THE HISTORICAL GROUND: the Age of Revolutions
During the Augustan Age British society attained a high level of political and social stability. The American Declaration of Independence from Brithish rule of 1776 saw George Washington become the first president of the USA. The loss of the American colonies as a consequence of the American War of Independence (1775-83) began at a time when Britain’s conservative rulers feared the general forces of revolutionary ferment, and were determined to prevent these forces from spreading to British society. This is why this period is often referred to as the Age of Revolutions. The Industrial Revolution completely transformed Britain’s social structure, while the French Revolution brought new ideas and beliefs. Both revolutions had a deep influence on all aspects of British culture and literature.
THE LITERARY GROUND: literature in the Romantic Age
During the Romantic period, poetry became one of the most vital forms of literary expression. The poetry of Romanticism signalled a profound change in sensibility which was occurring in Britain and in Europe at the time. Intellectually, the Romantic movement signalled a violent reaction to the spirit of the Enlightenment. Politically speaking, it was influnced by the revolutions which took place in America and in France. Emotionally, it expressed an extreme assertion of individual experience.
The main characteristics of Romanticism are intensity and imagination. Its main themes reflect the conflicts which characterise its historical context, that of the Industrial and French Revolutions. These themes recur in Romantic writings and include the tension between innocence and experience, youth and age, country and city, man and nature, language and expression.
We generally divide the Romantic poets into two groups:
• THE FIRST GENERATION: (Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth) they wrote and published much of their work around the time of the French Revolution.To a shorter period of optimism about French Revolution succeeds a longer period of despair, and pessimism caused by the degeneration of the Revolution into terror. As a result, the poets of this first generation pass from a hopeful support to the new issues concerning man and society, to a hopeless abandonment of their ideals, turning from fervent progressists into resigned conservatives
• THE SECOND GENERATION: It is quite different with the poets of the second romantic generation. Byron, Shelley, and Keats are the true incarnation of the romantic revolt. Their rebellion is a total war without truce, aiming at the affirmation of extreme individualism (Byron), or the triumph of the aspirations to freedom and equality (Shelley), or the proclamation of a new ethical philosophy centered on beauty and truth (Keats).
CHARACTERISTICS OF ROMANTICISM
• Importance of feelings and intuitions;
• Free play of imagination and poetic ‘vision’;
• Children are sacred, being the closest creatures to God and thus to the source of creation. Adults lesrn from their childhood experience;
• More consideration given to the poet’s inner life. Poetry seen as the expression of the soul and celebration of the freedom of nature and individual experience;
• Language more typical of common usage;
• Heightened observation of nature and everyday situations.
THE NOVEL IN THE ROMANTIC AGE
All the changes that British society and the economy underwent during this period also had their effect on the development of the novel. The Age of revolutions put an end to the golden age of free formal experimentation that the novel had briefly enjoyed. The linear history of one or more characters became the preferred form. But at the same time novelist began to reflect a wider range of themes, issues and settings. Novels began to encompass contrasting ideas, settings and points of wiew such as present/past, male/female; urban/rural.
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770-1850)
LIFE AND WORKS:
William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in the Lake District.
In 1791 he graduated in Cambridge.
In 1790 he went on a walking tour of France, the Alps and Italy, an returned to France at the end of 1791, to spend a year there. It was during this period that Wordsworth, enthusiastic about new ideas of democracy, became a supporter of the French Revolution.
After returning to England, Wordsworth published two long ‘travel diaries’, “An Evening Walk” and “Descriptive Sketches” in 1793.
In 1795, in London, he met the the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, thus beginning one of the great friendships of literary history.
The two poet, Wordsworth and Coleridge, had similar ideas on both love and poetry.
But this time Wordsworth had become intensely disillusioned with the Revolution whose initial ideals had degenerated into the so-called “Terror”. Politically, he turned very conservative.
In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge published anonymously the “Lyrical Ballads”.
In 1800, the second edition of “Lyrical Ballads” included Wordsworth’s famous prose “Preface”.
“The prelude”, a long narrative poem in which Wordsworth reflected on his youth and his early enthusiasm for the Revolution was published in 1805.
1807 saw the publication of “Poems in Two Volumes” and in 1814 “The Excursion”.
Wordsworth was made Poet Laureate (the title given to British poets in recognition of their achievements) in 1843. He died in 1850.
The “Preface” to the “Lirical Ballads” can be considered a manifesto for Wordsworth’s work and explains well his idea of poetry and nature, the role of the poet and the language he should use.
Poetry, according to Wordsworth, must be concerned with the ordinary, everyday world and the influence of memory on the present, which is to say, the recollection of emotions and feelings.
The best subjects are therefore ‘humble rustic life’ and people in close contact with nature.
The poet has a greater sensibility than ordinary men and thanks to his power of imagination can communicate his feelings and help people to get in touch with their interior world.
The kind of language used by the poet must reflect this simplicity, it has to be similar to the simple ‘language of men’.