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THE ROMANTIC AGE

1800 – 1837

ROMANCE, ROMANTIC, ROMANTICISM – we shall be always coming across these


terms, but they are very hard to define. They have in fact been given quite different
meaning by people at different times.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF ROMANTICISM

Romanticism is the opposite from what we know already about the spirit of the
eighteenth century, especially in its earlier, more confident, and classically in its earlier,
more confident, and classical period. Romanticism will be the other side – the hidden and
suppressed side, the formerly unfashionable and frowned-upon side – bursting out,
breaking trough. This “other” side which is breaking through is romanticism. And though
the breaktrough was inevitable sooner or later, it came sooner than it might have
otherwise, owing to the extraordinary influence of one eighteenth-century man of genius,
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), a Swiss who lived and worked mostly in France.
We should note in passing that romanticism was a European movement, though it did not
succeed in all countries at the same time. It was seen first in Germany, then in England,
then in Russia and else where, and then, belatedly but brilliantly, in France as late as
1830. As a period in English literature, Romanticism can be said to extend from about
1798, which marks the publication of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, to
the mid-1830’s, when Queen Victoria began her reign and most of the major Romantic
poets, with the exception of Wordsworth, had died.
THE LIMITED INFLUENCE OF ROMANTICISM

There is another important point that must be made. We have called this the Romantic
Age, but what we really mean is the Romantic Age in English literature. For the age it
self, outside literature, was not “romantic.” The Prince Regent (who was accorded this
little because his father, George III, was out of his mind); and William Pitt, the Prime
Minister; and the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the British forces – these men
were not Romantics. It was only the poets and their friends and some of the younger
people who could be said to belong to the Romantic movement. The politicians, bankers,
merchants, soldiers, editors, even most literary critics, remained untouched by
Romanticism. In the time of Queen Elizabeth it was not simply the poets who were
Elizabethan in spirit; almost everybody was. In Queen Anne the writers shared the
outlook, morals, manners, and taste of the society for which they work. But in the
Romantic Age, there are many different states of things. It is only the comparatively
small literary part of society, not whole of society, that belongs to Romanticism. In effect,
that literature no longer occupies a central position in society.

THE POLITICAL BACKGROUND

The political events of this period, 1800 – 1837, cannot be ignored. They played an
important part in the development of English literature of the time. Revolutionary France,
compelled to fight to defend its very existence, badly needed a commander capable of
organizing victory. It found one in Napoleon Bonaparte, an astonishing military and
organizing genius, one of the greatest commanders of all time, though unscrupulous and
the victim of un-resting ambition. Although Emperor now, with unlimited powers,
Napoleon was in some respects still a man of the French Revolution, inheriting some of
its liberating ideas. At the famous Congress of Vienna, which met to settle the political
problems of Europe, any good that Napoleon had done was soon undone. England,
together with Russia and the Germans, set up a “Holly Alliance” which, though it secured
a long period of peace for Europe. All traces of liberating influences were removed; the
Congress was a triumph of reaction.
THE ROMANTICS AS CHAMPIONS OF FREEDOM

The older poets, William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 –
1834), and Robert Southey (1774 – 1843), were eager revolutionaries in their youth. With
many other Romantics, they believed in individual liberty and the brotherhood of man
and sympathized with those who rebelled against injustice and tyranny. William Hazlitt
(1778 – 1830), the finest critic and essayist of the age, was a passionate anti-Troy and
Radical – he wrote a biography of Napoleon. Among the younger poets, George Gordon,
Lord Byron (1788 – 1824) was a famous throughout Europe as a champion of liberty, and
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) was an out-and-out revolutionary with a special
brand of anarchy all his own. John Keats (1795 – 1821) was nit politically minded, but
because he was one of the Romantics.

INTEREST IN THE PAST

Tory Romanticism is possible, however, and a writer like Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832)
is offered as an outstanding example of it. Oddly enough, in view of the fact that Scott
was accept as an outstanding figure of the whole European Romantic movement.
Although the true Romantic Poets, from Coleridge to Keats, appeared to be always
writing about the past, they had not in fact the solid interest in it that Scott had and that
historian and antiquaries and archaeologists have. This is an important point without
which Romanticism cannot be properly understood. The real Romantic poets, and
storytellers all over Europe who began to give their poems and stories a medieval
background were not so much turning to the past as deliberating turning away from the
outward scene of their own time.

THE IDEALIZING OF WOMEN

Again, in Romanticism women can hardly ever be simply fellow creatures of the opposite
sex, seeking a lasting relationship, a home, and children; instead, they must be strange
and magical. So, Romantic love poetry is not addressed to the girl next door. It is filled
with mysterious beings – nymphs, water sprites, Oriental queens and princesses, savage
gypsy girls – in fact, with any beautiful feminine creatures who could not possibly live
next door. The Romantics pictured women in the same way that even the girl next door
might appear in the inner world of dream of a young man who fall in love with her.
ROMANTIC MELANCHOLY

The poets such as Wordsworth are always praising the lost kingdom of childhood, where
dreams and reality are not yet separated. The real outward world remains obstinate in
itself, refusing to be shaped and coloured by what the Romantics feels. So the literature
of Romanticism, as we can easily discover in the poetry of this age is filled with
melancholy and regret and hopelessly unsatisfied longing.

ROMANTIC POETRY

The Romantic age in English literature, though glorious for what it achieved, was
unusually strong in some forms of writing and curiously weak in others. Though most of
the poets wrote verse dramas, the wonderful command of the theatre that the Elizabethans
had was not recaptured.

ROMANTIC FICTION

The age was also not uniformly successful in its prose forms. In spite of the novels of
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) such as Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and
Sensibility, and those of Sir Walter Scott which were mentioned earlier, its fiction as a
whole was inferior to that of the eighteenth century or that of the Victorian Age. The
truth is, the novel on a grand scale demands a background of a fairly settled society.

THE TRIUMPH OF THE PERSONAL ESSAY

This age can show no masterpieces of biography and history to equal Boswell’s Life of
Johnson and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the personal essay,
written with an intimacy and force that the eighteenth-century essay had never achieved,
the Romantic Age was triumphant.