E212: British Literature since 1760

Romantic and Victorian Characteristics, by Al Drake

Alfred Drake. Office: 423 UH | W 12-1 | ajdrake@ajdrake.com

Characteristics of the Romantic and Victorian Eras in England, 1783-1830

British Society and Politics

1) The French Revolution, 1789-1814. Romantic poets and others in England at first embrace the democratic uprising, but later react against it when the French engage in extreme violence and try to "export" their revolution. Napoleon is finally defeated in 1814 at Waterloo and exiled to the Island of Saint Helena, but his menace lives on in the reactionary policies of British and European leaders determined not to let revolution trouble them again. In Great Britain, the Tory governments of Wellington and others, fearing French-style revolution, react harshly toward urban working-class demonstrators. In 1819, local militia kill several unarmed demonstrators at Saint Peter's Fields, and the event is given the ominous title of "the Perterloo Massacre."

2) The Industrial Revolution begins in England, though the Continent will experience it some decades later. Urbanization intensifies-along with urban poverty and class dissatisfaction. In the 1830's, Thomas Carlyle will write that "the Cash Nexus" has already replaced the feudal, hierarchical ties that once kept British society together. Writing at "ground zero" of this titanic change in human affairs, Romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth respond sharply to England's changing landscapes and human relationships. "Nature" is no longer simply god's gift, as previous generations might have thought; some Romantic poets see nature-and the human sources of strength and happiness they believe it nourishes-as threatened with extinction.

3) Early in the Victorian Era, the merchants and manufacturers of the middle class promote laissez-faire economics, free trade, various social reforms, and individual liberty. The Reform Bill of 1832 cedes limited power to the Industrial North. The middle-class fervour for laissez-faire will subside somewhat as the Era moves into its middle and late periods.

4) In the 1840's, Chartism (a kind of early communist movement) threatens the middle class and the aristocracy with a socialist revolution, but the threat diminishes with the coming of the more prosperous, stable High Victorian Period from 1850 to around 1870. Socialism will once again come into play, at least on the intellectual level, after the 1870's when agricultural depression, competition with Germany and America, and other woes beset the British economy.

5) Early utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, writing during the Romantic Period, base their philosophical claims and legislative reform schemes upon the primacy of individual pleasure. Later, the Victorian John Stuart Mill will redefine utilitarianism to account for the quality of the pleasure that the elder Mill had set up as the goal of civilization. John Stuart Mill opposes the "tyranny of [middle-class] public opinion."

6) Though middle-class liberalism is very powerful throughout the Victorian Period, it does not go uncriticized in any decade. This is the age of the Victorian sage or cultural critic-Thomas Carlyle, J.S. Mill, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater, among others, take aim at or modify liberal assumptions about human nature, economics, and social organization. These authors were, of course, preceded by the Romantic poets, themselves not slow to criticize the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class.

7) In the 1880's and 1890's, the "Decadent" or "Aesthetic" movement (the Pre-Raphaelites, Aubrey Beardsley, Algernon Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, et. al) takes its own shot at bourgeois England. In particular, "dandies" like Wilde engage in witty exposure and audacious reversal/inversion of middle-class moral, class/economic, and sexual codes, thereby creating both amusement and outrage in the fin de siecle English citizen. Wilde's downfall-his 1895 conviction for homosexual acts- effectively puts an end to the aesthetic movement's influence. Certain members or admirers of the movement-most notably Yeats-move on to write their own masterpieces within the milieu of "Modernism."

8) The original Scientific Revolution of Kepler, Bacon, Galileo, and Newton finds its completion in the Victorian Era. Science begins to dominate public discourse, and even, according to some writers, partially displaces religion as a coherent world view. A corollary of scientific dominance is the belief that when science advances, so does human society: science and progress, in other words, go hand in hand. Through most of the Victorian Era-the great age of Lyell, Wallace, and Darwin-"science" is not so specialized into isolated disciplines that the ordinary, well-educated citizen cannot follow its movements. In the last few decades of the century, however, specialization begins to set in, and "science" begins to be perceived as a closed set of procedures and terms.

9) Along with the dominance of the scientific world view comes anxiety over the loss of the older, religious outlook. From the time of Lyell onward, many British citizens find it hard to maintain their Christian beliefs. Putting a positive construction upon Darwinian "evolution" sometimes provides them with an alternative vision of progress, but Herbert Spencer's ruthless evolutionary laissez-faire doctrine also interposes itself, especially in America.

10) Though the British Empire has been growing since the days of Queen Elizabeth I, nineteenth-century English citizens, especially during the Victorian Era, become intensely interested in their overseas possessions. This interest is most likely due in part to anxiety about competition with other countries-Bismark's Germany, for example-and in part to the intellectual complications inherent in the experience of an expanding empire. Some oppose imperialism, but many find in it wealth and a sense of superiority and mission.

Romantic Poetry

1) British Romanticism shows exhuberance and optimism-at times revolutionary optimism-about the prospects for changing the individual and society. Romantic poets hope that in spite of daunting social problems, spiritual community can be achieved in "Albion."

2) exploration of rifts within the human psyche, between self and others, self and nature, with at least the hope (however complex and qualified) that these chasms can be overcome or narrowed.

3) striving after the infinite, not after limited perfection (cf. Schelling).

4) the "fragment" often replaces the neatly rounded poem: to complete a poem is to kill it, to destroy its growth as an organic, living entity-nature is profoundly processive; it never "finishes" anything. Or is it rather the case that Romantic poems, by definition, must fail? How can striving after infinity ever succeed? [see Schiller too]

5) emphasis on individual expression (not imitation and obedience to formal rules; i.e. decorum) in art. Poetry expresses the poet's spirit and passions; it does not merely imitate the outside world.

6) emphasis on the concrete, the sensuous, the particular in poetry (cf. Keats)

7) poetry as an organic, living entity or whole (cf. Coleridge)

8) valorization of engagement with, or return to, nature as regenerator of imagination and guide for all that is best in humankind-in historical terms, a strategy by which to oppose the early advances of industrialism and urbanization.

9) claims that the poet is "the rock of defense for human nature"; that only the poet can reunite a fragmented self and society. Literature, in other words, claims to have the power and authority of "philosophy" to make the world coherent and livable.

10) stress on creative imagination as the source of art-the mind at least partially creates what we call "the world" (cf. Coleridge, Wordsworth). The Romantics cultivate theories of "poetic genius."

11) emphasis on the emotional or "passionate" element in human beings: Wordsworth says the poet binds humankind by "passion and knowledge."

12) rejection of what we call "neo-classical" emphasis on decorum, restraint, imitation of "general nature" and previous poets.

13) according to some modern critics, intense self-questioning of optimistic, organicist, nature-oriented, imagination-valorizing claims!

14) identification of art's form with its content: In Coleridge, the symbol is the linguistic entity that fuses form and content, subject and object.

15) the lyric poem (a relatively short, first-person "utterance") is perhaps the favorite form of Romantic poets. When a Romantic poet writes an "ode," he refers to a state of mind, not so much to an ancient poetic "genre." By contrast, categorizing neoclassical poets suited their speech to their external subject matter: epic demands elevated, dignified speech, and so on.

16) Similarly, Romantic drama tends to be unstageable because it often has little to do with "external" events. Form, that is, tends to be treated as an expression of mental states and mental events. Could one successfully stage Byron's Manfred? Probably not-the play is a psychodrama.

17) Unlike earlier poets, the Romantics are obsessed with "originality" and "authority": they must "create a system, or be enslav'd by another man's" (Blake). In Harold Bloom's psychoanalytic terms, they want to be their own fathers or heroic predecessors. They rebel against or transform classical and neoclassical authority. John Milton, Wordsworth and others' model for poetry, is a prime source of such "anxiety."

18) Poetry does not so much "delight and teach" (both neoclassical requirements) as help the reader undergo a poetic/spiritual experience [Kroll]

19) Attempt to forge a secular scripture; to overcome "fallen" or "alienated" language: how can we overcome the effects of Babel? How rediscover Pentecost (Acts 2)? [R.F.W. Kroll]

20) defiance of ordinary moral codes, the "behavioral categories" of ordinary society [Kroll]

Counter-Statements and Complications:

1) Materialist (i.e. Marxist) reading derived from Raymond Williams' Culture and Society: The Romantics' claims about the vital importance of poetry and the poet come into being just at the point when European culture is beginning to marginalize both, to subordinate art to the status of one commodity among others and to construe the poet as the equivalent of a tradesman or specialist: butcher, baker, poetry-maker. Who, then, is going to acknowledge the claims of Wordsworth and Shelley, those "unacknowledged legislators of the world"? This question is bound to provoke a crisis of poetic authority. In essence, the Romantics can overcome "alienation" only through "division of labor"-which is what their specialized poetic acts amount to. The poet, as the Romantics may at times suspect, has by the Industrial Revolution become a specialist, a producer of linguistic commodities. The conditions of production in the Industrial capitalist age work against lyric utterance. By claiming status as "poets," by aggrandizing art as the only solution to profound economic and social problems, the Romantics repeat the very problem they are trying to address.

In sum, Williams sees Romanticism as a reaction to or corollary of the Industrial Revolution. It is necessary, he says, to deal with the emergence of Romanticism in its historical context. We cannot describe Romanticism purely in terms of an old-fashioned "history of ideas" that assumes the existence and permutation of "ideas" in the absence of historical events. (As Marx would say, "life is not determined by consciousness; consciousness is determined by life." Our ideas, at base, are a product of our economic and social environment.) We cannot, in other words, say only that when Kant cautiously overcame David Hume's extreme skepticism about humankind's ability to "know" the outside world, he provided later, fully "Romantic" thinkers with the means to posit a satisfying degree of creative activity for the imagination. Neither is it enough to add that because Kant also created some philosophical problems for these same thinkers, their poetry centered self-reflexively on the concept of "subjectivity." Such accounts may be helpful, but in themselves they do not satisfactorily trace the origins of a complex movement like English Romanticism.

2) According to M.H. Abrams and others, Manfred (the subject of Manfred was an obsession with the Romantics) amounts to the secularization of the Christian model of subjectivity, which centers around loss and alienation. The lost unity between subject and object may be recaptured in a lyrical moment, in incest, and so on. In this sense, Marx, Wagner, and Freud might serve as models of romanticism. All three authors describe a fall from a primal unity or moment through some kind of trauma. [R.F.W. Kroll]

3) Romanticism stresses the private individual and his solipsistic (i.e. isolated) imagination as the solution to massive social problems. With their heavy emphasis upon "imagination," the Romantic poets are not so much rebelling against neoclassical art and society as inadvertently furthering the aims of a rising middle class bent upon making "individualism" and "[personal] liberty" the measure of all things. They are fighting fire with oil.

4) The Romantics, at their most insightful, severely question their allegedly "organicist" and "expressive" poetic theories; the best moments in their poems come when they recognize that they have failed to do what they set out to do: Shelley cannot sing like the skylark, etc. The essence of Romantic art is failure, and the Romantics themselves know it. [Further, DeMan's formulation should be discussed.]

5) Those critics who remain engrossed in the Romantics' own self-constructions-their optimistic emphasis on the individual, the exalted imagination, the organic, the ability of language to "express" human emotions or to recover some lost unity-are either fabricating such self-deceiving preoccupations wholesale or perpetuating them for less than innocent reasons. In other words, it may be the modern critics themselves who continually reinvent "Romanticism" and who are ultimately "Romantics" and aesthetic escapists. One might argue that Abrams himself has a vested interest in the Romantic idea that poetry (the "aesthetic") offers valid solutions to social problems.

6) The Romantics, perhaps more agonizingly than those who preceded them, are conscious that they write in the shadow of Milton's Paradise Lost. They seem compelled both to stand in awe of Milton and to "wage eternal war irreconcilable" with his all-embracing poetic legacy and subject matter. Originality is the byword of Romantic poets, but how can one be original after Milton? The Satanic rebelliousness and individualism of Romantic poetry come at least partly from what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence." Exploration of the mind, of "the interior creation," provides the Romantics with their new subject and identity. Moreover, Milton himself provides some of the poetic tools the Romantics will use in setting up their own set of problems to explore.

7) The Romantics are by no means simply nature poets: "Because the quester demands more love and beauty than nature can give (or than merely natural man could sustain on receiving, nature is discovered to be inadequate to the Romantic imagination" (Bloom and Trilling anthology 4). In fact, just about everything is inadequate to the Romantic imagination. Carlyle, himself wrestling with his own Romanticism, says as much in rejecting the poetry of infinite desire: "Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe." He writes that the entire universe is not enough to satisfy the desires of a shoeblack.