The Romantic Period 1798-1830 refers to a number of different groups of artists, poets, writers and musicians as well as political, theoretical and societal theorists and trends of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. Whilst the Enlightenment put emphasis on the pre-eminence of rationale, Romanticism accentuated imagination and sensation.
Romanticism rarely has anything to do with things generally considered to be ‘romantic,’ even though it is possible that love could sometimes be the topic of Romantic art. To a larger extent it is a Western creative and philosophical revolution that redefined the principal ways in which people examined themselves and the world in which they lived.
It was during this time that imagination was believed to be the most significant element of the mind; that the imagination is the single most powerful instrument of mankind and that through its use there was no difficulty in life that could not be overcome. This was in direct contradiction with the per-eminence for reason and differentiates the Romantic Period from that which went before. It was a dramatic shift in human understanding one that would eventually lead to the Modernist and Post-Modernist periods and inspire the thinking of later writers such as Williams and Ginsberg. However this fundamental shift in personal values and beliefs may have in part been sculpted by the industrial revolution itself. It could be argued that people who had previously left the countryside to work in the cities had essentially created a living space in the countryside that enabled Romantic style poets and artists to re-evaluate the importance and beauty of the natural landscape that surrounded them.
Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads attempts to explain to his readers the techniques he employs when writing his poetry. Wordsworth’s principal objective was to ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ to write about. He wanted to use language that was used ordinarily by men and; “at the same time throw over them a certain colouring of imagination”. (Wordsworth 1800 p. 2). He believed that by surrounding himself with the countryside he was better able to bring his poems to completion as they; “find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity.” (Wordsworth 1800 p. 2). He defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” However he developed an ethos for writing not normally not associated with the word ‘spontaneous’. Wordsworth believed that powerful emotions recalled after the event which inspired them are in fact a truer representation of the feelings that were experienced at the time. That is; a period of speculative thought and reflection is necessary after the time in which the emotions were experienced, coupled with ‘continuing influxes of feeling’, modified by our thoughts within that speculative time frame, thus enables the poet to present a more accurate description of the experience as it actually occurred.
Nature itself became an expression of art for the romantics, they believed in the divine beauty of the countryside and marked a step away form forms of industrialisation, including industrialised civilisation, mechanical language and a return to nature as a naturally combined spiritual and organic pursuit.
Percy Bysshe Shelly described a poem as; “the image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” (Shelly English Essays 1909). When we examine this statement there would appear to be two factors that must be acknowledged, firstly the image of life that Shelly refers to is not the image of life appertained to by for instance neoclassical painters whose rigidity and unemotional form of art was not intended to include symbolism, inventiveness, self-expression or personal inspiration. Conversely Shelly’s aim was to portray an image of life that was based solely on the; “Unchangeable forms of human nature as existing in the mind of the creator.” Another factor of Shelly’s poetry was his idea that to truly express an image of life it must be done so ‘in its eternal truth’. He believed that to describe an image solely as it exists in the mind of the observer was to describe it in such a way that it was automatically recognisable in its truest form in the mind of the reader. Shelly inevitably suggests that there is a universal truth to poetry that recognises a familiarity between what is being described by the poet and the personal day to day experiences of the reader. This proverbial connection between reader and poet is achieved according to Shelly because poetry ‘acts in a divine and unapprehended manner beyond and above consciousness’. (Shelly English Essays 1909).
When writing to his brothers George and Tom, the poet John Keats discussed his theory of ‘Negative Capability’. It is described in his letter; “I mean Negative Capability that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries [and] doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” (Keats 1818). Although Keats does not in any great depth discuss instances in which negative capability exists other than referencing Shakespeare, we are able to establish from this statement an interpretation of what he was talking about. Firstly if we look at the idea; ‘that a man is capable of being even in uncertainties’, it is revealed to us that the state of ‘being’ in which a man exists does not have to rely on fact or reason, rather that it exists within a reality that responds to events and forces that are unseen and indeterminable. With this in mind Keats believed that poetry and all art was devoid of rationality. He believed that poets and great artists were directly relaying the voice of God to the world and that this could be seen in their work. Therefore any attempt to interpret reason and significance from poetry and thus life, was impossible. This idea can be likened to A Priory thinking, whereby one does not need to experience something or look for scientific evidence to ascertain if something, whether in poetry of real life is true, but simply to accept that it is true and leave it at that. This technique was also employed by the poet William Carlos Williams a century later to great effect in the poem The Red Wheelbarrow. The idea of Negative Capability can also be likened to those of the philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that the larger questions of exploratory metaphysics cannot be understood nor answered by the human mind, because the laws and scientific reasoning used to raise these questions rest within the metaphysical boundaries of human consciousness. Keats believed that the truths that were to be found within the human imagination had access to divine knowledge. Such knowledge, he believed could not be interpreted or understood by the human mind and thus he writes of the existence of ‘uncertainties’ within poetry and thus reality. Therefore ‘being in uncertainty’ is in fact ‘being’ in a place that lies between the ordinary day to day reality of the world as we experience it and the multiple potential realities that exist outside our physical understanding of how things are;
“As to the poetical character itself(â€¦)it has no self, it is everything and nothing, it has no character, it enjoys light and shade, it lives in gusto be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated, it has as much delight in perceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” (Keats 1818 Letter to Richard Woodhouse).
Keats J. 1818 Letter to Richard Woodhouse: EN125: Literary Periods & Literary History, Dr. Riana O’Dwyer.
Keats J. 1818 Letter to George and Tom Keats: EN125: Literary Periods & Literary History, Dr. Riana O’Dwyer.
Shelly P.B. 1909 English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay: The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14; Bartleby.com, 2001.
Wordsworth W. 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads 2nd Edition: The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14; Bartleby.com, 2001.