THE NATURE OF ROMANTICISM
As a term to cover the most distinctive writers who flourished in the last years of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, “Romantic” is indispensable but also a little misleading: there was no self-styled “Romantic movement” at the time, and the great writers of the period did not call themselves Romantics.
Many of the age’s foremostwriters thought that something new was happening in the world’s affairs, nevertheless. Blake’s affirmation in 1793 that “A new Heaven is begun…” was matched a generation later by Shelley’s “The world’s great age begins anew.” “These, these shall give the world/Another heart, and other pulses” wrote Keats, referring to Rousseau and Wordsworth. Fresh ideals came to the fore: in particular the idealof freedom, long cherished in England, was being extended to every range of human endeavour. As that ideal swept through Europe, it became natural to believe that the age of tyrants might soon end.
The feature most likely to strike a reader turning to the poets of the time after reading their immediate predecessors is the new role of individual feeling and thought. Where the main trend of18th-century poetics had been to praise the general, to see the poet as a spokesman of society, addressing a cultivated and homogeneous audience and having as his end the conveyance of “truth,” the Romantics found the source of poetry in the particular, unique experience. Blake’s marginal comment on Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses expresses the position with characteristic vehemence: “to generalize is tobe an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit.” The poet was seen as an individual distinguished from his fellows by the intensity of his perceptions, taking as his basic subject matter the workings of his own mind. The implied attitude to an audience varied accordingly: although Wordsworth maintained that a poet did not write “for Poets alone, but for Men,” for Shelley the poetwas “a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds,” and Keats declared “I never wrote one single line of Poetry with the least Shadow of public thought.” Poetry was regarded as conveying its own truth; sincerity was the criterion by which it was to be judged. Provided the feeling behind it was genuine, the resulting creation must be valuable.
Theemphasis on feeling—seen perhaps at its finest in the poems of Burns—was in some ways a continuation of the earlier “cult” of sensibility”; and it is worth remembering that Pope praised his father as having known no language but the language of the heart. But feeling had begun to receive particular emphasis and is found in most of the Romantic definitions of poetry. Wordsworth called it “thespontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” and in 1833 John Stuart Mill defined “natural poetry” as “Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” It followed that the best poetry was that in which the greatest intensity of feeling was expressed, and hence a new importance was attached to the lyric. The degree of intensity was affected by the extent to which the poet’s imaginationhad been at work; as Coleridge saw it, the imagination was the supreme poetic quality, a quasi-divine creative force that made the poet a godlike being. Romantic theory thus differed from the neoclassic in the relative importance it allotted to the imagination: Samuel Johnson had seen the components of poetry as “invention, imagination and judgement” but William Blake wrote: “One Power alonemakes a Poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.” The judgment, or conscious control, was felt to be secondary; the poets of this period accordingly placed great emphasis on the workings of the unconscious mind, on dreams and reveries, on the supernatural, and on the childlike or primitive view of the world, this last being regarded as valuable because its clarity and intensity had not been overlaid by...