Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Age of Romanticism (1780-1850)

It is rarely that the perceptible limits of a literary 'period7 coincide so closely with crucial political events as is the case with what we call the Romantic Movement. The name is convenient; but it would be misleading to give it any narrow meaning or to equate it with an 'escapist' or a past-ward yearning. Almost all the 'romantic' writers were acutely ware of their environment, and their best work came out of their impulse to come to terms with it.

The historical upper limit of this period is unmistak­ably the outbreak of the Colonists' rebellion in North America, their successful defence and their achievement of independence. The American victory was a stimulus to those who for one reason or another felt confined by the existing institutions—the Dissenters, kept down by civil disabilities; the manufacturers, harassed by the archaic excise system; the farmers by tithe and game laws; the lower middle class and working classes by indirect taxes which weighed on every article of common use as well as on luxuries. All this was imposed by a Parliament in which there was no rep­resentation of the ordinary people, the productive classes, neither of masters nor men. Not a penny of the money collected was returned as social services.
The chief subject of romantic literature was the essen­tial nobleness of common men and the value of the indi­vidual. As we read now that brief portion of history which lies between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the English Reform Bill of 1832. we are in the presence of such mightly political upheavals that "the age of revolu­tion" is the only name by which we can adequately char­acterize it. Its great historic movements become intelligible only when we read what was written in this period; for the French Revolution and the American Commonwealth, as well as the establishment of a true democracy in England by the Reform Bill, were the inevitable results of ideas which literature had spread rapidly through the civilized world. Liberty is fundamently an ideal; and that ideal— beautiful, inspiring, compelling, as a loved banner in the wind was kept steadily before men's minds by a multitude of books and pamphlets as far apart as Burns's Poems and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man,—all read eagerly by the common people, all proclaiming the dignity of common life, and all uttering the same passionate cry against every form of class or caste oppression.
Historical Summary
The period we are considering begins in the latter half of the reign of George III and ends with the accession of .Victoria in 1837. When on a foggy morning in Novem­ber, 1783 King George entered the House of Lords and in a trembling voice recognized the independence of the United States of America, he unconsciously proclaimed the tri­umph of that free government by free men which had been the ideal of English Literature for more than a thou­sand years: though it was not till 1832. When the Reform Bill became the law of the land, that England herself learned the lesson taught her by America, and became the democracy of which her writers had always dreamed.
The French Revolution
The half century between these two events is one of great turmoil, yet of steady advance in every department of English life. The storm centre of the political unrest was the French Revolution, that frightful uprising which pro­claimed the natural rights of man and the abolition of class distinctions. Its effect on the whole civilized wrorld is beyond computation. Patriotic clubs and societies multi­plied in England, all asserting the doctrine of Liberty, Equality. Fraternity, the watchwords of the Revolution. Young England, led by Pitt the younger, hailed the new French Republic and offered it friendship; old England, which pardons no revolutions but her own. looked with horror on the turmoil in France and. misled by Burke and the nobels of the realm, forced the two nations into war. Even Pitt saw a blessing in this at first; because the sud­den zeal for fighting a foreign nation—which by some horrible perversion is generally called patriotism—migh turn men's thoughts from their own to their neighbour's affairs, and so prevent a threatened revolution at home.
Economic Conditions
The causes of this threatened revolution were not political but economic. By her inventions in steel and ma­chinery, and by her monopoly of the carrying trade, Eng­land had become "the workshop of the world." Her wealth had increased beyond her wildest dreams: but the unequal distribution of that wealth was a spectacle to make angels weep. The invention of machinery at first threw thousands of skilled hand-workers out of employment; in order to protect a few agriculturists, heavy duties were imposed on corn and wheat, and bread rose to famine prices just when labouring men had the least money to pay for it. There followed a curious spectacle. While England increased in wealth and spent vast sums to support her army and sub­sidize her allies in Europe, and while nobles, landowners, manufacturers, and merchants lived in increasing luxury, a multitude of skilled labourers were clamouring for work. Fathers sent their wives and little children into the mines and factories, where sixteen hours' labour would hardly pay for the daily bread; and in every large city were riot­ous mobs made up chiefly of hungry men and women. It was this unbearable economic condition, and not any po­litical theory, as Burke supposed, which occasioned the danger of another English revolution.
Literary Characteristics of the Age
It is intensely interesting to note how literature at first reflected the political turmoil of the age; and then. when the turmoil was over and England began her mighty world of reform, how literature suddenly developed a new creative spirit, which shows itself in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge. Byron. Shelley, Keats, and in the prose of Scott, Jane Austen. Lamb. Hazlitt and De Quincey.—a wonderful group of writers, whose patriotic enthusiasm suggests the Elizabethan days, and whose genius has caused their age to be known as the second creative period of English Literature. Thus in the early days, when old institutions seemed crumbling with the Bastille, Coleridge and Southey formed their youthful scheme of a "Tantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna."—an ideal commonwealth, in which the principles of More's Utopia should be put in practice. Even Wordsworth, fired with political enthusiasm, could write,
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.
The essence of Romanticism was, it must be remem­bered, that literature must reflect all that is spontaneous and unaffected in nature and in man and be free to follow its own fancy in its own way. In Coleridge we see this independence expressed in Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, two dream pictures, one of the populous Orient, the other of the lonely sea. In Wordsworth this literary independence led him inward to the heart of common things. Following his own instinct, as Shakespeare does he too
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks. Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
And so more than any other writer of the age, he in vests the common life of nature, and the souls of common men and women, with glorious significance. Coleridge and Wordsworth, best represent the romantic genius of the age in which they lived, though Scott had a greater literary reputation, and Byron and Shelley had larger audiences.
The second characteristic of this age is that it is em­phatically an age of poetry. The previous century, with its practical outlook on life, was largely one of prose; but now. as in the Elizabethan Age, the young enthusiasts turned as naturally to poetry as a happy man to singing. The glory of the age is in the poetry of Scott, Wordsworth. Coleridge. Byron, Shelley, Keats and others. Of its prose works those of Jane Austen, Scott and Charles Lamb had attained a wide reading. It was characteristic of the spirit of the age, so different from our own. that Southey could say that, in order to earn money, he wrote in verse "what would otherwise have been better written in prose."
Women Writers
It was during this period that woman assumed, for the first time, an important place in English literature. Probably the chief reason for this interesting phenomenon lies in the fact that woman was for the first time given some slight chance of education, of entering into the intel­lectual life of the race; and, as is always the case when woman is given anything like a fair opportunity, she re-sponu^ i- magnificently. A secondary reason may be found in the nature of the age itself, which was intensely emo­tional. The French Revolution stirred all Europe to its depths, and during the following half century every great movement in literature, as in politics and religion, was characterized by strong emotion; which is all the more noticeable by contrast with the cold formal, satiric spirit of the early eighteenth century. As woman is naturally more emotional than man, it may well be that the spirit of this emotional age attracted her, and gave her the opportunity to express herself in literature.
As all strong emotions tend to extremes, the age pro­duced a new type of novel which seems rather hysterical now, but which in its own day delighted multitudes of readers whose nerves were somewhat excited, and who revealed in "bogey" stories of supernatural terror. Mrs. Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823) was one of the most successful writ­ers of this school of exaggerated romance. Her novels, with their azure-eyed heroines, haunted castles, trapdoors, ban­dits, abductions, rescues in the nick of time, and a general medley of overwrought joys and horrors, were immensely popular, not only with the crowd of novel readers, but also with men of unquestioned literary genius, like Scott and Byron. In marked contrast to these extravagant stories is the enduring work of -Jane Austen, with her charming description of everyday life, and of Maria Edgeworth, whose wonderful pictures of Irish life suggested to Waiter Scott the idea of writing his Scottish romances. Two other women who attained a more or less lasting fame were Hannah More, Poet, dramatist, and novelist, and Jane Porter, whose Scottish Chiefs and Thaddeus of Warsaw are still in de­mand in our libraries. Resides these were Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay) and several other writers whose works, in the early part of the nineteenth century, raised woman to the high place of literature which she has ever since maintained.
Literary Criticism
In this age literary criticism became firmly established by the appearance of such magazines as the Edinburgh Review (1802), The Quarterly Review (1808), Blackwood's Magazine (1817). The Westminster Review (1824), The Spectator (1828). The Athenaeum (1828), and Eraser's Magazine (1830). These magazines, edited by such men as Francis Jeffrey. John Wilson (who is known to us as Christoper North), and John Gibson Lockhart, who gave us the Life of Scott, exercised an immense influence on all subsequent literature. At first their criticisms were largely destructive, as when Jeffrey hammered Scott, Wordsworth and Byron most unmercifully and Lockhart could find no good in Keats: but with added wisdom, criticism assumed its true function of construction. And when magazines began to seek and to publish the works of unknown writers, like Hazlitt, Lamb and Leigh Hunt, they discovered the chief mission of the modern maganizes which is to give every writer of ability the opportunity to make his work known to the world.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!