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Humanities LibreTexts

1: The Romantic Era

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    • 1.1: Romanticism in Literature
      As a literary movement in England, Romanticism could be said to have fired its first salvo in 1801 with William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads. Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poetry that Wordsworth co-published with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The term “Romanticism,” describing this movement, came after the fact. Romanticism lasted until the mid-1820s, with the deaths of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824).
    • 1.2: Historical Context
      The Romantic era was characterized by revolutions, including the American, the French, and the Industrial. The American Revolution had an impact on all of Europe. In addition to the American Revolution, England experienced its own economic revolution—commercial, agricultural, transportation, and in industrialization. The French Revolution evoked the American Revolution and England’s Glorious Revolution as revolutionaries smashed institutions, destroyed the monarchy, and built a new order.
    • 1.3: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
      Although brought up in a fairly conventional Anglican family—Coleridge’s father was vicar of his parish and master of a grammar school—and expected to enter the clergy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge explored radical religious and social thought from his days at University of Cambridge onward. His poems express radical views on the mutuality of humans and nature, of divinity, of imagination, and of poetry itself. His major works include The Eolian Harp, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Kubla Khan.
    • 1.4: William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
      Unlike Blake, William Wordsworth was born into the upper middle to upper class. When he was orphaned in 1778, he was cared for by his aunt and uncle. In his poetry, Wordsworth tries to understand the human mind, especially during intense moments or states of excitement. All humans, regardless of class, experience emotions; and Wordsworth believed that in states of excitement, humans reach a level of dignity, power, and authenticity that is poetic.
    • 1.5: William Blake (1757-1827)
      While comparatively unknown in his lifetime, William Blake shared Romantic ideals of independence, subjectivity, and imagination. He expressed these ideals in both his life and art. He synthesized text and image through his published poetry, in what he described as illuminated manuscripts. Much of his work functioned through synthesis, of good and evil, innocence and experience, thought and feeling, desire and restraint, imagination and reality.
    • 1.6: Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)
      Charlotte Smith’s father, Nicholas Turner, was a wealthy gentleman who nevertheless lived beyond his means. She received the education her society deemed sufficient for women. Smith preferred writing poetry, then a more respected genre than fiction, and identified herself as a poet. She infused her sonnets with emotion and personal sensibility with her sincere affection for nature. They directly influenced Wordsworth and Coleridge, modeling for these writers a responsiveness to nature.
    • 1.7: Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
      Mary Shelley was born to important writers and philosophers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Claire received a formal education; however, Mary educated herself, mainly through reading her father’s many books. She early showed literary aspirations, publishing a poem entitled “Mounseer Nongtongpaw” when she was only ten. Her writing advances and advocates for women’s roles not only in the family but also in society, challenging the patriarchy and misogyny current in her time.
    • 1.8: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
      Percy Bysshe Shelley was probably the most intellectual of all the Romantic poets; he was certainly one of the most well-educated. He was a non-conformist thinker, a philosopher, and a rebel. All of these characteristics join in his theory of poetry and poetic output, with their commitment to radical politics and their visionary idealism. Like Byron, Shelley was born into an aristocratic family and was in line to inherit a large estate. Instead, Shelley became the river that made its own banks.
    • 1.9: John Keats (1795-1821)
      John Keats, like Blake, was trained in a profession. He studied to be a surgeon and was expected to earn his own living. Because his society consequently placed him within the labor class, Keats’s decision to write poetry, a “genteel” art, was in itself a radical act. His poetry is characterized by its sensuality, to the point of sensual overload, and its pursuit of beauty—often (but not always) idealized like Greek art
    • 1.10: George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
      George Gordon was born into an aristocratic family. In 1812, he published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It became a sensation, and Byron “woke up and found himself famous.” The most characteristic feature of Byron’s writing is its autobiographical quality. As in his life, his poetry blended “virtue” with “vice.” In almost all of his writing, Byron’s strength of expression is clear, a strength which he himself likened to the spring of a tiger.

    Thumbnail: Posthumous portrait of John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery, London. (Public Domain; William Hilton via Wikipedia)

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