As anyone who is well-versed with my blog knows, I am a fan of John Keats. Little-regarded during the Romantic era, he is now among the Big Five poets of the Romantic era.
Romanticism was a revolt against Reason of the 18th century. Its roots may be found in the late 18th century, and went on to the 1830's. Still, the Victorian writers still employed many Romantic devices in their fiction. In fact Romanticism never really left the 19th century. The key point in Romanticism is that it dwells on feeling and the individual. The individuals' thoughts in particular are very important. An individual isolated from the real world is the common picture we associate with them, and indeed Romantic work tends to be unworldly and introspective. Reason is mocked, and society is not considered worth much. Now while this may not have been realistic in fiction it inspired a great deal of poetry. Common elements include strange or foreign lands, a mythical atmosphere, travels and heightened emotion. Introspection and foreign lands do not seem to tally, but what they have in common is Imagination.
It is curious to reflect that though the Romantic movement lasted about only 50 years, the best-known poets in the English language, known as a school, are the Romantics. We hardly hear of people talking about Elizabethan poets, of Metaphysical poets, or the Victorians. No - it is usually the Romantics. And some of the other movements lasted even longer. I'm going to describe both the Romantics and their descendants, so this will be a long post. Bear with me, dear readers.
The Actual Romantic Era
But let's talk about Keats. In the 1810's and 1820's there were actually a few schools of poetic movements: the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey) and the Cockney school (Keats and Leigh Hunt). Keats suffered much criticism for his Cockneyism - employing lower-class phrases, not closely abiding to the rules of poetry, which means strict rhyme. He was also condemned for writing about ancient Greek subjects, when he had not been educated in ancient Greek. Still, Keats was revolutionary for his time. Only in the Victorian era was it acceptable for ordinary middle-class poets to write about subjects accessible only to gentlemen, in plain and "ungentlemanly" style. You will find this style at times simple, at times florid, less restrained in structure, less formal. But plain is not the word. Keats was far from plain; he was full with imagery, but he lacked the stiff formality, the manliness that was valued in poets at the time. The Romantic art critic William Hazlitt, while he praised Keats for his talent, criticised him for his lack of manliness in his poetry. From On Reading Old Books:
Hazlitt on Keats, in 1824:
- the reading of Mr Keat's Eve of Saint Agnes lately made me regret that I was not young again. The beautiful and tender images there conjured up, "come like shadows -- so depart." The "tiger-moth's wings," which he has spread over his rich poetic blazonry, just flit across my fancy; the gorgeous twilight window which he has painted over again in his verse, to me "blushes" almost in vain "with blood of queens and kings." I know how I should have felt at one time in reading such passages; and that is all. The sharp luscious flavour, the fine aroma is fled, and nothing but the stalk, the bran, the husk of literature is left.
Mr. KEATS is also dead. He gave the greatest promise of genius of any poet of his day. He displayed extreme tenderness, beauty, originality, and delicacy of fancy; all he wanted was manly strength and fortitude to reject the temptations of singularity in sentiment and expression. Some of his shorter and later pieces are, however, as free from faults as they are full of beauties.
A casement high and triple-arch’d there was, All garlanded with carven imag’ries Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 210 And diamonded with panes of quaint device, Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes, As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings; And in the midst, ’mong thousand heraldries, And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings, 215 A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.
|Keats listening to a nightingale. Observe the trees and the sombre background, a trait you see in Romantic paintings.|
The excellence of very Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth - Examine King Lear & you will find this examplified throughout.On reading a critic pointing out there were Poets of Thought and Poets of Sensation, he said, "O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thoughts!" Here is how they differ from the Metaphysical poets e.g. Donne, even a latecomer Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) who wrote with reason and intellect and in rhyming couplets. Which is not to say Romantic poets were not intellectual. Keats was very much an intellectual with ideas on Art. Erasmus Darwin's poetry was written in the late 18th century, the Romantic era, but his style was Metaphysical rather than Romantic. He was an Enlightenment thinker and doctor. But it tells us one thing: Romanticism in poetry was still relatively undeveloped then, until the early 19th century.
We can see typically well-known Romantic traits, such as great, agonising passion, as well as mythology and legends. Yes, with their backs turned to Reason, the Romantics loved to envision another world, perhaps in the mediaeval era, or in ancient Greece or some fantasyland. Fantasy is not a modern genre. You can see the Middle Ages in Eve of St Agnes, ancient Greece in Lamia, Renaissance Italy in Isabella or the Pot of Basil. In Lamia, it is noteworthy that the heroine is a sympathetic villain/flawed protagonist who was changed from a snake into a woman. Hermes and a nymph also feature in the story. Other mythology-based poems include Endymion and the unfinished Hyperion.
|Endymion and Diana by Walter Crane|
It's more on Keats' thoughts than on the nightingale. As for his thoughts on truth and beauty, I recommend you to read Ode on a Grecian Urn. But I think, even with their intellectual values, that the Romantics made it a priority to make poetry beautiful to the ear - beautiful in its own right, instead of rhyming couplets like the Metaphysicals. His model was a poet before the Metaphysicals - Edmund Spenser, an Elizabethan who wrote the Faerie Queene. It was Spenser's rhythm and imagery he sought to capture. As befitting a tragic Romantic figure he died of consumption at the age of 25.
MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 5 But being too happy in thine happiness, That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
It is from Keats we inherit the term Negative Capability. Let him speak for himself.
...when a man is capable of being in Uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason...And it is true. Grasping for reasons in fiction will stall a plot, because many people have no concrete reason for their actions: we act semi-consciously. And if every character had a reason for everything many things that would happen in real life would not happen in a novel or poem. But a good writer will know what to expect of a character, even if he cannot guess their motives accurately, based on his knowledge of human life.
Keats eventually influenced an artistic movement called the Pre-Raphaelites, who embraced the vividness of his poetry and painted it out. This was in the 1840's, when Keats was still an obscure dead poet. Here is a painting by Holman Hunt on Eve of St Agnes.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, husband of Mary (author of Frankenstein) too was under-appreciated in his time, but unlike Keats, he was upper-class and had enough to live on. His life was pretty much scandalous (he wrote a pamphlet on atheism, had children out of wedlock with Mary, he believed in free love). Clever and philosophical, this free-thinking poet wrote about topical issues and his views in his poems. Surprisingly, they are not dull and weighty like the 18th century poets - Shelley is known for being light and lyrical. Here is an extract from his famous Ode to the West Wind:
The first Shelley poem I enjoyed when I was about 16 is Ode to a Skylark.
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
|Bird thou never wert -|
|That from Heaven or near it|
|Pourest thy full heart|
|In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.|
|Higher still and higher|
|From the earth thou springest,|
|Like a cloud of fire;|
|The blue deep thou wingest,|
|And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.|
Shelley was friends with Lord Byron, even travelling to him with Italy. He knew and met Keats briefly, though Keats didn't feel comfortable with Shelley, whose refinement made him aware of his lower middle-class origins. Shelley criticised Keats' poetry at first, which wasn't taken too well. But eventually they came to accept each other, Keats going so far to beg Shelley's pardon to criticise the latter's work. When Keats came to Rome to recuperate, Shelley invited him to stay with him, but Keats refused. Shelley told another person: "I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure. Considering they weren't friends, Shelley's championing of Keats was unusual at the time. When Keats died of consumption Shelley wrote the long poem Adonaïs dedicated to him.
If you want to read the more fantasy-like of Shelley, I suggest Queen Mab. It is actually philosophical, and his second wife Mary was forced to edit it for it contained atheist sentiments (controversial at the time). It was the reason Shelley lost custody of his children by his first wife, in a trial against him. Here is what Mary Shelley says of her late husband:
I WEEP for Adonaïs—he is dead! O, weep for Adonaïs! though our tears Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head! And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers, 5 And teach them thine own sorrow! Say: ‘With me Died Adonaïs; till the Future dares Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be An echo and a light unto eternity!’
Our earlier English poetry was almost unknown to him. The love and knowledge of nature developed by Wordsworth--the lofty melody and mysterious beauty of Coleridge's poetry--and the wild fantastic machinery and gorgeous scenery adopted by Southey, composed his favorite reading.
|Percy Shelley. Notice his low collar without a neckcloth. In the Romantic era it was the fashion to wear high collars with well-wrapped white cloth around them. Poets were more known to sport the uncravated style.|
I have omitted to discuss the Lake poets, called so as they lived in the Lake District, now a popular tourist spot. This place inspired much of Wordsworth's scenic poetry. There were 2 eras in the Romantic poetry movement: the first and the second generation. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Sir Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe fame) were of the first generation. Shelley, Byron and Keats are from the second generation. In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge published the Lyrical Ballads, some say it kickstarted the Romantic era in Britain. While this is not really true, it certainly made the Romantic era famous for its poetry, its pastoral and its profundity. It made Romanticism a genuinely intellectual era, instead of mere Gothic and high-society novels. It also helped to popoularise mythology. While Romantic poetry had existed, in the form of Blake and Cowper (and many others) it is notable only the ones after Wordsworth apart from Blake are well-known today. Wordsworth made Romanticism seen as a movement, and indeed Lyrical Ballads was intended to be a revolution in poetry, neglecting form and structure and established norms.
The Lake poets' better-known work was written in the late 18th century up to 1810. Wordsworth is now known for his pastoral poetry, Daffodils for instance, and his ode to Tintern Abbey - descriptive scenes. But it is not just description, it is how he the poet comprehends it, and what they mean to him. In fact Wordsworth categorised his work, some into "Moods of my own mind." What Wordsworth aimed to do was to create realism - instead of high-flown epics, he would write of rural folk, scenery in plain language - parodied and mocked by Lord Byron, who followed the Metaphysicals in some way. Much as I admire Byron's style I am quite shocked at the way he bullied his fellow Romantics. He was classically educated, which is why his language may sound different, more stately, less prosaic, but less sensuous than Keats. Byron made an amusing jeer at Keats, referring to his work as "mental masturbation." Keats disliked the heroic artificial couplets of Alexander Pope, Byron's hero, which was another reason why Byron disliked his poetry, apart from the Cockney influence.
Coleridge is famous for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Khubla Khan, narrative poems of suspense and fantasylike quality. The first is supernatural, dealing with religion I believe, the latter a more Eastern flavour the Romantics were famous for. Compared to Byron and Wordsworth, Coleridge's lines seem to be shorter and easier to read, giving it a singsong appearance. I don't know much about Coleridge, so I'll pass him over. But I recommend reading Rime of the Ancient Mariner - it is very thrilling, and it is written in antiquated language. Yes, the Romantics loved antiquated language as well as setting - thees, thous and thines are common, and would remain common till the Victorians and vanished with the Modernists.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
Christabel was left unfinished at his death. It is about a young lady called Christabel who meets a mysterious young lady called Geraldine who seems to be a witch or something. She ends up corrupting Christabel in some unexplained way. Interestingly enough there's lesbian allusions in it.
|Samuel Taylor Coleridge|
Observe his manner is more stately than the other Romantics. This formality can be found in the 18th century satirical poets e.g. Pope who influenced Byron. Even the "She Walks in Beauty" whose number of syllables would indicate lyricism, is like a stately speech rather than a song. Keats' lines sound like the self-expression of an impetuous youth in raptures: Byron is more measured and controlled. Read She Walks in Beauty aloud: you will see every 2nd syllable is accented: what Dr Johnson, that Classical rationalist, considered good metre.I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs, A palace and a prison on each hand: I saw from out the wave her structures rise As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand: A thousand years their cloudy wings expand Around me, and a dying Glory smiles O'er the far times, when many a subject land Looked to the wingéd Lion's marble piles, Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
Scott wrote poetry before novels, and like Byron, was a bestselling poet. He outsold all the other poets in his time, and even back then poets often found it hard to make a living. Scott is integral in the Scottish revival, and in the interest of English people in Scottish customs. Afterwards he wrote historical romances set in the Middle Ages which became bestsellers. Scott's character are not very profound, deep or realistic, but he could create an epic of war, passion and intrigue. I often think that writers of great epic fiction are poetic at heart. Rob Roy, Waverley, The Bride of Lammermoor are other choices you can find in the classics section (I don't know if they sell many copies in the US, but they do in the UK). In Jane Eyre, there is a mention of Marmion, a poem by Scott published in 1808
|Sir Walter Scott|
This is the month the nightingale, clod brown,
Is heard among the woodland shady boughs:
This is the time when in the vale, grass-grown,
The maiden hears at eve her lover's vows,
What time the blue mist round the patient cows
Dim rises from the grass and half conceals
Their dappled hides. I hear the nightingale,
That from the little blackthorn spinney steals
To the old hazel hedge that skirts the vale,
And still unseen sings sweet. The ploughman feels
The thrilling music as he goes along,
And imitates and listens; while the fields
Lose all their paths in dusk to lead him wrong,
Still sings the nightingale her soft melodious song.
|A painting by Blake|
The first Blake poem I heard of was from my dad, The Tyger.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
As for fiction, sentimental potboilers were the norm, that a young lady caught with a novel was considered not an intelligent reader. Literary realism with issues of the day was a Victorian invention. The Gothic novel was rife, with authors such as Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Matthew Lewis, etc. The scene would be in an ancient castle or abbey, with supernatural horrors, grotesque villains, fainting heroines and melodramatic plots. Notable exceptions were Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. I do not consider Austen a true Romantic though, her books lack depth of passion (Keats would think her flavourless:he once said Byron describes what he sees, Keats describes what he imagines) though to do her justice almost all her characters are realistic and well-conceived. But she is not poetic, and her scope was too narrow. I sometimes sympathise with Charlotte Brontë who is considered narrow and romantic, when in reality she was deeper, more profound, more intellectual and melancholic than Jane. Charlotte could not draw men it is true, and she lacked the distance from her novels, but her heroines face more adversity than Jane. I will come to that later.
Fanny Burney was one of the better novelists of the day, like Maria Edgworth. Her stories are set in upper-class society and deal with the evolution of character (usually a young heroine) over time. But like almost of authors there are lots of caricatures and Mary Sues which would not pass muster as literary fiction today. Still, Cecilia was good, in its less than heroic hero, and a well-read heroine who refuses to marry the man she loves because of an unfortunate condition in her uncle's will. Fanny's first novel, Evelina, is about a young lady entering the world of society, and involves unknown relatives, kidnap at birth, seduction and illegitimacy - very 18th century in tone. Fanny Burney would not be what the modern reader considers in the true Romantic style. 18th century caricature and some realism is her style. More intellectual than the other novelists was Maria Edgworth, a bluestocking, and even the things she has read is reflected in her novels. But too many caricatures and moral lessons as typical of her era would not make this literary fiction to the modern reader. But for issues of the day she is worth reading, as well as some humorous plots. In Belinda, there is a female cross-dresser called Mrs Freke, who duels with pistols, an interracial marriage, gambling dens, and even mention of scientific experiments. You can see the major Romantic novelists are women, and that is something. Most novelists at the time were ladies, who wrote silly novels, but considering the classics from that era are women you could argue it was in a way an era suited to feminism. Men who wrote novels include Horace Walpole, William Beckford and Matthew Lewis, all Gothic novelists, but they are more of historical significance than intellectual powerhouses. The emphasis on great emotion, high society and relationships are suited to women, which could be why they dominate Romantic classics. From the comedic bawdy adventurous 18th century novels (more plot or just a plain old morality lecture) the Romantics bridged the way to analysing character, perfected by the Victorians. Only in the Victorian era did male novelists gain more respectability and dominance.
Here is an excerpt from Maria Edgeworth's novel, Patronage (1814)
" Who in modern times can describe the human heart?"
"Not to speak of foreigners - Miss Burney - Mrs Opie - Mrs INchabld," said Godfrey.
Maria Edgeworth is very topical of her time, mentioning the contemporary authors.
|Fanny Burney, afterwards Madame d'Arblay|
The character of Hamlet stands quite by itself. It is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment.Hazlitt, incidentally was a close friend of Charles Lamb, author of Tales from Shakespeare for Children, less known now as author of Essays of Elia. Like Hazlitt, Lamb was a critic and wrote witty insightful personal essays. Here is an amusing one on married people. Check out his Dissertation on Roast Pork. When Hazlitt had alienated all his friends, Lamb was the only one who remained loyal to him to his dying day.
Prominent journals included the Edinburgh Review, Blackwood's Magazine, The Quarterly. The Brontë children used to read the melodramatic silver-fork stories from Blackwood's.
After the Romantics: how they influenced the Victorians
|Alfred, Lord Tennyson|
ITH blackest moss the flower-pots Were thickly crusted, one and all; The rusted nails fell from the knots That held the pear to the gable wall. The broken sheds look'd sad and strange; Unlifted was the clinking latch: Weeded and worn the ancient thatch Upon the lonely moated grange. She only said, 'My life is dreary, He cometh not,' she said; She said, 'I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead!'
|Mariana by John Everett Millais|
|Lady of Shalott, by Waterhouse|
OBSCUREST night involv'd the sky,
Th' Atlantic billows roar'd,
When such a destin'd wretch as I,
Wash'd headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
Ths poem was published around 1802 I think. It is sad, brings in vivid images of the sea, nature and isolation.
No voice divine the storm allay'd,Which sets the tone of the book. The book deals a lot with Caroline's feelings. Here Charlotte discusses her love of what is true in poetry - truth above art or pretty words. Caroline is not well-read or logical, but she is full of feeling. Shirley places truth above all. And this is what makes them unique. It is Charlotte's attempt to return to the past, where the hero of her childhood the Duke of Wellington dwelt, where her favourite poets thrived, where she imbibed the influence that was to be present in her novels. Despite the realism of the novel, in style and tone it is more Romantic than Villette, that Gothic-inspired novel, which is, nevertheless, a masterpiece in Realism. This nostalgia is distinctly Romantic.
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he.
|Work by Ford Maddox Brown.|
Anne Brontë, more noted for realism than her sisters, was nevertheless entranced by the lure of the Romantics. Tenant of Wildfell Hall is set in the 1820's. The dissolute rake, almost Byronic, the pastoral countryside is Romantic.The seduction reminds you of melodrama, of the rakish silverfork fiction in the 1830's and before, even with Anne's quiet reason. In many ways the Brontës were Romantic figures - tragic, ill and isolated.
Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart by Robert Bernard Martin
Keats by Andrew Motion
John Keats by Robert Gittings
Bartleby (excellent online source for texts, biographies and histories of the 19th century). Check out The Romantic Revival here.
Fanny Burney by Claire Harman