, an 18th-century movement trusting that reason would solve all human Problems, drives away superstition and barbarity, and achieves an ideal existence in this world). Politically it was inspired by the revolutions in America and France and popular wars of independence in Poland, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere.  Read More Poetry Emotionally it expressed an extreme assertion of the self and the value of individual experience (the egotistical sublime, a phrase coined by Keats to describe his version of Wordsworth’s distinctive genius), together with the sense of the infinite and the transcendental. Socially it championed progressive causes, though when these were frustrated it often produced a bitter, gloomy, and despairing outlook. The stylistic keynote of Romanticism  is intensity, and its watchword is ‘Imagination’.

 The Romantics saw and felt things brilliantly afresh. They virtually invented certain landscapes—the lakes, the Alps, the bays of Italy. They were strenuous walkers, hill-climbers, sea-bathers, or river-lovers. They had a new intuition for the primal power of the wild landscape, the spiritual correspondence between Man and Nature, and the aesthetic principle of ‘organic’ form (seen at their noblest in Wordsworth’s Prelude or Turner’s paintings). Remembered childhood, unrequited love, and the exiled hero were constant themes. Read More Romantic   Period The Romantics’ sense of Liberty also helped the emergence of an influential generation of women writers. Romanticism expressed an unending revolt against classical form, conservative morality, authoritarian government, personal insincerity, and human moderation.

The Romantic Age produced a good many poets whose literary works were not a little. Nor do such works go by without drawing our attention. Of the poets of this age, however, the major ones are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Each of them is so important that our discussion of the age will not be complete without individual reference to them.

We know that poetry in the eighteenth century had been orderly and polished, without much concern for Nature. Such poetry was didactic or satiric in its aim, and heroic couplets were the main vehicle of it. Many poets (e.g. Gray, Collins and Blake) had broken away from the form and thought of the prevalent poetry. In spite of them the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 came as a shock to the traditionalists. This important work, a joint product of Wordsworth and Coleridge, signaled the beginning of the Romantic Age.

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a poet of Nature and had the special ability to throw charm over ordinary things. He stated that the language of poetry should be as simple as that of a farm worker, although he could not always follow it. In Tintern Abbey he returns to Nature and describes how in his hours of weariness she sent him ‘sensations sweet’ that he felt in the blood as well as in the heart. Read More Romantic   Period His Ode on Intimations of immortality, a long poem, describes how every object of Nature appears to a child to be clothed in heavenly brightness, and how this view gradually fades away as he grows up, with its almost complete disappearance ii his adult stage. The loss of childhood is, however, partly compensated in later years by ‘a moving affirmation of the poet’s faith in the powers of the philosophic mind and the human heart’. His Lucy Poems, written in a simple and moving manner, express the poet’s admiration of her beauty and her character, and his deep-sorrow at her untimely death. Among his best sonnets are Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, an emotional view of London asleep, and London, 1802 a passionate cry for help at England’s troubled hours. Of his short poems we may mention The Daffodils, The Solitary Reaper and The Reverie of Poor Susan.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge  (l772-l834) possessed a special quality. He could make mysterious events acceptable to a reader’s mind, Like Wordsworth he did not make much use of poetic diction. One of his longer poems is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In it an old sailor describes some strange misfortunes that happened to his ship on account of his killing an innocent bird, and how he finally free himself from the curse after his blessing of some creatures in the moonlight.   Read More Poetry The magic words of the poem haunt our memory. Two of his other poems are Christabel and Kubla Khan, neither of which finished. Christabel describes how the innocent heroine invited her own troubles by giving shelter to Geraldine, an evil spirit in disguise, and how she was at last saved by the spirit of her mother. The poet used here immense variety of metre. ‘The imagery throughout is strongly sexual, and the theme would appear to be connected with the corruption and seduction of innocence:’ in Kubla Khan we hear the Chinese Emperor ordering the construction of a stately pleasure dome among garden, rivers, forests and caves of ice. We also hear here a woman wailing for her demon lover. The Haunting melody of the lines as well as their lilting rhythms is undoubtedly Coleridge’s highest achievements. Of his other poems we may mention the following: France: an Ode. Dejection: an Ode, and Frost at Midnight.

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788- 1824) is a Romantic poet, although. His poetry was influenced not a little by the classical form of Pope. A hater of falsehood, insincerity, and hypocrisy, and a satirizer of many sides of English life, Byron died of fever when he went to join in the Greek struggle for independence. His body was brought home to England from western Greece for burial. His poetry lacks imagination. His word possesses neither Wordsworth’s power of suggestion, or Coleridge mystery, but, except when he wrote carelessly, it is often strong ant beautiful.    Read More Poetry Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a poem narrating travels in Europe, recounts ‘the story of a man who goes off to travel far and wide because he is disgusted with life’s foolish pleasures’. It is in the context of this that he said: ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous.’ The hero of the poem, Childe Harold, was the first example of what came to be known as the Byronic hero, the young man of stormy emotions who shuns humanity and wanders through life weighed down by a sense of guilt for mysterious sins of his past. Read More Romantic   Period The Byronic hero is, to some extent, modeled on the life and personality of Byron himself.  Some of his oriental romances The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and Lara (1814) —took London by storm, and drove out Sir Walter Scott from the field of narrative verse. His masterpiece is Don Juan, an incomplete long poem of satire and adventure. It begins with a shipwreck and continues with other happenings. However, the poet frequently leaves the main strand of his story so that he may put forward ideas on various subjects. Some contemporary poets and certain sides of the English society came in for strong criticism here. However, Goethe considered the poem ‘a work of boundless genius’. Of his popular short poems mention may be made of   She Walks in Beauty like the Night, When We Two Parted and The Assyrian came Down. His most famous sonnet is On the castle of Chillon which is against tyranny and in praise of Bonnivard, a Genovese martyr.

Percy B. Shelley (1792-l 822) was the visionary idealist of English Romanticism. The least selfish man, he was always motivated by good and honourable causes of humanity. He struggled against the causes of human misery, and saw goodness in the whole of Nature. His first important poem is Alastor which is in blank verse and shows Wordsworth’s influence. It expresses joy in the universe and sorrow for the violent feelings of men. Prometheus Unbound, a poetic play based on the Greek model, deals with man’s struggle against the power of the false gods. The development of the story is dull but its lyrics show surprising beauty. Read More Romantic   Period Adonais, one of his best poems, is an elegy on the death of Keats. It shows his mastery over form, rhythm and imagery.   Read More Poetry It has been rightly regarded as ‘a highly wrought piece of art’. His lyrics are among the best in the language, and include The cloud, To a Skyark, Lines to an Indian Air, Music, when Soft Voices Die, To the Night, and Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples. His famous Ode to the West Wind shows his joy in the untamed forces of Nature, his own grief, and his hope of a happy future dawning on mankind. ‘Once tyranny and cruelty had been removed and man’s reason and love substituted, then the Soul of the Universe, the Spirit of Love, would be revealed. This is the theme that runs through all his work.’ Ozymandias, one of his finest sonnets, expresses the uselessness and short-lived nature of human power. His two other poems—England in 1819 and The Mask of Anarchy—show his spirit of protest and revolt against tyranny. Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is partly on childhood, and partly on his new joy of assurance. His poetry is marked by lyrical power, revolutionary idealism, reformative zeal, prophetic note, dream-like quality, myth-making power, and melody. Other critics, particularly antiromanticists who object to the prettiness and sentimentality of much of his work, maintain that Shelley was not as influential as the other British romantic poets Byron, Keats, or William Wordsworth.

John Keats
John Keats (1795-1821) loved beauty and rest. Spenser’s Faerie Queene awoke his poetic powers. His long poem Endymion was savagely attacked by reviewers. It was based on the story of the old gods and on the love of the moon-goddess for a shepherd. Despite the attack Keats did not lose faith in him. His Lamia is a wonderful poem in which a snake is transformed into a beautiful woman. While the bridal feast is on she screams and disappears after Apollonius the philosopher sees through her disguise, and her lover then dies of shock at the discovery. It shows Keats’s great descriptive power. Isabella recounts the story of the unfortunate heroine whose lover was murdered by her own brothers. The poem shows striking advance in Keats’s poetic power.   Read More Poetry Its conclusion, though not without sentimentality, is full of pathos. The Eve of St Agnes is regarded by many as Keats’s finest narrative poem. It is based on the idea that girls may see their lovers in dreams. In this work great descriptive power, fine sensuous beauty and the matchless magic of marvellous phrases are all combined in excellent proportion. His Hyperion, a fragment based on a Greek myth, is one of the grandest poems in English literature. Here musical possibilities of the blank verse have been exploited to the full. The Fall of Hyperion, left unfinished like its predecessor, is also noted for its luscious phrases, dramatic sense and marvellous imagery. Keats is particularly known for his odes which show his flawless poetic power. Of these we mention the following: Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Autumn, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on-Indolence, Ode to Psyche and Ode to Melancholy.