Characteristics of British Romantic Poetry

Romantic Period and Poetry
Characteristics of
British Romantic
It elevated the individual, the passions, and
the inner life, embracing a more dramatic,
personal, and emotional style--even to the
point of melancholic emotion
 Romanticism followed a period we call
the Enlightenment. During the 18th
century, in a reaction against
Enlightenment ideas, feeling began to be
considered more important than reason,
both in literature and in ethics
What was the Enlightenment?
A broad intellectual movement in eighteenthcentury Europe, particularly Britain, France and
Germany, characterized by a rejection of
superstition and mystery and an optimism
concerning the power of human reasoning and
scientific endeavor. It is also referred to as “The
Age of Reason.” It was both within and against
Enlightenment thought that Romanticism can be
said to have been conceived.
What is Neoclassicism?
An 18th-century artistic movement, associated
with the Enlightenment, drawing on classical
models and emphasizing reason, harmony, and
restraint. Literally, “new classicism,” it marked a
renewed interest in the literary and artistic
theories of ancient Greece and Rome and an
attempt to reformulate them for contemporary
British Romanticism
 The
Romantic period in British
Literature (roughly 1780-1832)
stands between and connects the
Enlightenment’s promotion of
commerce, reason, and liberty and
the Victorian experience of
industrialization and empire.
British Romanticism
 Romanticism
in both artistic
production and cultural reception
elevated aesthetic practice to an
almost divine activity, a realm
wherein the individual might forge his
or her very self as an ethical, political,
and creative being.
A key concept in Romanticism is the
While the beautiful is calm and harmonious, the
sublime is majestic, wild, and sometimes savage.
Viewers are moved and often made happy by
the beautiful, but they are overwhelmed, awestruck, and sometimes terrified by the sublime.
How did the sublime relate to the beautiful?
Mere beauty was thought by the Romantics to
be inferior to the concept of the “sublime.” The
British writer and statesman Edmund Burke,
who was interested in categorizing aesthetic
responses, identified beauty with delicacy and
harmony, and he identified the sublime with
vastness, obscurity, and a capacity to inspire
The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen
Philippe Jacques De Loutherbourg
Caspar David Friedrich
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
What shaped Romanticism?
At the turn of the century, fired by ideas
of personal and political liberty and of the
energy and sublimity of the natural world,
artists, writers, and intellectuals sought to
break the bonds of 18th-century
convention. Although the philosophers
Jean Jacques Rousseau (France) and
William Godwin (England) had great
influence, the French Revolution and its
aftermath had the strongest impact.
What shaped Romanticism?
In England, initial support for the French
Revolution was primarily utopian and
 When the French failed to live up to
expectations, most English intellectuals
renounced the Revolution
 However, the Romantic vision had taken
forms other than the political, and these
continued to develop
Romanticism emphasized. . .
Revolutionary political ideas
The use of the imagination over reason
Reverence for nature
The beginnings of Romantic Poetry
In Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1800), William
Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
presented and illustrated a liberating
aesthetic: poetry should express, in
genuine language, experience as filtered
through personal emotion and
imagination; the truest experience was to
be found in nature. The concept of the
sublime strengthened this turn to nature;
in wild country sides, the power of the
sublime could be felt most immediately.
British Romantic poets tend to. . .
Show exuberance and optimism--at times
revolutionary optimism--about the prospects
for changing the individual and society
 Explore divisions within the human psyche
(between self and others and self and nature)
 Strive after the infinite, not after limited
British Romantic poets tend to. . .
See the poet as “the rock of defense for human
nature” (Wordsworth); the poet has the power
to reunite a fragmented self and society
 Stress creative imagination as the source of art;
the mind at least partially creates what we call
“the world”
 Cultivate theories of “poetic genius”
 Revere and explore the subjective nature of
British Romantic poets tend to. . .
Emphasize the emotional, or “passionate,”
element in human beings
 Reject the neoclassical emphasis on decorum,
restraint, imitation of “general nature,” and
previous poets
 Are obsessed with “originality” and “authority”:
they must “create a system,” or be “enslav'd by
another man’s” (Blake)
The “canon” of British Romantic poets:
◦ First Generation Romantic Poets
 William Blake (1757-1827)
 William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
◦ Second Generation Romantic Poets
 George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
 Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
 John Keats (1795-1821)
William Blake (1757-1827)
A printmaker and painter as well as a poet
 Relatively unknown during his own time
 Considered a madman by some
 A mystic and a visionary
 A believer in racial and sexual equality
 A critic of conventional religion
◦ Focus on Innocence vs. Experience
INNOCENCE for Blake is
A State of:
Naïve acceptance of authority
Blind faith and trust
Love of humankind
Willingness to submit
EXPERIENCE for Blake is
A State of:
Awareness of cruelty
Loss of Faith
A THIRD STATE for Blake is
Organized Innocence: an individual’s sense
of the divinity of humanity coexists with
oppression and injustice, though involving
continued recognition of and active
opposition to them
Blake’s illustration for his poem “London”
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
With Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he helped launch
the Romantic Age in English literature with their
1798 joint publication, Lyrical Ballads
 Revolutionary as a young man
 Was England's Poet Laureate from 1843 until
his death
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is
considered a central work of Romantic literary
 In it, he discusses what he sees as the elements
of a new type of poetry, one based on the "real
language of men" and which avoids the poetic
diction of much eighteenth-century poetry.
 Wordsworth also gives his famous definition of
poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings from emotions recollected in
“What is a Poet? . . .”
“He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true,
endowed with more lively sensibility, more
enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater
knowledge of human nature, and a more
comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be
common among mankind; a man pleased with
his own passions and volitions, and who
rejoices more than other men in the spirit of
life that is in him; delighting to contemplate
similar volitions and passions as manifested in
the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually
impelled to create them where he does not
find them.”
“. . . poetry is the spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings: it takes its origin from
emotion recollected in tranquility: the
emotion is contemplated till, by a species of
reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears,
and an emotion, kindred to that which was
before the subject of contemplation, is
gradually produced, and does itself actually
exist in the mind. . . .”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Poet, critic, philosopher
With William Wordsworth, one of the founders of
the Romantic Movement in England and one of the
“Lake Poets”
Best known for his poems “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” as well as his major
prose work, Biographia Literaria
Attacked for political radicalism
Coleridge was influenced by the philosopher William
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and
further Literary Connections
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Godwin’s
daughter, recalled hiding behind the sofa as a
child to hear Coleridge recite “The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner”
Mary Godwin eventually became Mary Shelley,
wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley
 She mentions “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” twice in her novel Frankenstein
 Some of the descriptions in the novel echo the
poem indirectly
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Lady Caroline Lamb called him “mad, bad, and
dangerous to know”
 Of the six poets, he was the only “best seller” during
his lifetime, mainly because he was a celebrity
 He was famous for his sexual attractiveness,
charisma, extravagant living, numerous and
scandalous love affairs, debts, separation from his
wife, and allegations of incest and what was then
called “sodomy”
 He was a national hero to the Greeks because he
fought in their War of Independence
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Byron falls into the period of Romantic poetry,
but much of his work looks back to the satiric
tradition of Pope and Dryden. In Canto III of
Don Juan, he expresses his detestation for poets
such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, who
disappointed the younger generation of
Romantic poets.
Byron was known for his creation of the
Byronic Hero, whose attributes include
Great talent
Great passion
Sexual attractiveness
Contempt for society and social institutions
Contempt for rank and privilege
Being thwarted in love by social constraint or
Byronic Hero (continued)
An unsavory and hidden past
Lack of foresight
In short, a man much like Lord Byron himself.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
An idealist and advocate for social justice
A strong skeptic
A notorious and denigrated figure in his life (he was
a political radical, and he abandoned his pregnant
wife and his child)
 The idol of the next two or three generations of
 Famous for his association with John Keats and Lord
 His writing significantly influenced the American
John Keats (1795-1821)
His work was critical attacked in the periodicals of
the day
 His posthumous influence on poets such as Alfred
Tennyson was immense
 His poetry is characterized by elaborate word choice
and sensual imagery
 Keats's letters, which expound on his aesthetic
theory of “negative capability,” are almost as famous
today as his poetry
“Negative Capability”
In a letter he wrote in December of 1817, Keats
stated, “. . . it struck me, what quality went to form a
Man of Achievement especially in literature & which
Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean
Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of
being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any
irritable reaching after fact & reason.

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