The purpose of my case study is to investigate the major factors involved in the age of Romanticism. Rather than being full of moon-eyed gentlemen worth little more than spouting flowery phrases all the time, this period in time was actually very concerned with new liberalism in all things, making it a difficult term to pin down. “Walter Pater thought the addition of estrangement to beauty (the neoclassicists having insisted on the order in beauty) constituted the romantic temper. An interesting schematic explanation calls romanticism the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism)” (Holman & Harmon, 2001).
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Characteristics of the genre identified by Welleck (2003) include a “revolt against the principles of neo-classicism criticism, the rediscovery of older English literature, the turn toward subjectivity and the worship of external nature slowly prepared during the eighteenth century and stated boldly in Wordsworth and Shelley” (196). The period idolized the imagination as the highest of human capacities due largely in part to its creative abilities and as a means of reacting to sweeping change in every aspect of life. It also esteemed nature not only because of the creative element inherent in it but also because of the manifestation of the imagination that could be found within it in the sense that we create what we see.
The world was full of symbols and signs that would portend future events and actions which were knowable through their relationship to the myths and legends of antiquity. An introduction to the socio-political changes that were occurring in this time period will help to inform the various ways in which the work of William Wordsworth epitomizes this period in the style and content of his writing.
As a literary movement, the Romantic Period is recognized to have begun sometime during the 1770s and extended into the mid-1800s (“Introduction”, 2001). Under the reign of Queen Victoria, the Industrial Revolution came of age, blossomed, and brought sweeping change across the country and the world. Life switched from being primarily dictated by the land one owned to a social structure based on commerce and manufacturing (Greenblatt, 2005). There was also a push to identify exactly what it meant to be ‘English’ in reaction to the great colonization and the challenges faced by an increasingly global public.
In this breakdown of definition, there was a great deal of social upheaval as people living in these changing times began to question the status quo. Social class structures were beginning to break down as common men were able to make fortunes in industry or speculation in a foreign land and landowners found it more and more difficult to keep the idyllic life they’d constructed alive. The countryside was becoming developed and there a sudden reverence for the nostalgic past grew in response. These tremendous upheavals could not help but be reflected in the art and literature of the time.
According to Rene Welleck (2003), discussion of the new type of literature under the term Romantic began in the 1700s with its use by Schiller and the Schlegel brothers. It was the elder Schlegel brother who, in his lectures across Europe into the early 1800s, promoted the use of the term ‘Romantic’ to include “the German heroic poems such as the Nibelungen, the cycle of Arthur, the Charlemagne romances and Spanish literature from El Cid to Don Quixote” (Welleck, 2003: 189).
In terms of the writers who exemplify this style of writing, most did not associate themselves with the Romantic movement but are easily classified within this genre today. “Thomson, Burns, Cowper, Gray, Collins, and Chatterton are honored as precursors, Percy, and the Warton’s as initiators. The trio, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, are recognized as the founders and, as time progressed, Byron, Shelley, and Keats were added in spite of the fact that this new group of poets denounced the older for political reasons” (Welleck, 2003). These writers, in turn, were heavily influenced by the events that were taking place in their worlds.
A study of Romantic poetry, especially the work of Wordsworth, reveals traces of all of these concerns. In light of the changes occurring around him, many of them recognized as having a dehumanizing effect upon the population and an unnatural effect upon the landscape, many of Wordsworth’s poems demonstrate a concern with the passing of time and the loss that accompanies age. This concept is illustrated in the first stanza of his “Intimations of Immortality” in which he states: “There was a time when meadow, grove and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light” (Wordsworth, 1888: 1-4).
Nature informs a great portion of Wordsworth’s work, often linking the surrounding environment to his inner sentiments and exterior observations. The suggestion in this poem is that he has grown beyond such innocent joys and can no longer appreciate them in the same carefree way he had before. In other words, something special has been irrevocably lost through the passage of time and the aging of the poet. This sense of loss of something immensely precious is lamented in a push not only to remember the past and the images it represented but also fostering an attempt to capture something of the present, through lengthy and detailed descriptions of the landscape to the emotional connection such vistas provided to the human spirit to the workings of the human spirit itself.
Wordsworth captured many of these concepts not only in the words he wrote but in the style in which he wrote them. This can be seen in one of his more difficult poems, The Prelude. Within the poem, Wordsworth included several seemingly out-of-place comments, “namely, his frequently interjected expressions of what appear to be the personal emotions or circumstances of the literal William Wordsworth either only shortly before or immediately in the act of writing” (Reed, 1970: 279).
These include personal messages to other writers, statements regarding Wordsworth’s own self-doubts and struggles as he wrote the work, and passing distractions that interrupt or prevent him from working for stretches of time. Reed (1970) indicates that these seeming digressions into the present are instead Wordsworth’s attempts to demonstrate the full development of the poet’s mind, as he understood it. “The baldness that characterizes some of the Lyrical Ballads is the consequence not of carelessness but of an artistic ‘plan’ or ‘experiment.’ It was a man extremely concerned about the techniques by which he spoke to men” (277).
In other words, Wordsworth’s style of writing within this poem demonstrates an attempt to capture the thoughts of the past, the reflections of the mature poet, the changes of time, and the immediacy of the moment as it shapes and informs the work being done.
Through his choice of content and his style of writing, Wordsworth captures a sense of the tremendous changes that were occurring in his world on every level of existence. Definitions were shifting regarding what it meant to be a man, an Englishman, landowning, wealthy, poor, city, or country. Religions were being questioned with sometimes dire consequences should the wrong answer be provided and landscapes were changing with the crowding of factories, people, and pollution. In his attempts to capture a sense of the beauty that was passing away before him and the visible changes occurring within the human psyche, Wordsworth describes his times and contributes to the development of a new form of literature.
Greenblatt, Stephen (Ed.). (2005). “Introduction: The Victorian Age.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 8. New York: W.W. Norton.
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“Introduction to Romanticism.” (2001). A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature. New York: Brooklyn College. Web.
Reed, Mark. (1970). “The Speaker of the Prelude.” Bicentenary Wordsworth Studies: In Memory of John Allen Finch. Jonathon Wordsworth (Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Wellek, Rene. (2003). “Romanticism in Literature.” Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, (2003). Web.
Wordsworth, William. (1888). “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Company. Web.