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The Romantic movement


The word “romantic” dates back to the 17th century, when it was used as referring to the typical romance, meaning something marvelous and adventurous, as well as too imaginative, with a negative connotation. Writers of the Romantic Age used the term precisely in this sense. Yet, when accurately defining the artistic and literary movement which spread between the end of 18th century and the first three decades of the 19th, both “Romantic” and “Romanticism” are words deriving from German, and they began to be used only at the end of 19th century.
The Preface to the second edition of the “Lyrical Ballads” (1800) is traditionally regarded as the beginning of the English Romantic Age. Nowadays Anglo-Saxon critics, however, tend to anticipate a 20 years this beginning, making it coincide with the period of the American Revolution and of the Independence of American colonies, which occurred in 1776 and in 1783. Writer Dorothy Marshall has once affirmed that the American Revolution was “the watershed that divided eighteenth from nineteenth century England”, that is the historical event which created a public opinion in the country. A fundamental and undeniable fact is that Romantic poets and thinkers had a very complex idea of the British Imperialism and perceived it as a source of anxiety and worry. The abolitionist struggle against slave trade acquired the form of a real movement precisely during the 1780's. Its major spokesmen were William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Thanks to their parliamentary battles the abolition of slave trade was achieved in 1807, and the abolition of slavery in the English territories in 1833. Unfortunately this did not stop slavery in the colonies, but it was certainly a sign of change.
There were in those days many poetical contributions in favor of the abolitionist movement. These also came from women, who made their polemic be heard, as a sort of advance announcement of the feminist movement. Among them it is worth remember:
• Hannah More, “Slavery, a Poem” (1788), and the ballad “The Sorrows of Yamba”;
• Ann Yearsley, “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” (1788);
• Mary Birkett, “A Poem on the African Slave Trade. Addressed to her own Sex. In two Parts”;
• Helen Maria Williams “A Poem on the Bill lately passed for regulating the Slave Trade”, “An Ode on the Peace”, “Perù”;
• Amelia Opie, “The Negro’s Boy’s Tale, Ballad in quatrain”, “The Black Man’s Lament, or How to Make Sugar”.
In this context William Blake deserves a peculiar attention because his entire poetry was a bastion against any kind of mental, political and religious slavery. “The Little Black Boy”, from the collection “Songs of Innocence”, is a meaningful example of fierce opposition to any exploitation. The short poem is written in the first person, through the voice of a little African child who wishes to be equal to other children and to live with them in a joyful fraternity.
William Wordsworth gave his opinion in several occasions. He denounced the violence on the African people in poems like “To Thomas Clarkson. On the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolitionist of the Slave Trade”, “To Toussant L’Overture”, and in some lines of “The Prelude”. The poem “Humanity” expresses the absurd contradiction between refusing slavery in England, as destroyer of freedom, and being accomplish of the slave trade in other territories.
Romanticism coincided with one of the most stormy period in the history of Great Britain, which saw first the war against America and then against the revolutionary France. But it was not only the war which caused serious social problems at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At this time England was also experiencing profound changes as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Habits of life and work sometimes had to change in a day, conditions in the cities were usually terrible. It was against this unstable and often ugly background that Romanticism flowered. Writers did not often like the changes which were occurring around them, which perhaps explain why they did not often speak of the new industrial society in their work, preferring to concentrate on nature or their own feelings. The Romantic preoccupation with personal feelings, however, did not represent a sudden retreat from the world. It was the result of a change in literary priorities which had happened gradually during the 18th century, and as a consequence writers had become less concerned with wit and more concerned with sentiment. Generally speaking the Romantic Movement in England developed independently from that on the Continent. It was a combined product of the 18th century English tradition of meditative poetry, the tradition of “Gothic” writing popular after 1750 and the work of those writers copying folk literature and songs, such as James Macpherson, the author of “The Poems of Ossian”.
Sentiment began to have an almost religious significance. In this sense the Romantics were religious, but not in the traditional Christian way nor in the way that the Rationalist philosophers looked to a mechanical God to explain the Universe. Theirs was an attempt to discover the divine through human agonies, to move beyond the ordinary world. For this reason they loved all extreme natural phenomena: high, dark mountains, violent storms, anything which was sublime. Edmund Burke distinguished between ordinary and sublime beauty in his “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, in 1756.
The Romantics wished to escape from those conventions of manner, taste, dress, behavior and religion which contemporary society regarded as important but which stopped the free expression of feelings. They saw in Nature the same divine force which they found in the spirit of man. Nature could improve man, whereas civilization, in some way, corrupted him. The poet played an important role as intermediary between ordinary men and the divine, he alone could discover true reality and recreate it for others. In order to do so, his imagination had to work freely and creation had to come spontaneously, almost unconsciously. Keats said that “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”.
The great Romantic writers were sympathetic to democracy, at least for part of their lives. Revolutions, indeed, began to have a special attraction for them, because they seemed to have a massive power of their own which suddenly came out, changing the course of history for better. As the French Revolution continued, however, its character changed, from 1793 to 1795 a reign of terror was conducted. At the same time French armies began to carry their revolutionary message abroad. When General Bonaparte made himself master of Europe, and finally Emperor, it was clear that the original ideals of Revolution had been lost. Yet, Napoleon remained an inspiration for the next generation of European Romantics, since he became a Romantic hero. And a typical Romantic hero was Byron’s Harold, who absorbed all its features: not sharing many of society values, preferring solitude or Nature to the company of other people, believing in freedom, having tormented love lives which ended in despair and sometimes suicide.
Romanticism represents a reaction against the neo-classiscal and rationalistic ideal of 18th century, a “rediscovery of the imagination”. A new faith in the creative, cognitive and even magic power of imagination take the place of the faith in reason, that had characterized the preceding age. All this implies a new theory of poetry: as Shelley wrote in his famous essay on the subject, A Defence of Poetry, poetry “may be defined to be the expression of the imagination”. The romantic poets, however, did no longer regard poetry as the elegant expression of well-known feelings and ideas, but as “the centre and circumference of all knowledge”. They insist that poetry is the most philosophic of all writings, the first and the last of all knowledge. Poetry has to discover the inner reality of things. The typical romantic poet naturally inclines to mysticism, or to the exotic, the strange, the unreal. This is not to say that all the English romantics disregarded the issues of the time, rather they were very worried about and interested in them, but the lack of a common background of faith and aspirations among the social classes, due to the deep social and political changes of the period, give the writers a growing sense feeling of uneasiness and isolation.
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