Before any analysis into the notion of Romanticism being revolutionary can be made, it seems necessary to examine the word revolutionary itself. The dictionary states that the adjective revolutionary means ‘involving great changes’ but the meanings of words can change over time, so surely we cannot be sure that the word revolutionary held the same implications in the 1800’s as it does today. A revolution can be seen as a rebellion, or reaction to something.
If we take revolutionary to mean a rebellion against existing beliefs and art forms then Romanticism could be viewed as being a reaction to the Age of Reason, enlightenment and neo-classicism. But it is also possible that revolutionary is a distinctly political term and in this case Romanticism could be seen politically revolutionary in that it forced questions to be answered about the monarchy, the government and organised religion amongst other issues. Blake and Wordsworth are two hugely important writers of the Romantic era.
Their poems hold great significance, and although sometimes ambiguous, their views seem to encapsulate the anxieties and concerns that the people of this time must have been feeling. Blake and Wordsworth both lived in a time of turmoil and revolution. The effect of the War of American Independence, which ended in 1783, had a clear influence on both writers, and seemed to turn many peoples thoughts towards the reforming of Great Britain’s political system.
In America a Prophecy (1793) Blake stated that he believed the American Revolution to be a stimulus for the revolutions that were to follow in Europe. Even for the second generation of poets the republic of America was inspiration for them after their hopes had been dashed due to disillusionment with the French Revolution and a gruelling war between Great Britain and France had begun. But for the first generation of Romantic poets the French Revolution, was to be a source of inspiration and a stimulus in awakening radical ideas that had lain dormant for so long.
The Storming of the Bastille in July 1789 aided in firing up radicalism in Britain notably amongst the working class who began to organise themselves in the 1790’s. There is no question that Blake and Wordsworth were both seriously involved with politics. A Home Office Agent shadowed Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1796 and in 1803 Blake was accused by a soldier of making treasonable statements. In fact during his lifetime, Wordsworth was involved with French Royalists in New Orleans, revolutionary societies in Paris, he was acquainted with William Godwin and he witnessed the execution of Gorsas in Paris in 1793.
Wordsworth’s expresses his political views most explicitly in his pamphlet entitled Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff in which he expressed his support for the French Revolution. However after the Reign of Terror, Wordsworth became disillusioned with radicalism and expressed his regret in The Prelude, where he refers to Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff as being a ‘truth most painful to recall’1that his sympathies were against his own country. The Prelude is an attempt to justify his thoughts at the time, which he accounts for by referring to it as a time of ‘mental shock’.
Wordsworth’s letter also highlights the important influence of other writers at the time such as Thomas Paine and his document The Rights of Man 1791-1792, written in reply to Burke’s conservative document entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine was an American revolutionary writer who was hugely successful and well read partly due to the fact he produced a cheap version of the second part of The Rights of Man to make it more obtainable to the working classes to whom the message was largely addressed.
It wasn’t just Paine’s ideas that were in contrast to Burkes though, so too was his writing style, which was the language used by men rather than the language of politics. There were no classical allusions and it had a democratic style. It seems that Wordsworth was influenced by both Paine’s political ideas and his revolutionary writing style; this will be discussed later on in the essay. Blake’s political opinions however and especially those based on organised religion were expressed quite frequently throughout his work. In a historical period of great tumult it is unsurprising that questions as regards religion were being raised.
During the Romantic period churches simply weren’t meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of the people. One of the results of this was the appearance of mysticism. Particularly in America people increasingly turned towards the Protestant churches and began to reject stern Calvinism and the conservative religion of the puritans. One of Blake’s strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that it encourages the suppression of natural desires and discourages earthly joy; in A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that: Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings.
The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory’ 2 An emotional approach to religion replaced the rational partly down to a backlash of the Age of Reason and partly due to the new ideas presented by the Romantic period. Blake’s work reflects this new and in some ways revolutionary change in attitudes towards religion.
More importantly though Blake’s work offers a critique of organised religion and its effects on society. One of these critiques can be seen in The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Chimney Sweeper is concerned with child labour, an issue highly prominent in the 19th century. Some poor families had to sell their children to a sweep master at the ludicrous age of five years old in some cases. Children would be forced up dark, narrow, winding chimneys where they sometimes suffocated inside them.
Alternatively they would grow up stunted and deformed, or die at a young age from cancer or lung disease. In Songs of Innocence the speaker states that when the little boys died and were ‘locked up in coffins of black’ (Wu, p. 63, line 12), there was an angel who ‘open’d the coffins and set them all free’ (Wu, p. 64, line 14). This line seems to imply that heaven is the comfort these children will receive which eases the pain that they have to endure on earth. The illustrations by Blake are useful in gaining further meaning from the poem: Songs of Innocence Songs of Experience
The image accompanying The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Experience is not one of sadness despite the subject matter, instead it connotes happiness and freedom. As the angel releases the children from the coffin they seem to dance off into a world of eternal bliss coloured bright blue. The vegetation and surroundings are oozing with vitality and health, everything seems to point to rebirth and convey the message that God is merciful and kind as he releases children from the misery of their lives. There is perhaps one questionable ambiguity within this section though, and that is Blake’s choice of the word ‘duty’ (Wu, p. 64, line 25).
By referring to chimney sweeping as being the ‘duty’ of the children Blake could be demonstrating his social protest against the injustice of children having to undergo such drudgery all in the name of ‘duty’. But is this simply how we read things from a modern day point of view? In a letter to his good friend William Hayley in 1803 Blake states: ‘Nothing is necessary to me but to do my duty and rejoice in the exceeding joy that is always poured out on my spirit’ 3 In fact the word duty frequently reoccurs in Blake’s letters and he does not appear to hold the same disparaging connotations that we might connect it with as modern day readers.
In Songs of Experience however Blake’s tone is dramatically different. Blake blames the employment of these young children on God, the church and the King who ‘make up a heaven of our misery’ (Wu, p. 75, line 12). This line exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of state religion. In 1788 there was a law passed by parliament that aimed to protect child sweeps. But much to Blake’s dismay it failed to make any difference even six years later in 1794 when Songs of Experience was published. The illustration in Songs of Experience is a dark, oppressive feeling one; the gloomy colours seem to mirror Blake’s bleak view of organised religion.
The boy in the picture seems to be looking up towards heaven, with contorted, smirk-like smile that seems to sarcastically say ‘thank you for granting me with such a wonderful childhood’. Blake’s cynical and distrusting attitude towards religion can also be noted in The Tyger. In this poem Blake poses the question to the tyger: ‘Did he who make the lamb make thee? ‘ (Wu, p. 77, line 20) This quotation seems to highlight Blake’s trouble in understanding how the God presented in Songs of Innocence could create the miseries and contradictions that our attention is drawn to in Songs of Experience.
Blake’s dislike of organised religion led him to design his own mythology, based upon the bible and Greek mythology. His personal religion was founded on a pre-Jesus revelation and the joy of man. Blake’s daring subject matter and strong political and religious opinions were certainly revolutionary in the sense that previous literature had never been quite so challenging and uncomfortable to read, this draws attention to another revolutionary aspect of Romanticism.
If we take revolutionary to imply a rebellion against something or a new approach then Romanticism can be seen as a rebellion of the age of reason and neo-classicism. The Age of Reason which put emphasis upon science and rational thought can be identified as beginning in roughly 1650 and ending around the turn of the nineteenth century, Romanticism was moving away from this notion of ‘reason’ towards ‘feeling’ which Romantic thinkers such as Blake and Wordsworth saw as a stronger expression of what or who we really are.
Both writers associated reason with the commercial city, which they distrusted; this is because they felt that it represents artificiality, which hides us from our deeper selves. The solution in obtaining our deeper selves is to return to nature and the freedom of childhood. The writing of Romanticism also provided a systematic contrast with the norms of Versailles neo-classicism due to the displacement of reason by the imagination and a change of subject matter to human behaviour and it’s universal aspects rather than individual manifestations of human activity.
It wasn’t that Romantic writers rejected the literature of the classics, instead the literature of the middle ages and the baroque were embraced, literature that had been dismissed by neo-classicists. Wordsworth and Blake’s work also draw attention to the bold new form of Romantic literature. Blake addressed Songs of Innocence to children, something that hadn’t really been done before, his poetry also took on a musical quality, thus appealing to a wider range of people. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth states that his aim is to use the language of the ordinary man: A selection of language really used by men’ (Wu, p. 357) Wordsworth didn’t want to use any of the pretension typical of classical literature, instead by adopting the ballad form Wordsworth like Blake, aimed to entice popular readership, a connection could be made to the work of Thomas Paine who adopts similar forms in his writing. In the Two-Part Prelude Wordsworth discusses the boundaries that are set out all the time by reason and convention, he refers to the power of rational analysis as a ‘false secondary power'(Wu, p. 317, line 251).
Wordsworth argues that we all have creativity within us because we all have the ability to imagine, but this ‘false secondary power’ takes us away from our imaginative perception of unity and forces us to suppress it. Wordsworth’s subject matter was also something very new to literature, he explored the paradoxical combination of the everyday and the supernatural, often writing about simple labouring people whose feelings he considered to be strong or children who haven’t lost their powers of imagination. Wordsworth explains his choice of subject matter in Preface to Lyrical Ballads: Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity’ (Wu, p. 357)
Wordsworth’s writing was also quite advanced in a psychological sense. In The Prelude Wordsworth takes an avid interest in the development of the mind and the importance of childhood experiences in connection to the person we become, about a hundred years after Wordsworth toyed with these ideas, Sigmund Freud discussed similar issues. Wordsworth however was faced with the immense difficulty of trying to develop a language in which he could express psychological issues.
Wordsworth also discusses the relationship between mother and child and how a baby starts off by engaging with the mother, and through her will engage with the world: He also states the mothers love encourages perception in the baby’s mind: ‘Thus day by day Subjected to the discipline of love, His organs and recipient faculties Are quickened, are more vigorous; his mind spreads’ (Wu, p. 318, lines 279-282) As demonstrated above, Wordsworth’s deeply analytical and somewhat psychological writing was certainly a revolutionary approach within literature.
P. B Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry is also useful whilst trying to assess the question of whether or not Romanticism was something revolutionary. The vast progress of technology and science in the 19th century led the writer Thomas Love Peacock in The Four Ages of Poetry to state that there was no longer any need for poetry and call for his society to abandon poetry and celebrate the work of “serious thinkers” and scientists. Peacock stated: “A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days of the past. ”
As the quote demonstrates the language Peacock used was extremely inflammatory and his criticisms were directed towards contemporary poetry in general. He specifically names Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Coleridge in his writing as well as several other romantics, but was careful to exclude Shelley, perhaps out of respect due to them being friends. Nonetheless Shelley was outraged by these denigrations and replied to Peacock’s claims in A Defence of Poetry. Shelley began his defence of poetry by distinguishing between reason and imagination, asserting that reason is a lesser faculty, having to do only with the analysis of things.
He argued that imagination sees values and relationships and therefore is a creative faculty. Similarly to the opinions of Wordsworth as expressed in the Preface to Lyrical ballads Shelley saw poetry as an expression of the imagination. Also, like Wordsworth, Shelley was distrusting of the new focus on science and reason and their potential effects on the human mind: ‘The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world, and man, having enslaved the elements emains himself a slave. ‘ (Wu, p. 949)
Shelley referred to poets as ‘ the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Wu, p. 956), he held the belief that because poets focus on eternal and universal subjects rather than the temporary, they are very much like philosophers. In reference to poets of the Romantic era Shelley argued that in a time of such enormous political and social upheaval, the role of poetry becomes far more crucial in terms of being inspirational and influential. The literature of Romanticism was undoubtedly revolutionary in a number of ways.
Firstly Romantic literature used a unique style and form in which pedestrian language and popular art forms such as the ballad were adopted in opposition to neo-classicism and what the Romantics considered to be its ‘artificial diction’. Romanticism also addressed new readers that had previously been ignored, Wordsworth wrote in the language of men and used simple labouring people as his subject matter, whereas Blake specifically wrote Songs of Innocence for children, written as if by a child.
Another fairly revolutionary factor tied in with the Romantic poets is their choice of lifestyle. After Wordsworth finished at Cambridge he went over to France where he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon and in 1792 she gave birth to their illegitimate child, Caroline. Due to a lack of money, he returned alone to England that year, but he supported Vallon and his daughter as best he could in later life. Blake made his living as an engraver and was from a working class background unlike many of his contemporaries.
Blake did not receive the same education as his fellow writers, and this resulted in his work being outside the educated literary culture, and aided in the creation of his “own world” which did seem a little odd to his contemporaries. Other writers of the romantic period had similar “radical” approaches to literature; Coleridge and Shelley produced gothic fantasies and Byron assumed a sardonic, mocking tone to highlight the hypocrisy of the period. Romantic poetry was both disturbing and disturbed, new and exciting but in a time of such tremendous change and upheavel could it be anything else?
It is clear that many Romantic poets expressed ideas and politcal beliefs that were daring and rebellious, such as Blake’s attitudes towards organised religion and Wordsworth’s support of the French revolution in the early days, but how influential were these ideas? An important fact to remember when considering this question is that Blake’s work imparticular was not fully appreciated during his lifetime expect by small cliques, and he was not well-known during the rest of the nineteenth century.
The cirulation of literature was fairly minimal and did not increase substantially until the Victorian age. Although Wordsworth’s work was written in a language really used by men it is unlikely that the working classes would be able to attain such literature easily due to it’s price unless like Paine’s article cheap editions were produced. Despite this though Romantic writers still regocnised that their task was the spreading of ideas and consequently the changing of minds. Wordsworth himself said that: Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which is is to be relished’ 5 Blake seconded this notion and said himself that he believed one of poetry’s fuctions to be releasing people’s minds from their ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.
In A Defence of Poetry Shelley wrote that one of the great powers possessed by poets is keeping open a sense of alternative possibility, therefore he went on to argue that in this sense all poets are politically progressive, whatever their ostensible political beliefs.
It is tricky to assess fully whether poetry produced in the Romantic period was revolutionary, but surely the poetry can still have a revolutionary impact on even a modern day society as some of the issues addressed in the literature such as nature, childhood and the effect of religion and advancing technology are still very much relevant today and indeed are likely to be in the future. But it must not be forgotten that although this essay has focused on a very small section of the poetry of the Romantic era, and therefore it is difficult and dangerous to make assumptions about other Romantic writers without analysis of their work.
It is also important to remember that Romanticism does not just refer to literature; Romanticism also saw transformations in art, sculpture, music, criticism, historiography and architecture, all of which underwent great and new changes, not just in Great Britain but in Western civilisation. The effects and influences of the Romantic era are all around us, and the impact of incredible writers such as Wordsworth and Blake has left a permanent and profound mark on the world of literature.