ANGLIA POLYTECHNIC UNIVERSITY

ACADEMIC YEAR 2002/03 SEMESTER TWO

LANGUAGE AND THE ENGLISH ROMANTICS AEH 1013

ANASTASIA YANNAKOULI

TOPIC: “Romantic poetry is the poetry of individualistic expression.” Discuss with reference to three poets (Blake, Byron and Shelley) studied in the module.

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It was not until the twentieth century that there was analytical discussion of the abstraction ‘Romanticism’, as a recognised term for theories of art, of the imagination and of the language (Butler 1981:1). Especially, not until the 1860s did ‘the Romantics’ become an accepted collective name for Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley and Keats, and an agreement begin to emerge about what an English Romantic Poet was like (Butler 1981:1). In the Romantic period, (1785-1830) each poet had developed a personal way of expression through poetry. They were affected by the same political and national events of their age but each one reacted in a different way and this is depicted in the poetry of the Romantic period. To understand this better we have to analyse the beliefs of the poets and the reasons that made them develop a way of poetic expression that was different from the other poets of the same period. The first Romantic poet is William Blake (1757-1827) because it is said that Romanticism have begun with Blake’s Songs of Innocence in 1789, (Butler 1981:1). During his lifetime, Blake was unknown to the public but now he is consider as a main figure of the Romantic period. Blake was engaged in the creation of poems and the illustration of them with paintings, a technique he called “illuminated painting”. His masterpiece of “illuminated paintings” was the creation of the collection “The Songs of Innocence and Experience”. This collection is based in a phrase that Blake said: “without contraries there is no progression". For this reason each Song of Innocence has its opposite Song of Experience. The first part of the collection (Songs of Innocence) includes poems that can be easily read by children. It is a collection of nursery rhymes and songs for children that have a moral and didactic value. The tone of the poems is pastoral and Blake has used many sources from the bible. Blake was a very religious person since he was a child and he tries to explore the substance of God in his poetry through questions and symbols. However, the Songs of Innocence and Experience except children can also give pleasure to adults. They look simple but in fact they are complex and include a lot of metaphors and symbolisms. Furthermore, Blake’s poetry is dialogic, unlike descriptive and reflective, which invites the reader to identify the viewpoint enounced in the poem as that of the poet (Pirie 1994:131). For this reason Blake’s poetry can satisfy the adult readers as well as the children.

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Blake continued writing about God, Christianity and the ideas of good and evil in his poems The Book of Thel, Aurora and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He declared that all he knew was in the Bible and that the Old and New Testament are the Great Code of Art (Norton 2000:37). However, the idea of God was not his only concern. Blake was interested in the sexual and female liberation and he wrote about these subjects in his poem Visions. The poem Visions can be regarded as very modern and pleasant for the twentieth century readers because it contains scenes of lust and desire (Pirie 1994:134). Moreover as a Romantic poet he used many elements of nature, landscape and sublime in Visions, in order to make the poem more descriptive. Furthermore, he was interested in revolution and politics while he was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution (Norton 2000:37). From this period of his life he took the inspiration to create three poems, which were The French Revolution, America, Europe and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He wanted a change in the political and social life of England and he expressed himself through his poems. The second Romantic poet is George Gordon (1788-1824), who is formerly known as Lord Byron. As the French critic Hippolyte Taine said Lord Byron is the greatest and most English of all the Romantic poets (Norton 2000:551). Lord Byron was not only known in England but also in Europe and he was admired as a hero because he took part in many battles. His personal idol was Napoleon, who influenced him with his plan to create a totally new nation. Lord Byron devoted his entire life to find Byronic heroes and finally he became a hero himself as he died in Missolonghi while he was fighting the Turks. A Byronic Hero is a ruling personage; that is, the model that contemporaries invest with their admiration and sympathy (Norton 2000:552). The Byronic Hero is created in the poem Childe Harold and it is seen in a more developed form in Manfred and his masterpiece Don Juan. Byron’s poems improved by details of his travels throughout Europe and usually the protagonist of each poem was equated with Byron himself. He wrote his poems as he was travelling and he enriched them with many details of the landscape, the architecture, the wars and the lives of people in the countries he visited.

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Byron experimented with different tones and styles in his poems. Manfred for instance is a dramatic poem whereas Don Juan is a satirical comedy. In particular, Byron insisted that Don Juan is a satire on abuses of the present state of society and the most moral of the poems (Norton 2000:622). In Don Juan he speaks for politics, fame and love but the poem in total is dominated by antiromantic feelings. In his poetry there are many contraries and as Blake said without contraries there s no progression (Bottrall 1970:27). Byron in his poetry often mixes romance and burlesque, weeping and laughing which comprise his two philosophies (Pirie 1994:298). He is concerned about politics and revolution and he speaks with passion about them in the poems Marino Faliero, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgement. In these poems he makes a lot of references in the American and French Revolution and the fall of personal idol, Napoleon. Furthermore he wrote little about the idea of heaven and hell in The Vision of Judgement, were the Archangel Michael and Satan fight with words when they try to take George III in the heaven or hell. Finally, women have important roles in Byron’s poetry. Byron wrote many poems to extol the female gender and most of them were poems for his lovers. He was a feminist and he didn’t like the slavery of women by men. Poems like The Corsair, Manfred and Beppo represent women as liberated figures but in Don Juan, some of the women are represented as hypocrites who like to seduce men. Byron took pleasure by playing with the two genders and shocking the readers with his poems. The third Romantic poet is Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) who has always attracted controversy from his English contemporaries (Pirie 1994:311). Shelley was a great literary talent but his ideas and beliefs made him the focal point for many negative judgements. He was totally different from his contemporaries in matters like religion, politics and social life. He was atheist, radical and he believed in free love in the marriage. Shelley used his entire ideology in his poems and he created masterpieces but unfortunately they were not good for the Romantic period.

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In his first years as a poet he was known as a lyric poet because he wrote poems with short lines that had a specific metre. However, as he grew old he developed more complex poems. As a radical he wrote many poems about politics and society. He wrote a sonnet called England in 1819, after the Peterloo massacre, in which he cauterise the English society and all those who are responsible for the bad political conditions in England. Moreover in The Mask of Anarchy Shelley speaks about the bad society, in Alastor how the society can lead people to death as a final solution and in his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound how the people can bring down tyranny. Shelley was influenced by the theories of Plato and for this reason he tried to change something through his poetry. In Queen Mab, another masterpiece of Shelley, he said that institutional religion and codified morality are the roots of social evil (Norton 2000:699). As all Romantic poems, Shelley composed poems about nature and the sublime. For instance, he wrote Ode to West Wind a poem about the forces of the wind and the nature. He liked Gothic writing and therefore he regularly uses melancholy landscapes and night-scenes, graves, ghosts, supernatural beings and events and situations of extremity and duress (Pirie 1994:331). Adonais is another poem where Shelley uses Gothic descriptions. Finally Shelley expressed his feminism in his poem Laon and Cythna. Shelley supported with the same passion radicalism and feminism and he confronted with honesty and sustained effort the extremely difficult challenge of a feminist politics (Pirie 1994:322). To conclude we can see that Blake, Byron and Shelley were influenced by the same national conditions, wrote about the same subjects but they expressed themselves in a very personal way. They developed their own theories about God and society and gave to their nation a great treasure: their poems. The Romantic poetry contains personal poems by the viewpoint of each poet and that is why “Romantic poetry is the poetry of individualistic expression.”

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REFERENCES
Bottrall, M. (1970) William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience, London, The Macmillan Press Ltd Butler, M. (1981) Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, Oxford, OUP Pirie, B. D. (1994) The Romantic Period, London, Penguin Books The Norton Anthology, 7th ed., 2000, United States of America

FURTHER READING
Ball, M. P. (1968) The Central Self: A Study in Romantic and Victorian Imagination, London, The Athlone Press Christiansen, R (1988) Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age 1780-1830, London, The Bodley Head Ltd Ford, B. (1990) 5. From Blake to Byron, London, Penguin Books

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