The Romantic Poetry Movement in Britain

  The Romantic Poetry Movement in Britain

At the end of the 18th century a new literature arose in England. It was called Romanticism, and it opposed most of the ideas held earlier in the century. Romanticism had its roots in a changed attitude toward humankind. The forerunners of the Romanticists argued that humans are naturally good; society makes them bad.

If the social world could be changed, all men might be happier. Many reforms were suggested: better treatment of people in prisons and almshouses (old homes), fewer death penalties for minor crimes, and an increase in charitable institutions. The Romanticists believed that all people are kin and deserve the treatment to which human beings are by nature entitled. Every person has a right to life, liberty, and equal opportunity.

These ideas had been well stated in the American Declaration of Independence. In France a revolution of the common people began in 1789. Many Englishmen hoped that the new democracies—France and the United States—would show the way for the rest of the world to follow. Along with democracy and individualism came other ideas. One of these ideas was that the simple, humble life is best. Another was that people should live close to nature. Thus the Romantic Poetry Movement in Britain was inherently anti-progress, if progress meant industrialization.

Because of this concern for nature and simple folk, authors began to take an interest in old legends, folk ballads, antiquities, ruins, “noble savages,” and rustic characters. Many writers started to give more play to their senses and to their imaginations.

Their pictures of nature became livelier and more realistic. They loved to describe rural scenes, graveyards, majestic mountains, and roaring waterfalls. They also liked to write poems and stories of such eerie or supernatural things as ghosts, haunted castles, fairies, and mad folk. Thus Romanticism grew.

The movement cannot be precisely defined. It was a group of ideas, a web of beliefs. No one Romantic writer expressed all these ideas, but each believed enough of them to set him apart from earlier writers. The Romanticists were emotional and imaginative. They acted through inspiration and intuition. They believed in democracy, humanity, and the possibility of achieving a better world.

The First Great Romanticists

William Blake was both poet and artist (see Blake, William). He not only wrote books, but he also illustrated and printed them. Many of his conservative contemporaries thought him insane because his ideas were so unusual. Chief among these “insane” ideas was his devotion to freedom and universal love. He was interested in children and
animals—the most innocent of God’s creatures. As he wrote in Songs of Innocence

When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

Certainly no one has put more wonder and mystery into beautiful melodic verse than did Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The strange, haunting supernaturalism of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Christabel (1816) have universal and irresistible appeal.

A close friend of Coleridge’s for many years was William Wordsworth. Together they brought out a volume of verse, Lyrical Ballads (1798), which sounded the new note in poetry. This book really signalled the beginning of English Romanticism. Coleridge found beauty in the unreal, Wordsworth found it in the realities of nature.

From nature Wordsworth learned that life may be a continuous development toward goodness. He believed that if people heed the lessons of nature they will grow in character and moral worth.
Charles Lamb, a schoolmate of Coleridge’s, for the most part had little of the serious quality that one sees in the authors of Lyrical Ballads; nor was he an ardent lover of nature. A city man, he showed how a person could live happily among his books by his own fireside. His best-known essay is the playful Dissertation on Roast Pig (1822). In
Tales from Shakespeare (1807), he and his sister Mary rewrote many of Shakespeare’s plays into stories for children.

Interest in the past and in people and a love of rugged scenery are found in the works of Sir Walter Scott. The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and The Lady of the Lake (1810) are representative of Scott’s poems. Between 1814 and 1832 Scott wrote 32 novels. They include Guy Mannering (1815) and Ivanhoe (1819).
Jane Austen, a gifted writer of realistic novels, had difficulty finding a publisher for her skillfully drawn portraits of English middle-class people. Pride and Prejudice (1813) is her best-known work.

Among the lesser Romantic figures was Robert Southey, who was poet laureate of England and author of The Story of the Three Bears and The Battle of Blenheim. An industrious writer, he earned his living solely by his pen. William Hazlitt, on the other hand, earned his way by lecturing and by writing for critical magazines, such as The
Edinburgh Review.

The Younger Romanticists

By 1812 the older generation of Romanticists had grown conservative. They no longer supported radical causes or championed the oppressed. The younger Romantic writers, however, quickly and noisily took up the cry for liberty and justice.

George Gordon Byron was an outspoken critic of the evils of his time. He hoped for human perfection, but his recognition of man’s faults led him frequently to despair and disillusionment (Manfred, 1817; Cain, 1821). Much of his work is satire, bitterly contemptuous of human foibles (Don Juan, 1819–24). His narrative poems (The Corsair,
1814; Mazeppa, 1819), about wild and impetuous persons, brought him success. He was a skilled versifier with a remarkable ear for rhythms. Byron influenced the youth of his day more than any other Romanticist. “Byronism” was a mood adopted by thousands of young men.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the black sheep of a well-to-do, conservative family. Sonnets, songs, and poetic dramas flowed from his pen in the last four years of his life. Many of these works are profound and meditative (Prometheus Unbound, 1820). Others are exquisitely lyrical and beautiful (The Cloud, To a Skylark, Ode to the West Wind).
Adonais (1821), his tribute to Keats, ranks among the greatest elegies. John Keats was a greater poet than either Byron or Shelley . He believed that true happiness was to be found in art and natural beauty (Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819; Ode to a Nightingale, 1819). His verses are lively testimony to the truth of his words in Endymion (1818).

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;

Other Romanticists who deserve mention are Leigh Hunt, whose Abou Ben Adhem continues to be a favorite; Thomas Moore, whose Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms is still a favorite of vocal groups; and Thomas De Quincey, known best for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822). De Quincey, however, ought to be better known for his useful distinction between the “literature of knowledge” and the “literature of power.

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About Hafsa Tahira

Hafsa Tahira, a passionate educator and literature enthusiast. After finishing her Postgraduate degree in Education from an international university, she is on a mission to inspire, educate, and ignite a lifelong love for learning and literature. Through her writings, discussions, and recommendations, she endeavors to make the world of literature more accessible and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of their background or experience.

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