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Rahman Explorer, Volume 1, Number 2, December 2008, ISSN 1998-

5568

Romanticism in the 21st Century

Dr. K. Rezaur Rahman

The term ‘Romantic’ is applied to a group of poets known as Romantic poets who emerged in
the early nineteenth century with an imaginative vision of life and a fresh approach to nature and
natural phenomena. Margaret Drabble has described Romanticism as a literary movement which
took place in England and throughout Europe roughly between 1770 and 1884. She has remarked
that:

“Intellectually it marked a violent reaction to the Enlightenment.


Politically it was inspired by the revolutions in America and France.
Emotionally it expressed an extreme assertion of the self and the value of
individual experience….. Together with the sense of the infinite and the
transcendental. Socially it championed progressive causes. The stylistic
keynote of Romanticism is intensity, and its watchword is Imagination.”1

Romantic revival precisely begins with Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, written as a poetic
manifesto of his revolutionary ideas in which he denounced the eighteenth century poetic diction
and proposed to deal with materials to be chosen from common life and a selection of language
really used by men and the same time to make ordinary things uncommon by the power of
imagination. Wordsworth’s emphasis on the common language was a revolt against the neo
classical tradition and it brought a radical change in the poetic style. Coleridge and Keats have
made stylistic innovation in treating the supernatural or dealing with the events of the past.
Wordsworth and Shelley were visionary poets who used poetic symbolism introduced by Blake
in order to derive a broader view of the universe attributing spiritual significance beyond the
physical world.

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth has stated in clear terms that good poetry is the
“spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” According to this definition poetry is not a mirror
of men and manners; on the other hand, it is essentially the expression of the poet’s own feelings.
Coleridge conceives each poetic work like a growing plant, evolving according to its internal
principle into its final organic form. It was Keats’s dictum that “if Poetry comes not as naturally
as the Leaves to a tree it had better come not at all.”2 Blake insisted that he wrote from
“Inspiration and vision” and Shelley also maintained that it is “an error to assert that the finest
passages of poetry are produced by labour and study.”3

External nature and natural landscape with its fauna and flora, hills and dales became a central
theme of Romantic poetry and it was described with the accuracy of detail and sensuous imagery
unprecedented in early poetry. It would however be inappropriate to describe the Romantic poets
as simply nature poets. Wordsworth and Coleridge dealt with the spiritual and psychological
aspect of human life in relation to nature while Shelley and Keats intended to present the
changing aspect of nature in relation to human activity. The longer Romantic “nature poems” are
in fact meditative poems in which the natural scenes serve to depict an emotional problem or the
spiritual growth of the poet and such development of emotional or spiritual state constitutes the

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organizing principle of the poet. Wordsworth said, “the Mind of Man is my haunt, and the main
region of my son.”4

On the concept of Romanticism Rene Wellek has made an important comment:

“The great Turning to England we can see a complete agreement with the
French and Germans on all essential points. The great poets of the English
Romantic Movement constitute a fairly coherent group, with the same
view of poetry and the same conception of imagination, the same view of
nature and mind. They share also a poetic style, a use of imagery,
symbolism and myth, which is quite distinct from anything that had been
practised by the eighteenth century.”5

Rene Wellek has emphasized the imaginative re-creation of the classical myths and legends by
the Romantic poets particularly by Shelley and Keats. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is based
on Aeschylus’s drama in which he shows the triumph of the spirit of life over the forces of
tyranny and oppression. Keats’ Hyperion is a symbolic presentation of the inevitable changes in
the process of evaluation.

Wordsworth’s most significant contribution lies in the glorification of common place and
common man. Wordsworth stated in The Preface to Lyrical Ballads that his aim was to “choose
incidents and situations from common life,” and to use a selection of language really spoken by
men,”6 for which humble and rustic life was chosen. It is for the first time in English poetry that
rustic characters like Michael, The Idiot Boy, Simon Lee, Luke and Ruth occupied a prominent
place. And in dealing with the life of common man Wordsworth enlarged the range and scope of
poetry and democratized the poetic trend.

Wordsworth revolutionized his poetic theory and style by glorifying the humble and rustic life.
And in his own practice as Hazlitt has pointed out that Wordsworth went further and turned his
attention not only to humble people for the subject matter of his serious poetry but also to
“convicts, female vagrant, gypsies, idiot boy and mad mothers, as well as to peasants, peddlers
and village barbers.”7 Hazlitt insisted that in his democratization of poetry, Wordsworth was the
most original poet of his time. And certainly Wordsworth was more radical in this respect than
many of his contemporaries. He extended the readefs imagination to a larger dimension of life
and experience so long remained unexplored.

The eighteenth century writers projected a vision of life governed by the fixed laws of the
universe. They have shown their Predilection for order and discipline in their literary endeavour.
The Romantics, on the other hand, imbued with the spirit of the French Revolution, encouraged
free enterprise and new social promise and recognized the human potentialities and capabilities.
It is the human mind that took over various functions pertaining to the sole activity of Divinity.
According to Blake, the mind creates its proper image if it totally rejects the material world. In
Coleridge and Wordsworth mind creates transcendental aura. Mind wrote Coleridge is “not
passive but made in God’s image, and that too in the sublime sense — the image of the creator.”8
And Wordsworth declared in The Prelude, that the individual mind is immutable and it

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Doth, like an Agent of the one Great Mind,


create, creator and receiver both.”9

Blake’s symbolic lyrics and visionary poems, Coleridge’s metaphysical poem The Ancient
Mariner, Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude, Shelley’s cosmic-symbolic drama
Prometheus Unbound, Keats’s great Odes reflecting the tension in basic human desires, Byron’s
ironic survey of the European civilization in Don Juan — represent something radically new in
revealing the activity of the mind in new poetic diction.

Loneliness which is a dominant theme of modern literature is a major concern of the Romantic
poets. Wordsworth projects his vision of loneliness in The Recluse, and the recurring words like,
‘single’, ‘solitary’, alone constitute the central motif of his poems and his imagination is
triggered off by the image of a solitary figure or object set against natural background.
Coleridge, Byron and Shelley created lonely protagonists who are isolated from society because
they came in conflict with the conventional social values.

The Romantic poets particularly Coleridge, Byron and Shelley presented the theme of exile
which is a central preoccupation of the modern writers. In Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and
Wordsworth’s Guilt and Sorrow the individual who is a social outcast is made to realize the sin
he has committed against the community of living men so that he can make efforts to restore his
position in society. But in Byron the protagonist who violates the conventional laws and limits
remains unrepentant and the Byronic hero Manfred combining a sense of guilt and self-assertion
suffers from terrible isolation. “The lion is alone, so am I,” says Manfred.

Apart from loneliness, some major Romantic poems were written not in a mood of revolutionary
zeal or spiritual exaltation but in a mood of disillusionment and despair. It appears that
disillusionment was a historical reality and it was central to the understanding of Romanticism.
Some parts of Wordsworth’s The Prelude express despair after the collapse of early hope for the
rejuvenation of mankind.

“Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!


Were my day thoughts — my nights were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts
Such ghastly visions had I of despair.”10

John Drew in his book India and the Romantic Imagination10 has made an interesting study of
the Indian influence on the Western imagination in general and on the English Romantic poetry
in particular. In an age of disintegration of values and profound scepticism many modern writers
turned to the East for spiritual nourishment. The attitude of the West to India was largely
determined by the romantic notion of India — a remote and exotic place which attracted the
European imagination and for historical, literary and philosophical sources India has been
consistently idealized by the Western writers in the nineteenth century and modem times. In
Forster’s A Passage to India Professor Godbole is the symbolic presentation of the mystic vision

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of life. According to his philosophy neither good nor evil is performed in isolation by an
individual — it expresses the whole universe.

Godbole’s song suggests universal harmony and the song also implies the spiritual union
between Lord Sri Krishna and the milkmaids. The basic theme of the song is that a woman’s
total self-surrender to her companion is similar to a religious devotees complete surrender to
God. The devotional cult, in poetry and song, demonstrates the union of the mundane and the
divine. The song may also imply a belief in an Immanent God, a concept of Pantheism,
suggesting that God is in effect within the human heart. In Wordsworthian term —

“A motion and a spirit, that impels


All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”11

Many of Coleridge writings reveal the impact of the Indian tradition and they also show how his
imaginative mind is invigorated by Indian mythology. Coleridge is attracted by the concept of
God as the One supreme Being pervading the universe. Coleridge may be directly or indirectly
indebted to the oriental thought of his time, but he certainly invests the central mythological
figure with the same sort of psychological significance as it has in its own culture. Kubla Khan
was written at a time when Coleridge was deeply engrossed in his thought about the Supreme
Being.

India also came into Shelley’s orbit of imaginative and was later absorbed in his thoughts.
Shelley’s Alastor is an allegorical poem of a young poet’s quest for the mystery of the world. His
search is not satisfied by the historical survey of the East or by the sensual attraction of the Arab
girt. Instead in a dell in Kashmir, the young poet had a vision of a ‘veiled maiden’ symbolizing a
mystical power transfigured by spiritual love which perpetually exists in the mind. The maiden’s
music appears to be more meaningful than the fleeting echo of the Abyssinian maid in Kubla
Khan:

“Her voice was like the voice of his own soul


Heard in the calm of thought, its music long.”12

Prometheus Unbound begins in the rocks of the Indian Caucasus. In this dramatic masterpiece
love is seen as the highest ideal and this concept is symbolically represented in the
transfiguration of Asia. Love has become a source of divine inspiration in Shelley’s thinking and
it has merged with the metaphysical concept of the one supreme power from which all good is
born and to which’ all aspires to return. Thus in Shelley’s two major poems India has played a
vital role in the thematic development of the poems.

Romanticism did not lose its appeal in the twentieth century. In literary theory M. H. Abrams in
his most noted work The Mirror and the Lamp suggests that contemporary appreciation of
Romantic poetry is morally invigorating as it can create a sense of individual freedom in spite of
the formidable socio-political forces. Romantic poetry, Abrams, maintains, with its emphasis on
individual feeling and serves as a stimulus to ‘a humanistic literary criticism,’ which denounces
the menacing influence of an industrial and commercial society on mankind.

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Abrams was the most authentic voice in the post Second World War critical rehabilitation of
Romanticism. In 1963 he published an important essay entitled “English Romanticism: The
Spirit of the Age,” in a volume of essays edited by Northrop Frye with the title Romanticism
Reconsidered. In his essay Abrams comments that all the Romantic poets were politically and
socially conscious and they drew inspiration from the ideals of the French Revolution. In
addition to its social implications Abrams also pointed out the English radicals tended to
interpret the Revolution within the apocalyptic framework. Blake’s elevation of the function of a
poet to the role of visionary man explains the apocalyptic mode.

Romanticism in its evolutionary process drifts away from political ideas into spiritual meaning.
Some ears later Abrams expanded his definition of Romanticism in wider perspective in his book
Natural and Supernaturalism. Here he summarizes his concept of Romanticism in terms of
religious or internal pattern of thought in the following manner:

“For Wordsworth and his contemporaries the millennium did not come.
The millennial pattern of thinking, however, persisted, with this difference
the external means was replaced by an internal means for transforming the
world…..

Romantic literature however, differs from these theological precedents in that its recourse is from
one secular means of renovating the world to another. To put the matter with the sharpness of
drastic simplification: faith in an apocalypse by revelation had been replaced by faith in an

apocalypse by revolution, and this now gave way to a faith in an


apocalypse by imagination or cognition.”13

In later twentieth century Harold Bloom rediscovers the term ‘revolutionary’ not in a socio-
political context but in a subjective dimension. In 1969 Bloom published an essay with the title
“The Internalization of the quest-romance.” in which he considered the inwardness of the
English Romantics as an essential quality of Romanticism. Bloom in his essay on Romanticism
and Consciousness comments:

“English Romanticism legitimately can be called, as traditionally it has


been, a revival of romance. More than a revival, it is internalization of
romance, particularly of the quest variety.”14

We can see the revival of Romanticism not only in critical theory but also in literary practices in
the twentieth century. Romanticism highlights the inner process of the individual mind which has
been treated in different ways by a large number of commentators and poets during the three
decades or so after the Second World War. T. S. Eliot, who claims to be a classicist in his poetic
theory by challenging Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings,’ is romantic in the subjective or personal expression of his thought that skips
the rational and logical moorings. Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill is an exquisite nature poem which
reminds us of Wordsworth in dealing with childhood and events of the past in natural setting. In

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the late 1950s Torn Gunn’s poems clearly demonstrate the revival of romanticism in his love for
nature and the natural landscape.

We are on the threshold of a new century which is going to be dominated by machine and
advanced science. If we try to reassess the Romantic achievement, we can see the revival o
Romanticism in different dimensions. Wordsworth’s concern for common man which set up a
new trend in English Literature is developed with greater emphasis on the global need of human
understanding and social justice. Wordsworth’s ‘The Female Vagrant’, “is clearly a product of
the revolutionary Wordsworth, whose passionate humanitarianism leads him to write about the
injustices of a social system which oppresses the poor and turns them into outcasts.”15

The Romantic fascination for nature in relation to the subjective mind is receiving new meaning
in turns of the preservation of the natural world for ecological balance. Although 21st century is
going to be controlled by science and advanced technology, it cannot destroy the basic human
passion based on love, sympathy and understanding.

Romantic poetry will appeal to us more in this sub-continent because of our love for nature and
the lush green country side, concern for common man and reverence for spiritual values of life
which are some of the essential qualities of Romantic poetry. What will endure above machine is
the human heart and ‘primal sympathy’ for the whole humanity. We can recall in this connection
Wordsworth’s memorable lines:

We will grieve not, rather find


Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering.16

This is exactly we need today – human love, compassion and commitment to make our life
meaningful in this world.

References:

1. Margaret Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University


Press, 1985, pp. 842-43.
2. John Keats, Letter to John Taylor, February 27, 1818.
3. Quoted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, Norton and Company,
New York, 1993, p.9.
4. Ibid., p.8
5. Rene Wellek, “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History,” Comparative
Literature, Vol. I, No. 1 (Winter, 1949), pp.1-23.
6. Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Lyrical Ballads, London, 1952, p.8.
7. Quoted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, Norton and Company,
New York, 1993, p.10.

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8. Ibid., p. 8
9. Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book II.
10. Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book X.
11. Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey.
12. Coleridge, Kubla Khan
13. Abrams, Natural and the Supernatural, New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1971,
p. 334
14. Harold Bloom (ed.), “Romanticism and Consciousness,” Essays in Criticism, New York,
W. W. Norton and Co., 1970, pp. 5-6.
15. Brett and Jones, Wordsworth and Coleridge, London, 1976, p. 280.
16. William Wordsworth, Ode, Intimations of Immortality.

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