Romantic Period in England
The Romantic period (1798-1837) was a very important period of the history of the England. There is no generally accepted definition of the word “Romantic”. The term first appeared in England in 17th century in the sense of extravagant fictitious, unreal, but the end of 18th century it had already assumed a some what different meaning and it was particularly connected with feelings imagination and emotional pleasures.
In literature it was applied to a movement (not implying an actual school but rather a spirit, a state of mind).
It was not limited to England alone but appeared in most western countries between the late 18th century and the third decade of the 19th century. The dates are obviously approximate: there are however certain historical events which can be cited as reference points since with their enphasis on freedom and democratization, they forested the growth of Romanticism and its future development.
These historical events are the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. For some time almost every english man of letters was strongly sympathetic to the democratic ideals coming from America, and to the french fight for “liberty, equality and fraternity”.
But the period of the Terror in France, with its violent purges left many disillusioned and eventually turned them into conservatives.
As for Napoleon althought admired by some writers as a symbol of titanic individual grandeur, he aroused a wave of nationalism of over the country through his increasingly treatening plans for invasion.
As a literary movement english Romanticism presented a clear and sharp break with the insistence on reason, common sense and realism that had characterized the Augustan Age. It encouraged individualism and the free expression of personal feelings and turned to emotion and imagination as sources of inspiration.
The literary background of the romantic movement is very complex. Besides the above mentioned historical events other factors of great importance were: the philosophical thought of such french writers as Voltaire and Rousseau with their attaks on privilege and social stratification and their concern with nature and man’s emotional and imaginative powers; the german literary movement called “Sturm und Drang” which reached its climax in the 1770. It was strongly nationalist and included among its members such names as Goethe and Schiller.
It was inspired by Rousseau’s idealism, it emphasized the value of the individual, opposed the rationalism and it revolted against the dependence of literature on ancient classical canons and advocated a return to nature.
The way was thus ready for the literary movement which spread throughout Europe and which proved essentially philosophical in Germany, revolutionary in France, patriotic in Italy and literary in England.
The Romantic Poetry in England
The english romantic period was dominated above all by poetry, since it was in poetry that the renewed interest in imagination and the emotions found its ideal vehicle. It was however a type of poetry different to anything previous both in form and content.
The language was also affected by new ideas of simplicity and democratization: artificial poetic diction was replaced by a kind of language really spoken by ordinary people. Now will say the principal themes and features of the romantic poetry in England.
Although moderately concerned with the political and social problems of his time the romantic poet tended to withdraw into himself indulging in introspection and meditation.
Egotism and individualism led in turn to a costant intrusion of the poet himself into his work. As never before in literature the poet spoke of himself, of his joyes and fears, of his melancholy and triumphs of his passions and his rebellions. Romantic poets in fact especially the younger ones turned into social rebels and opposed society or rejected its traditional moral codes and its traditional values.
In some poets this spirit of revolt and defiance resulted in a sort of titanism in an overstatement of passions. In others it led to the exaltation of the irrational and mystic aspects of life and a concern with the supernatural.
Some looked for solace in an idealized hellenism inspired by a greek ideal of beauty and by the concept of poetry for poetry’s sake. Others romantic english poets found the escape from reality in the exotic and distant following the lead of the Gothic novels.
This love for the strange, the exotic and the distant also informed the new interest in history and especially in the Middle Age, the historic period that was loved by the romantic writers. During the Augustan Age writers had also looked back to the past but they had focused for the most past on the ancient Greece and Rome. Unlike them romantic poets turned to other aspects of the past and motivated by Percy’s collection of medieval ballats, they looked to the Middle Age for inspiration and they rediscovered the fascination of the past writers. But while the Augustan writers had tried to adere faitfully to their classical models, the romantic writers revisited the past through their imagination. Imagination or rather belief in imagination as part of the individual became the distinguishing feature of the romantic writers. Far from simply meaning daydreaming as it had previously done imagination came to mean the highest and noblest gift of the poet using it as a God-like faculty. For the romantic poets the imagination was able to modify or even re-create the world around the romantic writers.
The attempt to see the imaginative ideal everywhere in real life led in turn to romantic melancholy, since the ideal is not attainable in everyday existence.
All the romantic poets turned to the nature and devoted themselves to recording its beauty as a counterpart to the sordid ugliness of the industrial towns. Many romantic poets are in fact poets of nature, far from the pastoral convention of the Augustan Age.
The romantic poets conveyed a new sense of intimate communion between nature and man, to different but inseparable parts of the same universe.
We can say that the romantic conception of the nature was influenced by three philosophical theories: Platonism or rather Renaissance Neoplatonism, which saw this world as the image of an ideal metaphysical world; Pantheism, according to which nature like the rest of universe was moved by a Mighty Power, an immanent God whose presence is manifest in every stone and every tree; German Idealism with the three great philosophers Fichte, Shelling and Hegel.
Shelling in particular with his philosophy of art (seen as the supreme moment when man trough unconscious intuition can grasp the truth lying behind the reality) and his conception of nature (considered as something alive, sharing man’s own feelings since they are both driven by the same animating principle) had a deep impact on the development of romantic ideas.
Romantic poets are usually divided into two groups conventionally definited as First Generation and Second Generation.
The Romantic Prose in England
The prose of the english romantic period includes the regional novel, the historical romance and the domestic novel but in this article we will say something only about the historical romance that must be considered the major expression of english romantic prose.
Walter Scott was the major exponent of the historical romance a new type of novel. The principal features of this new type of novel are: the union of tradition and romance, the union of historical events and imaginary heros and the vitality of the past.
The union of tradition and romance is an important characteristic of this novels in which Scott and other writers combined the domestic novel with elements of romance.
For example in Ivanhoe of Walter Scott the hero is not king Richard the Lion Hearth but Wilfred of Ivanhoe an imaginary Saxon nobleman.
The vitality of the past is the third characteristic of the historical romance.
For example Walter Scott in Ivanhoe captured the spirit of an age and the causes of historical events of a period doing vitality to the past.
We can conclude our work showing that Manzoni himself admitted his debt to Scott in a letter to his friend Fauriel: Manzoni in his Promessi Sposi wanted that the heros and the heroines are unknown people and not the great protagonists of historical events as in historical romance of Walter Scott.
* * *
G. Pellegrino, Il preromanticismo e l’inizio del romanticismo in Germania, centrostudilaruna.it
G. Pellegrino, La concezione dell’uomo e del mondo nel romanticismo italiano, centrostudilaruna.it
G. Pellegrino, La filosofia della storia di Hegel, centrostudilaruna.it
G. Pellegrino, I principali elementi del pensiero di Vittorio Alfieri, centrostudilaruna.it
G. Pellegrino, I miti della società contemporanea, New Grafic Service, Salerno, 2004