The English Romantics and the Theme of Nature. C.M. Bowra applies the term Romanticism to a phase of English poetry which began in 1768 with Blakes Songs of Innocence and ended with the death of Keats and Shelley:

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The English Romantics and the Theme of Nature        pag.




Lucrare de licenţă

     Coordonator stiintific,                                          Absolvent,

Prof. Dr.

Drobeta Turnu Severin


The English Romantics and

the Theme of Nature

“Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming”

                                                        (from Biographia Literaria, 1817)



        Literary Sources………..……………………………………………………………….…

           Aesthetic Theories Elements Of Romantic Poetry

A. Poetry and the Poet        

B. Romantic Imagination        

C. Insights of Childhood        

D. Romantic Typology        

E. Romantic Escapism        

F. Mythology and Symbolism        

G. Romanticism and Form







Chapter I

Introduction to Romanticism.
The Romantic Movement in England

                         Romanticism (the Romantic Movement), a literary movement, and profound shift in sensibility, which took place in Britain and throughout Europe roughly between the year 1770 and 1848. Intellectually it marked a violent reaction to the Enlightenment.

          Politically it was inspired by the revolution in America and France and popular wars of independence in Poland, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere.

                    Emotionally it expressed an extreme assertion of  the self and the value of   individual experience,  together  with  the  sense  of  the  infinite  and  transcendental. Socially it championed progressive causes, though when these were frustrated it often produced a bitter, gloomy, and despairing outlook. The stylistic keynote of Romanticism is intensity, and its watchword is ‘Imagination’.

          The word “romanticism” appeared for the first time in the English language about the middle of the seventeenth century, meaning “like the old romances” and stressing the fantastic and the irrational elements of these literary works. In contrast to the classical tendencies of the period, the word had something pejorative and unpleasant in connotation. Federick Schlagal gave the first definition of the Romantic poetry in 1798: “Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. This tendency is and must be to combine inventive genius with criticism, the poetry of the art with the poetry of nature, to make poetry living and social, and life and society poetical, to turn wit into poetry”.

        Generally,  it  was  delimited  between  the  year  1978,  in  which William Wordsworth  and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads, and the year 1832 when William Scott died. Recent studies (C.M. Bowra, The Romantic Imagination, 1969, and  D. Daiches,  A Critical  History  of  the  English  Literature,  1969)  included William Blake  and  Robert Burns  among  the  Romantic  poets, although they preceded them  with a generation .

                   Thus C.M. Bowra applies the term Romanticism to a phase of  English poetry which began in 1768 with Blake’s Songs of Innocence and ended with the death of Keats and  Shelley: “This at  least fixes  a  historical period, and there is no great  quarrel  about calling  it  the  ‘Romantic  Age’. In it five major poets, Blake,   Coleridge,   Wordsworth,  Shelly  and  Keats, despite   many  differences, agreed  on  one  vital  point:  that  the   creative  imagination  is  closely connected   with  a  peculiar  insight  into  an  unseen  order  behind  visible things.” (C.M. Bowra, 1969, p. 271).

           Romanticism represented the revolution in the European mind against thinking to terns of static mechanism and the redirection of the mind to thinking in   terns of dynamic organism. Its value is change, imperfection, growth, creative imagination and the unconscious.

                     The history of Romantic poetry in English literature falls into two   sections: in one a bold, original outlook is developed and practiced; in the other, it is criticized or exaggerated, or limited or, in the last resort, abandoned.

                On the one hand, there is a straight line of development; on the other hand, there are variations and divagation and secession. But  both  section  belong to a  single movement which insisted on  the  imagination, but demanded  that it should be related  to truth and reality. (C.M. Bowra, The Romantic Imagination, 1969, p.272) .

                  The English Romantic Movement is made up of two generation of writers:

1. The first generation, known under the name of Passive Romantics, was contemporary  with the  French  Revolution. It  included  William Blake  and  the Lake poets: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge , and Robert  Southey;

2. The second generation, or the Active Romantics, were contemporary with the Vienna Treaty. They were represented by:  Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon Byron, and John Keats.

                Whereas  the  first  generation  fought  against  the rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment,  the  second  one  followed  its  principles in siding with the progressive tendencies of society and in analysing  the social and political problems of the time.  

                The period, which generated the Romantic trend, was characterised by a great social and economic instability.

                    England was undergoing a rapid and painful process of industrialisation   which  changed its former status of an agricultural society   into   an   industrial   one. Improvements  in  technique  as  scientific  discoveries   brought  about  the development  of   new  industrial  branches  and  determined   a   migration   of   the   ladles  peasants  towards  great  towns.    

                    Consequently,  the  necessity   to  supply  the  requirements  of  the  growing  population  increased the  process  of  enclosures  and  the  destruction  of  home industry. Buying small independent farms formed large capitalist estates.

                    Whole social strata disappeared (e.g. the yeomen and the squires),   whereas the peasantry was pauperised.  In cities,  the  misery  and  dissatisfaction  of  people  grew.  The wage less labourers, living in miserable conditions, were organising meetings, protesting against shortage of food, high taxes and prices. The landed classes and the industrialists prospered,  deepening  the  social  differences and  accentuating  the polarisation into what B. Disraeli called “The Two Nations” of England – the rich and the poor.

                To  this  situation,  more  than  twenty  years  of  war  with  France have  to be added. They ended in 1815, bringing about the extinction of French  Napoleonic  empire (after the Treaty of Vienna – 1815 ).

                    The  resulting collapse  of  war industry, the returning veterans,  the  huge  national  debt  added  impetus  to  the  cries  for  reform. The reign of George III (1760-1820) and William IV (1830-1837),  a  series  of  reform  bills  began to rectify some of the inequalities caused by the social and political upheavals. Almost all the Romantic writers were acutely aware of their environment and, therefore, deeply  involved  In  its study  and  criticism.

                    Their  best work came out of their impulse to come  to  term  with  it .A  conclusion  about   personal   feelings   became   a   conclusion  about   society  and  an observation of natural beauty carried a necessary moral reference to the  whole life of man.

                     The poet was a  prophet  leading masses in their fight against oppression and  tyranny. His rebellious attitude urged people  to unite  their efforts in a common pursuit or liberty and independence.

 Literary Sources      

                The literary works that  influenced  the English Romantic Movement can be divided in four great groups. Three of them cover, in fact, the whole course of poetry in England.

              1.     First, the Greek and Latin classics whose study knew a remarkable revival especially in the eighteenth century;

              2.    Second, early English poetry like Beowulf and the Arthurian Cycle, Chaucer and the Elizabethans. The poetry of Chaucer was taken up with great interest after the publication  of Th. Worton’s  History  of  English  Poetry (1774-81). Spenser influenced some poets like  W. Shenstone ( Schoolmistress, 1742 ), Thomson ( Castle of Indolence, 1748), and J. Beattie (The  Ministrel, 1771), who followed his manner of writing and used his   stanza   form. The   lovers   of   poetry   were   brought   into  closer  contract   with Shakespeare’s works in the editions of Ar. Pope,  Th. Hanmer Warburton, and S. Johnson;

              3.   Third, classical poetry, whose influence on poets like G.G. Byron was still considerable.  According  to  Cleanth  Brooks (1939, “ there  is,  in  fact,  a  great  deal of continuity in the poetry of the century, especially in its  didactic character and perfection of forms” );

  1. Fourth,  the  pre-romantic  writers:  Edward  Young,  James Thompson

and Thomas Gray, as well as  S. Richardson and A. Radcliffe and their sentimental and Gothic novels.

                Of great importance were Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and James Macpheron’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry(1762), presented by  the author as a translation of Gaelic epic poems. Both works  stirred   the  interest in the romantic past and made writers seek among the ruder times of history for wild, natural stories of human. They made the public enjoy the strange atmosphere of lonely and savage scenery, hidden in the mist of far-off, forgotten times.

                The influence of the English poetic tradition on the  works of the  Romantic writers could be possible because they laid “ the knowledge and experience  of  all  ages under  a  heavy  toll” (E. Albert, 1967,p. 307)  because  they  based  their  poetry on the knowledge  and  experience  of the previous ages. If the Classical writers were explored anew by the genius of Shelley and Keats, the Middle Ages inspired the novels of Scott and the poems of Coleridge and Southey.

 Modern times were analysed and dissected in the satires of Byron and in the production of miscellaneous writers.

Aesthetic Theories Elements Of Romantic Poetry

                   The main ideas on poetry, creativity, imagination, and nature are expressed in prefaces, letters, and  essays  published   by  the  Romantic  poets  on  various  occasions. The most important  ones  are  Wordsworth’s Preface  to  the  second  edition  of the Lyrical Ballads, 1802, S.T. Coleridge’s Biographia  Literaria, 1819, P. B. Selley’s  A  Defense  of  Poetry ,  1821  and  J. Keats’s Letters.

A. Poetry and the Poet        

          The  following  characteristics  of poetry are  considered representative for the Romantic trend:

 a) poetry is like science, a branch of knowledge : “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads); “It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought” (A Defense of Poetry);

b) It brings about order and harmony in the mind of man, helping him to penetrate into the essence of the world : “ it may produce in the  mind a habit of order  and  harmony” (A Defense of Poetry);

c) It activates the soul and the mind of man, as well as his understanding of truth: “brings the whole soul of man into activity” (Biographia Literaria); “the understanding of the reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.” (Preface  to Lyrical Ballads);

d) It is associated with delight: “poetry is never accompanied with pleasure” (A Defense of  Poetry); “a  complex  feeling of  delight” ( Preface  to  Lyrical  Ballads); and with pain: “the painful feeling always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions”( Preface  to Lyrical Ballads);

e) It is divine: “Poetry is indeed something divine.” ( A Defense of Poetry).

                To the question “What is a poet?” W. Wordsworth answers that he is a man who rejoices  more then  other men  in the  spirit  of  life  that  is in  him, “delighting  to contemplate  similar volition  and passions as manifested in the goings on of the universe, and habitually to create them where he does not find them.

To these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present;  an  ability of conjuring up in himself passions which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more really resemble the passions produced by real events than   anything   which   from  the  motion  of   their  own  minds  merely,  other  men   are accustomed  to  feel  in  themselves-whence,  and  from  practice, he has acquired a greater readiness  and power in expressing what he thinks  and feels, especially those thoughts and feelings    which,  by  his  own  choice, or  from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.” ( Preface  to Lyrical Ballads).

                As regards the relation poet-public, R. Williams (< biblio >) established five main points as important:

  • first, that a major change was taking place in the nature of the relationship  between the writer and his readers;
  • second, that a different habitual attitude towards the “public” was establishing itself ;
  • third, that the production of art was coming  to  be   regarded  as one  of a number of specialised  kinds  of  production,  subject  to  much   the  same   conditions  as   general production ;
  • fourth that a theory of the “superior reality” of art as the seat of imaginative truth, was receiving increasing emphasis;
  • fifth,  that  the  idea of  the  independent  creative  writer,  the autonomous genius, was becoming a kind of rule.

                To these, N. Frye ( A Study of English Romanticism, 1968, p.21) adds the concept of serious writer that appears and develops now, the  writer   who, in contrast to the  popular  entertainer,  does  not  aim  to  please  but   to  enlighten  and   expand    the consciousness   of his audience .

B. Romantic Imagination

                The  great  importance   attached  to  imagination   was  one   of   the  main characteristics  that differentiated the English Romantics from the poetry of the eighteenth century (C.M. Bowra, 1969, p.1).

                The preceding generation of poets did not pay much attention to imagination as they, in fact, avoided to speak of their personal experience and feelings.

They sought the general in the common experience of humanity and they never seriously preoccupied themselves with the misters of life.

                The  nineteenth  century,  on  the  contrary,  made  the  poets  believe in the important  artistic  values  of created imaginary  worlds. “ Romantic  poetry and thought have their  starting-point  in  the poet himself, in his aspiration and in his experience: on the hand, his aspirations to a certain fullness  of being, to a certain purity of spiritual life, to harmony and  unity, a  yearning  toward the  absolute, usually known  by  the German Sehnsucht ; on the other hand, a  visionary experience  which  responds to this aspiration, and which assures the soul of the validity of its dream and of its hope.”(A. Gerard, 1957,p. 260).

                The Romantic  poets  replaced the Neo-classical qualities of fertile invention, sound  judgement  and  great  power  of  reasoning  with imaginative and visionary powers, keen  sensibility, and  responsiveness  to  beauty  in  nature.

They helped  them describe a world  derived  from  their  inner  subjective experience and penetrate into the unconscious and the mysterious. Thought imagination, the  artist  could find some transcendental order for  the  sake of  explaining  the  world of reality. It also established the typically Romantic relationship between the mind and the external world in which the mind acted at once as a receiver and a giver or as a mirror and a lamp ( M. H. Abramas, 1958, ch.III).

                The instincts became of utmost importance because they helped the poet lay Bare “the  naked and sleeping beauty of the world”, discover “the hidden beauty”   of the universal  and  the typical.

                   What was required, in fact, was “an involution of the universal in the individual”, a reconciliation of the general with the concrete, the individual with the representative  because “that  just proportion, that union and interpretation of the universal and the particular … must  ever pervade all  works  of decide   genius  and  true  science” (Biographia Literaria).  

                William  Blake  included  in   imagination,  for  him  an  active  process by excellence, all  activities  that  create  o  increase  life. He was famous for his dreams and visions, which  were frequently his main source of inspiration. They made him claim that imagination is something absorbing and exalting, which opens the way to an unseen spiritual order.

C. Insights of Childhood  

                The  desire  of  the  Romantic  poets  to  explore  new  domains of feeling and imagination  made  them  deal, for the  first  time  seriously  concerned,  with  the world of childhood. They   enlarged   the  range   of   permissible   interests  and  sentiments  of  the self-controlled emotions of the imaginative, sensitive child.

                The  gap  that  had  always  existed  between   these   two   worlds   impressed William Blake  who repeatedly insisted on the conflict between the parental authority and the protesting child: “Struggling in my father’s hands,

                                   “Striving against my swaddling hands,

                                   Bound and weary I thought best

                                   To sulk upon my mother’s breast.”

                                                                         (Infant Sorrow )


                           “They took Orc   to the top of a mountain.

                                       O how Enitharmon wept!

                             They chain’d  his  young limbs to the rock

                             With the Chain of Jealousy

                               Beneath Urizen’s  deathful  shadow.”

                                                                             ( The Book of Urizen )

                For  William Wordsworth  and  Samuel  Taylor  Coleridge,  imagination  is powerful at work in childhood have in their early years are explained by the memories of a blessed state in another world before birth.

D. Romantic Typology

                The  heroes  described  by  the  Romantic  poets have  common   models  and, consequently, common features. Milton’s, Satan, Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic protagonists, and the  historical  figure  of  Napoleon  Bonaparte  fused  into  the  Satanic  heroes of Shelley, Byron,  and   Keats. The most  developed  form  is  represented  by the  Byronic hero who immediately  became the model for the entire European literature of the Romantic age. He was  very  well described  by  Macauly  is his  review of Moore’s Life of Byron as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorned of  his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”. His pale and high forehead,  Satanic  smile,  and  burning, obsessive  eyes  hide  a  ghastly  guilt and burning passion. The alien, gloomy and mysterious spirit, the spleen that devours his heart amplify the impression of demonic and vampire. A rebel, he  ostentatiously  refuses to conform to given  social  circumstances.  At  the  same  time,  the curse that weighs upon his destiny is fatal  for  all  around  him. He  destroys  himself and the others – friends or women – come within his orbit.

                According   to   N. Frye  (A Study  of  English  Romanticism, 1968, p.30), the so-called Byronic hero is often a Romantic version of the natural man, who is an outcast, a   solitary   surrounded  by  untamed  nature,  and  who  thus   represents   the   potentially expanding  and  who  thus  represents  the potentially expanding and liberating elements in that nature. He has dignified enough to have some aesthetic attraction.

                The  corresponding  feminine  character  is  the  fatal woman  of  the La Belle Dame  Sans  Merçi  type,  the  imperious,  cruel  beauty  that will later be developed in the poetry of D. G. Rossetti and A. C. Swinbourne.  

                In opposition, the  woman  loved  by  the  Byronic  hero  is  a   weak,  passive beauty, dedicated to her master  in complete submissiveness.

 She is from no point of view a corresponding mate and offers, therefore, no satisfaction. If for Shelley love is a genuine and noble union of the souls, if for Wordsworth and Keats it is divine creative principle of the universe, for Byron love can mean nothing else but disaster.  


E. Romantic Escapism

                The  Romantic  poets  made  a  constant  effort  to  live  in  the  world  of  the  imagination  in  order  to  escape  from  the   familiar  experience  of  everyday  life. They practised   a  “suspension  of   disbelief” ( Biographia  Literaria,  II, 6  )  required  by  the domination of the intuitive and the  irrational over sense experience .

Their escapism was expressed by the exaltation of:

  1. The past, especially of the Middle Ages, regarded with new interests.

 It offered a vague and mysterious historical background for incidents that had to be taken  out  of  immediate reality.  In   its   reconstruction,  poets  preferred   to   fallow  the  paths opened by  their imagination  rather  than  those  offered  by  historical  evidence.  A. C.  Baugh (A Literary History  of  England,  vol.  IV,  1967, p.  1126)  underlined  that  under  the  stimulus  of  the  Napoleonic   wars   this   love   of   the   past   tended   to   become  nationalistic,  with  a special emphasis upon antiquarian and regionalist elements in English history. It was, however, incidental  characteristic  of some phases  of Romanticism rather then a component part of the movement as a whole.

  1. the primitive life of rustics and savages ;

c)  The supernatural  – Coleridge  was,   in  fact,  the   only  great  Romantic  Writer   who successfully created a  world of  supernatural  spirits  and dreams. In The Ancient Mariner, Christabel,  Kubla  Khan,  incredible  events,  spirits,  and  phantoms  appear linked to the problem of guilt and remorse, hate and forgiveness, grief  and joy.

                When the  Romantic movement came to maturity, the cult of strangeness was largely discredited because  the  minor  writers who cultivated it failed. “It failed because they  did  not  master  the  lessons  of  the  past  on  how the supernatural should be treated.

          Instead of  making it a subordinate element in a wider scheme, as Homer and Shakespeare do,   the  writers  concentrate  on  in  it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and this overemphasis  spoils  a  subject  which  is  effective  only  when  it is taken in small doses.   In the second place, they do not really believe in the supernatural as the great writers of the past  did.  It  was not  an  authentic  chapter  of  human  experience,  but  an indulgence, an exercise of  ghoulish  fancy,  and  therefore  unconvincing  and  dull. When  the  Romantic movement  came  to  maturity,  these cult was already largely discredited.” ( C. M. Bowra, The Romantic Imagination, 1969, p. 51).

F. Mythology and Symbolism

                M. H. Abrams   (1958, p. 295)  underlined  that  the  English  Romantic poets employed  the   theory  of   personification  and  symbol  with  an inventive freedom quite unprecedented  in literature. They were touched by the Hellenic revival which was part of the wave of primitivistic  and  idealistic sentiment that spread from Germany all over the continent. Thus, at the beginning of the century advancing Greek scholarship and the new primitivistic conception of the imagination, myth, and nature, made inevitable a revival of poetry inspired by a rich mythological symbolism ( D. Bush, 1969, p. 49).

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Concomitantly, the  Romantic  poets  developed  an  acute consciousness

 of the conflicting  forces  that  existed  between  Christian  and  antique subjects. They solved the contradiction by investing ancient  myths  with  modern  significance  and by turning the beautiful forms of Greek myths into symbols of permanence and progress .  The heroes of mythological  stories,  in  whose  existence  the  Greeks  believed, became for the Romantic poets a great abstract idea that transcends personal  experience  and destiny.  Some  of  the poets,  William  Blake being  the  most  noteworthy  example, created a mythology of their own. He felt that poetry cannot be created outside a mythological frame: ...

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