Romanticism is a late eighteenth century reaction to rationalism. It opposes the idea of man as a thinking machine, giving less importance to reason and emphasizing self expression. Romanticism was an international artistic and philosophical movement that flourished in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century. It fundamentally redefined how people in the western countries thought about themselves and about their world.
It was a period of great revolutions, the three major being:
· The French Revolution
· The Industrial Revolution
· The American Revolution
The American Revolution affected the cultural, social and economic structure that dominated the British empire. There were thirteen colonies which declared independence from British, ending the many years of warfare.
It was in the year 1793, when the British entered in war with the French. It marked the reign of terror and disturbance. More than a generation later, the French revolution, its possibilities and its failures remained the starting point when Shelley set an agenda for human relation in ‘Prometheus Unbound’. There were a lot of philosophers also writing in this period.
The Industrial Revolution also impacted to a great extent. The introduction of machinery led to the decrease of the amount of labour one had to put in thus resulting to a much reduced amount of manpower. People, then got time for education, leisure and recreation. The lines between the elite class and the working class blurred.
The economic rise of the middle class- with the popularization of the self made man and the individualism of the Renaissance, colluded with the Reformation’s belief in the immediate relationship between God and man, and John Locke’s philosophy that minds are formed by environmental conditions.
Believing in the possibilities of mind over matter, the Romanticist yearns and strives for a utopian world – one which evolves from a lower order of reality into a higher order.
The one distinguishing factor which separates The English Romantics from the poets of the eighteenth century is the amount of importance the romantics attached to the IMAGINATION and the special view which they held of it.
For the eighteenth century poets, imagination was not a pivotal point in their writing. For Pope , Johnson and Dryden , imagination held a limited significance. They approved of fancy controlled by “judgement”; the poet served more as an interpreter and less as a creator; for them what valued more was adding sentiment to the poem.
But for the romantics, imagination is something that they can’t do away with. It is the most vital aspect of their poetry. In other words, imagination is the building block of their poetry, without it their poetry seems quite impossible.
The Romanticist is on an unending quest for truth and truth consists of finding the one in many – seeing each individual, each experience as unique. Ultimately truth is reached through the poet having experience with nature by using his feelings and imagination.
For the poets, who belonged to the romantic age , imagination is the source of spiritual energy that is nothing less than divine. Being ideal in platonic sense, romanticism is the belief that poetry is an imitation of life. Wordsworth calls it “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Yet, in the act of composing a poem, a poet must rework and reshape his feelings. As according to William Wordsworth, the best poetry is created through “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
According to William Blake:
“This world of Imagination is the world of eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall go after the death of the vegetated body. The world of Imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation , is Finite and Temporal. There exists in that eternal World the permanent realities of everything which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature. All Things are comprehended in their eternal forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the true vine of eternity, the human imagination.”
Imagination is divine as it helps in the realization of man’s spiritual nature. Imagination, the most precious possession is nothing less than God for Blake. This claim is not circumscribed to Blake only , all the romantics, Wordsworth, Shelley , Keats and Coleridge believe in the importance of Imagination. For them , Imagination had a linkage with the supernatural order resulting in the magical derivation of Romantic poetry.
The Romantics created their own world, however they could successfully assert that their creation was neither absurd nor merely fanciful. Rather, they were closer to earth and the common man. The Romantics believed that Imagination is closely related to truth and reality and this belief comes to the forefront in their works. Though this truth is different from the truth of science and philosophy, but it is the truth of poet’s mind.
Romantics amalgamate Imagination and Truth. Coleridge makes his point when he praises Wordsworth :
“ It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the toe, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.”
Wordsworth took upon himself to show in his poetry that common things could be made to look strange and beautiful through the play of Imagination. Thus the commonplace figure of the leech-gatherer is given an imaginative colouring by comparison with the single stone balanced on a hill-top and to a sea-beast crawled out to bask in the sun. Thus the old man in Resolution and Independence gains an aura of strangeness, wonder and surprise. In The Thorn, the investment of natural objects with a symbolic significance gives to an ordinary story a supernatural and mysterious effect, while accentuating the pathos. In The Simplon Pass, the damp dark crags seem possessed with a voice of their own, and the winds seem to thwart one another in bewilderment. In Lines Composed On Westminster Bridge, we are given a picture of quiet beauty at dawn, so unusual when associated with a busy commercial city. Sense impressions are transmitted and glorified by the poet’s imagination – his “visionary gleam”. Thus to him, as to the innocent child, “the earth, and every common sight” seemed “apparelled in celestial light, the glory and freshness of a dream”, as he says in his famous Ode On The Intimations Of Immortality. The setting moon in strange fits of passion have I known is invested with a supernatural significance by the poet’s Imagination. Wordsworth shows the positive aspects of Romanticism with its emphasis on Imagination, feeling ,emotion, human dignity and significance of nature. Tintern Abbey vividly records the development of the poet’s attitude towards nature. Wordsworth believed that the company of Nature gives joy to the human heart. In “Tintern Abbey” he expresses the joy he feels on revisiting a scene of Nature. Not only is the actual sight of this scene pleasing, the very memory of this scene has in the past soothed and comforted his mind. He has gained “sweet sensations” from these objects of Nature in hours of weariness. Nature has a healing influence on troubled minds, as he tells his sister Dorothy. Wordsworth looked upon Nature as exercising a healing influence on sorrow stricken hearts.
Above all, Wordsworth emphasised the moral influence of nature. He spiritualised nature and regarded her as a great moral teacher, as the best mother, guardian and nurse of man, as an elevating influence. He believed that between Man and Nature there is spiritual intercourse.
Coleridge on the other hand was allured to rare and remoter tracks of humanity, lurking places of strange dreams and fantastic anomalies of belief; he was always peculiarly engaged with the enquiry into the quality by which poetic imagination gives an air of reality to the marvellous. He was fascinated by the “interception” of the spiritual world. He was the uncommon eye that beheld the unseen. In Christabel the element of marvellous is not obtruded, but slowly distilled into the air. The castle, the wood, the mastiff, the tree with its jagged shadows are drawn with a quivering intensity of touch which conveys the very atmosphere of foreboding and suspense :
Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,
Hath a toothless mastive bitch;
From her kennel beneath the rock
She maketh answer to the clock
Four for the quarters, twelve for the hour,
Ever and aye, by shine and shower,
Sixteen short house, not overloud
Some say she sees my ladies shroud.
The Ancient Mariner abounds in this supernatural element. All nature is pillaged to supply the mysterious atmosphere he creates. The sun was flecked with bars:
Heavens mother send us grace!
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face
Nothing can exceed the terror and horror suggested by the appearance of the phantom ship and its inmates :
And is that women all her crew?
Is that a death? And are there to?
Is Death that women’s mate?
And we have the weird ship moving zigzag across the water when there is absolute calm and no wind to push it along. The mystery, the strangeness , the weirdness of the supernatural cast a peculiar spell on the dreamy imagination of Coleridge. In Kubla Khan we have an instance of dream poetry at its finest. According to Saints bury, the nineteen lines “but oh!...war” reach the highest point of English verse music. The three lines –
A savage place, as holy and enchanted
As e’ver beneath a waning moon was haunted
By a woman wailing for her demon lover!
Represent the very summit of romantic poetry, condensing within themselves the whole world of Romantic Imagination.
Shelley and Keats find the world controlled not by laws of nature, but of Beauty. In Byron the artist’s self assertion took a more deviant and lawless form, even to the abnegation of art. What all these poets aimed at was the emancipation of the world and of the mind and of the vehicle of poetry from the bondage of fact, opinion, formality and tradition and the right to look through,
Charmed magic casements opening on the phone
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Art for the Romantics was thus not nearly a heightening of the actual, but an escape from it. It insisted on the power and autocracy of the imagination which alone could give a varied, subtle, intimate interpretation of the world of “external nature” and of that other world of wonder and romance which the familiar comradeship of Nature generates in the mind of man.
“The addition of strangeness to beauty” is something we associate to the Romantic quality in literature. Keats notices beauty in the most ordinary aspects of nature. He admires the beauty in the flower, in the stream and in the cloud. The song of the nightingale is sweet and he is delighted by the song, giving the ode a whiff of romance. Keats, while hearing the sweet song, passes from the world of time to the world of eternity.
“Thou was not born for death, immortal bird.”
The song of the nightingale reflects a symbol of the universal spirit of Beauty. pursuit of the unknown, the mysterious, the infinite, the supernatural, and the invisible inspires the creation of all the romantic poetry. The nightingale is, for Keats the symbol of unlimited joy and profound happiness. Keats was a true Romanticist. He loved not only beauty but truth as well. He was inclined towards the world of Imagination but he focused on reality too. He saw beauty in truth and truth in beauty. He never escaped from the realities of life in quest for his beautiful visions of reality. In fact, the visions of his Imagination are based on reality.
Ode to nightingale
While both are creators, the poet longs for death, the bird continues with her immortal song.
The word ‘forlorn’ brings him back to his own self awareness. The entire poem becomes an experience of the meditative trance.
We see Romantic period as a staunch reaction to the Industrial Revolution. For instance, in the poem ‘Ode to Autumn’ , Keats personifies Autumn as someone who is working on the fields. Every single product of he harvest is the resultant of Autumn’s hard work. The poet brings the Goddess figure of Autumn down to the working class, someone who is working on the fields. Hence, the figure of the worker becomes the personification of Autumn. This was the period wherein Industrial revolution had seeped in England and had impacted the British’s social ,cultural and economic structure.
Thus , we see Keats persistently endeavouring himself to reconcile the world of imagination with the world of reality.
The age was the age of Revolution, the age was the age of change. The political and the social upheaval of the time got its reflection immensely in the poetry of Shelley. Unlike the subjective approach of Keats, Shelley couldn’t remain unaffected by the rapid changes of his time. He yearned to bring rapid changes in the society. The Ode to the West Wind is one such poem which gives ample evidence to the fact. Shelley’s Wind is ‘wild’, ’timeless’, ’uncontrollable’. The wind embodies the revolution of that time. It sweeps through all things, breaking bounds to foster new life. Shelley addressed these aspects of Wind in his prayer because revolution meant overturning order to create a new society; its opposite was submission to an existing political order. The wind is made an agent of the poet’s voice. The poet elevates himself, thus we see the poetic voice becoming a prophetic voice. Eventually the ode remains no more a prayer but it rather becomes a demand. The poet becomes the wind’s instrument- his ‘lyre’. This is a symbol of poet’s own passivity towards the wind. In other words, the Wind is an epitome of a musician whose instrument a poet wants to be.
Frankenstein adapts itself to almost all the genres such as children’s stories, movies, and TV. It has some gothic elements and it stands alone in terms of imagination. Mary Shelley with her compelling story forces the readers to believe in something which is supernatural, mysterious and unknown. It is, to some extent a product of her scientific imagination too. Victor Frankenstein uses dead parts of humans as well as of animals to form his “creature”. The mere revival of life out of something which is dead, contributes well to the scientific imagination of Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, mainly focuses on the mysterious and the unknown. Shelley generates the idea of “the walking dead” in her readers mind. She uses the gloomy weather and an unnatural environment for the creation of the “being”. Victor Frankenstein locks himself in a dark dingy room, deprived of the beautiful summer, away from friends and family in the pursuit of one scientific goal. The creature is born out of a loveless atmosphere. Victor Frankenstein inverts the notion of a mother giving birth to a child. It is quite unnatural for a creature to be born out of the dead and without a mother. Mary Shelley successfully uses cloudy atmosphere, the gloomy nights and the old buildings to give the novel a backdrop of the unknown and eerie.