Notes:

Summaries

The British Romantic period designates the time period 1785–1830. Romantic poets and writers would not have considered themselves similar and many of the writers considered canonical today were not popular until later in their careers or after their deaths. This period, nonetheless, designates a time in which many writers were responding to similar events and ideas about the form and function of literature.

The period was socially turbulent and imported revolutionary ideas created social conflict, often along class lines. The French Revolution had an important influence on the fictional and nonfictional writing of the Romantic period, inspiring writers to address themes of democracy and human rights and to consider the function of revolution as a form of apocalyptic change. In the beginning, the French Revolution was supported by writers because of the opportunities it seemed to offer for political and social change. When those expectations were frustrated in later years, Romantic poets used the spirit of revolution to help characterize their poetic philosophies. The Industrial Revolution, while bringing about changes in manufacturing and thus improving the efficiency of production, brought about a different and related reaction in literature that addressed the rights of the laboring classes and improved labor conditions.

This revolutionary spirit prompted Romantic poets to posit new theories about the function and form of poetry. These arguments are demonstrated in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defence of Poetry. Romantic poets presented a theory of poetry in direct opposition to representative eighteenth-century theories of poetry as imitative of human life and nature by suggesting that poetic inspiration was located not outside in nature, but inside the poet's mind, in a "spontaneous" emotional response. This new theory of poetry also posited new possible subjects of poetic expression in a revaluation of the outcast, delinquent, and the supernatural. Indeed, it often reveled in representations that made the ordinary appear miraculous. This wonder at the ordinary was often achieved in making the natural appear supernatural. Such representations often exemplify the interest of much Romantic poetry in describing and depicting alternate states of consciousness.

Literature also became a profitable business in the Romantic period with the increase of potential readership due to education reform and increased literacy. Improved printing technology and a new aesthetic valuation of art and literature for its own sake contributed to the growth of literature as a business. Attendant upon the increased profitability of literature was the growth of the periodical industry and the consequent added importance of the essay as a literary and critical form. Taking inspiration from their poetic counterparts, Romantic essayists prized a subjective viewpoint and often took on an autobiographical tone.

In addition to the essay, drama and the novel experienced formal revision in the Romantic era. Playwrights such as Shelley and Byron attempted to revitalize the poetic play, but without much practical success. Aside from a lack of popularity, only Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters had the right to produce spoken drama thanks to a licensing act that was not repealed until 1843. Unlike drama, the novel increased in popularity and prominence with two new genres: the gothic novel and the novel of purpose. While the latter sought to propagate the social and political theories of the day, the former was less didactic and more interested in terror, perversion, and mystery. William Godwin's Caleb Williams is an appropriate example of the novel of purpose. Ann Radcliffe, Gregory Lewis, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley all wrote gothic fiction. Although interested in historic novels more than gothic or novels of purpose, Sir Walter Scott also rose to prominence in this period.


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