April 23, 2010
National Poetry Month Blog Tour: The Romantics
Serena, of Savvy Verse & Wit decided to create a blog tour in honor of National Poetry Month. You can find a list of all the participating blogs and their topics here. Today, I'll be discussing the Romantics.
Nowadays, when asked to think about poetry, most people's minds will leap almost immediately to the Romantics. Blake, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats . . . you can't escape school without reading at least some of them. But, you might not really be reading them.
The Early Romantic Period lasted from the French Revolution (1789) to the electoral victory of the Whigs (1830). During this time, a monarchy would be overthrown, then there would be a counterrevolution, and then a monarchy restored. The Industrial Revolution was just gaining steam. It was the beginning of what we think of as modern times. People couldn't believe how quickly things were changing. It was a new world.
A new world needed new literature. The Romantics were the rebels of their day. It's all in the name: At its most positive, romantic means natural, optimistic, ideal. At its most negative, it means dangerously deluded by an illusions. Neoclassical writers, like Thomas Gray, used high diction, personification, and frequently alluded to the classics. The Romantics wanted, instead, to speak to everyone in a direct manner. Do not think of the Romantics as boring, the most poetic of poets. They were outsiders determined to change the system.
So how do you read the Romantics?
1. Read Milton. I'll be honest, I've only read some of his sonnets and excerpts of PARADISE LOST. But while the Romantics had many different ideas about what made good poets and good poetry, they'll all agreed that Milton was the biggest thing since sliced bread. Reading the Romantics without knowing Milton is like reading a hagiography without knowing the Bible. You may enjoy the story, but you'll have no idea how many allusions are being made. (Alluding to Milton is totally different from alluding to the Greeks, y'know.)
2. Learn the poetics. All of these men approached poetry from different ideas about theory, and each of their theories are key to interpreting their poetry.
-Check out the incredible Blake Archive. There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One lay out his basic theology and argumentative process well.
-Blake was an engraver by trade. He never printed his poetry without the accompanying image; the visual and text were one. Sometimes the picture is an important clue not to take his words at face value.
-Blake had what some would consider a blasphemous view of Christianity. He felt that redemption could be achieved during life, not after death. The first stage of life is innocence, wherein naivety lies in bed with ignorance, then experience, wherein disillusionment can blind one to the world's good. The ideal is to move beyond experience and realize we can all be Christ on Earth. (When you get down to it, Blake is a little wacky.)
-Preface to LYRICAL BALLADS, 1802 edition
-After he split with Coleridge, Wordsworth rearranged the LYRICAL BALLADS and added a preface, which details his desire to be a man speaking to men, in the language of men. He used common, rural subjects because he felt they had an inherent morality lacking in the city.
-Wordsworth had a thing for nature. It was one of the sources of imagination, though superseded by human connection.
-His sister Dorothy also wrote, though she didn't think of herself as a writer. Her GRASMERE JOURNALS often detail the same occurrences as some of Wordsworth's poems. Much can be determined about their priorities by comparison of their accounts.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
-In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge calls BS on Wordsworth. He also manages to formulate what will be modern literary criticism, including coining the term "willing suspension of disbelief."
-Coleridge believes the principle object of poetry is pleasure, which is greater than truth. The power of a poet is an ability to see the connections between two objects and transform them into each other, using imagination. (Think metaphor.)
Percy Bysshe Shelley:
-In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley answered his friend Thomas Love Peacock's satirical essay ("The Four Ages of Poetry") seriously.
-For Shelley, language is not just what separates men from beasts. It is the essence of how people think and needs to be constantly renewed as old phrases die. Poets keep language alive.
-Our thoughts develop through metaphor, through imagination. Shelley believed "the great secret of morals is love," or empathy, and thus we need poetry to treat our imagination so that we can be good.
-Though Keats died before he could write a coherent treatise on poetics, his letters show the evolution of his thoughts on poets and poetry. The letters to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgina Keats, are particularly important as they most often contained the drafts of Keats' poems.
-One of the important concepts he introduced is "negative capability," or the ability of a poet to accept the uncertainties of life.
-Keats really, really hated didatic, polemical poetry. He felt that poetry should seem like the reader's own thoughts. As such, he was not impressed by Wordsworth. (Shelley also disliked Wordsworth, because of Wordsworth's change in feeling after the Reign of Terror.)
I highly recommend THE LONGMAN ANTHOLOGY OF BRITISH LITERATURE, VOL. 2A. It works to give a full picture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century through its literature. It includes a wide range of writers, including the less studied Charlotte Smith and Felicia Hemans. I was going to recommend a good YA text on the Romantics, but it is unfortunately out of print.
Now, I'll finish with my favorite romantic poem.
The Sick Rose
O rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Ask yourself: is the worm destroying the rose's life, or is the rose destroying the love of the worm?
ETA: I forgot to add important #3. Yes, the Romantics had a lot going on behind their words. Reading their poetry can be an incredibly rich experience. But there are many ways to enjoy it, even just reading aloud and hearing the sound. Wordsworth particularly believed in the resonant power of meter. So have fun!