Sunday, October 2, 2011

What is so great about Romantic Poetry?

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.


Kay L. Davies said...

I'm still reeling from one line of Blake's —
"They think they have done me no injury" !
I never thought about it before.

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

Kerry O'Connor said...

I find it very exciting when a poet makes me think as I have never thought before. How wonderful that a line of Blake has left you reeling, Kay.

Ostensible Truth said...

I have no time for Shelley or Byron, I did my time reading them ha and haven't looked back - though I've always liked Kubla Khan (I remember doing my exam on it ha) and others of Coleridge's - the stripping of the film of familiarity was really interesting there - the take on it which i quite agree with. I like some of Wordsworth's too (though not Daffodils it has a cringe effect on me, possibly due to over-exposure), and I need to read more Blake to decide. I've tried with the romantics, and I appreciate what they've brought, any revolution or movement is worthy of its place and opens up the paradigm and mixes it up, but I can't say I'm drawn to it, it doesn't appeal to me much, I tend to prefer either older work or post-romantic work with a bias for 21st century (so far). Great post here Kerry!

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I really enjoyed this thought-provoking article, Kerry. I was especially struch by how our freedom of expression can sometimes lose some of the "message" and impact the more formal poems always had. Maybe we can be a little too free, at times. Good to think about.

Mary said...

Kerry, I have studied these classic poets in both high school and college. If you want my truthful opinion, they bore me. Their words are contrived, boring. Is it no wonder some young people grow up not liking poetry when they are subjected to these classical forms.

I much prefer the 20th / 21st century poets...unashamedly. And I much prefer reading the works of many poet bloggers who write poetry that is more real and meaningful to me than the classical poets of old.

I enjoy playing with forms sometime. I do this because it is fun, not because it 'defines' poetry for me.

I just won't spend much time reading Blake and his ilk. Sorry. He / they don't resonate with me. I love poetry. It is something I spend hours each day thinking about. But I am glad I am beyond college age, don't have to read this kind of 'stuff' anymore.

Does anyone else who is reading this agree with me? It is perhaps not politically correct to say what I have said. One should perhaps admire these poet forbears. Not me. Boooorrriiiiinnnngggg.

Kerry O'Connor said...

@OT, I agree that 'Daffodils' has become 'cringe-worthy' through over-exposure, but I wanted to look again at his original intention: the expansion of the mind through solitude and the fixing on a single image which resonated with a poet's perception of the world, and not the gaily dancing daffodils themselves.

@Jinksy, thanks for pointing out that a line of Kubla Khan was missing (the vanity of thinking my glasses are not a daily necessity!).

Thanks, Sherry, for finding something to think about, while reading this article.

@Mary, I'm sure there are millions of people out there who share your sentiment that these poems belong on the bookshelf marked 'boring'.

Thanks to all for the feedback.

Ostensible Truth said...

haha I rather agree with you Mary, I didn't particularly like poetry at school for that very reason - luckily I found other poets to get me interested in it! though I do like some of the romantics' poems, the less "gaily dancing" ones perhaps haha - but in general I can do without!

Mary said...

OT, I think a lot more young people would like poetry if MODERN poets were introduced before classic poets. Like you, I did find poets who got me interested. Mainly those who have written after 1950!

Anonymous said...

eek! ive been without a computer for almost a week! but i couldnt let this amazing post go by. so ... sorry for the tardy appearance.
i think there's room for both. the world is wide, and needs wide thoughts. the romantics were wide in their day, as they were able to break with the constructs and stuffy platitudes of their time. they sought to sing the glories (often) of classical times without having to conform to the rigid forms of classical poetry. they were the beats of their era. so... y'know... good on them.
ive always appreciated their spirit. i think we see them as trite and 'cutesy' and all that because they've been held up so long as the paragons of poetry... and that's had enough time in the last 200 years or so to trickle down to greeting card rhyme - the absolute dead end of poetry. and so, the romantics were great. and then the time came for the next school. and then the next. and i think the romantics would cheer each one in succession; t.s. and e.e. as much as ever they cheered homer.

also... just to stir the pot... ( :) ) blake was a frigging genius.
and depending on our definition of romantic poetry... walt whitman.