Romanticism: An introduction

The concept and characteristics of Romanticism

A cultural, philosophical and artistic movement of the late 18th and early nineteenth century

Delacroix Liberty Leading the PeopleThe word romantic can be used in several senses but here we are interested in its use with a capital R. In this sense it denotes a literary and historical classification, referring particularly to writers and other artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Like all the terms that are used to designate canons, it is very difficult to make generalisations about it. Many of the attributes of romanticism are actually paradoxical, for example a love of a particular and a longing for the infinite or a preoccupation with both external nature and dreams. William Blake writes that: “Without Contraries there is no progression, Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” We will see this idea at play in all the poetry we study.

Romanticism is actually a posthumous invention, at least in England: the Romantics themselves did not refer to themselves in this way. The most common use of the term in that period was to refer to tales of romance often from the mediaeval period. Keats’s Eve of St Agnes and Coleridge’s Christabel rework some of the conventions of the romance.

Romanticism also referred to the wildly impractical and the imaginative. Coleridge uses the term “romantic” in this sense when he writes: “that deep romantic chasm: a savage place, as holy and enchanted/as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/by woman wailing for her Demon lover.” The word is also used in this sense in the division of labour that Wordsworth and Coleridge assigned themselves. Wordsworth was responsible for the things of the everyday while Coleridge directed his attention to characters and situations that were supernatural and romantic.

It was only in 1863 that Hyppolyte Taine referred to the English poets of the early 19th century as the romantic school. Even then the term was linked to poets who drew their inspiration from the mediaeval period. In Wordsworth’s case this was certainly inaccurate. In a sense Wordsworth was seen by a 19th-century commentators as anti-romantic. Nowadays mediaevalism, romance or a love of fantastical mystery is not generally seen as the central criteria of romanticism. Instead idealism, egotism and primitivism or a turn to nature are considered central attributes of the Romantic. Paul de Man, though, diagnoses an impasse or split at the heart of definitions of romanticism that depend on the identification of these attributes. He asks: “is romanticism the subject of idealism… or is it instead a return to a certain form of naturalism after the forced abstraction of the enlightenment?” The idea of nature in Romantic poetry often privileges the local and concrete rather than the abstract and ideal, but the opposite is also the case, perhaps more often.

Rousseau looms large as the inspiration for the return to the natural and the primitive and also of romantic ideas about the child and education. The characterisation of romanticism isn’t only a question of subject matter but also, as we will see, of form. The Romantic poets, for example, often modelled their art on folk ballad literature. As has been pointed out by Terry Eagleton, periods of great upheaval always produce changes to aesthetic form.

Reaction to an earlier age



  • The Neo-Classical Augustan Age of the eighteenth century sought to emulate the culture of the period of the Roman Emperor Augustus.
  • Classical standards of order, harmony, proportion and objectivity were preferred; the period saw a revival of interest in classical architecture, for instance
  • In literature, Greek and Roman authors were taken as models and many eighteenth century writers either translated or produced imitations of poetry in classical forms
  • A generally conservative political mood prevailed.

Neoclassicism prized

  • emotional restraint
  • Order
  • Logic
  • Technical precision
  • Balance
  • Appeal to intellect
  • Wit over imagination
  • Satirical and didactic literature
  • The virtues of city life

Romanticism prized:


  • Spontaneity and freedom from rules
  • Subjectivity and individualism
  • The imagination over wit and reason
  • Love of nature
  • The past

Turn to Nature

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower. (Blake)


I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down (John Clare)
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can. (Wordsworth)

Value of Childhood

Jean-JacquesRousseau“Give nature time to work before you take over her business, lest you interfere with her dealings. You assert that you know the value of time and are afraid to waste it.

You fail to perceive that it is a greater waste of time to use it ill than to do nothing, and that a child ill taught is further from virtue than a child who has learnt nothing at all. You are afraid to see him spending his early years doing nothing. What! is it nothing to be happy, nothing to run and jump all day? He will never be so busy again all his life long” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau



‘I have no name

I am but two days old.’

What shall I call thee?

‘I happy am

Joy is my name.’

Sweet joy befall thee!

(Blake ‘Infant Joy’)


But trailing clouds of glory do we come   65
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,   70
        He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
    Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
      And by the vision splendid
      Is on his way attended;   75
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. (Wordsworth)


Liberty and Liberation

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,

In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

The attraction of a country in romance!


Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?


Women’s Liberation

“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.” (Mary Wollstonecroft)


The evil of marriage, as it is practiced in European countries, extends further than we have yet described. The method is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex, to come together, to see each other, for a few times, and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake … Add to this, that marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness … the abolition of the present system of marriage, appears to involve no evils. (William Godwin)


Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty: it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, nor fear: it is there most pure, perfect, and unlimited, where its votaries live in confidence, equality, and unreserve. (P.B. Shelley)

Subjective Idealism

Romanticism has also been associated with subjective idealism (or the egoististical sublime as Keats referred to Wordsworth poetry) because the poetry is frequently preoccupied with the poet’s own consciousness and inwardness. In this sense it is anti-empirical. The mind withdraws more and more from what it finds in the external world and explores what is within. Shelley writes: “all things exist as they are perceived.” Blake asserted that “mental things are alone real” and Wordsworth wrote that “the mind/is Lord and Master.” Subjective idealism has led to charges of escapism but this has to be weighed against the political engagement of much of the poetry and the fact that this sort of escapism is itself the subject of some important romantic poetry such as Keats’s odes and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.

The Romantic Imagination

“Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found the truth.” (Keats)


“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”. (Blake)


“Poetry turns all things to loveliness… It transmutes all that it touches, and in every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to incarnation of the spirit which it breathes… It strips the veil of familiarity from the world and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms. (Shelley)


“The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (Coleridge)


Paradoxical Attributes:

“Without Contraries there is no progression, Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”

  • a love of a particular and a longing for the infinite
  • a preoccupation with both external nature and dreams
  • the local and concrete/ the abstract and ideal
  • Wordsworth for the things of the everyday while Coleridge directed his attention to characters and situations that were supernatural

Formal Innovation

Periods of great upheaval always produce changes to aesthetic form.

Our poetical literature had, towards the close of the last century, degenerated into the most trite, insipid, and mechanical of all things, in the hands of the followers of Pope and the old French school of poetry. It wanted something to stir it up, and it found that some thing in the principles and events of the French revolution. From the impulse it thus received, it rose at once from the most servile imitation and tamest common-place, to the utmost pitch of singularity and paradox. The change in the belles-lettres was as complete, and to many persons as startling, as the change in politics, with which it went hand in hand. There was a mighty ferment in the heads of statesmen and poets, kings and people.

According to the prevailing notions, all was to be natural and new. Nothing that was established was to be tolerated. All the common-place figures of poetry, tropes, allegories, personifications, with the whole heathen mythology, were instantly discarded; a classical allusion was considered as a piece of antiquated foppery; capital letters were no more allowed in print, than letters-patent of nobility were permitted in real life; kings and queens were dethroned from their rank and station in legitimate tragedy or epic poetry, as they were decapitated elsewhere; rhyme was looked upon as a relic of the feudal system, and regular metre was abolished along with regular government. Authority and fashion, elegance or arrangement, were hooted out of countenance, as pedantry and prejudice. Every one did that which was good in his own eyes. The object was to reduce all things to an absolute level; and a singularly affected and outrageous simplicity prevailed in dress and manners, in style and sentiment.

A striking effect produced where it was least expected, something new and original, no matter whether good, bad, or indifferent, whether mean or lofty, extravagant or childish, was all that was aimed at, or considered as compatible with sound philosophy and an age of reason. The licentiousness grew extreme: Coryate’s Crudities were nothing to it. The world was to be turned topsy-turvy; and poetry, by the good will of our Adam-wits, was to share its fate and begin _de novo_. It was a time of promise, a renewal of the world and of letters; and the Deucalions, who were to perform this feat of regeneration, were the present poet-laureate and the two authors of the Lyrical Ballads. The Germans, who made heroes of robbers, and honest women of cast-off mistresses, had already exhausted the extravagant and marvellous in sentiment and situation: our native writers adopted a wonderful simplicity of style and matter. (Hazlitt)


For the Romantic poet, though, the revolution was to be affected in poetry as well as in politics. Within the poetic realm the poets sought to find innovative form celebrated transformation and defamiliarisation. The French Revolution sought to remove traces of hierarchies, kings and the corrupt and aristocratic classes. The poets found an analogy and a program for their artistic practice in this project. Blake for example wanted to “cleanse the doors of perception” and began using new forms of language and literary form. Shelley wanted to “strip the veil of familiarity from the world” and “make us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is chaos” (see Defence of Poetry).


The romantic lyric, shorter poems which express the feelings of a real or imagined speaker, is one of Romanticism’s major achievements. They produce what Wordsworth calls in his preface: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

Revolution and Romanticism

It is not often that there is such a close correspondence between a literary period and historical and political events as there was in the Romantic period.

American revolution

am_revolutionThe beginning of romanticism coincided with the colonists’ rebellion in North America and the achievement of American independence. Progressive elements in Britain had hoped for such an outcome because they felt that the North American colonies would give the British establishment even more power than it already had. The autocratic system associated with the Hanoverian kings began to be more and more contested. The dissatisfaction with corrupt and incompetent government, lack of representation and high taxation along with the atmosphere generated by the American Revolution led to a climate of expectation. This was evident in all aspects of culture.

French revolution

The fall of the Bastille was seen as a symbol of the regeneration. The eradication of feudal privileges was widely welcomed. Romantic literature was formed in the crucible of the French Revolution. English reaction to the Revolution in France was closely linked to the desire for reform in England. This was a time of fundamental questions about “the nature of society, the basis of government, the doctrine of rights, the notion of political justice, the relation between the sexes, even the very concept of reason” (25). The Revolution gave rise to a sense of optimism initially and was a source of great inspiration. A visionary world appeared to be opening up for everyone in which the old would pass away and the human race would be regenerated. Wordsworth wrote that “bliss… was it in that dawn to be alive.” There was an exhilarating sense that anything was possible. Perfectibility and regeneration moved from its traditional realm of theology to politics. The central dynamic of revolution was transformation, rapid and total.

What were the social and political conditions to which the Romantics, were opposed?

industryThe population of Britain at the time was about 21 million. In 1851 for the first time in Britain more people lived in the city that in the countryside. In fact, between the last decades of the 18th century and the end of the 19th century Britain became the first industrial-capitalist democracy in the world. The transition from an older economy of agriculture and domestic handicrafts happened gradually and unevenly and was not regulated by law. Life changed dramatically in a single generation. Economic changes went hand-in-hand with revolutionary change in France and technological changes. The confidence and stability that are characterised the neoclassical Augustan age was definitely a thing of the past. This, again, is all too evident in the poetry.

Country life which had always been considered relatively harmonious saw great changes and resulted in hostile factions of rich and poor, with the middle-class and easily aware of the tensions that accompanied this polarisation. Wordsworth wrote in 1817: “I see clearly that the principal ties which kept the different classes of society in a vital and harmonious dependence upon each other have, within these 30 years, either been greatly impaired or wholly dissolved. Everything has been put up to market and sold for the highest price it would buy.” Technical innovations played a decisive part in breaking up the old economy. We might mention the steam engine which made the production of cheap textiles possible. The clanging of machines and belching smoke soon came to be seen as symbols of modernity. Country people had always augmented the living they gained from farming with spinning, weaving or knitting. The destruction of these home industries greatly increased rural poverty and undermined the domestic economy. The quality of life of workers greatly deteriorated. The introduction of the factory system undermined nutrition, leisure time and led to a decrease in mental and physical health. The rural population was also badly hit by the enclosure of the commons on which they are always depended for grazing and fuel. The Romantics criticised the negative effects of these processes.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills? (Blake)


THE world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! (Wordsworth)


It was an age of stark class divisions. At the top was the aristocracy and the bishops. This is why the Constitution of America appealed to the middle class and the intellectual because of its democratic principles. Success as a writer was not an automatic entrance into acceptance by the upper classes. The class system was exemplified by the ubiquity of servants. Servants worked hard and very long hours, often 17 hours a day. A typical servants day started at 6.30 in the morning and ended at 10 o’clock at night. The work was demandingly physical. Water had to be taken to the upstairs room.

Artisans and labourers were always up before five o’clock in the morning to leave home for their 84 hour working week. Workers worked in factories from 7 to 7 on weekdays and 7 to 2 on Saturdays. Until the introduction of the factory act of 1833, children as young and seven worked the same long hours. [Read Godwin 153]

Improved communication also resulted in a more rapid circulation of ideas. Local self-sufficiency gave way to interdependence and local issues to national one. Newspapers, books and pamphlets were able to reach a much greater audience more quickly than before. The government tried to control the flow of information and the expression of political opinions. Several writers and editors, including Hunt, were prosecuted. For the first time the full-time or professional writer began to emerge. For the first time a group of people arose who claim their place in society on the basis of the intellectual production.

Health was precarious. As many as 2 million sailors died of scurvy alone between 1518 and 50. On average about half the sailors would die on a single voyage. We will see that both John Keats and Emily Bronte died of consumption. About one third of children died in their first year and half failed to reach their fifth birthdays. Life was full of peril from the moment of conception for both the mother and the child. Illness and epidemics were ubiquitous, as were accidents.

Attitude towards sex was very ambiguous. Divorce acts were completely biased in favour of men and a man could divorce a woman on the grounds of infidelity. A woman who wished to divorce a man had to prove that he had committed incest or bestiality. A female divorcee forfeited all rights to property and also lost her children. In law, a wife had no rights at all: no right to property, no right of expression, no freedom of any kind beyond those her husband granted her. Upon marriage a woman effectively relinquished her legal existence. (Read Godwin – Anthology 154).

Women could not vote, they were not allowed to attend university and gain degrees in them are not allowed to become ministers of religion and preaching church. Their lives were supposed to be completely dedicated to the home, the welfare of the family and the promotion of male interests. Women writers were regarded with suspicion because it was felt that they were neglecting the proper duties of a woman. Literary aspirations in such a context were a revolt against the patriarchy. Womanhood was seen as a sort of pathological condition. After puberty women were considered either ill on the verge of being ill. They often were ill because they were denied proper medical care. A doctor was not allowed to make a proper gynaecological examination, for example.

In poorer households, children were units of production were very early age. It was generally felt that children of the poor should start working from about the age of three. Children as young as six of both sexes worked in the mines because they were small enough to get access to tight spaces. Because of the heat and the need to save their clothes they often work naked. Many were stunted from lack of sunlight and vitamin D. Children working in factories were often exposed to dangerous chemicals. The worst of the chimney sweeps who started working about the age of five. (read Blake) One way of encouraging the boys to work hard was to light a pile of straw in the great descender blast of heat up the chimney after that. Most of their health was ruined by the age of 11 or 12. There were no laws protecting children until the middle of the 19th century. Most children worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. There were many unemployed. One third of the inhabitants of London in 1750 were estimated to have gone to bed without money or food.

While conditions of poor children are very bad, those of children from better off families also had their own difficulties, mostly involving emotional deprivation. Middle and upper-class children were expected to be obedient, dutiful, honest, hard-working and emotionally self-contained. They had to endure the hardships of character building. Tasty food was considered to be bad for character. Literary works for children pushed obedience to adults. Wealthy children often hardly saw their parents. The public schools were harsh, often involving cold baths, caning and unappetising food as well as sadistic treatment. The younger and weaker boys were at the mercy of the older ones. They had to work for them. Many boys were flogged twice a day.

Long after children reached adulthood, they were still supposed to be obedient to their parents. Parents decided whom they should marry, what careers they should follow, their political affiliations, how they should dress and so on and frequently withdrew financial support if they were disobedient. It was profoundly unacceptable to disobey a parent.

The historical context of Britain at War

David Napoleon Crossing the alpsWhile Napoleon Bonaparte was called the scourge of Europe, British radicals like Byron, Hazlitt and Godwin were stunned when he died. Working-class radicals saw the war which lasted intermittently between 1793 in 1815 as an attempt by the British ruling class to crash the Revolution and stamp out democracy at home. Once war broke out one could not call for reform without being seen also as a traitor. Wordsworth describes this in the Prelude:


And now the strength of Britain was put forth

In league with the confederated host;

But in my single self alone I found,

But in the minds of all ingenuous youth,

Change and subversion from this hour. No shock

Given to my moral nature had I known

Down to that very moment – neither lapse

Alternate sentiment – that might be named

A revolution, save at this one time.

All else was progress on the self-same path

On which, with the diversity of pace,

I had been travelling: this, astride it once

Into another region.…


I felt

The ravage of this most unnatural strife

My own heart; there lay it like a weight

At enmity with all the tenderest springs

Of my enjoyment. I who with the breeze

Had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree

Of my beloved country (nor had wished

For happier fortune than to whither there),

Now from my pleasant station was cut off

And tossed about in whirlwinds. (X, 231-58)


Wordsworth also internalises revolution and privatises history. As early as 1792 the collective front that was pushing for peace and reform in England had given way to the rise of popular nationalism although reform societies continued to agitate against the state throughout the war. Men were pressed into the military and woman had to make up for the shortfall of labour. Wordsworth describes some of these debilitating effects of war in poems such as Salisbury Plain. He makes the link between the sufferings of the poor and the war. Even the radicals who were against the war turned against Napoleon when he proclaimed himself first Consul for life in 1802. The struggle then became one against dictatorship. Britain was also a nation at war with itself, witness the Luddite uprising in 1812. Philip Shaw argues that romanticism cannot be separated from the Revolutionary War; it was a romantic war and signalled a shift from the Enlightenment to a Romantic worldview. He concludes his essay by writing:

Like romanticism itself, the Napoleonic Wars reflected this opposition in a variety of forms: in the figure of the genius rising above rules to command the field of circumstance; and a sense of unceasing strife, manifested at every level: from the nation to the subject; from the family to the battle-ground; from working class to ruling class. (58)


Romanticism and philosophy

The expressions “enlightenment” and “romanticism” often refer to contrary ways of looking at the world expressed in terms of binary opposition: reason and emotion, objectivity and subjectivity, spontaneity and control, order against rebellion and so on. It is becoming clear, though, that such binary oppositions cannot easily be sustained in regard to many of the writers of these periods. The Romantic poets were reacting against enlightenment but also building on it. The Enlightenment thinkers saw themselves as emerging from a period of darkness and promoted a sceptical method of thinking. They taught that only things that could be experienced directly from the senses could be known; they were empiricists. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes dismissed the neo-Platonist and rationalist notion that the human mind contained innate ideas. For Locke nothing could be known that didn’t have perceptible attributes. These ideas, especially as they were developed by Hartley, exerted an influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth in his early poem, “the tables turned”, writes for example that:

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Then all the sages can. (Anthology 401-402, lines 20-25)


In the preface to the lyrical ballads he argues that the poems were written as an illustration of “the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement”. Nevertheless “Tintern Abbey” already transcends this sort of aesthetic:


A sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwellings is the light of setting suns,

And the round Ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man –

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. (Anthology 409, lines 98-105)


Blake especially rejected the empiricist tradition of Locke and Hartley: “man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception.” Coleridge was also later to turn against empiricism although his early poems deal with the subject of the passive and receptivity to sense impression as in “frost at midnight”, “the ancient Mariner” and the “Aeolian harp”. By the end of the century, though, Coleridge had come under the influence of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In this important work Kant tried to reconcile empiricism with rationalism and Platonism. Although knowledge is derived from experience, it is also dependent on transcendental structures of the mind which include concepts of space and time. The pure object or the thing in itself is thus unknowable. Ideas of God, freedom and eternity are also part of the transcendental realm like space and time. Coleridge and the Romantics were attracted to this philosophy because it gave the mind an active and creative role in the formation of knowledge. Kant distinguishes between three kinds or powers of imagination: the reproductive imagination, which resembles Locke’s conception of the association of ideas, the productive imagination, which “operates between sense perception and allows us to carry on the work of discursive reasoning”, and the aesthetic imagination which “is free of the laws that govern the understanding and which works through symbols”. Coleridge took over this division in the Biographia, in his distinctions between the fancy, the primary imagination and the secondary imagination (39). The fancy receives its materials from both association and empirical experience while the primary imagination mediates between sensory perception and orders the sense impressions into a body of knowledge. The secondary imagination is responsible for artistic creation:


The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or, where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events that struggles to idealise and to unify. It is essentially vital, even is all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and date. (See romanticism page 574).


Everybody possesses the primary imagination. It is involuntary. Without it no knowledge or even making sense of sense impressions would be possible. But the secondary imagination belongs to the artist who struggles to bring the patterns of experience together into an artistic whole. Under Coleridge’s influence, Wordsworth makes this sort of imagination the hero of his spiritual autobiography the Prelude.

Shelley distinguishes between the higher imaginative powers and empirical reason in defence of poetry: “reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities… Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance” (Romanticism page 956). So here we can see how the Romantics took over some of the notions of the Enlightenment era. Sometimes they were fascinated by science but some of them accused Newtonian science of robbing the world of its mystery. Blake was a particularly vehement opponent. Keats, too, dismisses the science of optics in “Lamia” (1817):Do not all charms fly/ At the mere touch of cold philosophy?… Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,/Conquer all mysteries by rule in line,/Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –/and weave a rainbow.

Romanticism and religion

crossFew Enlightenment thinkers were actually atheists, most were deists. These accepted the existence of a supreme being but were against all the dogma associated with belief. They were also against institutionalised religion. William Godwin, though, did argue for a materialist account of nature and the mind and regarded religion is a primitive response to what people did not understand. All the romantic poets read the Bible. Coleridge regarded its truths as spiritual and symbolic and not literal. That is why TE Hume described the romantic poets as advocating spilt religion. Abrams has argued “that’s what the romantic poets did in essence was to secularise and naturalise the founding myths of the Judaeo-Christian religion, internalising Eden, the fall and the new Jerusalem into states of the human mind: innocence, experience and restoration. This is also true of the way they mixed political and religious categories. Their idea of the poet as prophet can be seen as a response to the apocalyptic expectations of the French Revolution gave rise to. For the romantic poets a higher form of poetry was prophecy. This mediated divine truth gave the poet status in an age of materialism and scientific progress. Blake of course presents a daemonic (supernatural genius or power) reading of Christianity that is opposed to its oppressive institutionalisation or form. Shelley was the romantic poet who was closest to the Enlightenment sceptic although he did see Christ as a benevolent reformer and a model and valued Christ’s ideals of equality and pacifism. Like Blake, he saw the God of the Old Testament as being involved with restriction and restraint and viewed the Satanic as positive energy. He did believe, though, in a mysterious power that was at work in the universe.

The Romantic writers were familiar with the concept of the spiritual world and the immortality of the soul from the works of the Greek philosophers. They grew up with the Christian view that the world was God’s creation and the laws of nature, Gods laws, while reason had been given to man by God to guide him. Their culture was based on Greece and the Bible. Their work is full of allusions to the King James Bible and it also affected their style. Writers like Byron, Shelley and Blake felt oppressed by the church’s institutional tyranny.

In Coleridge’s view everything, including ourselves, only in so far as we are, causes everything and is in us. Through the mind we can discern God speaking to us in nature. For his part Wordsworth had “felt/a presence…/A motion and the spirit, that impels/all thinking things, all objects of all thought,/and rolls through all things.” Blake thought that Wordsworth the greatest poets of his age. He also thought that Wordsworth love of nature was the work of the devil. For him nature was barrier rather than a window.

Role of the Romantic Poet

wordsworthMost of the romantic poets saw themselves as prophets; the poet is a seer with a sacred if often frightening vision. Wordsworth set this out as a vocation for himself and Coleridge in the Prelude (Book 14):

Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak

A lasting inspiration, sanctified

By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,

Others will love, and we will teach them how;

Instruct them how the mind of man becomes

A thousand times more beautiful than the earth

On which he dwells, above this frame of things             450

(Which, ‘mid all revolution in the hopes

And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)

In beauty exalted, as it is itself

Of quality and fabric more divine.


Wordsworth thought that through nature he’d been in touch with the spiritual world and it was his duty to share this experience if he was going to fulfil his mission. He became a more orthodox Christian after the death of his brother John in 1805. Religious questions are of great importance to romantic poets. “Whether they felt closely in touch with a higher presence, or whether they were aware only of an obligation to defend the freedom of others, there was a sense of aspiration among them.” (70). In their art they were concerned with the deepest aspects of human life, human relationships and with the consciousness that a deeper reality lay beyond every day existence.

The Romantic sublime

The categories of aesthetic experience preoccupied the romantic poets, a preoccupation which they’d inherited from the 18th century. They distinguished between the beautiful, the picturesque and the sublime. The primary distinction is between the beautiful and the sublime. “The beautiful concerns social or sexual relations, and turns upon feelings of pleasure; the sublime concerns a solitary individual, and turns upon the still more powerful feelings of terror or pain. In the romantic aesthetic, of course, the sublime is a privileged term. Wordsworth writes in the Prelude 1, 307 and that “fostered alike by beauty and by fear” (1805, XIII, 433-52). In Proverbs of hell Blake distinguishes between “the head sublime… The genitals beauty.” (Anthology 210 – middle page). Kant discusses the beautiful and the sublime in the critique of judgement:

The aesthetic category which is quintessentially romantic is the sublime. The sublime conveys the idea of height and loftiness and it is not surprising, therefore, that is particularly linked to mountains. Edmund Burke’s ideas of the sublime also had a big influence on romantic thought. He championed an aesthetic of obscurity, arguing that darkness was “more productive of sublime ideas than light”. The preference for suggestion over definition, for the unlimited over the lucid and so on is represented in the work of the Romantic poets. Wordsworth writes in the first book of the Prelude: “dim and undetermined sense/unknown modes of being” (1799, I, 120) while Coleridge associates the sublime with a mountain summit that is hidden in clouds (80). Poetry was seen as the art which was particularly capable of pointing to the unexpressed and inexpressible.

The romantic aesthetic

At the heart of the romantic aesthetic, following on from the 18th century, was the idea that poetry should be natural rather than artificial. Shakespeare was seen as a great home-grown genius whereas Pope came in for a lot of criticism because of this artificiality. He was urban and urbane and was accused of drawing inspiration from literature rather than feeling and nature. The poem itself was seen not just as a presentation or representation of nature and the emotions but as a natural organic product in itself with its own life, if it was a real work of genius that is. It should be perfectly original like a tree. Keats wrote: “if poetry come not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” Coleridge distinguishes between the organic and the mechanically artificial: “The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material-as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.” (Wu companion 375, from Coleridge’s lectures).

The romantic fragment

viaductDuring the romantic period the fragment came to be seen as a genre in its own right. The structure of the fragment came to be seen as a model for a new kind of poetic originality free from the limitations of the classical genres and forms. The fragmentary romantic poem usually took one of two forms: it was what was left of something whole, a remnant of something that had been complete or the beginning of something that was never completed. The question remains why the fragment became the paradigmatic `romantic form. How did the fragment come to be seen as a meaningful kind of literary text? Why was “the internally discontinuous, the unfinished and the apparently ruined poem” (443) privileged in this way? One of the answers is that aesthetic value sometimes eclipses truth criteria at this time. As Keats would write “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Another factor is the taste for the picturesque which emphasised irregularity, roughness and lack of convention. The fragment is also of thematic import. Poems such as Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’ are presented as examples of the inadequacy of language to depict vision. Such poems create the expectation of a reality which exceeds the powers of language and the articulations of poetry. As a reviewer said of Christabel, the poem “interests more by what it leaves untold than by what it tells.”

The idea of the immortality of poetry is replaced by the theme of the inexpressive ability of poetry. The lyric becomes more private and inward and the inadequacy of language to express deep thoughts is foregrounded. The fragment poem can be seen as one of the quintessential Romantic genres along with the romantic lyric. A poem is understood to be living and growing, to be organic. One of the major implications of an organic and developmental theory of poetry is that the value of the poem resides in its potential, not its realisation. Romantic poetry is the poetry of becoming and it’s always groping for a mode of expression which is unrealisable.

The romantic imagination

broodingThe Romantic poets were all preoccupied with the question of the imagination even though some of them, such as Blake, worked on his own and they could not know that later generations would see the question of the imagination is central to Romanticism. The Romantics wrote serious and complex definitions of the imagination, although Shelley tended to use the term poetry instead. Even the down-to-earth Keats wrote that: “imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found the truth.” That which is imagined is found to be real. Wordsworth in the Prelude 1805, book X111 (titled the Imagination) writes of the imagination that:

Imagination, which in truth.

Is but another name for absolute strength.

And clearest insight, amplitude of mind.

And reason in her most exalted mood. (167-70 – Anthology 570)

There is an impulse to see the imagination as something mysterious and beyond normal human experience. In the usual sense of the word, Wordsworth is disappointed when he crosses the Alps without noticing that he got to the top. What he’d imagined didn’t transpire. But then he turns to a higher sense of the word imagination, writing in 1804 of his present mood:

Imagination – lifting up itself

Before the eye and progress of my song

Like an unfathered vapour, here that power,

In all the might of its endowments, came

Athwart me! I was lost as in a cloud,

Halted without a struggle to break through;

And now, recovering, to my soul I say,

‘I recognise I glory.’ (V1. 525-32, Anthology 554)


What starts as a moment of remembrance and reimagining as a poet returns to engage with his earlier mood is transformed into a mystical experience. As in Tintern Abbey, human greatness occurs during a time of loss of bodily awareness and a new insight into the invisible world of the spirit:

In such visitings

Of awful promise, when the light of sense

Goes out in flashes that have shown to us

The invisible world, that greatness make abode,

The harbours whether we’d be young or old. (V1. 532-7)

Blake locates imagination in opposition to reason. Wordsworth following Coleridge and Kant sometimes describes the imagination in terms of the “reason in her most exalted mood” (Wu 488). But the sentiment is the same: the imagination is what distinguishes the true poet from the uninspired and it is also the means that man gains entrance to the larger world of truth. As Blake wrote in the marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) “if the doors of perception reclaims, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.(Anthology 212)). For the imagination enables man to have a vision of the infinite but this can only happen when the senses have been cleansed. Shelley, too, considers poetry to be the embodiment of the incarnation of the powers of the imagination:

Poetry turns all things to loveliness… It transmutes all that it touches, and in every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to incarnation of the spirit which it breathes… It strips the veil of familiarity from the world and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.

All things exist as they are perceived – at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of Heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. (Romanticism, page 967)


Poetry, then, “is an outgoing manifestation of an indwelling spirit that pervades the universe (489), and is found equally in (the round ocean, and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man” (Tintern Abbey). Shelley writes that poetry is “the interpenetration of the divine nature through our own” (Romanticism 966). Whatever the religion of the poet, or lack of religion in Shelley’s case, romantic definitions of imagination all seem to involve Pantheism or Platonism: human creativity participates in the creative power of the godhead. Even before he read Kant, Coleridge regarded the imagination as a way of sharing in the divine. The Biographia distinguishes between the primary and secondary imagination:


The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious world, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation stop it dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. (Anthology 691)


He then goes on to define a third term, fancy: “In the Fancy is indeed no other than the mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by, that empirical phenomena in the will, which we expressed by the word choice. But equally with the ordinary memory the fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of Association” (Anthology, P. 692). Fancy is the most limited faculty of the three. It can bring bits of experience and bits of memory together by the associative process but it can’t create something new. The materials of the fancy have no life of their own unlike those of the secondary imagination which has the capacity to dissolve, diffuse and dissipate. Unlike fancy, it can idealise and unify. Like the fancy though, it is part of a conscious world. One can be both deliberately imaginative and deliberately fanciful. The secondary imagination is different from the primary only in degree; it might slide, at any time, into the primary. The primary imagination covers many things for Coleridge. It is what makes all human perception, of whatever sort, possible but it is also “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Man’s creativity is not only a pale reflection or echo of God’s creation that a repetition of it. God’s naming is the eternal act of creation which, through the affirmation of his own existence, saying I am, God brings into existence that which is not. Coleridge defines God in his self-consciousness as spirit and then goes on to define Spirit as Act. So “we begin with the I KNOW MYSELF, in order to end with the absolute I AM. We proceed from the SELF, in order to lose and find all self in God” (thesi vi, Biographia, 1). The ultimate act, therefore “of the primary imagination, which is at once creative and perceptive, is the losing and finding of self in God” (Wu 492). Everyone uses the primary imagination to make sense of ordinary existence, but the chosen few, the poets, can use it as power to place themselves in relation to God who, “is pure spirit, is himself the continuing act of absolute imagination” (Biographia). The primary imagination is shared by all whereas the secondary imagination belongs to artists only. Nevertheless in its highest achievement the primary imagination is of much greater importance. But as the secondary imagination differs in degree only from the primary imagination, Coleridge leaves open to the artist the possibility that “his work attains to the sacred sympathy that loses and finds all self in God” (493). Jonathan Wordsworth concludes his article by writing that:

Essentially, the romantic imagination is the wish of a number of creative geniuses (living at a certain period, but never a group) to ‘lose, and find, all self in God’. In their inspired creativity they felt an analogy – or something more than an analogy – to the central mystical experience which they crave. Imagination in its highest moments appeared to them godlike, and, with differing degrees of assurance… they dared to assert that it was indeed the link between man and God.” (493).


The romantic symbol

The thinkers of the enlightenment thought that rhetorical and figurative flourishes clouded an objective vision of the world. Word play was an indulgence. The romantic view was very different. Terry Eagleton describes it in How to read a Poem as “the revenge of the poetic on this rather bloodless brand of Enlightenment reason.” (12). Nevertheless, while embracing the passions, and the imagination and figurative speech, the romantic poets did indeed position poetry as opposed to rhetoric, as is clear in the programmatic preface to the lyrical ballads. Rhetoric was deceitful and manipulative. For them it wasn’t just what resisted rational enquiry, it was what resisted and invaded the truth of the human heart.

Classical rhetoric had no doubt about its public place and its audience; the romantic poets are not sure whether they have an audience in all. As Shelley put it, the poet might simply be “a nightingale singing in the dark”. A new cult of the inspired author replaced or filled the vacuum created by the absence of an assured audience. Poetry still engaged with the public sphere but the nature of that public was now problematic and poetry was definitely different from the language of commerce, science and politics. It lay outside the public sphere and was even counter to it.

The phenomenon called literature arose. Previously literature had referred to various forms of writing but now poetry, in particular, was privileged. It was a condition to which all other authentic kinds of writing aspired. In this view, literature was a matter of feeling rather than fact, of the transcendent rather than the mundane and “the unique and original rather than the socially conventional.” (12) Poetry was now concerned less with abstractions than the individual and the specific. It concentrated on what could be felt, not on general notions. But the Romantics are ambiguous in this regard. While they insist on the sensuous particularity of the poem, they are also inclined to speak of its universal nature. The symbol was their way of resolving this contradiction. The romantic symbol “is supposed to flesh out a universal truth in a uniquely specific form. In some mysterious fashion it combines the individual and the universal, setting up a direct circuit between the two which bypasses language, history, culture and rationality. To penetrate to the essence of what makes a thing uniquely itself is to discover the part it plays in the cosmic whole.” (13)