Odes, sonnets, lyrical ballads and epics... and the ‘Big Six’: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats: should they be relegated to the dusty tomes on forgotten library shelves, or can Post Post-Modern poets learn anything by blowing the dust from their pages?
Romanticism, as a philosophy and literary movement, made its appearance in the late 1700s and predominated in the first half of the 19th Century. In many ways, it can be viewed as a revolution of consciousness, born from the age of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. There was a breaking away from the formality of classical poetry, in style and diction, and a renewal of pastoral themes in response to the increasing urbanization, which was to dominate the Western world in the 20th Century. Most importantly, they flung the windows wide on imagination.
William Blake could see a world in a grain of sand; in his hand a flower would open into eternity. He believed that reality is imagination, and knowledge is simply a tool and that one should look through the eye, not with the eye. Blake saw that there was something in the human race which was indestructible, and championed human rights against exploitation, as seen in The Chimney Sweeper.
A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep,weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
In the age of Napoleonic expansion through aggression, William Wordsworth believed that an extension of self was possible through individual imagination, allowing expansion of perception without the necessity of violence. In a simple lyrical poem, like The Daffodils, he brings to life the dynamic relationship between the perceiver and the perceived.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margins of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
A very close literary friendship existed between Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose attention was more consistently focused on stripping away the ‘film of familiarity’. He preferred a free flow of thought association, trying to evade literary stereotyping. The task of the poet, he believed, was to resist the temptation of the conventional line, because an over-riding interest in structure and style, attempts to ‘build up the rhythm’ narrowed his attention to technique for its own sake, while neglecting actual experience. He had a tendency to try to escape from emotion by immersing himself in rigorous, abstract activity. In Coleridge’s hand, the texture of a poem could take on a life of its own: meaning clothed with exotic language and sensory images of enchantment, as can so clearly be seen in Kubla Khan.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Poets, in the present age, have rid themselves of the shackles of convention, of form and technique, with results which are increasingly prosaic and unmusical. Poetry remains the art form of the written and spoken word, but so often becomes the brick-laying at the base of an ancient gothic cathedral, where deconstruction has taken the place of imagination. Freedom of creative expression is our birthright, given to us by the revolutionary poets of the Romantic Age, but they still have lessons to teach us about the process: that poetry should never be mindless, haphazard or free from social context.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Feel free to share your ideas in commentary below.