Romanticism was a literary and artistic movement which began in Germany and in England during the late 18th century as a reaction against the extreme rationally prevailing during the Augustan period. The sign of this change begun to emerge around 1750, when Edmund Burke in his work captured the mood of the period. The sublime was not the product of the reason, but anticipated it and was capable of overwhelming reason by the strength of feeling. This marked an important transition, in which the poet abandoned controlled thoughts and rigid form and begun to express moods and feelings, inspired by natural world, which stimulated feelings like melancholy, exhilaration and mystery.
In English literature the most important Romantic poets were Wordsworth and Coleridge, called the Lake Poets, and the younger generation poets (Keats, Shelley and Byron).
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Wordsworth was born in 1770 Cumberland (Cumbria) in the English Lake District, the beautiful region near the Scottish border where he spent his childhood. He was educated at St. John’s College (Cambrigde) and in 1790 he went on a walking tour of the France and the Alps. His contact with Revolutionary France filled him with the enthusiasm for the democratic ideals, but the brutal failure of revolution led him to the edge of nervous breakdown, which was healed by the contact of the nature in Dorset, where he lived where his sister Dorothy. In 1795 he moved to Somerset to be near to Samuel Coleridge. They produced a collection of poems, The Lyrical Ballads, which proved crucial for the development of English Romantic poetry. In fact, in the second edition, Wordsworth added The Preface, which became the Manifesto of English Romanticism.
In 1799 William and Dorothy settled in the Lake District and in 1802 he married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. In 1805 he finished his masterpiece, The Prelude, a long autobiographical poem in 14 books. His reputation grew and in 1843 he was made Poet Laureate. He died in 1850.
The Manifesto of English Romanticism
Wordsworth criticized the standards of 18th century poetry, which he called “poetic diction”.
In fact, in The Preface, he stated that the poetry should deal with everyday situations or incidents and with ordinary and humble people. The language should be simple and the objects called by their ordinary names. The poet was a man among men, writing about what interests mankind.
Man and nature
Wordsworth is interested in the relationship between man and nature and in the emotions and sensations which arise from this contact. One of the most concepts in Wordsworth is the idea that man and nature are inseparable: man doesn’t exist outside the natural world but he is an active participant in it. In his pantheistic view Wordsworth see the nature as something that includes both inanimate and human nature. The nature comforts man in sorrow; it is a source of pleasure and joy, it teaches man to love and to act in a moral way, it is the set of the mighty spirit of the universe.
The senses and memory
Nature means also the world of sense perceptions. Sensations lead to simple thoughts, which later combine into complex and organised ideas. Memory, therefore, is a major force in the process of the growth of the poet’s mind and moral character.
Imagination and the emotion recollected in tranquility
Wordsworth claimed imagination as his supreme gift, but he gave to the word a new meaning. He used imagination also as a synonym of intuition, of seeing into, and even through, reality. Poetry is a spontaneous overflows of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from “emotion recollected in tranquility”, so that what we read in the poem results from the active relationship of present to past experience. Through the re-creative power of memory, the emotion is reproduced and purified in poetic form so that a second emotion, kindred to the first one, is generated.
The poet, though a common man, has greater sensibility and the ability to penetrate in the heart of things. The power of imagination enables him to teach men how to understand their feeling and improve their moral being. His task consists in drawing attention to the ordinary things of life and to humble people.
The poem “Daffodils”, written in 1804, records the experience of a walk of the poet in the Lake District. It’s one of Wordsworth famous poems, in which he vividly convey his love for nature. During his walk, he sees a great quantity of daffodils, which made him happy.
Their bend for the sprint wind has the lightness of a dance, accompanied by the movement of the waves, which laps the beach. After some time, the vision of daffodils returns to his mind, provoking in him a pleasant feeling of joy.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge(1772-1834)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire in 1772. He was educated first to Christ’s Hospital School in London, then to Cambridge, where he never graduated. He was influenced by French revolutionary ideals, which made him a republican. After the failure of revolution, he and Robert Soutey, a follower of radicalism, planned to establish a utopian community in Pennsylvania, called “Pantisocracy”, where every economic activity was done in common and private ownership didn’t exist, in order to provide labour and peace, and create the best possible environment for everyone. This project failed. As he suffered from chronic rheumatism the doctors prescribed opium to ease bodily pain but he developed a growing addiction to this drug. In 1797 he met Wordsworth and settled in Somerset, where they produced The Lyrical Ballads. Other works of Coleridge are:
The Rime Ancient of Mariner (1798), his masterpiece
Christabel, unfinished poem
Kubla khan, unfinished
In 1799 he settled to Lake District with Wordsworth and his sister. Then he spent a period of solitude in Malta and after his return in England he began a career in lecturing on literary concern and in journalism. Finally he settled in London, where he produced Biographia Literaria, a classic text of literary criticism and autobiography. He died in 1834.
Like Blake and Wordsworth, Coleridge stressed the role of imagination. He considered two kind of imagination:
Primary Imagination was connected with human perceptions and the individual power to produce images. It was used unconsciously.
Secondary Imagination was voluntary and used consciously. It was the faculty of the poet to use the data of reality to build new worlds. Consciuosly will and re-create where two key words for the artist who were able to create something original and personal.
Therefore Wordsworth’s spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling (unconscious) is equivalent to Coleridge’s primary imagination, while Wordsworth’s emotion-copy (conscious), produced after a tranquil contemplation, is parallel to Coleridge’s secondary imagination. Just as Coleridge stated that the secondary imagination is an echo to the primary, so Wordsworth said the emotion-copy is similar to original.
Fancy was the mechanical ability that the poet had to use devices, like metaphors and alliterations, in order to express his ideas. The fancy enabled the poet to blend various elements into beautiful images. In using secondary imagination Coleridge believed the poet was free to rise above the 18th century conventions and the data of experience in order to create something in the true sense of word, and then awaken the mind from the lethargy of custom.
Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge didn’t view nature as a moral guide or a source of consolation and happiness because his strong Christian faith didn’t allow him to identify nature with the divine, in that form of pantheism adopted by Wordsworth. He rather saw nature and the material world in a sort of neo Platonic interpretation, as the reflection of the perfect world of ideas. The material world is a projection of the real world of Ideas on the flux of time. Thus Coleridge believed that natural images carried abstract meanings and he used them in his most visionary poems.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem contained in the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is made up of seven parts and it is introduced by an “Argument” containing a short summary of the whole poem, which deals with the adventures of the Mariner on which ship was throw a terrible spell.
Atmosphere and characters
The atmosphere of the whole poem is charged with irresistible mystery because of the combination of the supernatural and the commonplace. The Mariner doesn’t speak as a moral agent: he’s passive in guilt and remorse. When he acts, he does so blindly, under compulsion. He succeeds in gaining his authority, but he pays this, remaining in the condition of an outcast.
The Rime and traditional ballads
This poem contains many features of the traditional ballads:
The combination of dialogue and narration
Alliteration and internal rhyme
The theme of travel and wandering and supernatural elements
But the presence of a moral at the end and didactic aim make The Rime different from a traditional ballad.
It has been interpreted in many ways:
It may be the description of a dream, which allows the poet to relate the supernatural part to a familiar experience. In fact its visual impressions are brilliant; things move in a mysterious way, but without some connecting relations.
It may also be an allegory of life of the soul in its passage from crime, through punishment, to redemption.
Finally, it may be a description of the poetic journey of Romanticism: the Mariner is the poet, possessed by a song that derives from guilt. This guilt is the actual origin of poetry: it is the regret for a state of lost innocence caused by the Industrial Revolution, or an attempt to re-discover it by telling a symbolic story of its loss. Poetry coincides with this sense of loss and tries to fill it.