The English Romantic Poets

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In the 1800 edition of his and Coleridge’s polemic work Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth included a preface that set forth his vision of mankind’s poetic triumph: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” It’s an oft-quoted phrase that hits right to the heart of the Romantic Movement that was to dominate the scene of English and much of Europe’s poetry and literature for the next half century.

It is perhaps not surprising that a movement such as this originated in the rugged enclave of raw nature nestled in the north west of England. It’s from here that some of Romanticism’s most revered pioneers drew their inspiration, and Wordsworth frequently conflates the concept of the ancient poetic muse with the undulating hills of Cumberland’s moors, the stark silhouette of Scafell Pike, or the reflective calm of Derwent Water. Such is the origin of the Romantic apotheosis of emotion and feeling, memory and, perhaps most importantly, nature.

But it wasn’t just the Lake District that gave England’s budding poets a theatre of action on which to play out their poetic principles. The European politics of the late 18th century are widely regarded to represent one of the most tumultuous and formative periods in the continent’s history. In 1789, when Wordsworth was just a boy of 19 and William Blake had begun dabbling in poetic art from the backstreets of his native London, France erupted in a revolution that was to change everything.
The bloody struggle that ensued made waves right across the continent and developed into one of the most divisive issues of the day in England. Here, politicians were quick to condemn the violence, fearful that the Parisian ‘Reign of Terror’ would spread like a plague to London and the country beyond. Libertarianism was demonised and those with anti-establishment sentiments soon lost their ability to express their voices both publicly or safely.

It was from this tense and palpable political climate that Poetry was raised as one of the foremost modes of thinking out loud, and Wordsworth and Coleridge were quick to throw their hats in the ring; eager to do semantic battle with the forces of censorship and reactionism. In-between the lines of the most early Romantic poetic works produced in England, a lingering distaste for the heavy hand of the English Parliament and their refusal to support the burgeoning forces of Liberté, égalité and fraternité across the Bristol Channel became an underlying theme.

But, while Wordsworth did combat with the Bishop of Llandaff, who continued to rally what he considered ‘real English prejudices’ in the face of the revolutionary violence that was laying threateningly in the shoreline waters just off the whole of England’s south coast, another side of English Romanticism was coming to the fore in the artistic sphere. A celebration of nature and tranquillity were at the very backbone of Romantic thought, and the Lake Poets had already started to explore this theme deeply by the turn of the century.

Works like Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey, Salisbury Plain and The Ruined Cottage are glaring examples of Wordsworth’s emotional connection to the simple and natural things that, he felt, held an awesome sway over every one of our psyches. Meanwhile, Blake had begun producing his lengthy Prophetic Books, tomes of complex pantheonic syllogism intended as a comprehensive examination of the human condition without allegory.

By 1850, the year that perhaps the most totemic figure of early English Romanticism, William Wordsworth, had taken almost complete volt-face realignment in political sentiment and published his magnum opus in its complete form, an altogether new breed of Romantic thought was beginning to hold sway over Europe. And so, as the Lake Poets cashed out, went mad, and relinquished their old dearly-held personal projections of the political and poetic outcast, the so called ‘Late Romantics’ took their place at the forefront of the English literary tradition.

The colossal names of Shelley, Keats and Lord Byron now came to the fore. As the political tension and perceived revolutionary threat to England subsided in France, and Napoleon – the old heroic figurehead of Wordsworth’s egalitarian dreams – now became the oppressor himself, poetry was gradually shed of much of its former, politically-loaded character. Now literature entered the realms of philosophy, and the ‘Late Romantics’ began the fight against realism that had characterised the golden ages of Europe’s east, in Russia, Germany and elsewhere.