Romanticism in English Literature | Characteristics of romanticism

Romanticism was a wide artistic and intellectual tendency that emerged in the late eighteenth century and reached its peak during the early Nineteenth Century. Romanticism was in a way a response to the absence of human passion and emotions of the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism.

Neoclassicism stressed on decorum, reason, and rationality, in contrast, romanticism stressed on subjectivity, passion, and feelings. Romanticism dismissed neoclassicism by producing a work of art that was very subjective and emotional. The aims of romanticism comprised an extreme concentration on individuality, worship of nature, which was projected as a massive repository of symbols, of human feelings and desires, and of naturalness. Generally, the Romantic period is noticeable for some major disruptions for instance the French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, the rise of nationalism, and so on. 

The French Revolution and Romanticism:

The French Revolution played a big part in impacting Romantic writers. As the revolution started to escalate, the autocratic kingship that had governed France for years fell down in just three years. This led to a complete change in society. Before the French Revolution, compositions and literature were generally written about and to noblemen and churchmen and hardly ever for and about the common man. But when the monarchy collapsed due to the French Revolution, and with the arrival of Romantic writers, the way of writing literature also changed. Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron began writing for the common man. 

Read More: Summary of Preface to Lyrical Ballads

Industrial Revolution and Romanticism:

In reaction to the growing cities and industrialization in Britain, romantic writers produced works determined by and in condemnation of the Industrial Revolution. For example, Shelley in his poem “Ode to the West Wind” spoke against the cruelty of urbanization. In this poem, the wind, which symbolizes Mother Nature and its seasonal variation, gives birth to life wherever it goes. On the other hand, the industrial revolution with its low living conditions, ill-treatment of children, and demolition of nature bring downfall wherever it goes. In his poem “The Chimney Sweeper” Blake gives importance to the child-like and innocent satisfaction that turns up from nature. The children are rescued from the laborious work as chimney sweepers by an angel, who rescues them to nature. This depicts that nature is the only place where we can escape from the cruelty of this industrial revolution. 

Read More: Hellenism in John Keats’s poetry

Characteristics of Romanticism

Many romantic thinkers such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, and P.B Shelley rebel against the industrialized, ambitious pattern of cities to what Shelley entitled the ideals of “unity” and “calculation”. Instead, for spiritual relaxation, romanticists shifted to nature, to Rousseauistic ideals of basic, primary, and pure lifestyle. Wordsworth maintained that the poet should use the language of rustic life. Wordsworth, together with William Blake and S. T Coleridge, glorified the innocence of childhood and revived old forms of verse namely the ballad and the folktale.   

The concept of nature for the romantics was completely different from that of the neoclassicists. For the neoclassicists, the term “nature” intended ‘general human nature’ or the universal characteristics of men of all time. For them, it might also signify the everlasting, irreversible, and principle order of the universe. But for the romantic thinkers, nature was transformed into a living power that interconnects all things. According to Coleridge, nature was a “language of God”. 

Read More: A Tale of Two Cities as a Historical Novel

Major Romantic Poets and their works:

The first leading representative of English Romanticism was William Blake. According to him, the world in which we live is full of oppositional forces and contradictions and it is the poet’s job to harmonize. But the English Romantic Movement reached its highest level in the works of William Wordsworth and S.T Coleridge. 

Read More: Coleridge’s concept of imagination

William Wordsworth: Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads can be considered as a manifesto of the Romantic Movement. In this work, Wordsworth maintained that poetry is that feeling and emotion which is spontaneous and it should employ the language of rural life. Wordsworth rejected the neoclassicists who focused more on reason, decorum, and order instead he emphasized more on subjectivity, emotion, and feelings. Wordsworth felt that neoclassical poetry was beyond the understanding of common people and their language was extremely pretentious and refined. Accordingly, Wordsworth proposed a new kind of language i.e. the language of humble and rustic people. Some famous romantic poems by Wordsworth were “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, “The Prelude”, “Lines written a few Miles Tintern Abbey”, “The Solitary Reaper” and so on. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: In his most influential work “Biographia Literaria”, Coleridge analyzed his concept of imagination and fancy. According to him, there are chiefly two kinds of imagination: primary imagination and secondary imagination. Primary imagination functions in our daily perception, uniting the diverse inputs collected through the senses. This primary imagination assists us to formulate an understandable outlook of the world. On the contrary, the secondary imagination is creative. It creates new combinations and syntheses. Some famous romantic poems by Coleridge were “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan”, “Dejection: An Ode” and so on. 

Characteristics of Romantic poetry:

  • Romantic Poetry is the intense and creative expression of the unconstrained and spontaneous feeling in man. At the same time, romantic poetry is related not with a man in his pretended, unnatural, boasting social life but with a man in his basic modesty, simplicity, innocence, and untouched by the good and bad of society. Hence, romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge greatly idealized childhood and often used it as a subject matter in their poetry. 
  • Nature is the dominant theme of romantic poetry. Romantic poets approach nature as a living spirit. To Shelley and Wordsworth, nature appears to have been imbued with a soul that connects all things and circumstances and provides the objects a continuation and a movement. 
  • The elements of nature are shown in romantic poetry not only as the framework or backdrop to convey human impression and sentiment but as an infinite source of delight and pleasure. Nature is not only a living spirit but also a teacher, guide, and protector. Wordsworth defines the role of nature as an educator of man:

“Knowing that Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her-

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.”

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