Ed. Sylvia Hunt
The Romantic poet is both man and myth. He inherits an ancient birthright and creates a new heritage. He is prophet, seer, priest, bard, creator of (imaginative) worlds, hero, and myth-maker. He is also a man speaking to other men. Wordsworth described his poetic ‘calling’ when he wrote “poetic numbers came/ Spontaneously, and cloth’d in priestly robe/ My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,/ For holy services.” Blake demanded that his readers “Hear the voice of the Bard.” Coleridge states that the poet is a powerful figure who “brings the whole soul of man into activity.”
Poets are, according to Shelley, the vehicles for the spirit of the age and for the ages to come; they are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In fact, in his Defense of Poetry (1821), Shelley endows both poetry and the poet with divine power, labeling the former “immortal creations” and the latter a person who “participates in the eternal, the infinite and the one.”
The poets in this anthology would all define imagination differently; however, they all have espoused the primacy of imagination and placed it as the root source for creativity.
With its over 120 poems arranged in chronological order, the present anthology follows very closely the development of Romantic poetry in Britain from its beginnings in the 1780s to the early years of Victoria’s reign.
This is also the most diverse anthology of Romantic literature: out of twenty-seven authors, fifteen are male and twelve female. The reader will be able to see how the female poets of the Romantic Movement found self-empowerment in the construction, articulation and publication of a feminized poetic identity.
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Excerpt from the Introduction by Sylvia Hunt
Although only a very short period of time, the years between 1780 and 1830 were revolutionary ones, politically, socially and culturally. Now known as the Romantic Period and seen as the delineation between the Neoclassical and Victorian Periods, these fifty years saw rapid changes in the lives of almost all Britons. Politically, the enquiries into freedom, both personal and political, moved from theoretical discussion to tangible implementation. In the American colonies and in France, the philosophies of Kant, Rousseau and Locke framed the Declarations of Independence and Rights of Man. In England, social radicalism demanding political reform and universal suffrage was met with violence in the Peterloo Massacre, but would later result in reforms to suffrage and employment conditions. Women’s demands for education and protections in marriage and under the law were seen by many to destabilize the patriarchal status quo, but would eventually lead to legislative changes. Slavery, an established part of colonial development, came to be seen as an abuse of the human rights so vehemently contested in Europe. Rapid advancements in science and technology changed all forms of life for everyone from factory workers to the wealthy: machines rapidly made ready-made goods; steam engines replaced animal and human labor; rapid transportation moved people and goods around the country and around the world; medicines prolonged life; and gas lighting illuminated the darkness. With the sudden overthrow of the French monarchy and the advance of a new social order, a fresh era heralded the end to oppressive aristocracies and the beginning of democratic ideals. Byron summarized this optimistic new age of transformation when he wrote:
Talk not of seventy years as an age; in seven
I have seen more changes, down from monarchs to
The humblest individual under Heaven,
Than might suffice a moderate century through.
(Don Juan 11, ll. 649-652)
In this atmosphere of revolutionary energy, young writers could not help but be galvanized into creating new forms and experimenting with new ideas. We would come to call these writers the Romantics, a group of poets, novelists and polemicists who created works which were as aesthetically transformative as the times in which they lived.
The term Romantic, when used to describe the historical and cultural period of 1780-1830, is a product of the late nineteenth century and only came into widespread use in the early twentieth century as a defining label for specific writers. Later, Romanticism became associated with certain political events (the French and American revolutions, the Napoleonic wars) and specific responses to those events. For those living in the eighteenth century, romantic referred to the romances of the High Middle Ages and Renaissance (Sidney’s Arcadia and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, for example); later, it became attached to a specific type of writing known as the prose romance and best exemplified in the novels of Matthew Lewis, Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe and Charlotte Dacre. In short, the term romantic identified any work that was considered fanciful, supernatural, or dealt with courtly love. These elements are also essential to the Romantic writers, but like any good artists, they transform the conventional aesthetic into something new. For example, the Romantics were less interested in exploring courtly, artificial love than they were in writing about a love of a greater scope: love of nature, love of freedom, love of humanity. The supernatural, so essential to medieval romances, became entwined with the Romantic aesthetic of the sublime (explained below). With respect to imagination, the old creative practices of the earlier literary periods accepted imitation as part of the creative process. For example, eighteenth-century critic Richard Hurd states that a striving for originality would only produce awkwardness, impropriety and affectation, and “all poets must be imitators since poetic merit lies only in execution and not in originality” (183). By the end of the century, however, the Romantics rejected imitation as legitimate creative expression, seeing it as derivative and antithetical to the notion of creation. William Blake wrote, “To Imitate I abhor,” preferring “Art of Invention, not Imitation” (545). Wordsworth more fully outlined the Romantic manifesto in the preface to The Lyrical Ballads stating that he rejects the “common inheritance of Poets” (66) in preference for something new, natural and authentic.
Defining what is meant by Romantic has been a preoccupation for critics and scholars almost from the time that writers began producing poetry that was unlike Neoclassical literature. When modern readers study the poets considered to be part of the Romantic Movement, they often assume that the term movement connotes similar aesthetic ideals among its members. The term member itself implies a type of literary club with common interests or unifying philosophical ideals. However, we as readers need to realize that, while we now see common themes and aesthetic sensibilities, the poets did not see themselves as a movement. Any reading of their works clearly shows them to be different artistically, socially, and politically. In fact, they often saw difference instead of similarity and occasionally rejected the styles, politics, and beliefs of their contemporaries. The second generation of poets found fault with the first generation (Byron and Shelley, in particular, thought Wordsworth abandoned his political and creative ideals when he accepted the poet-laureateship); the range of social status pitted working-class poets (like Blake, Hunt, and Keats who were disparagingly labeled Cockneys) against the genteel or aristocratic poets (Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley); because of their gender, women were thought to be excluded from robust Romantic aesthetics; the religious devotion of Blake is contrasted with Shelley’s equally devout atheism; poetic manifestos expressed different opinions about suitable content and form of expression. In general, however, there is an organic quality to the poetry produced by these writers in comparison to the mechanical nature of Neoclassicism. It is for this reason that we see them as a collective or movement that bridges the Neoclassical and the Victorian periods.
In order to understand Romanticism, it is necessary to understand the period in which the writers lived and the aesthetics and ideals which shaped their work.
Hippolyte Taine was the first author to apply the terms “romantic” and “Romanticism” to these writers in his History of English Literature (1863).
William John Courthope in The Romantic Movement in English Poetry: The Effects of the French Revolution (1910) specifically connects the writers with liberal, radical, and revolutionary ideas.
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