Romanticism in England took place between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. This movement influenced writers, poets, artists, and other creators of cultural heritage. Romanticism is best traced through works of literature, in which the movement’s main ideas and defining features can be identified by readers. The Excursion, a poem by William Wordsworth, and A Defence of Poetry, an essay by Percy Bysshe Shelley, are among the most prominent examples of Romantic literature in England, displaying all of the elements by which the period may be characterized. These works use imagery and rich language to describe an ideal world and its values, which are, in the authors’ opinions, the model to which society should look in order to build a better world.
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Romanticism in England started at the end of the seventeenth century as a response to the changing realities of the world (Wynne-Davies 1992). The country had passed the times of the Industrial Revolution and was experiencing a process of urbanization. Growing cities formed the basis for the rapid development of commerce. New entrepreneurs became the leading force toward materialism, and members of artistic society felt a strong need to create a new type of character that would have other views.
Moreover, the French Revolution also had a significant impact on the Romantic movement by proclaiming liberal values and making real “the possibility of a world unthinkable in terms of social reality before 1789” (Fermanis & Regan 2014, p. 148). These were the times of a new society in which equality and individualism were considered to be the new social standard. The Romantic period came as an answer to the perspectives of the Age of Enlightenment, where science and objectivity had prevailed over nature and feelings.
Romanticism was targeted at the inner worlds of human nature, and humans were viewed as just as infinite as the universe. That was the reason for its message that every person has a unique value. Indeed, individualism and freedom were the main values shared among writers of the Romantic period. Early Romanticism primarily focused on art that proclaimed liberty and its struggle. Romantic characters were opposed to everything materialistic and had felt as their primary value.
They were usually poets, musicians, writers, and architects, as though to underline the importance of art and its religious nature. Romantic literature is also characterized by a contrast of two worlds, one materialistic and the other spiritual; the spiritual world is shown to be real, while the materialistic one is deceptive. The main concern of Romantic novels and poems was to help people distinguish the two worlds and choose the correct one.
William Wordsworth is one of the most prominent poets of the Romantic period. He was greatly affected by the events of the French Revolution, which resulted in a humanistic attitude that pervades his work. His poem The Excursion is among his most famous works. It was first published in 1814 and was poorly received by critics of that time. However, according to Bushell et al., the poem had a significant influence on several second-generation Romantics such as Shelley, Keats, and Byron (2007, p. 393).
As Birch claims, Wordsworth’s works also influenced American Transcendentalism (2009, p. 320). The Excursion gave direction for the latter works of Romanticism that also focused on human nature. Today the poem is highly valued for its descriptive language and significance, although it still cannot be called popular among readers. As Watson explains, Wordsworth as a poet is extraordinary for “his insight into the nature of man, both individually and in society” (2013, p. 166).
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In particular, Book IV of The Excursion, called Despondency Corrected, contains a philosophical narrative that examines the importance of nature and its impact on people’s feelings. Lines 1203-1229 place emphasis on the importance of love above all other feelings. This kind of love can be found and understood only through nature and its elements. Nature complies with the spiritual world that is traced in all work of the Romantic period.
Wordsworth claims that once a man experiences this state, he will no longer be satisfied with his previous life and will “seek for objects of a kindred love” (Wordsworth 1839, p. 158). Moreover, upon reaching this ideal, a man becomes calm and his state of mind soft and tender. The power of love, according to Wordsworth, is so strong, that it will not let a person turn to any negative feelings, and there is “no feeling, which can overcome his love” (1836, p. 159). This idea ties together with the main principles of Romanticism in which love and feelings in general are viewed as the highest value.
The structure of The Excursion is typical of the author’s works; it is divided into nine books, the fourth of which contains the described abstract. Lines 1203-1229 are rich with descriptions of feelings. The author uses epithets like “pure” and “exquisite” to describe the feeling of love, which serves to show that love represents the cleanest state of a person’s character. To support this idea, Wordsworth uses the metaphor of a flowing, clear fountain which is compared to man’s thoughts when he is full of this genuine feeling.
The hyperbole of nature speaking may refer to the idea that nature is a living organism, capable of affecting people and their minds. Wordsworth speaks of nature with admiration and puts it in contrast to the human world. Although the poem does not have a distinct rhyme, the overall sound of the poem makes it flow swiftly and delicately while still sounding persuasive.
The power of nature is the main philosophical idea of these lines, implying that all positive qualities of one’s character can be acquired only by attaining harmony with the natural world. Moreover, only a man who understands the language of nature can get those qualities, for it takes an open mind and a kind heart to learn the language of nature. This brings readers to the idea that the Romantic character is positive from the start and that this character must use his knowledge to teach other people how to distinguish the real values of this world. Besides, the importance of nature in the poem corresponds to the idea that people should pay more attention to it overall. This message ties well together with the fact that many people in Wordsworth’s time had moved to cities and lost their connection with the land. The image of a calm man embracing the true value of nature is persuasive and can be influential in society.
The power of nature as a recurring theme is an element unique to the Romantic movement in England. However, according to Kelly, “Nature may have different expressions” (2013, p. 43) and thus is not always presented directly. Other European literature of the time does not focus so much on nature, preferring to choose other matters as examples of genuine values. English authors viewed nature as the ideal world possessing the wisdom and harmony that people should bring into their own lives. Another interesting idea lies in the fact that nature is always portrayed as calm in English Romanticism—the precise image traced in The Excursion by Wordsworth.
A Defence of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley is another example of English Romantic literature. Shelley was, in fact, one of the most famous Romantic poets in England and one of the authors most influenced by Wordsworth’s The Excursion. His works in turn influenced poets and writers of the Victorian era, which came after Romanticism. A Defence of Poetry is an essay that aims to recover poets as real artists.
The Romantic period believed that a new hero must change society by influencing people’s minds, a feat that only a poet would be capable of achieving. Words are unique to humans, and they belong to that imaginary world of Romanticism. By working with language, poets can access this world and prove their mastery by sharing it with ordinary people. Poems can move in space and time, thus sharing authors’ ideas among the nation and across generations.
The last paragraph of Shelley’s essay draws a conclusion to the discussion of why poets are important. This text reveals the author’s belief that poets, along with philosophers, will be the moving force in creating a new society.
It also generally discusses the values which will help poets lead humanity to a better future. Shelley, like Wordsworth, mentions nature among those values. By having the power to embrace and communicate to the audience matters concerning nature and people, poets will express the “spirit of good of which they are the ministers” (Shelley 1840, p. 62). It is written between the lines that poets themselves do not realize the power they have, a power that Shelley claims is more influential than any other. A Defence of Poetry illustrates the primary belief of Romantics: that the creators of cultural heritage are the new heroes of the time.
Shelley’s conclusion is written very persuasively and without vivid imagery or fictional elements. However, it contains a lot of philosophical ideas concerning the future of society. Shelley’s word choice makes the essay sound almost like a speech to be presented in front of a large audience. He uses phrases about freedom, national will, and civil rights. In fact, the passage creates the feeling of a written manifesto. Shelley’s work is rich with metaphors.
He compares poets to mirrors that reflect the current state of society’s minds, as well as to trumpets that call people to change. These abstract comparisons create a picture of poets as true warriors, and the power that they obtain is revealed through their words “with electric life” (Shelley 1840, p.62). This is a particularly interesting metaphor because, at that time, electricity was not a widespread phenomenon in ordinary life. Shelley also makes use of symbolism to express his point of view. Comparing poets to trumpets that call to war, the author symbolizes the future battle between progressive thinking and delusion.
A Defence of Poetry is clearly a Romantic essay. While poets are portrayed as warriors, they still gain their power from nature. However, according to the author, they do not recognize their true power. They create works without realizing how much influence they have on society. Like any other Romantic author, Shelley believed in the power of feelings and character to change the world. His essay sends the message that the force capable of bringing freedom already exists—it is just highly underestimated. Language is a result of the harmony reached by humans on their path toward moral development. It is part of the natural order and, perhaps, the most important aspect for a man. Mastering this sphere means delicately choosing the values which will be passed on to future generations in order to make the world a better place.
Like other Romantic figures, both William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that Romanticism could change society. Indeed, the early Romantic period was very bright and optimistic, and the authors believed that the world could be changed by art, that materialism could be completely destroyed. To achieve this, according to Romantics, would only require poets and authors to explain to people which world was the genuine one. However, as time passed, none of these ideas proved to be realistic. Society was not unified, and Wordsworth himself wondered how it “can hold together when members seem to have little in common” (Hewitt 1959, p. 73). The values so cherished by Romanticism, which aimed to change people’s minds, did not find any response with the public.
The Romantic period in English literature did not last for long. Like many literature movements before it, Romanticism did not succeed in creating significant social change. It had sprung up along with the revolutionary ideas of the time, and it was forgotten as soon as those ideas became unpopular. However, this period undoubtedly left some of the most inspiring works, proclaiming humans to be the center of the universe. The Excursion by William Wordsworth and A Defence of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley support this inspiring philosophy. The values brought by these works maintain their essence, even in the modern world.
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Birch, D 2009, The Oxford companion to English literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Fermanis, P & Regan, J 2014, Rethinking British romantic history, 1770-1845, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hewitt, R 1959, The possibilities of society: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the sociological viewpoint of English romanticism, State University of New York Press, Albany.
Kelly, G 2013, English fiction of the romantic period 1789-1830, Routledge, New York.
Shelley, PB & Shelley, MW 1840, A defence of poetry. Essay on the literature, arts, and manners of the Athenians. Preface to the Banquet of Plato. The banquet, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.
Watson, JR 2013, English poetry of the romantic period 1789-1830, Routledge, New York.
Wordsworth, W 1814, The Excursion, Bushell, S, Butler, JA & Jaye, MC (eds), Ithaca, Cornell University Press 2007.
Wordsworth, W 1836, The Excursion, Edward Moxon, London.
Wynne-Davis, M 1992, The Bloomsbury guide to English literature, Macmillan General Reference, New York.