In the second half of the 18th century there’s a new kind of literature whose features can be summarized in the world “sublime”, which was set against classic harmony, balance and regularity in form, in fact it indicates strength, irregularity and fear. Typical of the new pre-Romantic sensibility were: a predilection for night, darkness and death; the cult of ruins; terror and fantasies; exotic tales; an interest in popular and dialect literature, in medieval and northern folklore, in common life, humble and plain people. There’s also a return to nature and to the past, in particular to the Middle Age.
THOMAS GRAY was the first to show a real interest in the life of humble people, in particular in his “Elegy written in a churchyard”, a funeral elegy which anticipated the Romantic cult and melancholy and death. He was a professor at Cambridge, he traveled a lot, especially in Scotland. He was interested in Norse and Welsh poetry and the songs of the ancient Irish and Scottish bards. On one hand he celebrates the humble lives, but on the other he is a classical scholar, so Gray is the most typical representative of the transition between Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD His elegy has neoclassical and pre-romantic aspects: he celebrates simple people and village craftsmen, not great powerful people (Foscolo), saying that these poor people who lie dead in the churchyard now are equal to the most famous men of all times: death comes to all men; then he states that perhaps some of these poor people might have become famous if they hadn't been limited by their circumstances. On the other hand, the language and form belong to the neoclassical tradition. The poem ends with the supposed death of the author, his burial in the same churchyard and the epitaph on his tomb, which can be read as Gray’s summing up of his own life and beliefs.
ROBERT BURNS: he was self-taught poet who sang elementary things such love, music, country life and nature; he wrote in a simple language and dialect, his native Scots, using popular verse forms such as the song or the ballad. His birthday is celebrated by Scotsmen all over the world as national holiday, in what is known as “Burns’ Night”.
Romanticism is a literary movement expressing a deep shit in sensibility, and it marked a reaction to the Enlightenment. Romantic poets talk about feelings of humble people, animals and children; they’re interested in nature, seen as the presence of God. Important things for them are: invention, imagination, spontaneity, nature, subjectivity, search for infinity and rebellion. Simple scenes, objects and people began to acquire a new value; the universe had two levels: the visible (nature) and the invisible (supernatural). The romantics’ individualism was reflected in isolation from society.
WILLIAM BLAKE: he came from a lower-class family; he was an engraver , in fact his “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” are also illustrated. Many of his poems are a criticism of the suffering of the poor and the oppressed, in fact he attacked the Church of England and the monarchy; he saw the culture he lived in as an instrument for the oppression of men who are born without power. “Songs of Innocence and Experience” on a first level were intended for children, but they were meant to show the two contrary states of human soul, innocence and experience. The world of innocence is apparently unthreatening and fearless, full of joy and happiness, it seems like a Garden of Eden, people buy the lamb and the child, symbols of God. The world of experience is full of selfishness, cruelty and social injustice, its symbol is the tiger. Blake is very interested in children, in fact he uses a simple language, typical of ballads.
THE LAMB: Content of the first stanza: In this stanza, the poet asks the lamb if he knows about his maker (=creator): they are connected with the moment of creation and with the creator. He gives no answers but he only introduces the lamb, giving a description of him and underlining some of his qualities: goodness, innocence, weakness, purity. Concerning the physical aspect of the lamb, the poet says that he has a tender voice and soft clothing, he is woolly, bright, delightful. Content of the second stanza: The poet speaks about the maker of the lamb and he introduces him as a generous maker. He is the subject of this stanza and he’s meek, mild and he has become a little child. There is an association between the poet and God: God became a child and also the poet is a child in his soul. The language is simple and quite easy to understand. The words are sweet and belong to the spoken language. There are several repetitions and short sentences to simulate the way of speaking of the children.
THE TIGER: In this poem there are six stanzas which are called quatrains, because they are composed of four lines. Content of the first stanza: The poet asks questions to the tiger related to its origins. In particular, in this stanza he asks it if it knows who is its maker, which the poet calls “immortal hand or eye”.
Content of the second stanza: He asks the tiger questions related to his eyes. Content of the fourth stanza: Considering that the poet thinks that the tiger has already existed before its creator, in this stanza he speaks of the different tools the maker could have used to frame the tiger. He asks several questions to the tiger concerning this point. Content of the fifth stanza: The poet asks the tiger if its maker is satisfied for his work. He also asks him if its maker is the same entity who has created the lamb, a creature which is the opposite of it. Content of the sixth stanza: The poet asks questions to the tiger related to its origins. In particular, in this stanza he asks it if it knows who is its maker, which the poet calls “immortal hand or eye”.
Language: There are several repetitions and the language is not very simple. The first and the sixth stanzas are repeated completely.
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: he was, together with Blake, the first English poet to make the child the subject of his poems. Close contact with nature gave him inspiration. He traveled to France, he was supporter of the French Revolution, but then he was disgusted by it because of the Terror. He wrote a drama “The Bordeners” where he expresses his spiritual crisis for the Revolution. The poems of the “Lyrical Ballads” are the most important (1798), its preface can be considered the manifesto of the lyrical ballads. He uses a simple language (language of truth), there’s no imagination or charm. In 1843 he was made poet laureate; he wrote from 1798 to 1808. “The Excursion” is a long philosophical poem (1814) in 9 books, he thought that poets have a mission. “The Recluse” talks about solitude, nation, society, men and nature.
LYRICAL BALLADS: they were written jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Most of Wordsworth’s poems deal with nature, opposed to the noise and confusion of the town, in fact the rural scene is usually silent and solitary and a source of great pleasure for men. He thinks that nature isn’t a power external to man, but we are part of it, because our best feelings are inspired by it. The natural world seems to have a life of its own.
I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD: the poet is wandering alone through the countryside and the scene he describes is peopled by nature and not by men; the crowd is made up of golden daffodils, located in the landscape and are also seen to move continually in a dance. This vision brings back happiness at the beauty of the scene; the poem is however about Wordsworth remembering the daffodils, not the moment when he actually saw them. The final stanza is characterized by a recollection of a precise event and of the poet’s finding his own emotions confirmed in nature.
COLERIDGE: his best poetry seems to come from a dream world of oriental or medieval charm; his best known poems share the presence of the supernatural in various forms; according to the Romantic ideas they can be seen as nightmares of passivity. Coleridge is the perfect example of a complex Romantic personality: an unfulfilled genius who never fully realized his potential and he had a philosophical and critical mind.
THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: it’s a ballad form whose story comes from a dream by a friend of Coleridge; it can be defined as a mixture of Gothic romance, travel literature and traditional ballad. It’s divided into 7 parts. The poets wanted to mix the supernatural with the real: he gives realistic details about the wedding, the weather, the position of the sun and the Mariner’s native country; supernatural aspects are: the old mariner, who comes from nowhere and has a “glittering eye” which has a hypnotic power, making people listen to his tale, and he is compelled by a mysterious force to tell his tale again and again; the albatross; unearthly creature such as spirits, angels and sea monsters; the ship is driven by mysterious forces. There many interpretations: killing the albatross is a sort of sin against nature and God, so the Mariner has first to go into Purgatory and then he can reach salvation, seen as the return to his old country; or the Mariner is an artist who searches truth and knowledge and finally he is saved by the power of imagination, and then back in the ordinary world he feels compelled to tell his story to the common man.
IT IS AN ANCIENT MARINER: an old Mariner meets three guests going to a wedding and stops one to tell him a story; the guest is fascinated by the old man’s glittering eye and cannot help listening. The Mariners tells him of how the ship he sailed in was driven by storms towards the ice of the South Pole. Suddenly through the fog comes an albatross, welcomed by the crew as a good luck sign. But the Mariner kills the bird without a reason.
THE SUN NOW ROSE UPON THE RIGHT: this part is centered on the ship in the middle of the ocean and what happens after the Mariner has killed the bird. The first two stanzas describe the sun’s regular motion and the blowing of a good wind; the next four stanzas show the crew’s alternating states of mind as the wind either blows or drops and the ship consequently sails on or stops; for each change the Mariner is either blamed for killing the bird that brought that good wind or praised for killing the bird that brought the fog, this makes the crew accomplices of the Mariner. There’s then an unnatural stillness: the ship doesn't move and the supernatural takes over; the crew can’t speak but the truth about their situation comes in dreams: a spirit has been following the ship to avenge the albatross’ death. The dead bird is hung around the Mariner’s neck and he has become the scapegoat for a general crime.