Età pre-romantica

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Historical background

The pre-romantic age

Between classicism and romanticism

The age of classicism is followed by a transitional period know as the pre-romantic age which comes from 1770 to 1798 about the last thirty years of the 18th century. In fact in this period, in the second half of the 18th century, we can observe a new sensibility in poetry and a new generation of poets was arising. These poets used subjective, autobiographical materials which marked a new trend towards the expression of a lyrical and personal experience of life. They were less intellectual and more emotional presenting a variety of emotional states of the soul.
The main themes of the pre-romantic literature may be:
a) a return to nature expressed through an interest in the picturesque, the wild, the grandiose, the lonely, the desolate.
b) the cult of sensibility and melancholy expressed by the love of ruins, the idealization of solitude, meditations on man’s unhappy destiny.
c) a cult of the primitive life with a difference of civilization and a longing for a last earthly paradise in which man lived in communication with nature: a typical expression of this is the myth of the “noble savage”.
d) a love of the strange, the exotic, the sublime.
e) an interest in the middle age which is considered a mysterious and barbarous period.
f) an interest in gothic architecture as a typical expression of the medieval spirit.
g) the claim of taste and imagination against the reason (imagination must not be subordinated to the intellect).

We have some forerunners of this pre-romantic period: the most important of these is James Thomson (1700-1748) which is considered the most important “nature poet” of the early romantic age who represented the first remarkable break with the neo-classic view for his treatment of the nature. Thomson saw nature in its physical details rather than abstract details. Not static bur in motion. He reflected on the character of primitive man who contrasted with civilized man. His masterpiece is “The seasons” a poem in four books dedicated to a different season of the year which shows his great interest of nature. Another poem by Thomson is “The castle of Indolence” in which the poet explains how the magician Indolence attracts pilgrims of the earth to its castle and how this Indolence reduces them to a state of brutishness.

The Graveyard school of poetry
(the poetry of melancholy)

A development in the direction of the romanticism took place toward the middle of the century with an influential group of poets know as “the Graveyard school” because of their melancholy tone and the choice of cemeteries, tombs, ruins, desolate landscapes and stormy skies as the setting for their poems. The main representative poets of this school are Edward Young and Thomas Gray.

Edward Young’s masterpiece is “Night thoughts on life, death and immortality” a long religious poem in nine books in which the poet speaks about the vanity of all earthly joys and tomb becomes the symbol of death and immortality and death is considered the supreme consolation of man.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) vedi volume 2 pag. d20

Pre-romantic prose
(the last thirty years of the 18th century)

There are a few interesting novelists during the last thirty years of century. The novel develops along three main lines: there is the novel of manners with a strong bent towards sentimentalism, sensibility and melodrama. The second one is the gothic novel and the third one is the novel of doctrine with its representative, the philosopher William Godwin who wrote a political treatise inspired by communistic and anarchist ideals which influenced the early
and Coleridge. Godwin, in his works usually shows the tyranny of the powerful members of the community against other poor people who have less privileges than themselves.

The gothic novel

The gothic novel flourished towards the end of the 18th century. Gothic literature can now considered the product of a word which was conscious of social inequity, since it had its origin in a period when the bourgeoisie began to understand its real conditions: the migration towards industrialized towns and industrial exploitation had destroyed the importance of the single human being and man had become a slave to forces he could not control. So, we can say that gothic symbols are a denunciation of social problems. All the gothic novels are full of suspence, mystery and terror. They are usually set in wild and sinister landscapes and places, in ancient castles full of secret passages, where supernatural beings, like vampires, monsters and ghosts, usually, live. Their main characters are generally men with an obscure past or persecutors of beautiful, innocent and melancholy girls. The first exponent of this kind of novel is Horace Walpole with his masterpiece: “The castle of Otranto” that tells the story of the rise and fall of an usurper. But it was only with Ann Radcliffe that the fashion of the gothic novel reached its fame.

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) vedi volume 2 pag. d41-d42

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe masterpiece, is considered the first successful thriller in English literature. The main “character” is Montoni’s castle. It is an example of gothic architecture. A wild landscape surrounds this medieval place in an atmosphere of suspence, mystery and terror.

(novel of manners) Jane Austen (1775-1817) vedi volume 2 pag. d153