The Romantic period was an important period in the history of English Poetry. The period was characterized with so many features which the writers of the period canvassed in order to react against some unnecessary rules which had actually dominated the English poetry. We should not forget that, the Romantics were also products of the 18th century classicism. It was these Neo-classical features that many of the Romantics reacted to and the growth of industrialization which had eroded the rustic way of living in England.
Britain was still operating an agrarian economy when the Romantic period began. When the Romantic period was almost getting to its end, Britain had become a highly industrialized nation with various towns and cities. In the eighteenth century there was no real class consciousness; Britain had a limited aristocracy: professional people, merchants and rural and urban workers.
By 1830 something like a modern class-consciousness had emerged with more clearly identifiable upper, middle and working classes. Notions of rank, order, degree and station based on birth became supplanted by groupings of landlords, capitalists and labourers. In the late eighteenth century, the population of the British Isles began to grow dramatically. The increasing size of the population expanded the labour force, as well as the demand for goods and services. Economically this was beneficial, as a larger labour force reduced the cost of labour and of the goods and services produced, which in turn, accelerated the industrial process.
The growth in population also contributed to the process of urbanization. The great commercial, industrial and manufacturing cities of London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford increased exponentially in size. By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain had become the world’s first urbanized society. The factory towns of England tended to become rookeries of jerry-built tenements, which the mining towns became long, monotonous rows of company-built cottages, furnishing minimal shelter. The bad living conditions in the towns can be traced to lack of good bricks, the absence of building codes, and the lack of machinery for public sanitation; but they were also due to the factory owners’ tendency to regard workers as commodities and not as human beings.
There were substantial changes in agriculture as the countryside was transformed. Agrarian capitalism reached a period of development. This period witnessed the decline of the independent smallholder often referred to as ‘Yeoman’ (Poplawski, 2000), movingly presented in Wordsworth’s representations of what he referred to as “Cumbrian statesmen’, such as Michael from his “Lyrical Ballads”.
Eighteenth-century Britain became a society with a marked difference between two spheres of activity, the public and the private. There developed an expanding public sphere of political, civil and intellectual life, typified, in particular, by growth of the coffee house as a venue for reading and debating information. In contrast, the private sphere involved family life and the care of education of children. These two spheres were gendered as masculine and feminine respectively. Notions of gender also underwent a redefinition in the period, largely due to the growth in the mode of sensibility, which influenced all aspects of culture.
The late eighteenth-century was also a time when religious sects, usually organized around charismatic individuals and espousing apocalyptic brands of mystical thought, multiplied. William Blake was, for a time, attracted to the writings of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg and attended the New Jerusalem Church of his disciples in Eastcheap before repudiating Swedenborgian teachings in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1990). This reading of political events in terms of biblical prophecy attracted both plebian and polite audiences. Enlightenment notions of deism and skepticism also continued throughout the Romantic period.
In the late eighteenth century a growing consensus for the reform of the British political system was beginning to emerge. In the 1780s Britain was still a mainly agrarian country and the landed interest was predominant, despite the rapid growth of urban centres. The country was governed in the interests of some two hundred powerful aristocratic families (represented in the House of Lords) and below them a landed gentry (the ‘country gentlemen’) of some 12,000 families. These families effectively controlled government at central and local levels.
It may be very difficult to determine when the Romantic literature started; however, the period is often described as covering the years between the 1780s and the 1830s, although some critics may refer back to the 1760s and others forward to around 1850 as significant dates. Defining the period is difficult because the word “Romantic’ refers to a kind of writing which has been defined in opposition to literature which came before it. Romanticism is thus antithetical to eighteenth century non-classicism, rather than a continuation of already established literary and artistic trends. One thing that is important to grasp is that the word “Romantic” itself was not used in the way we use it today by the writers of the time, for whom it meant something pertaining to ‘romance’; nor did the writers collected under the heading regarded themselves as forming a coherent group.
By critical consensus the Romantic poets are the six male poets: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron. Together, they arguably formed a literary and artistic movement known as “Romanticism”, which marked a profound shift in sensibility. Generally Romanticism was seen as marking a violent reaction against eighteenth century Enlightenment thought with its emphasis on ‘reason’ as the predominant human faculty. Romanticism it is often said, was inspired by the political, revolutions of America in 1776 and France in 1789 and that the products of Romanticism tended to be radical or revolutionary. Writers of the Romantic age demonstrate the characteristics listed in the below.
(i) Romantic poets affirm the creative powers of the imagination.
(ii) Romantic poets introduce us to a new way of looking at nature, which becomes the main subject of their work. The Romantics often argue that the possibility of transcendence or ‘unity of being’ can be achieved through communion with nature. Their work exhibits a preference for nature in its sublime aspect: mountains, glaciers, chasms, storms, as well as strange and exotic settings.
(iii) Romantic poets tend to explain human society and its development in terms of an organic model, or a model borrowed from nature, and they reject materialist and mechanistic philosophies.
(iv) Romantic poets write about the nature of the individual self and the value of individual experience.
(v) Romantic thought shows a high regard for the figure of the artist, who is variously described as sage, philosopher, prophet and religious saviour.
Traditionally, Romanticism was seen to begin around the time of the Revolution in France and to develop certain stylistic and linguistic innovations. These innovations are reflected in the works of a number of writers. William Blake produced his prophetic and apocalyptic illuminated books during the 1790s. Blake’s personal vision, expressed in a highly symbolic language and form, was seen by many to inaugurate a new kind of revolutionary writing. Similarly the publication in 1798 of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “Lyrical Ballads”, which contained, in addition to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a series of experimental ballads and lyric poems treating rustic subjects and their distress in an elevated and tragic manner, can be seen as a rejection of eighteenth-century poetics. Wordsworth’s later apologia for his poems, the ‘preface of 1800’, defended the serious treatment of such subjects and could be seen as a manifesto for a revolutionary kind of poetry, for a revolutionary age. Wordsworth also claimed that the “Ballads” ushered in a stylistic revolution in poetry, banishing the allegedly stilted diction of earlier neo-classical poets, preferring instead a language closer to that of contemporary usage.