Before the Romantics
Some of the characteristics of this period can be illustrated from the writings of George Crabbe, who, in 1783, a year after he was appointed chaplain to the Duke of Rutland published his poem ‘The Village’. Crabbe’s sombre view of society was part of that great wave of seriousness and social conscience seen most clearly in the life and works of William Wilberforce and the Evangelicals. In other respects, Crabbe was fully in the eighteenth century tradition. His interest in the life of the lower classes was reminiscent of Defoe and his real compassion for poverty came nearest to that of Johnson. He had a strict religious and moral code, though he disliked religious enthusiasm. He was no social reformer and had no political axe to grind. He did not rail against enclosure or blame the landowners and seemed scarcely aware of the existence of an Industrial Revolution. Want and hardship were facts of nature and must be borne; life did have occasional pleasures, but they were only temporary relief from pain:
“For what is Pleasure, that we toil to gain
Tis but a slow or rapid flight from Pain.”
He did not share the Romantic attitude to nature; to him it was not a subject of mysticism but merely a relentless repetition against which people played out their lives. His writings did, however, have a strong sense of realism. Not for him the idyllic themes of shepherd and shepherdesses in rustic harmony. He knew better and had seen too much poverty to idealise it. Poetry was poor compensation for cold and hunger when poets failed to recognise that distress was the normal experience. Rural life was not a story of rustic contentment but an endless routine of labour from dawn to dusk, in heat and cold, until age and sickness reduced men and women to penury, the workhouse and the grave:
“No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain
But own the Village Life a life of pain.”
Crabbe made a deep impression on contemporaries. The Edinburgh Review in 1807 declared: “There is a truth and a force in these descriptions of rural life, that is calculated to sink deep into the memory; and, being confirmed by daily observation, they are recalled upon innumerable occasions when the ideal pictures of more fanciful authors have lost all their interest.” His was a grim picture but one that touched the conscience of the age. It was echoed in a long succession of writers from Coleridge and Cobbett to Carlyle and the Chartists; but unlike them, Crabbe called for no specific social remedies. William Hazlitt did not enjoy Crabbe’s poetry. He wrote in The Spirit of the Age that, “His song is one sad reality, one unraised, unvaried note of unavailing woe...” He dated a change of taste from about the date of Crabbe’s poem: “We cannot help thinking that a taste for the sort of poetry which leans for support on the truth and fidelity of its imitation of nature, began to display itself much about that time…in consequence of the direction of the public taste to the subject of painting.”
Like Crabbe, the young Wordsworth and Coleridge were acutely aware of the hardships suffered by the poor. Wordsworth, who had fought a difficult case to gain possession of his small patrimony from the hands of the Earl of Lonsdale, was very much aware of the oppressive weight of the aristocracy on the countryside and of the sufferings of the poor in periods of unemployment and distress. But ultimately theirs was a different vision.
The meaning of romanticism
The word ‘romantic’ seems to have first come into use in England in the mid-seventeenth century when it meant ‘having the wild or exciting qualities of medieval romances’. In the eighteenth century it was often used as a term of abuse implying what was irrational. Doctor Johnson, for example, wrote of “romantic absurdities” but it was also occasionally used to describe a scene such as a moonlit landscape that aroused pleasurable sensations of mystery and loneliness.
It was German philosophers who first used ‘romantic’ as the antithesis of ‘classical’. They rejected the philosophy of the Enlightenment with its assumption that people lived in a rational universe in which all problems had a rational answer. They sought to explore the irrational, to discover meaning on a deeper level than was explored by science and reason. In England, the conflict between the romantic and the classical was less marked than on the continent because the fundamentals of classical thought had already been eroded by the empirical philosophy of the eighteenth century. Yet in England too, Wordsworth accompanied his poetical experiments with an attack on Alexander Pope and Edmund Burke jeered at the philosophy of Bolingbroke.
The Romantic poets sought to give new dimensions both to nature and the human mind. Coleridge suggested that there was a two-fold approach to the problem while commenting on the composition of the Lyrical Ballads. “It was agreed that my efforts should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith. Mr Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object to give the charm of novelty to things of every day and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us....”
There were not, however, two separate operations but different aspects of the same exploration of the ‘inward nature’ of which Coleridge wrote. In a sense, however, Coleridge’s attitude was the more ‘romantic’ because he was dealing more directly with the faculty of the imagination. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was more conscious of the existence of a spirit in wild nature that existed independent of men's minds but that reflected the same stirrings as moved humanity: it was the idea of the mind being in accord with the spirit of nature that so inspired him. This was why William Blake so distrusted Wordsworth for the idea to him smacked too much of naturalism. For to Blake it was not Nature but the spirit of man that was important.
The attitudes of the Romantics to nature might be esoteric, sublime and difficult to understand, but it their simple appreciation of wild scenery they were reflecting a general opinion. The Edinburgh Review, hardly a poetic journal, commented in May 1811 that, “There is the sublime impression of the Mighty Power which piled the massive cliffs upon each other and rent the mountains asunder and scattered their giant fragments at their base....Add to all this the traces of vast and obscure antiquity that are impressed on the language and habits of the people; and on the cliffs and caves and gulfy torrents of the land; and the solemn and touching reflection perpetually recurring, of the weakness and insignificance of perishable man...”
This does not specially express romanticism, but rather the generally accepted view in 1811. But it does underline some of its important constituents: a new sense of history, of people retaining their ancient traditions through long periods of time and all of this taking place against the backdrop of nature. This is not a ‘breaking free’ from the constraints of the past but rather a conservative reflection of the importance of traditions. The Romantic poet and philosopher started from the assumption that empirical science and philosophy were inadequate as a means of answering all the most important questions of human life. The argument is clearly put in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry and can be summarised as follows.
- Locke and his followers operated upon a certain level of thought that was limited by the confines of empiricism. Their thought led directly to utilitarianism.
- The Utilitarians regarded the selfish and transitory interests of man as alone of significance: the object was to achieve ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Shelley argued that this led to the politics and philosophy of selfishness.
- What was needed was to transfer the argument to a higher place of reality, that of the permanent and universal. This was why Shelley placed poets above what he called “reasoners and mechanists” and imagination above reason. He therefore called upon the arts of music, poetry, architecture and painting to restore imagination to its rightful place in human affairs. The idea is essentially Platonic; the poet apprehends a harmony that exists in the universe beneath the conflicting fragments and transitory details of daily life.
To the Augustans the mind was a kind of mirror reflecting and recording the external world, and since that world was a rational world governed by ascertainable laws, all that was needed for its comprehension was knowledge and the power of judgement. To the Romantics it was different. There was a material world but it was transcended by an ideal world of the mind, a world that created harmony.
In emphasising the importance of the power of imagination the poet laid himself open to the accusation that he was merely creating a world of his own, which had no necessary connection to anyone else's world. The danger was that Romantics might come to think of themselves as Gods creating their own moral standards. Byron was certainly not free from this. Wordsworth was more humble and sought patiently for the spirit of the universe as expressed by Nature. Shelley thought he had found it in the spirit of love and Blake saw the imagination as the “Divine Vision”. Despite the lofty intellectualism of their principles, the Romantic poets did not consider themselves as living in ivory towers remote from reality. They saw themselves as men of action. Wordsworth wished to be seen above all as a teacher. Shelley declared that all the great authors of revolution in the world’s history were poets; “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. In this we have the fundamental difference between the Romantics and the Augustans. To the latter poets and artists were interpreters of the world. To the Romantics they were creators.
The Romantic dilemma
In general, the Romantic poet was aware of an ideal world, often more real than the material world; but it was also a world of imponderable force that he could never fully understand. The imagination could create it in part, but there was always something that eluded his grasp; he was always aware of the gulf between the ideal and its attainment. This gulf became a mystery to be described and, if possible, explained. The quest for a bridge between reality and the imagination was created in a variety of ways:
- Some poets like Coleridge sought, through mind-expanding drugs like opium, to expand their consciousness of the supernatural. This can be seen particularly in Kublai Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
- Interest in the supernatural was often accompanied by a revival of interest in medieval history and romance. Horace Walpole pointed the way towards the Gothic novel in his The Castle of Otranto. His interest in Gothic architecture, with its darkness, its clanging halls, winding passages and hanging tapestries, led him to reconstruct a fantastic story of the supernatural that contained most of the elements of Romantic medievalism. This was taken further in the work of Anne Radcliffe in her novels A Sicilian Romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian and by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.
In making the gulf between reality and imagination, as Keats called it “the burden of a mystery” the Romantics in their quest for truth created a prison for themselves. It has been suggested that they were social misfits, weak and vapid in their idealism and superficially there may appear to be some truth in this assertion. Keats, Shelley and Byron all died young, their idealism intact. Shelley was a rebel; Byron a social outcast; William Blake a mystic; John Clare went mad; Coleridge was a drug addict and only he and Wordsworth lived on with changed increasingly Tory views to enjoy a respectable if drab old age. Yet their romanticism was, for all its vapidity, deeply concerned with the philosophical significance of life. They all agreed in making the highest possible claims for the importance of poetry, resting their claims upon the importance of the human heart and the faculty of imagination in the pursuit of truth. All were deeply interested in the political problems of their day and Shelley and Coleridge at least made important contributions to the political thought of their time.
Romanticism sought to break the chains that bound people to the rationalist Enlightenment agenda and in this they were, within limits, successful. In doing so, however, they recreated the rationalist prison. In their search to understand the ‘mystery’ of the rift between reality and imagination they used the past with all its traditional conservatism to bolster their case. In raising radical questions about the nature of the individual, of society and of the relationship between the individual and the state they posed fundamental questions but they found no solutions. Solutions are ultimately about responding to real rather than imagined scenarios. The Romantics lost in their world of the idealised intellect had difficulty in expounding their philosophies to an audience set in the real world. This was their dilemma and ultimately their failure.
 This may well be why Plato in The Republic sought to ban poets from his polity.