The first thirty years of the 19th century is termed as the period of the Romantic Revival in English literature. The Elizabethans were the first romantics. The romantic spirit suffered a decline during the subsequent ages and it was left to the writers, especially the poets of the early 19th century, to bring back that spirit once again to literature. The Romantic Revival is a broad term used to indicate the change that came over literary sensibility and expression during this period.
The Romantic Revival was a revolt against the neo-classical spirit. The classical mode had outlived its utility and a change was universally felt. The signs of revolt became evident when James Thompson published his ‘The Season’, a poem new in matter and manner. Collins and Gray enlarged the spirit of the movement in their odes and elegies. Burns, Crabbe, and Cowper also contributed to the incipient revolt against the neo-classical traditions. Among the early romantics, William Blake was the most revolutionary and his two publications ‘Songs of Innocence’ (1789) and ‘Songs of Experiences’ (1794) were landmarks in the evolution of the romantic spirit in English poetry. These poets are called ‘the transition poets’ because they represented a period just before the great romantics.
Impact on French Revolution
The ideas of the French Revolution such as liberty, equality, and fraternity encouraged the growth of the romantic spirit. The literature and arts of ancient Greece and Rome and the writings of philosophers like Rousseau also had an impact on the Romantic Revival. Victor Hugo defined romanticism as liberalism in literature. The romantic outlook emphasised spontaneity of expression and encouraged man’s right to utter his thoughts without restrictions.
Romanticism in poetry
Romanticism is the expression of sharpened sensibilities and heightened imaginative feeling. It found solace in going back to the ancients both in mythology and history. It was also a return to nature. Romanticism was not only concerned with beauty and inner life but also added strangeness to beauty. Other aspects of romanticism are a subtle sense of mystery, an exuberant intellectual curiosity, and an instinct for the elemental simplicities of life. Thus the Romantic Revival brought back many of the characteristics of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The dignity and importance of man were recognised and the emotions and feelings of even the humblest human being were recognised as worthy of artistic and literary expression. The spirit of the Romantic Revival was best expressed in the poetry of the great romantics Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Byron and the novels of Walter Scott. Even the prose writings of Charles Lamb were colored by romantic sentiments.
The Lyrical Ballads published by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798 inaugurated the romantic era. It is called the period of Romantic Revival because the glorious productions of the nineteenth century had a close kinship with those of the spacious age of Elizabeth. Unbridled imagination, the first joy of a newfound power-the inevitable consequence of the Renaissance and Reformation characterised the Elizabethan and Caroline literature in the seventeenth century. But this spirit of imaginative enthusiasm was subjected to deep scrutiny and close criticism by the growing self-consciousness of the nation in the next age-the age of Pope and Johnson. During the eighteenth century, in society, in politics, in life and literature which is but a reflection of life, it stood for order, dignity, clarity, and for a certain standard of grace and beauty of ‘correctness’ and decorum in expression, and for the smothering of all passions and emotions which came to be regarded as barbaric and genteel. Against this spirit, the natural reaction was the second Romantic movement which was founded by William Blake and strengthened by William Wordsworth.
Victor Hugo describes romanticism as ‘liberalism in literature’. Wordsworth in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads boldly asserts “Those who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion will no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness.”