Definition of Romanticism: Romanticism has been defined as a renaissance of wonder’ and ‘addition of strangeness to beauty’. It implies ‘a return to nature’, craving for the beautiful, the ideal, high flight of imagination, strange beauty of phrase, vision and thought, intense emotion and imagery, simple diction, sensuousness, picturesqueness, love of man, nature, God, mysticism or the supernatural, lyricism, subjectivism, etc.
Beginning of Romanticism: It is generally supposed that the English romantic movement began in 1778 with the publication of the famous Lyrical Ballads jointly edited by Wordsworth and Coleridge. But it is wrong to assign any definite date to it as it was not a sudden outburst but the result of a long and gradual growth and development. “The romantic quest is for the remote and the distant”, says Albert, and in this sense, “the Elizabethans were our first romantics”. There is no doubt that the romantic spirit suffered a total decline and eclipse during the neo-classical age which was mainly intellectual and rational, deficient in emotion and imagination. It dealt exclusively with the artificial life of the upper classes of the city of London, and its form and diction was as artificial as its theme. It had no feeling for nature and no feeling for those who lived outside the narrow confines of fashionable London society. It confined itself only to the heroic couplet to the utter disregard of the music and melody of a host of ancient English metres. The Romantic Movement began as a reaction against the dry intellectuality and artificiality of the Pseudo-classics.
Precursors of Romanticism: Return to Nature played a very prominent part in the revival of romanticism. Even when Pope was at the height of his poetic powers, there were poets, like Thomas Parnell and Lady Winchilsea, who showed in their poetry a genuine love for natural beauty and charms of rural life. However, it was in The Seasons (1730) of James Thomson that nature came to her own for the first time. This is the first really important poem in which nature is made the central theme. The seed sown by Thomson grew and flourished in the poetry of such poets as Gray, Collins, Burns, Cowper and Crabbe. These poets, who have rightly been called the precursors of the Romantic Movement, show a genuine feeling for nature and for the simple humanity living in her lap. But the dead hand of the past restrains them from giving free and frank expression to their feelings. They treat only the external charms of nature; they do not yet give her a separate life and soul. This was left for others to do. Cowper, however, is very near to Wordsworth when he sees
A soul In all things and that soul is God.
Blake: Mysticism: Blake was the first poet to introduce the romantic note of mysticism in English poetry. His poems are “extraordinary compositions full of unearthly visions, charming simplicity and baffling obscurity”.
Medievalism: The Middle Ages. Were essentially romantic, full of colour and pageantry, magic and mystery, and romance and adventure. They stirred the imagination of the romantics who turned back to these ages for theme and inspiration. Hence a very important phase of the romantic. Movement was the medieval revival. Not only were the ancient masters studied, but old English metres and poetic forms were revived. Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) fired the imagination of the people and stimulated interest in the medieval ballad literature. It attained wide popularity and proved a great power in spreading romantic tastes. It was an epoch-making work which served to inspire Coleridge and Scott and later on Keats. Equally far reaching was the influence of Chatterton’s Rowley Poems. Their rapid and wide popularity shows the curiosity of the people regarding everything belonging to the Middle Ages. The publication of James Macpherson’s Ossian in 1660 ushered in the Celtic spirit of the North into the English romantic movement. The Ossianic poems are in matter and spirit wildly romantic. They are filled with supernaturalism, steeped in that melancholy and sentimentalism which was invading literature on all sides. They exhibit a striking development in the treatment of nature, and also make a potent appeal to the imagination of men tired of artificiality and conventionalism and show a longing for the freshness and simplicity of nature. In the history of romanticism these poems are an important landmark. They explain the medievalism of romantics like Coleridge, Scotts and Keats.
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“The Lyrical Ballads”: Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Long step forward in the history of romanticism was taken with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 and 1800. Until now the movement had no unity, no fixed programme and direction. It was not a conscious movement at all. It was now for the first time that the two friends-Wordsworth and Coleridge-emphasized the aims and objectives of the new poetry. Coleridge pointed out that he would treat of objects and incidents supernatural, but in such a way as to make them look real and convincing: Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to deal with subjects taken from ordinary and commonplace life but so as to cast over them by the magic power of his imagination the charm of novelty. The former would make the unfamiliar look familiar, and the latter would make the familiar look unfamiliar. In this way they enunciated the theory and methods of new poetry, gave a new consciousness and purpose to the movement, and thus opened a new chapter in the history of English Romanticism. The old Pseudo classic poetry of the 18th century was now definitely a thing of the past; future lay with the poetry of the new school heralded by the appearance of the Lyrical Ballads. The chief contribution of Wordsworth to the English Romantic movement may be summed up as:
- The rejection of the Heroic Couplet and the introduction of a number of new metres.
- The introduction of simplicity in theme and treatment.
- The rejection of 18th century poetic diction.
- The democratization of the subject-matter of poetry.
- Revival of the love of wild and real nature.
French and German Influences: No account of the development of English romanticism can be considered complete without a mention of the impact on it of the French Revolution and German Idealistic Philosophy of Kant. Hegel and Fichte. The French Revolution, and the writings of the makers of the Revolution, fired the imagination of the English romantics. A re- awakening of the love of real and wild nature and of the simple humanity living in her lap, had been there even before the Revolution. But now it acquired a philosophical basis and gained a fresh stimulus. “The Return to Nature” and the democratic spirit were nourished and fostered by the Revolution. It also fed and strengthened the revolutionary idealism of poets. Like Byron and Shelley. The influence of the German idealistic philosophy reached the English romantics largely through Coleridge. According to this philosophy, God, the Supreme, is immanent through the universe. The Supreme Spirit is one, but it assumes myriads of forms since the spirit of man, and of the various objects of nature, is one and the same, there is essential unity between Man, Nature and God. This Spirit, the Divine, is the only reality: the rest are merely appearances, unreal and momentary. It is this philosophy which is at the back of Wordsworth’s mysticism, Shelley’s pantheism, and the idealistic interpretation of nature in the poetry of Coleridge.
Second Generation of Romantics: Keats, Shelley and Byron belong to the second generation of the romantic poets. They began to compose mainly after 1815, by which date the elder romantics had given to the world the best which they had to give. While the poets of the first generation attained respectability and social acceptance in their lifetime, the poets of the second generation remained outcasts till the very end; their fame grew only after their death. All the three were rejected by society. This rejection caused them much sorrow and suffering, and there are those who attribute their early deaths to this fact. Keats’s poetry, for example, was vehemently criticised by the reviewers, and this criticism might very well have hastened the course of the disease which was to cut short a brilliant career in its prime.
Keats is a unique phenomenon in the history of English romanticism, in more ways than one. For one thing, he represents a unique balance of classicism and romanticism. Highly imaginative and emotional matter is enclosed in form of perfect beauty. The music and melody of the romantics is combined with the well-chiselled and highly wrought expression of the classics. Love of Beauty is his differentia, and he loves Beauty, wherever he finds it-in nature, in Medieval legend, in the ancient world of the Hellas and in female anatomy. Unlike his contemporaries, he keeps aloof from the stirring events of the day, which leave behind no trace in his works, and as far as he is concerned, seem never to have happened at all. He was the first to die, but even in his youth, and within the short period of four years, he attained such heights that the only poet who merits comparison with him is Shakespeare.