The romantic movement

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1783 End of the American War of Independence

1786 Burns: Poems

1789 The Storming of the Bastille

Blake: Songs of Innocence, The Book of Thel

1792 M Wollstonecraft: The Rights of Woman

1793 Execution of Louis XVI

Beginning of the war between England and France

Godwin: Political Justice

Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

1794 Blake: Songs of Experience

A. Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho

1796 Lewis: The Monk

1798 Irish rebellion

Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Lyrical Ballads

Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population

1801 Act of Union with Ireland

1802 Peace of Amiens between France and Britain

1803 The war stars again

1804 Napoleon becomes Emperor

1805 Trafalgar

1812 Byron: Childe Harold

1813 J. Austen: Pride and Prejudice

1814 W. Scott: Waverley

1815 Waterloo

J. Austen: Emma

1816 Coleridge: Kubla khan, Christabel

1818 Keats: Endymion

1819 Peterloo massacre (dispersion of a Parliamentary reform meeting in Manchester)

Byron: Don Juan

Shelley: The Mask of Anarchy

1820 Accession of George IV

Shelley: Prometheus Unbound

1821 Greek Declaration of Independence

1829 Catholic Emancipation Act

The society
These two generations of poets lived through the crucial period in which the rise both of democracy and of industry was affecting qualitative changes in society. The Romantic era was one of technical, political, and social revolutions and counter-revolutions, of industrializatio, urbanization. of increasingly massive industrial slums, of the first total war and postwar economic collapse, of progressive specialization in work, alternations in economic and political power and consequent dislocations of the class structures, of competing ideologies and ever imminent social chaos.

The immediate effect of the French Revolution was temporarily to abolish the French monarchy, to reduce for ever the rigid class divisions of French society, and to begin wars (lasting till 1815) which for the time being extensively altered the map of Eurpe. Its lasting effect was to inspire the European mind with the belief that change is historically inevitable and static order unnatural, and to imbue it with modern ideas of democracy, nationalism, and equality at least of opportunity.

The effect on England was confusing, for many of the changes being brought about in France had already occurred in England in 17th C. especially the establishment of the sovereignty of the elected representatives of the people on Parliament in 1688. Such changes had occurred without the same mental upheavals, partly because English society and politics had always been more fluid than in the other larger states of Europe, and though unjustified privileges and inequalities existed, there were few definable barriers to be overthrown.

Politicians were divided between the Whigs on the left who were neutral or sympathetic to the Revolution, and the Tories on the right who feared it from the start. Only when General Bonaparte took increasing charge of France and became Emperor Napoleon I in 1804 did Britain become united in fear of French agression.

The two philosophers of this time who discussed about all these issues where Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke vilently concemned the French Revolution on the grounds that history is based on convention and inheritance, that it cannot suddently become a "blank page", that it is impossible to make a clean sweep of one´s past and follow abstract principles. "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement". 1 Paine answered him in the following way: "The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generation which are to follow."2
The Romantic Artist

Literature was implicated in the Romantic revolution in many ways. It was the field of struggle for self-definition of the classes who produced and consumed literature, principally the professional middle classes 3. There have been few generations of creative writers more deeply interested and more involved in study and criticism of the society than the so-called romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. The general conception of the "romantic artist" is, however, one of an artist indifferent to politics and social affairs and devoted to natural beauty and personal feeling.

Besides this reaction to the external situation and political changes, Romanticism is also an internal revolution, a radical change of attitude towards the value of intimate human experience. During the 17C and 18C scientific discoveries and analytical reasoning had been the intruments of the so called Enlightenment, when human beings were valued mainly as citicens playing a proper and fixed place in society. The Romantics reacted in particular against previous attitudes toward Individuality, Imagination and Nature. They believed than human beings are individuals, not merely members of a society, and that they are linked to nature more than they are to urban artificiality. They did not accept religious or social ideas defended as the only truth, but search a freer concept of truth, based in individual experience and what is more important, based in imagination 4. Art for them is subjective and organic. They tend to mirror external reality seeking its perfect form, "by leaving out particular and retaining only general ideas" 5. They also tend to elevate the unconscious as opposed to the conscious powers of the mind, the intensity of the vision rather than the artistic powers of a writer.
"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of personal feeling... produced by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply" (Wordworth: Preface to Lyrical Ballads. pp. 27-43)6
"I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart´s affections, and the truth of Imagination". (Keats)
"Cast aside from Poetry all that is not Inspiration" (Blake:Prophetic Books)
The romantic writers were individualists, and did not cohere in a movement. It is true that the influence of Wordsworth to some extent affected all the others except Blake, that Wordsworth and Coleridge were closely associated in their most vital years, and that a friendship existed between Shelly and Byron, but there was, over the whole period, more disagreement and even dissension amongst the six than collaboration or even sympathy.

These poets did not think of themselves as romantic, and would probably not have appreciated the term; Byron, commonly regarded as an extreme romantic, was a strong admirer of the 18th-C poet Pope, one of the most "classical" of all English poets, and, writing in 1820, expressed his dispproval of the "classical versus romantic" controversies that he found going on in Germany and Italy.

On the other hand, it is to be admitted that these six poets had certain qualities in commmon, which set them apart at least from their predecessors of 18th century.
* They cultivated imaginative freedom, though in various ways, and this encouraged them to use a variety of sometimes very loose poetic forms.

* Each tended to express the feelings of man in solitude as opposed to those of man in society (but this was also true of some 18th-C so called "romantic precursors" such as Collins)

* They shared a tendency to be "inward turning" rather than outward-looking: but again the extent of this tendency varied greatly from Coleridge at one extreme to Byron whose best poetry -the satires- are as outward-looking as (though more individualistic than) any 18C work.

* All, except perhaps Blake, responded vividly to natural environment.

* They tended to use language with more freedom and informality than the 18C poets.

* They were all, but in different ways, profoundly affected by the great historical fact of the French Revolution, and by its various immediate consequences, especially the career of Napoleon; Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge began as warm revolutionary sympathizers, but the Napoleonic wars caused Blake to withdraw and turned the other two into convinced Conservatives; Byron and Shelley were aristocratic revolutionaries, and Keats was non-political but radical in his sympathies.

* All these poets were deeply interested in problems of growth and process, both in life and in art; it has been said that the most interesting poems of the period were about writing poetry. Some of these qualities eg. looseness of form, reliance on the imagination, and introversion, are commonly accepted as "romantic", but the term is more darkening to the understanding than enlightening as a general description of these six poets.

Romantic criticism

The history of criticism is one of oscillation between periods of "imaginative freedom" and periods when moral and social prescriptions laid upon literature. The decline of Neoclassical canons of proportion and moderation in the 18th-century and its substitution by the Longinian cult of "feeling" whose emphasis laid in the subjective state of the reader and then of the author himself ilustrates these shifts.

Romantic criticism coincided with the emergence of aesthetics as a separate branch of philosophy, and both signalled a weakening in ethical demands upon literature. Artistic creations became justified in themselves. "Art for its own sake" was the moto for Post-Romantic Symbolist criticism.

The Romantic Movement originated a strong antagonistic reaction, not only for literary reasons but also for moral ones. In Spain Agustín Duran, Mesonero Romanos y Balmes protested against Romanticism. In Cartas a un escéptico en materia de religión, Balmes says "es una de las plagas características de la época... ese vacío del alma que la desasosiega y atormenta, esa ausencia espantosa de toda fé, de toda esperanza, esa incertidumbre sobre Dios, sobre la naturaleza, sobre el origen y destino del hombre... Vacío tanto más sensible cuanto recae en almas excitadas en todas sus facultades mentales por una literatura loca que sólo se propone producir efecto."

Metaphysics of Romanticism. From the Classics to the Romantics.

For Plato poetry was "metaphorical imitation of nature". Horacio in Ars Poetica afirmed that "the aim of the poet is to please combining the beautiful and the useful"

Romanticism is primarily a metaphysic in which the world is perceived from inside to outside 7. For the Romantics a poem comes from inside and it does not consist in expressing objects or actions but the poet´s feelings.
"Facts are not truths; they are not conclusions; they are not even premises, but in the nature and parts of premises". (Coleridge. Table Talk (1831). Oxford 1917. pp. 165)
"It is the artist´s object, in short... to commnicate, as well as colours and words can do, the same sublime sensations which had dictated his own composition". (Sir Walter Scott: "Essay on Drama" (1819). The Prose Works. Edimburgh & London, 1834-36. Vol VI. pp.310)
"Thus to their extreme verge the passions brought

Dash into poetry, which is but passion" (Lord Byron: Don Juan,IV)
This origin of language as something natural, spontaneous and emotional was part of Lucrece´s epicurian doctrine 8 and of Longinus 9.

Russell Sebold has documented the evolution of Neoclasicism towards Romanticism, the shift from a rationalist, deductive, catesian approach, to a new approach based on the Lockian principles of observation and induction, a sensualist attitude towards the creative process.

Renaissance Neoplatonic vitalism (Giordano Bruno; Jacob Boehme,...) had envisioned an integral universe without absolute divisions, in which everything is interrelatted by a system of correspondences; the living is continous with the inanimate, nature with man, and matter with mind; a theocentric world where God was source of all knowledge. Melabranche and his contemporanies based all knowledge in the paper of the divinity in the cartesian doctrine of innate ideas. Description was, for instance, based more on preconception than on observation. This panorama began to change gradually in England with the influence of Bacon´s inductive and observational phylosophy, Newton´s empirism and Locke and Condillac´s sensualism. For Locke all our ideas are born from sensorial perceptions; this means a psychological subordination to nature, which is characteristic of Romanticism, particularly in the works of Wordsworth.
"We cannot indeed have a single image in the fancy that di not make its first entrance through the sight".10
The Swiss Jacques Rousseau introdudes a new attitude towards society and the individual; he defends man´s intrinsic goodness versus society corruption. "Human progress in intellection and in the sciences, arts and social institutions, after an early optimal stage, involves a correlative decline in human happiness by imposing a growing burden of complication, conflic, oppression and instinctual renunciation."

Inmanuel Kant (1724-1804) believes also that man belongs to two worlds, the noumenal ego (absolute freedom/moral will) and the phenomenal ego (man as part of nature). The action of the man in apprehending conditions of experiences works first combining and synthesing the elements into a single act of knowledge which Kant identified as the Imagination. "The process of emanation (of ideas) ends in its beginning." His disciple, Hohan Fichte (1762-1814) stresses the importance of an interior world, making the ego the center of all experience. 11 Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) continued in the same line.

Hohann G. Herder (1744-1803), admirer of Homero, Shakespeare and folk literature, anticipated liguistic, historical and literary concepts which where fundamental for the Romantics, for instance the existence of a national spirit linked to language, whose development is the history of each country and the unity of each culture. Thomas Perry (U.K. 1729-1811), James MacPherson (U.K. 1736-1779), Walter Scott (1797-1856). T. A. Hoffman (1776-1822), Francois René de Chateaubriand, Mme de Stael (1766-1817), Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Charles A. Saint-Beuve (1804-1869) y Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) in France, all worked in the same line.
The Romantic Imagination

For Russell Sebold these doctrines force man to rely on his senses, severing him from God, isolating him and creating deep subjectivism and sadness; "el romántico convierte todo el mundo en un capullo y encerrado en él proyecta sobre el mundo la fatalidad de su propia alma". This feeling of isolation originates, for Sebold, from a sense of rejection by God and other men. Portraits of pirates, revels, etc are frequent in Romantic Literature. While Nature determines the works of the first Romantics (Wordworth, Coleridge), it becomes and extension of their consciousness in the compositions of the second generation of poets (Shelley, Byron).

The Romantics approximate reality from inside; the create the world from their own perspective. This means a Freedom a liberation, of the individual versus society, of woman versus man, of region versus metropoli, of worker versus bourgeois.
"Du mal du siecle", existential anguish resolves in a melanconlic moan or in a revel´s cry. The "aesthetics of horror" is a discovery of the Romantics. Horror visions can be interpreted as the failure and frustration of the deepest human wishes. Man revels against his own limitations, and even against God in what some authors have called "acts of satanism" , whose aesthetic consequences are very important. The conception of creation as imperfect and uncontrolable, the ideal of beauty is substituted by that of expressivity; the artist can distort his material to recreate this caotic universe (Goya´s black paintings; Blake´s). The structure of poems bursts into pieces. Aritotle´s units of time and space are abandoned and even the unity of action sees the inclusion of secondary episodes. Verses become polimetric and reflect processes in a onomatopeyic way (death of El estudiante de Salamanca by Espronceda).

The Romantic heroe believes himself isolated from society. Many times he is an outcast, a troubadour, a robber, a libertine, a Don Juan... His marginality is expressed in his dark mysterious origins, in the hostility of other characters towards him, in his physical alienation (lives or is captive in a cave, prison, dark forest, etc). Romantic Weltanschauung required a heroe with a tragic flaw, and a personal attitude of emotional, social and political revelion. An alternation between life/death, love/hate, light/darkness, angel/devil, God/Satan, heaven/hell, an emotional desequilibrium resulting in onthological despair and fury.


ABRAMS, M.H. "Natural Supernaturalism". New York: Norton & Co,

ABRAMS, M. H. "The mirror and the lamp". Oxford Univ. Press.1971

BAKER, C. The echoing green: romanticism, modernism and the phenomena of transference in poetry. Princeton Univ. Press, 1984

BEGUIN, Albert. El alma romántica y el sueño. De esta obra resumimos el capítulo “la unidad cósmica”. Editorial Fondo de Cultura económica, México, 1992. 

BOURA, M. The Romantic Imagination. Oxford Univ. Press, 1969.

BUTLER, M. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries. English Literature and its backround 1760-1830. Oxford Univ. Press, 1981

FOAKES, R.A. Romantic Criticism 1800-1850.London: Arnold, 1972.

GIES, D. "Imágenes y la Imaginación Románticas" incluido en Romanticismo. Atti del II Congreso sul Romanticismo spagnolo e ispanoamericano. Universiá di Genova. 1982. pp. 49-59

GRANT, A. A Preface to Coleridge. Longman, 1973

GRELLET, F/VALENTIN, M.H. An Introduction to English Literature. Hachette, 1984

HAUSER, Arnold. Historia Social de la literatura y del arte. Barcelona: Editorial Labor. 1983.

JOHNSTON, K. R.(ed.) Romantic Revolutions. Criticism & Theory Indiana University Press, 1990.

Colección de ensayos de Geoffrey Hartman, Andrzej Warminski, Cynthia Chase, Gary Kelly, etc.

MILFORD, A.S. The Oxford Book of English Romantic Verse. OUP

POULLAIN, C. "Romanticismo de Acción y Romanticismo de Evasión" Iris, 2. 1981. pp. 163-202.

RAY, W. Literary Meaning. From Phenomenology to Deconstruction. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1984.

SEBOLD, R. Trayectoria del Romanticismo Español. Barcelona: Crítica, 1989.

WILLEY, B. Nineteenth Century Studies. Penguin, 1964

1     Reflections on the Revolution in France. (1790)

2     The Rights of Man. (1791)

3     Gary Kelly. Romanticism between Fact and Fiction.

4     Both David Hume and Kant coincide in affirming that "knowledge should begin with an understanding of experience", "understanding of the mind comes first". The action of the mind in apprehending conditions of experiences works first combining and sythesing the elements into a single act of knowledge which Kant identified as Imagination. Emerson and Nietzsche continue in this line.

5     Sir Joshua Reynolds. Discourses on Art.

6     Para Abrams este "overflow" al que Wordworth hace mención parece llevar implícitos tintes de catarsis.

7     the so called idealistic position versus the realist position in which the world is perceived from the outside to the inside.

8     De Rerum Natura "poetry is the natural expression of feeling"

9     The treatise On the Sublime (I A.D) stands out as the first great example of an approach to literature that was to become especially common in critical writing after the mid 18C. It stresses the importance of emotional transport, of imaginative grandeur, and of the sympathetic reaction of the individual reader and hearer. The term "sublime" can be described as an elevation of style. The treatise is a work on rethoric, though it continually crosses the border line between the style of prose-rhetoric and that of poetry. We find the author interested in the organic relation between feeling and expression. He is, for example, the first critic to emphasize the importance of metaphor in giving outlet to intense emotion..

10     Addison. Spectator 416

11     Science of Knowledge (1794)

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