Friday, 24 April 2015

Trends in the Poetry of Romantic Age


The Romantic period is the most fruitful period in the history of English literature. The revolt against the Classical school which had been started writers like Chatterton, Collins, Gray, Burne, Cowper etc. reached its climax during this period and some of the greatest and most popular English poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats belong to this period. This period starts from 1798 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the famous ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ which Wordsworth wrote as a manifesto of the new form of poetry which he and Coleridge introduced in opposition to the poetry of the Classical school.

Wordsworth chose the language of the common people as the vehicle of his poetry, because it is the most sincere expression of the deepest and rarest passions and feelings. This was the first point of attack on the artificial and formal style of Classical school of poetry.

The other point at which Wordsworth attacked the old school was its insistence on the town and the artificial way of life which prevailed there. He wanted the poet to breathe fresh air of the hills and beautiful natural scenes and become interested in rural life and the simple folk living in the lap of nature. He describes in his ‘Lines written above Tintern Abbey’,

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite.

Wordsworth’s revolt against the Classical school was in keeping with the political and social revolutions of the time as the French Revolution and the American War of Independence which broke away the tyranny of social and political domination, and which proclaim the liberty of the individual or nation to be the master of its own destiny. Just as liberty of the individual was the watchword of the French Revolution, liberty of a nation from foreign domination was the watchword of the American War of Independence; in the same manner liberty of the poet from the tyranny of the literary rules and conventions was the watchword of the new literary movement which we call by the name of Romantic movement.

This movement is also termed as the Romantic Revival, because all these characteristics- the liberty of the writer to choose the theme and form of his literary production, the importance given to imagination and human emotions, and a broad and catholic outlook in life in all its manifestations in towns, villages, mountains, rivers, etc. belonged to the literature of Elizabethan Age which can be called as the first Romantic Age in English literature. The poets of the Romantic period always looked back to the Elizabethan masters—Shakespeare, Spenser, and others—and got inspiration from them.


Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Scott belong to the first romantic generation. Though they were in their youth filled with great enthusiasm by the outburst of the French Revolution which held high hopes for mankind, they became conservatives and gave up their juvenile ideas when the French Republic converted itself into a military empire resulting in Napoleonic wars against England and other European countries. The revolutionary ardour, therefore, faded away, and these poets instead of championing the cause of the oppressed section of mankind, turned to mysticism, the glory of the past, love of natural phenomena, and the noble simplicity of the peasant race attached to the soil, and still sticking to traditional virtues and values. Thus these poets of the romantic generation were not in conflict with the society of which they were a part.


The second generation of the writers—Byron, Shelley, Keats, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt and others—who came after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, revolted from the reactionary spirit which was prevailing at that time in England against the ideals of the French Revolution. The result was that the second generation came in conflict with the social environment with which their predecessors were in moral harmony. Moreover, the victorious struggle with the French empire had left England improvised, and the political and social agitations which had subsided on account of foreign danger, gain raised their head. The result was that there was a lot of turmoil and perturbation among the rank and file, which was being suppressed by those who were in power. In such an atmosphere the younger romantic generation renewed the revolutionary ardour and attacked the established social order. Thus Romanticism in the second stage became a literature of social conflict. Both Byron and Shelly rebelled against society and had to leave England.

1.   Innovation, A Revolt Against The Artificiality
But basically the posts of the two generations shared the same literary beliefs and ideals. They were all innovators in the form as well as in the substance of their poetry. They all condemned the theory and practice the poetical diction prevalent throughout the eighteenth century. They rebelled against the tyranny of the couplet, and preferred either blank verse or stanzas, or a variety of shorter lyrical measures.

Among the aspects of the Romantic Movement in England may be listed: sensibility; primitivism; freedom from rules; spontaneity; solitary life rather then life in society; love of nature; love of beauty; sympathetic interest in the past, especially the medieval; mysticism; individualism; and a reaction against whatever characterized neoclassicism.

2.   Excess Of Emotions And Imagination
Romantic poetry emphasizes feeling, intuition and imagination to a point of irrationalization. An interesting schematic explanation calls romanticism the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism).

3.   Common Themes During Romantic Age

Several common themes flow through poetry of the Romantic Period. The poets, either through conscious or unconscious efforts share similar hopes, fears, and concerns. These themes include “melancholy” that is relieved through nature, the frailty of human accomplishments, and intellectual beauty etc.

As with today’s poets and artists, depression is one of these themes, referred to as melancholy, and the poets found relief through nature. William Wordsworth is an excellent example of this self-medication through nature. His life, like many others, featured moments of pain and the grief of lost loves. Perhaps the most intense grief for him was for that of his daughter, Catherine, who died young. This pain is clear through his works, such as ‘Lucy Gray’, which takes on a nursery rhyme scheme and focuses on the death of a little girl. It ends with the lines

O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And sings a solitary song  
That whistles in the wind.

              Another of these themes is the frailty of human accomplishments. Byron expresses his belief in several places, but the most predominant in my opinion is in “Darkness”. He writes,

The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, 
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed.

4.   Love For Nature
Instead of living a dull, routine life in the town, and spending all his time and energy in the midst of artificiality and complexity of the cities, the poets called upon man to adopt a healthier way of living in the natural world which is full of significance for his soul.

5.   Renaissance Of Wonder
The human spirit began to drive a new richness from outward objects and philosophical ideas. The poets began to draw inspiration from several sources—mountains and lakes, the dignity of the peasant, the terror of supernatural, medieval chivalry and literature, the arts and mythology of Greece, the prophecy of the golden age. All these produced a sense of wonder which had to be properly conveyed in literary form. That is why some critics call the Romantic Revival as the Renaissance of Wonder.

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