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In the prologue to his play ‘The Road to Ruin’(1792), Thomas Holcroft predicted that the

French Revolution would “fertilize a world, and renovate old earth!”. And in ‘The Prelude’(1805),

Wordsworth remembered the early years of the Revolution as a time when all Europe,

“Was thrilled with joy,

France standing on the top of golden hours,

And human nature seeming born again.”

Regeneration of human nature in a world made new was the theme of many enthusiasts in England

during the first few years after the outbreak of the Revolution. Religious beliefs predisposed many to

see the hand of God in the political transformation. The fulfillment of prophecies in the coming

millennium came easily to them, especially to Blake. A quarter-century later, their interpretations would

be recapitulated by radical writers such as Shelley and Hazlitt, who, though tended to place their

faith in the notions of progress and the diffusions of knowledge and tended to identify a rational

citizenry and not God as the moving force of history.

Writers working in the period 1785-1830 did not think of themselves as “romantic”;

contemporary reviewers treated them as independent individuals. The imagination of many Romantic

period writers were preoccupied with revolution and from that they derived the framework that

enabled them to think of themselves as inhabiting a distinctive period in history. They felt that there

was something about their time, not a shared doctrine or literary quality but a pervasive intellectual

and imaginative climate, which some of them called “the spirit of the age”. They had the sense

that, as Keats wrote “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning” and there was evidence of the

experimental boldness that marks a literary renaissance. In his ‘Defence of poetry’ Shelley claimed

that the literature of the age “has arisen as it were from a new birth”. Francis Jeffery, the foremost

conservative reviewer of the day, connected “the revolution in our literature” with “the agitation of

the French Revolution” and Hazlitt, who devoted a series of essays entitled ‘The spirit of the age’

to assess his contemporaries, maintained that the new poetry of the school of Wordsworth “had its

origin in the French revolution”.

The early period of the Revolution, marked by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the

storming of Bastille, evoked enthusiastic support. But the grim course that the Revolution followed

disillusioned the English liberals and radicals alike and thus Wordsworth wrote in ‘The Prelude’:

“…become Oppressors in their turn,

Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defense

For one of Conquest, losing sight of all

Which they had struggled for....”

The Romantic writers salvaged the millennial hopes that had been dashed by the bloodshed of the

terror by granting a crucial role to the creative imagination. They no longer depended on the

political action of collective humanity but on the individual consciousness. An apocalypse of the

imagination could liberate the individual from time, from what Blake called the “mind-forg’d

manacle” of imprisoning orthodoxies and from what Shelley called “the curse which binds us to be

subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions”. Thus the poets assumes the persona of a

prophet, “ a chosen Son” or “bard”. And Wordsworth with his sense of emancipatory opportunities,

working in tandem with Coleridge, revolutionized the theory and practice of poetry by publishing

“Lyrical Ballads” [1797].

In it he sets himself in opposition to those writers in the eighteenth century who, in his

view, had imposed on poetry artificial conventions that distorted its free and natural expressions and

counteract the degradation in taste that had resulted from “the increasing accumulation of men in

cities”. Thus he and many fellow-writers kept their distance from city-life, and since natural scene

provided the occasion for their writing, Romantic writing became almost synonymous with “nature

poetry”. But while many of the great romantic lyrics – ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Frost At Midnight’, ‘Ode to

Nightingale’ - remark on an aspect or a change of aspect in the natural scene, this serves only as a

stimulus characteristic of human activity, that of thinking. In fact the so-called “nature poems” are

usually meditative, using the presented scene to suggest a personal crisis; the organizing principle of

the poem involves the development and resolution of crisis. Thus in the poems of Blake and

Shelley a rose, a cloud, or a mountain is imbued with a significance beyond itself as Shelley writes

“I always seek in what I see the likeness of something beyond the present and tangible object”

Ifor Evans states “In the poetry of all of them, there is a sense of wonder, of life seen with

new sensibilities and fresh visions” . Their spiritual loneliness make the desolate landscape of their

poetry haunts of disillusioned visionaries, accursed outlaws, figures whose thwarted ambitions and

torments connect them to Cain, the Wandering Jew, Satan, and even Napoleon. The “addition of

strangeness to beauty” that Walter Pater identifies as a key Romantic tendency not only in its

concern with the exotic and archaic landscapes of romance, but also in the Romantic interest in the

mysteries of mental life and determination to investigate psychological extremes. Wordsworth

explored visionary states of children that are common among children but violate the categories of

adult judgement. Coleridge showed an interest in dreams and nightmares and in the altered

consciousness under the influence of opium. In his odes as in the “ballad” ‘La Belle Dame sans

Merci’ Keats recorded strange mixture of pain and pleasure with extraordinary sensitivity, pondering

the destructive aspects of sexuality and erotic quality of the longing for death. And Byron made

repeated use of the fascination of the forbidden and the appeal of the terrifying yet seductive

Satanic hero.

In representing this expanded scope of individual initiative, much poetry redefined heroism

and made a ceaseless striving for the unattainable its crucial element - in Shelley’s phrase, “the

desire of the moth for the star”. This defiant attitude towards limits also made many writers

impatient with the conception of the literary genre they inherited from the past and produced an

astonishing variety of hybrid forms based on fresh principles of organization and style : “elegiac

sonnet”, “lyrical ballads”, the poetic autobiography of ‘The Prelude’, Shelley’s “lyric drama” of

cosmic reach, ‘Prometheus Unbound’. Blake went furthest : the composite art of word and image

and “illuminated printing” he created for his poems daringly reinvented the concept of the book.

Wordsworth in the Preface located the source of a poem not in outer nature but in the

psychology of the individual poet, or external objects only after these have been transformed by the

author’s feelings. In 1802 he described all good poetry as, at the moment of composition, “the

spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The emphasis on the spontaneous activity of the

imagination is linked to a belief in the essential role of passion; but the intuitive feelings of “the

heart” had to be supplemented by the purely logical faculty, “the head”. As Coleridge states “Deep

thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling”. A great admirer of Kant he wrote that mind

is “not passive” but “made in God’s image, and that too in the sublimest sense - the image of the

creator”. And Wordsworth declared in ‘The Prelude’ that the individual mind,

“Doth like an Agent of the one great Mind,

Create, creator and receiver both”

The Romantic period, the epoch of free enterprise, imperial expansion, and boundless revolutionary

hope, was also an epoch of individualism in which philosophers and poets alike put an

extaordinarily high estimate on human potentialities and powers.

Tathagata Dutta
(M.A., English Literature, University Of Delhi)