Friday, 4 May 2012

Literary Movement: The Romantics

This post is for the May round of the Classics Challenge at November's Autumn,

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
John Keats

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:

 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.
Hazlitt on Keats, in 1824:
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.
William Hazlitt
But what characterises Keats? Compared to many poets he is known for his sensuousness, the minute detail in all his poetic pictures, something very Romantic, though it is very remarkable in Keats. Take, for instance, this extract from the Eve of St Agnes.

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.
Keats' philosophy to Art was that it must be full of intensity. On seeing the great actor Edmund Kean, Keats applauded him for acting "with gusto". Here is an extract from Keats' letter:
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
But we're making Keats sound shallow all wrapped in nostalgia. No, another thing you find in Romantic poetry is the poet as individual, and his thoughts, or some other hero as individual against the world. Consider Ode to a Nightingale:
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'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.

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:


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,
The first Shelley poem I enjoyed when I was about 16 is Ode to a Skylark.

                 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.
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!’
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:
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
Byron was successful in his lifetime, unusually for a poet. Lauded by society, his work sold very well. Ironically strict parents would disapprove of their daughters mooning over Byron's poetry, and intelligent men often derided Byron for being shallow. It is from him the Byronic hero takes root. Handsome, brooding, cynical and attractive, he is an antihero. An example would be Childe Harolde from Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage or Don Juan. To most people who know little about the Romantics it is the Byronic hero they think of. The hero is not absolutely evil but he commits many sins, such as multiple seductions. In George Eliot's Felix Holt, the hero derides the heroine for reading Byron's poetry, so you can see what the Victorians thought of him. Wordsworth, less successful in sales, was considered a classic and respectable poet, eventually becoming Poet Laureate. It says something for Byron's skill that despite the fact his poems are often shallow in thought (though passionate), he is a classic now. Old classics are usually old books with deeper value and meaning, normally intellectual enough to be preserved by nostalgic intellectuals, but Byron is an exception.
Lord Byron
Here is from the beginning of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
 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!
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.

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
I've forgotten John Clare, peasant-poet. From the second generation of Romantic poets, he was brought to fame when he published a book of nature-poems. Unusually for that time, he was actually a farm-labourer, the son of illiterate parents. He worked very hard to fund his schooling and learned to read and write. Often he would make up poetry as he worked. When the bailiffs were going to throw out his family for not paying rent (his father was lame after an accident) Clare sent the poems to a bookseller, and they were published. He saved his family from eviction in the end. What made his stand out was his humble origins. People were curious in the peasant-poet, and it satisfied the democratic ideals of radical literary people to promote someone of his origins. Unlike the other Romantic poets, he was actually well-versed with nature, being so close to it. His descriptions are far more accurate than that of Wordsworth. He even used his local dialect to describe things, which was edited out by the publishers, but it shows you how faithful he was in rendering his pictures of life. John Clare is a minor poet, because he did not speculate on metaphysics, or great issues, but among the minor poets he certainly towers over them. We often think of Romantic poets as liberal radicals, but Clare had no real political ideals. He believed in the King and country and did not support reform. I like to think of him with Charlotte Brontë that morbidly intelligent arch-Tory from a Yorkshire village. Anyway his poems went out of fashion and he went mad, thinking he was a bigamist. He died in poverty in an asylum, where his famous poem "I Am" was transcribed. This is from The Nightingale:
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.
John Clare
The Big Five are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron. But more recently, only the in 20th century, has a new name been added to the list: William Blake, noted for Songs of Innocence and Experience. He had more success as an engraver than as a poet. His poems did not sell well. He painted illustrations for his own books, which give insight into what he wants the reader to see. Blake is not strictly canon, as his poems were written before the Romantic movement was well in, before Wordsworth came in to popularise it. He was concerned with religion and was a mystic, interested in Swedenborg. But he was not only a poet, he was a painter as well - and a good one too. Many considered him mad - a good candidate for Romanticism. Why is it that all the traits we associate with poets are typical of Romantics? rather than Elizabethans or metaphysicals or Victorians. Even the crazy Modernists are not as poetical in personality.
William Blake
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
Maria Edgeworth
A noteworthy personage you must read about is William Hazlitt. A well-known critic of art and literature, he wrote a book about Shakespeare's characters which sold well. Unfortunately his views got him into trouble with certain people, who printed malicious things about him. (One faux-pas was to describe his unruly sexual life.) He declined after that. Hazlitt was among the few critics who appreciated Keats at the time. Known for his strong views, he supported the French Revolution throughout his life. As a youth he befriended Wordsworth and Coleridge and then attacked them in a paper for deserting the Cause (the Revolution). It was the thing for young radical poets to support the Revolution, for a Romantic poet is an idealist and a Revolutionary. In later years Wordsworth renounced his views and became a Tory, becoming a championed Victorian poet. Hazlitt accused him of currying favours, but then Wordsworth wanted a steady income (he was working in the Post office). Much as you may dislike Hazlitt's strange eccentric views, his essays are thought-provoking and yet simple to read. An early pioneer of art journalism, the simplicity of his language (well, simple in his time) is far more refreshing than the dull, technical articles of today's essays (considered hard even for our time). They give a clue to Hazlitt himself, for they are personal and about his own tastes. Here is a piece on the picturesque and the ideal. And here is a most insightful study on Hamlet. He was most admired by Keats, who attended his lectures and wrote down what he said.
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
And now we proceed to my favourite era. In the late 1820's Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam announced how neglected Shelley was, and championed him over Byron, most people's favourite. Even Keats was mentioned as a favourite of Tennyson's set. In turn Tennyson was influence by the Romantics. Lyrical, with imagery and isolation, Tennyson was in many ways a Romantic. Tennyson had not the intellectual depth or even concern with revolutionary issues of the early Romantics, but he knew their style. In his biography of Tennyson, Robert Bernard Martin argues that Tennyson could not empathise with a wide range of character, and was not convincing with multiple viewpoints. But when the poem called for personal thoughts, for the introspection of one character he excelled. Tennyson's great poetry was written in his twenties, in the 1830's, and for some years he published nothing noteworthy. This coincides with the end of the Romantic era, so he could be said to be a Romantic. Here is an extract from Mariana:

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
Note the simplicity and lack of classical language - something inherited from the Romantics. Tennyson is lyrical, hardly ever formal, at first lambasted by critics. Hallam compared his friend to Shelley, saying he was the successor to that lyricism. Eventually Tennyson became the best-known poet of the Victorian era and became Poet Laureate in 1850. For your information his family was noted to be eccentric in dress and manners, all beautiful, dark and aquiline, clever and morbid. He was obsessed with poetry and local stories says the Tennysons would go round muttering to themselves as they walked. He was dishevelled, never had a real job, went round from place to place and suffered from depression. Tennyson also paid tribute to Mediaeval legend by writing Idylls of the King. A famous poem is the Lady of Shalott, based on Elaine of Astolat's unrequited love for Sir Lancelot du Lake.
Lady of Shalott, by Waterhouse
In fiction, I'm sure you've noticed the Brontë sisters are unusual for their time: less Victorian, more Romantic. Emily's epic tale of death and passion and ghosts are Gothic; she had even planned a sequel, reminiscent of sagas, in a way. Had she lived Wuthering Heights might have been part of a saga which makes you think of the ancient epic poetry. Heathcliff himself is a Byronic hero: cruel, handsome, brooding and prone to violence. Charlotte too was a Romantic, though less Gothic than her reserved sister. Mr Rochester's passion, bigamy and licentiousness is Byronic, so is the mad wife in the attic who burns beds at night.  As for the sumptuous description, it is Romantic. In one scene in Jane Eyre, Jane wonders "Did I wake or sleep?" echoing Keats' Ode to a Nightingale "Fled is that music: do I wake or sleep?"
Emily Brontë
Shirley, Charlotte's second novel, promotes the Romanticism of her youth. Set in 1811-12, it is the Napoleonic Wars. Luddite riots are happening, manufacturers are threatened. But even amid the industrial scene lies a sense of unworldliness. A Yorkshire village - just like the Brontës' home. The Romantic era was not as industrial as the Victorian, and big time manufacturing was only beginning. It still lies in the past, even with current issues written in the past. It is a celebration of the Romantics. It features persons who cherish the past idyllic bliss, but are confronted with the stark reality of the industrial age. Robert Moore, a manufacturer likes poetry, but is forced to be practical in his trade. He wants to marry for love but cannot afford to.  Like other Victorian novels, the focus is on the middle-classes, but it is curious to reflect that Romantic novels are more likely to feature the upper-classes. Charlotte's use of a middle-class background not only reflects her own experience and understanding, it makes you think of that principle, truth - depicting ordinary lives of ordinary people, which was actually not begun by the Victorians but by the Romantics (in poetry.) The Victorians took it further and wrote it in novels. This is why Victorian classics are typically more realistic and convincing than Romantic classics.  The heroine (where I get my pseudonym) is girl who lives in her own world, uncertain in society, preferring the company of the man she loves and her new friend, an intelligent and sympathetic heiress. She loves poetry, even quoting Cowper's The Castaway:
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, 
     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.
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.
Charlotte Brontë
 Even that revolutionary Villette aches of the individual: it is like a Romantic poem translated into verse in the Victorian era. An individual struggling against the developing world, fraught with passion, feeling and solitude, it is just as old-fashioned as it is revolutionary. The description of the sea, the snow, the hot dull autumn, the ghostly nun - all these owe their origins to Romanticism.The style may be Victorian, the sheer audacity of putting a woman through this plot is modern, but the sentiments are of a Romantic who forces himself to face the world. Note that Charlotte was very fond of Wordsworth because he wrote of real rural things, and the same of Robert Burns. For someone obsessed with truth she was unduly fond of Byron but then it was common those days for young girls to adore Byron's poetry. She once said she didn't like many novels published after Walter Scott. I've actually written at length about the setting of Romanticism in Shirley in another post. You can find it here. 
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.
Anne Brontë
In the later Victorian era, Thomas Hardy wanted to write poetry but couldn't earn a living that way. He wrote novels instead, which were more poetic than his contemporaries. Late Victorian novels are realistic, less poetic, less idyllic and pastoral than the early Victorian, and less whimsical. Hardy despite his bitter realism loved to depict the Dorset countryside, with elements of local folklore, natural selection and beautiful descriptions. Detail is given attention to the scenes, and there is tragedy, like melodrama, the sort of thing that would be more at home in a poem. Poetry in a way allows you to be more whimsical than prose, which demands some realism. Tess of the d'Urbervilles and A Pair of Blue Eyes seem to be fit for poetry. While Hardy was an agnostic, like a number of prominent Victorian thinkers, the theme of fate and destiny point to Romantic origins. In Hardy you can always expect great passion, tragedy and luscious prose. The banalities and vulgarities of lowlife are shown, just as Wordsworth would have approved. Rife in symbolism, fraught with tension certain passages remind me of Keats. The pastoral beauty is Wordsworthian. Hardy has amalgamated both types of Romantic: the whimsical and the real.
Thomas Hardy
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


  1. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for commenting on my blog, I've answered your question over there. I saw your link to this post at November's Autumn and a few minutes of browsing your blog made me fall in love with it. This is a fabulous post on the Romantics! I learned some interesting things, like Keats and Leigh Hunt being known as "Cockney" poets and Byron's criticism of Keats. Several of the quotes were also new to me and helped my understanding.

    I'm planning to read "Shirley" this month (the only Bronte novel I haven't read yet) so I'll look forward to reading your post(s) on it.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Sarah. Would you believe it, all this about the Romantics was the result of months of thoughts fermenting in my head? Another poet you ought to check out is John Clare, the peasant-poet. I'll be updating this post shortly to write about him. He's well-known for his poem "I Am" but what he was famed for in his time was his accurate pastoral poetry, more accurate than Wordsworth could ever hope to paint.

      As a matter of fact, I have written about Shirley months ago. Here's the link:

      Have fun reading Shirley! Among all the Bronte novels, I think it is more profound than the rest, not the least being realistic. I didn't like it much when I read it 6 years ago, but every time I read it I love it more.

    2. I'm reading Keats for the first time. I started with Lamia and am re-reading it now. I must read Ode to a Nightingale next! :) It's perfectly reasonable that I'm going to love him (am already starting to) and the Romantics the Pre-Raphaelites are one of my favorite art movements.

      Austen is an author I admire, while I'm not blinded to her faults (I've been working on a post about them), for yes she does have them in spite of her genius, I'm not sure I'd say her scope is narrow. I think she sees and understands the Romantic side of life but growing up in the age of Reason couldn't break away from it. She ridiculed it instead and didn't open up to it.

      Thank you for the information on the literary movement, Caroline! I just love your blog, it's so informative and interesting. :)

    3. ps. Regarding my post on Effie Gray & Gaskell: she could have been vain and a flirt in her youth but Gaskell does seem to exaggerate in her description.
      I've reverted the post back to a draft and plan to do some more research, see what others have to say of Effie and Ruskin. Thanks for your comment on it!

  2. May I suggest that rather than updating this post with information on John Clare (or others) you just make a series of posts on Romanticism, so those of us who are interested can know when something is new, without having to always check back here?

    I'll come back here after I read Shirley to read your posts on it. It's interesting you didn't like it much on the first read. I've retained an impression of The Professor as very dull, but I wonder if that would change if I reread it.

    1. Good idea. I was planning to write a piece on Romantic poetry in Jane Eyre.

      Ironically I liked the Professor when I first read it at age 15, but 6 years later the effect is not the same, it is rather trite and dull. A few months later, on re-reading it I see various points I hadn't noticed in it: especially Frances' talk on the European nations, and the industrial bits in the beginning. I suppose books change their impressibility as you grow older. I loved Ruth when I first read it in my teens, so I ordered a copy this year. Then I noticed it was not as powerful as I supposed, and nothing like Wives and Daughters. It is still charming though.

  3. Excellent post--you had me with Keats but it was wonderful to read about my old friends, the Romantics. I keep on saying I'm going to start on Sir Walter Scott's novels, but haven't yet and so your post is a good reminder of a good ambition.

    I think Keats' odes and sonnets are just about the best works I've ever read. I'll be bookmarking this post for future reference. Nicely done.

  4. An enjoyable, comprehensive post on Romantics. It was great to read The Tyger again - a flashback from my childhood. Blake's an interesting artist.

  5. What a fascinating post - I want to come back and read it at more leisure. It was a nice coincidence, for me, that you talked about Mariana, as my book for this month was named for the poem. I've always found it odd that I love the art of the Romantics, but am not so fond of the poetry. I think a Hardy re-read may be about due, though.