An Introduction to the Romantic Poets
By Matt Paul
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in Europe between about 1660 and 1770. It emphasised the power of human reason to explain the nature of the world and the universe, to bring greater happiness and progress to humanity, and to fight against ignorance, superstition and injustice. It tended to challenge traditional forms of knowledge and power. In terms of the arts, the Enlightenment valued clarity, harmony, balance, classical elegance and precision in writing.
A major cultural shift in Western Europe took place during the late 18th Century and early 19th Century. Important characteristics of this change included:
� A rejection of the Enlightenment emphasis on reason, in favour of feeling and imagination.
� An interest in the self, introspection, extreme psychological states, and the subjective nature of reality.
� An understanding of children and ‘primitive’ peoples as innately innocent and pure, uncorrupted by civilistion (rather than born into sin).
� A rejection of the Enlightenment idea of nature as an impersonal mechanism in favour of the idea of nature as dynamic, powerful, restorative and spiritual.
� An emphasis on the power and autonomy of the creative imagination, and its importance as a way of apprehending the spiritual nature of reality.
� Revolutionary and utopian politics (and a perceived link between the political and artistic revolution).
The relationship between Enlightenment and Romanticism is complex; if Romanticism can be seen as in part a reaction to the Enlightenment, it was also influenced by certain Enlightenment forms and preoccupations.
The five most influential Romantic Poets
� William Blake (1757 – 1827)): Blake worked throughout his adult life as an engraver (he had no formal schooling); he was a remarkable painter, as well as a poet and mystic. He was relatively obscure during his lifetime. Blake was a political radical, despised organised religion and was also arrested for treason.
� William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850): Wordsworth is arguably the pre-eminent poet of the Romantic period (though not in terms of sales); an early adherent to revolutionary principles, he went on to become a Burkean conservative and Government placeholder, and lived most of his life in the Lake District. (MP Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke greeted the French Revolution with horror. The Reflections argued that the abstract ideas of ‘rights’ applicable to all people at all times are false. Burke argued instead for the respect of established hierarchies and customs.)
� Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834): Coleridge was a friend of Wordsworth and followed a similar political trajectory: he produced a small number of great poems and was also a critic and philosopher.
� Lord Byron (1788 – 1824): Byron is a celebrated and controversial figure. He left England in 1816. Although poems such as Child Harolde’s Pilgrimage are highly Romantic in style, Byron was suspicious of the writing of his contemporaries and venerated neo-classical writers like Pope.
� Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822): Shelley was the eldest son of a baronet; an atheist and political radical whose verse is often philosophical and formally complex. He was vilified by critics and largely ignored by readers. He was friends with Byron and drowned in Italy at the age of 29.
� John Keats (1795 – 1821): Keats was born to middle-class parents and trained as a surgeon. His poetic abilities developed with extraordinary speed. He was mocked by critics as a talentless ‘Cockney’. His poetry focused on human morality, art and the natural world. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.
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