The Romantic age
In the second half of the 18th century a new sensibility emerged: the Romantic age is the period in which new ideas and attitudes arose in reaction to the dominant 18th century's ideals of order, calm, harmony, balance and rationality. This movement didn't lay a precise programme of rules but the recurring romantic trends are the emphasis on imagination, which is a divine faculty which allowed the poet to grasp the divine, indeed this is a godlike faculty thanks to which the poet becomes a seer and a prophet. Moreover, poets tends to use autobiographical material, they were less intellectual and more intimately emotional. Poets looked for freedom, represented common people, which they felt sympathetic to, and lastly they were interested in the supernatural, that is to say the divine.
The events that caused this new sensitivity are the French, the American, and the Industrial Revolutions. In the industrial revolution cities became overcrowded, polluted and they witnessed the exploitation of women and children; therefore the countryside was seen as perfect, innocent and considered as the mirror of goodness.
A very distinctive feature of the Romantic age is the new view of nature, seen as a real living being. A quotation which explains the role of nature in Romanticism could be “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, taken from “Ode to the West Wind”, this sentence means that nature is eternal, after a winter, which symbolizes death, there is always a spring, which symbolizes the rebirth of nature. Human beings always die, and human things are fleeting, while nature is eternal, indeed the romantics grasp perfection, the truth and the divine from it. Nature is opposed to reason, because it is real and living.
Edmund Burke theorized, in his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, the sublime in opposition to the beautiful, because it is a stronger feeling which provoked terror and pain linked to the pleasure in feeling so and to the supernatural. Poets felt astonished in relation to nature and the sublime.
The main events of that age are the Declaration of American Independence in 1776, and the French Revolution in 1789, which were considered the outcome of the age of reason: reason was seen as useless to understand the world and it was replaced by feelings, therefore previous beliefs were put into discussion. The romantics refused reason because it doesn't explain the divine, while there is a perception of it in nature, where the poet can grasp the divine from, therefore they can be identified with pantheism.
The poet is a seer and a prophet for this reason, its highest faculty is imagination, which allows him to grasp the divine in nature and to communicate it by writing poems, because it provides inspiration.
Early romantic poetry
The early Romantic age was characterized by different poetic trends:
pastoral poetry: expressed idyllic pleasure in rural life, it celebrated and praised country life for its simplicity. Nature was seen as a source of delight. The main work of this trend is The Task by Cowper
nature poetry: the main representative was Thomson, who saw nature in its physical details, his observation included wild scenery and led reflections on the primitive man in contrast to the civilized man.
Ossianic poetry: it is a cycle of poems by a legendary warrior called Ossian, who lived in the 3rd century in Scotland. Some of Ossian's work are collected in Fragments of Ancient Poetry by James Macpherson. Their appeal lay in the melancholy and suffering produced by war or contrasted love, and especially in the description of a wild and gloomy nature
graveyard poetry: it is characterized by a melancholic tone and the choice of cemeteries, ruins, and stormy landscapes as setting. The grave became a symbol of contemplation of death and immortality, indeed this poetry dealt with meditation about life and death. The main representative is Thomas Gray
The Gothic novel
Gothic novels are marked by a taste of the mysterious, an impulse for freedom and escape from the ugly world and lastly by the fear of the triumph of evil over good. The first time the adjective gothic was linked not only to architecture but also to literature was as the writer Horace Walpole wrote “A Gothic Novel” as subtitle of his novel The Castle of Otranto.
Gothic novels intended to arouse fear in the reader with the threat of realizing all the potentialities of the mind beyond reason. The nature of this fear reflects that historical moment characterized by disillusionment with the Enlightenment rationality and by the bloody revolutions. Their settings were influenced by the sublime, so they used isolated castles and mysterious abbeys. The most important events take place during the night, when darkness prevails in order to create a gloomy and mysterious setting. The Gothic hero is isolated both voluntarily and involuntarily, the heroine is both afflicted with unreal terrors and persecuted by a villain, who is the embodiment of evil. The wanderer is the symbol of isolation as he wanders in perpetual exile, as a form of divine punishment. The plots are complicated by supernatural being such as witches, monsters, ghosts and vampires. The main representatives are Matthew Gregory Lewis and Mary Godwin.