The Romantic period was fraught with contradictions, and defined by rapid change. Although the era covered roughly only 40 years (1789-1830s) it was framed by revolutions that shaped the political, economical, and social landscapes: “The Romantic period was a complex nexus of revolution and conservatism, of bold iconoclasm and hidebound conventionality” (Black, et al., 2). The easiest way to describe the Romantic period is as a jumbo shrimp; the idea of a jumbo shrimp is inherently contradictory because it cannot simultaneously be jumbo and shrimp, yet the name still persists just as the Romantic age is celebrated despite its contradictions. The period had a great number of famous poets, as well as the production of some of the world’s most famous works such as Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein. Additionally, while it seems that Great Britain has long been a nation that has extended its imperialistic tendrils, the Romantic period truly represents the beginning of modern Great Britain. The nation itself became more unified as the English language was standardized, and a shift to a manufacturing rather than agricultural economy allowed for the country to rapidly expand and conquer nations such as India. In many ways the Romantic period parallels the world we live in today; technology is advancing at an incredibly rapid rate and is changing how and where people live. Similar to the Romantic period, new technologies have created a multitude of new jobs, but we also live in an age of political upheaval that causes theorists to view the world with cynicism.
The French Revolution represents one of the great social and political changes of the 18th century and helped shape the Romantic era. The revolution began on July 14, 1789 when the Bastille fell, and primarily aimed to create a more free society. Rather than the traditional monarchy, the French hoped to create a new political system in which they would have more individual liberties and agency. The goals of the revolution caused it to be seen by many as a rosy dawn of liberal hope and allowed authors to claim that “a visionary world seemed to open…Nothing was dreamt of but regeneration of the human race” (3). The hope of the revolution inspired writers such as William Blake to write poetry of freedom that indicated his belief that a shift was occurring that would permit the previously oppressed to experience a more complete freedom. However, while the French Revolution began as a time of hope and expectation, it quickly became a cautionary tale. After the revolution, the Reign of Terror began, and Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, aristocrats, clergy, and anti-Jacobins were beheaded. The beheadings created a sense of fear amongst the people of France, and created an environment in which Napoleon was able to rise to power and declare himself Emperor in 1804: “The Revolution’s promise of freedom died in a frenzy of oppression, destruction, violence, and imperialism, and many of Britain’s intellectuals watched in horror, gradually turning from bold liberalism to a cautious conservatism” (4). What authors saw as a burgeoning time of liberty and democracy, unfortunately became a cautionary tale of militaristic dictatorship.
While the French Revolution created a mindset that freedom would not be as accessible as previously believed, the Industrial Revolution began to shape the modern social, economical, and physical landscape of the world. In the 1770s one quarter of English people lived in cities, but by 1840 that number had swelled to around 50%. The move from the countryside to cities was spurred by a shift in the economics of Great Britain. The country was adapting from one in which agriculture was the primary source of income to one in which manufacturing became the primary income. People began to demand different types of goods, and the need for other goods was part of the reason for the British expansion to the east. The Industrial Revolution represented a time in which the British Empire developed into the world superpower that it is today. However, the Industrial Revolution represented a time of great struggle. Child labor ran rampant,and the country became more authoritarianistic which led to censorship and food riots. While the period was wrought with flaws, it began molding the modern world we live in today.
The Business of Books
The movement to cities during the Industrial Revolution spurred the evolution of the business of books. During the period the developments of the book publishing industry made the distribution of literary works far easier and more accessible. Books could be bought and sold which allowed for bookshops to flourish across Great Britain. However, while the distribution of novels, essays, and dramatic writing expanded rapidly, the numbers paled in comparison to the growth of the periodical: “By the 1760s, there were more than 30 periodicals in London alone, including monthly journals, quarterly magazines, collections of reviews and essays, all designed to inform and stimulate their readers” (26). The rise of the periodical and improved literacy rates meant that the populous was more informed with what was happening around them and they could continue to discover new topics of interest. The want for books allowed authors to have more success and acclaim and created a period of great literary production.
The list of authors and poets responsible for defining the Romantic Era is extensive. In traditional academia, only “the Big Six” (William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats) were considered important for understanding Romantic poetry. Today, the list is far more comprehensive, but is still hotly debated. Important poets include Mary Robinson, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Felicia Hemans, and Letitia Landon. The prose of the Romantic Age was always dwarfed by the focus on poetry as highlighted by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even the dramatic world, previously neglected, has a place on the Romantic map, with playwrights such as Hannah Cowley, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Joanna Baillie.
While the Romantic had a plethora of contributors, we have highlighted five literary figures that we believe underscore the key literary motifs of the era. First, Mary Shelley. Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein, brings together many of the salient, dualistic themes of the era such as: freedom and oppression, science and nature, and society and the individual. The book sits at the forefront of the Gothic genre, employing uncanny imagination to bring together the rationality of the Industrial Revolution with the wild visions of the fantastical Romantic era. The novel was composed in multiple formats, from letters, to prose, to poetry.
The next highlighted figure, John Keats, is one of the greatest poets of all time, and “The Eve of St. Agnes” is regarded as one of his most highly-polished works of poetry. His collection of letters and poetry is extensive, particularly because he composed both long-form poetry (epics such as “Hyperion”) and short poems (sonnets like “Ode to a Nightingale”). His sonnets were said to reach Shakespearean levels before his death at 25. His background is representative of the class mobility made possible by the industrial revolution; he ascended from the son of a stable-worker to a surgeon apothecary, later committing fully to poetry. His themes of nature, beauty, truth, and imagination highlight all the passions of the Romantic era, along with his intense, short-lived love affair.
Accompanying Keats is William Wordsworth. He focused on the relationship between the individual human soul and the intimate (but completely separate) entity of nature. His abode in the green Lake District of England–the house-turned-museum known as Dove Cottage— serves as a monument to his love of nature. Wordsworth also embodies the spirit of the Romantic era because of his love of criticism. He participated in extensive, high-standard criticism of other poets, and the consideration of such criticism greatly affected the success of poets of the time.
Another poet, William Blake, helps us understand Romanticism for his frequent artistic cooperation with the visual arts. His works cannot be fully understood without the associated paintings, and the The William Blake Archive captures the artistic quality of his poems. The art, contrasting with the later period of Realism, stayed consistent with the imaginative compositions of the Romantic age. The artwork falls in an inspiring crevasse between realistic and surreal. Furthermore, Blake was an abolitionist, and his participation in the abolitionist movement of England helped rid the nation of slavery.
Sir Walter Scott
Finally, we look at Sir Walter Scott, who produced the first “best-sellers.” His novels, thanks to the printing made possible by the machinery of the Industrial Revoltuion and the literary support of George IV, were received with the same popularity and fervent readership as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Scott defined the historical novel and brought more literature to the middle class.