Topic 48A – Romanticism in great britain: novel and poetry

Topic 48A – Romanticism in great britain: novel and poetry


The romantic period appeared first in Germany, then in England, and later spread throughout the continent. The two most relevant historical facts influencing the birth and development of the movement are the French revolution, and the Industrial revolution in England. The movement brought about changes in philosophy, literature, painting, music, etc, which will be dealed with in the development of the theme.


Economically, change from domestic production to production in factories under capitalist control, introduction of water and steam power to drive machines, and a surge of industrial innovation.

It caused vast social changes

Move from the land to the industrial towns

Creation of an industrial working class, suffering hardship and sometimes opposed to employers.

By the end of the war:

England had resisted the ideological armies of revolutionary France for 20 years, but doing so she had entered a process of transformation. Outwardly, the world of politics looked resistant to change. Burke´s proposal to establish a real parlamentary system, hadn´t scrapped out the previous influence system, nor had imperilled the security of the throne. But England had been reoriented by economic forces more radically than France by the guillotine and the code of Napoleon. Numerically, the new business men were minority, the system of local government was unshaken, but the foundations of social life, mirrored in the way men approached literature, philosophy, dress, and manners were under deep revision before the end of the war with France.

The war with France gave a jerk to the economy. For many manufacturers it presented a crisis, a loss of old markets. They were forced to apply swift remedies or to cease business. The concept of efficiency in production became a matter of extreme importance.


So a new world was being born. Everywhere the firm horizons were dissolving, the classical stability was giving way to discontent and homesickness, but also to confident reconstruction, or the feverish pursuit of novelty for its own shake.

What inspired this general mood? Perhaps the first thing to shake the old ideas was the French Revolution. Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, the old generation of English romantics, were young men in 1789, and they believed that the collapse of the greatest monarchy in the world opened up an exhilarating prospect for all men.

&Blake, in his earlier prophetic works, celebrates the independence of American colonies and the French Revolution. He himself had mixed in turbulent radical circles in London.

&Wordsworth, mingled with republicans in France, and saw the ruins of the Bastille. In Descriptive Sketches he deals with the cause of French &Revolution and idealizes Swiss republicanism. In his last years, though, he lost his revolutionary enthusiasm and became a conservative in politics, orthodox in religion and stiff in lyrical expression.

&John Keats joined the liberal literary circle associated with Leigh Hunt.

& Lord Byron, in England was a Whig who spoke eloquently at the house of Lords.

Romanticism is a reaction against the old rules (in arts, fashion, manners), by which man´s nature would have been confined. But it is not the artistic expression of the new industrial England. On the contrary, it is a reaction against the prosaic, inhuman, mechanized world that was being born with industrialization.

&Blake rebelled directly against the industrial changes of the time. “Wales gives his Daughters to the Looms”.

&Classical literature had been metropolitan associated with great cities, like Alexandria, the greek cities, Rome. The boast of English classicism that London could be added to that list. Now Shelley remarks that “hell is a city much like London”. The most relevant exponents of this reaction to industrialization were Wordsworth works, as in An Evening Walk, a poem describing the The Lake Country from noon to night. In this description he shows nature as the natural habitat of man, far from civilization. There is a pantheistic view of nature in his writings that also reminds us of oriental philosophies. For Wordsworth, nature was a source of mental cleanliness, the stepping stone between man and god. The Lake Country was the place where he spent his childhood, and where he returned later to enjoy the neighboorhood of his friend and collegue Coleridge. In collaboration they wrote Lyrical Ballads, whose main input to the movement was the use of popular, real popular speech in poetry. This like for the popular, the rustic, is also present in Sir Walter Scott. He uses Scottish dialect speech in his novels. He is a romantic, not for his ideas, nor way of life, but because he scorned the universality of the classical view and focused in the ancient customs of Scotland. His best characters are not the aristocrats that crowd his pages, but the few simple characters taken from the humble ranks of scottish life. Through Scott´s pen, Scotland became the Romantic country par excellence (grandeur of his scenery, independent peasantry, bloody nature of much of its history).

The last part of Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein is set in the mountains above Chamonix, the glorious presence-chamber of the imperial nature for Romantics.

John Keats´ The ode to a nightingale: a happy world of natural loveliness is contrasted with the human world of pain.

Romanticism was basically a rebellion in arts, not always coincident with rebellion in other fields. Romantic writers, were not an homogeneous group in their politic and social ideas.

&William Blake, socially inconformist, in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, denounces the subordination of woman.

&Sir Walter Scott was a tory in politics, a wealthy country gentleman in his private life.

&Shelley was more radical. When he was studying in Oxford, he publishes a Pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He was opposed to the tyranny of the king, Church, and family.

So romanticism is a search for escaping from this prosaic, industrial world. This escape was realized in a number of forms:

searching past epoques: Walter Scott´s love of the glamorous past:

The antiquary: Late 18 C

Old morality: James II and the Glorious Revolution

Rob Roy: George I

The heart of Midlothian: Queen Ann

The monastery: torture of Mary Stuart

Ivanhoe: Richard I

Kenilworth: Elizabeth I

The fortune of the Nigel: 1st Stuart James I

Peveril of the Peak: Charles II

Quentin Duward: Louis XI France

medieval age: Gothic Novels with its medieval settings of castles and convents in the medieval times.

, the mytological past:

; in space, to oriental, exotic settings.

A escape from the strict rulesof the eigteenth century, symbolized in the freedom of the pirate, the convict, the gipsy.

The break of old rules is also seen in the formal field. The main exponent of this is the like for blank verse, not submitted to rhyme standards. It is the favourite form of Wordsworth: Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.

But the most deep aspect of this escape, was the rebellion against the very roots of not only immediate past literature, but of the whole system of thinking since Greek´s times: rationality, the common denominator of almost every expression of occidental arts. In philosophy, this rationality had specifically dominated the world of science in the eighteenth century, and the mental world, by the theories of Locke. It was logic then that the romantic choice of one of the two great philosophic systems was for Platonism.

&The clearest instance of this choice is in Blake´s works. For Blake, evil in the world is inherent in generation, in being born into the natural world. The result of generation is to confine man in his 5 senses. Man only can be freed by the operation of poetic genius and imagination. Note that this view is nearer to oriental, non-rational philosophy and to Plato than to Christianism and Aristotle, its philosophic reference. The origin of evil is dealt with in The Book of Urizen, Blake´s version of Genesis.

& Shelley was also attracted to the works of Plato. He translates Plato´s Symposium into English. In the lyrical drama Prometeus Unbound, we can see a fight between Good and Evil. The ideas behind it are platonic.

Non-rational uses of mind flourish and reflect in a number of ways: the interest for dreams, drugs, hypnosis, fools, interests that would have been seen as unhealthy and sterile in the previous century.

&The interest about drugs as a means to explore our inconscence is represented in De Quincey´s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. &Coleridge´s Kubla Khan was composed in an opium dream. Opium was the drug that marked the life and the sufferings of this author.

&It is this author who gives us the deepest insight in the concept of irrationality as opposed to logic in the field of arts.He explained that much of eighteenth century literature was only the work of fancy. Fancy is the ability to see a link between two objects, which, although possibly obscure, can be established logically. The true poet, however, worked with the imagination, fusing objects by links undiscoverable by the operation of reason. Imagination is our hope of contact with the eternal forces, the whole spiritual world.

Sensibility is another of the aspects of this multiple-shaped irrationality. Sensibility is the cult of feelings.

&It is present in the characters of Richardson and Stern, and in Henry Mackenzie´s The Man of Feeling. Abroad, Rousseau´s characters, and Goethe´s Werther. It is associated with the concept of the innate goodness of man.

&This concept is present in Blake´s book of poems, Sons of Innocence, where innocence is located not in race childhood, but in individual childhood, for the first time. This book is illustrated by Blake himself, also engraver. He was also printer, publisher, and bookseller.The book is an evocation of that paradise that Milton had declared lost.

Gothic novel was the romantic prose input to the insight in human irrational mind, this time by means of terror and disease. Medieval castles and convents are used here as physical as well as mental prisons, and nature used as a source of terrifying elements, in the form of thunders, rain, and the silence and sounds of night. With the Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, we have to mention Gregory Lewis´ The Monk, where terror is mingled with moral and physical recoil in what we could term horror.

A variant of this genre, is what we could call scientific Gothic, represented by Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein. Here the theme of Goethe´s Fausto is placed in a laboratory. The argument of the book is an analogy of the concept of evil, inherent in generation dealt with by Blake.

Human nature is Jane Austen´s subject-matter as a novelist. Her heroines are all young girls at the outset of adult life.

We should also say that not all the writers of the epoque share the mood just described. Jane Austen was as unromantic as one should be. Sense and Sensibility is an attack upon excessive emotionalism. Northanger Abbey had the purposes of poking fun at gothic romantic fiction. However, there is a difference between Austen´s rationalism and that of the eighteenth century: she was in accord with the times in her assumptionof the independence of her own class. Her ground was that of the sensible upper-middle class woman. Even the best of Byron´s works, Don Juan, is elegantly cynical, and not fully romantic.