Poets of Romanticism



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William Blake ( 1717-1827)
Blake was one of the Fist generations Romantic Poets. He was also an artist, engraver and visionary, one of the most astonishing personalities of literature. As a child he had often seen God and the angels looking down on him, and as an adult he often talked with Archangel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary and he received visits from the souls of the illustrious dead, such as Dante, Milton, Voltaire…by whom he believed his own words were dictated. His major works include the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” (his masterpiece, short lyrical poems of great intensity; he wrote that man born pure and innocent, but trough life we forget our innocence. We need the experience to come back), “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “The Song of Los”. In his works he used lots of symbolism and imagination, his poetry was simple, so original and varied, unique, and it is difficult to classify him within any precise literary movement. Blake gave the final blow to the Age of Reason and shows the doctrine of Romanticism that is the supremacy of the spirit. He was mystical and visionary for this he hated the rationalism and materialism of Locke and Newton, and other things like Deism of philosophers and the contemporary Church. Hated all these things he created his own philosophy. This philosophy was a visionary exaltation of the spirit over the body. In many ways he anticipates the themes of Romanticism. Blake’s models were in the Bible, in Milton’s tragedy and in Dante’s Commedia and in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare Spenser and so on…Although deeply religious he was not orthodox, he denied the existence of God separated from man.
The First Generation of Romantic Poets: William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834)
Wordsworth during the French Revolution was attracted by the new democratic ideas so he became a fervent supporter of it. In 1795 he met Samuel Coleridge, with whom he was to develop a long and very productive friendship. They shared the same love for nature and enjoyed talking long walks and talking about poetry. It was probably trough Coleridge’s influence that Wordsworth passed from his fragmentary ideas upon impressions and emotions to a philosophical theory. Wordsworth began writing poetry when he was still a schoolboy. His best and most original verse was composed between 1797 and 1807 (the great decade). The most important volume of verse by Wordsworth, and probably the best since the Renaissance, is “Lyrical Ballads”, composed with Coleridge. The main themes of Wordsworth’s poetry are nature and childhood. It was trough a fusion with nature and a quiet contemplation of her beauty that man could discover the image of God. Nature in fact is a friend and a comforter to man, the only great teacher from which, by penetrating into her divine essence, man could learn virtue and wisdom. The mission of the poet was to open man’s souls to the inner reality of nature, and to the joy she can offer us.
Coleridge met Wordsworth, and according to what did I say, and this was prove one of the most fruitful friendship in English literature, and coincided with the most fertile period in Coleridge’s poetic career. With Wordsworth he made the “building travel”, they visited Germany to study German idealism and philosophy.
He began to increase the opium doses, and became virtually an opium addict. Coleridge’s literary production was exceptionally varied: translations, essays on philosophy, religion and politics, he worked also for newspapers.
He wrote two beautiful Poems: “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, included in the “Daemonic Group”. In this poems he introduced the theme of mystery and supernatural, nature (nature plays an important part in his poems, but he doesn’t find happiness and consolation in it, instead of Wordsworth) and exoticism.
In conclusion the poet now has turned into a prophet looking for truth, not outside but within himself, not through reason and outer experience, but through imagination.
Kubla Khan ( 1797)
Coleridge worked out an own theory of imagination, which can be divided into a Primary one, in other words the faculty by which we perceive the external world, and a Secondary one, which regards the faculty that a poet has to idealize. Fancy is instead inferior to it, because it’s just a logical faculty which enables the poet to associate metaphors or other poetical devices. In fact it’s the imagination that allows the poet to transcend the data of experience and, in this way, to create.
All this is well expressed in Kubla Khan. Its genesis, if what is written in its preface is true, is in itself weird, as when he wrote it he was reading a passage about Kublai Khan under the effects of opium, prescribed to him as a medical treatment. But even if this weren’t true, this preface still remains important since it can be read as a manifesto on the working of the poetic mind, and gives us the idea of the suspension of disbelief for the moment, which, according to Coleridge, is the only way to enjoy his poetry.
The plot of these 54 lines is the construction, ordered by Kubla Khan, of an impressive palace, to be built where the holy river Alph runs. From a fountain, under the hill, the sacred river breaks to the surface, and in the tumult Kubla hears ancestral voices that prophesise war. The vision of the perfect balance of the palace is that of a sunny pleasure-dome, with the music of a dulcimer played by a damsel, the poet would be able to build that dome in air, while the multitude would be fascinated at the thought that he has eaten honey-dew and drunk the milk of Paradise.
The poem can be divided into two parts: the first one describes the palace and the ground around it, while the second one portrait about an Abyssinian girl playing a dulcimer. The result is that the first lines convey to an impression of freshness and pleasure, as well as those of the last part, while the central lines, convey a sense of anguish and ambiguity. The last verses of the first part are anyway devoted to resume the description of the sacred river, and of the pleasure-dome, which is now presented through three different devices: the fusion of visual images, the mingling of sound and a striking contrast between he sunny dome and the caves of ice.
In the second part the prospective suddenly changes from the description in third person to one in first person: it is now the poet himself who’s telling his experience, and who announces that only the Abyssinian damsel’s music, opposed to the other woman who is wailing for her demon-lover, may transform him into an enchanter endowed with magic powers.
The opinion of the critic about this passage is rather various. Some of the studious identified the poem with the whole process of poetic creation: in this case the sacred river would represent the poet’s creative power, the subterranean sunless sea and the sunny gardens correspondently the subconscious and the conscious worlds of the poet. Moreover in some critics’ opinion the honey-dew and the milk of paradise stand for drugs.
The critic has also found another significance: in this way the first part would symbolize the fallen man who tries to rebuild the lost paradise; in the second part it is prepared the destruction of the garden of heaven, but the fountain of immortality is intact. The vision of the third part, therefore, would be that of the perfect balance that rules the lost paradise, with paradise and death, in which nature, represented by music, let the poet harmonize with God: indeed, it’s not possible to reach heavens with ambition.
However the poem is also a classic case of European fantasizing about the exotic and luxurious East.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
Part of Coleridge's “Daemonic Group” of poems, which also includes “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the story of the Romantic archetype, the Wanderer, the man with the mark of Cain, doomed to walk the earth alone and alienated from all others. What is presented to the reader is a theme of guilt and remorse, juxtaposed with the background joy of a wedding feast.
An old gray-headed sailor, the idealized portrait of Coleridge as a poet, approaches three young men headed for a wedding celebration. The audience is unwilling, but is forced to hear the tale anyway. It seems that as a penance for what he has done, the Mariner is compelled to tell his story whenever the agony returns.
Immersed in a hypnotic and gothic atmosphere (unnatural events, sense of mystery, and horror, symbols and ghosts) the extraordinary events narrated leave the poem open to many interpretations.
One man speaking with another man of rather personal and emotional things is a very Romantic idea.
So, this rhythmic poem that moves the story along like a song, can talk about Coleridge’s life: Just as the mariner experienced a series of terrible events on his voyage, Coleridge’s life was difficult.
He struggled with addiction to opium, his marriage was sometimes difficult, and he certainly seems to have questioned the strength of his poetic gift. It is possible that, like the mariner, Coleridge experienced storytelling and creative urges in connection with feelings of guilt and failure and saw the creation of a poem as an act that is fundamentally cathartic and which expurgates guilt.
There are several religious references in the poem, for example God, Christ, Holiness and Lord. Then you can read The mariner as a moral parable of man, from original sin to his final redemption, or as an allegory of life, where the ship is a microcosm in which every deed of a single person has a repercussion on others.
Coleridge's interests always lay with the exotic and the supernatural, which he hoped to make more real for his readers by employing simple, straightforward language in an archaic English ballad form. In this relatively brief poem, he succeeds in making the extraordinary believable.
Anyway this poem is an outpouring of emotions that creates an exotic and magic atmosphere, according to the best works of English romanticism.
The Second Generation of Romantic Poets: George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Percy Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821)
After Wordsworth and Coleridge, a new generation poets appeared, whose main representatives were Byron, Shelley and Keats. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the only Romantic poet to gain reputation both because his works and his life. From his parents Byron inherited a tendency to instability and rebellion, he derived the Calvinistic idea of predestination to sin and damnation. He was a very fascinating man, very able in many sports but however he suffered for a sense if inferiority because of e was born lame. He was also tormented by melancholy and scepticism. Byron’s literary production consists of lyrics, narrative verse, verse dramas and satirical verse. His best-known works are: “Hours of Idleness” , the 5 “Oriental Tales”, “Sardanapalus”, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and the masterpiece “Don Juan”. Byron has two contrasting sides of his personality and poetry: the Romantic and the Satirical.
Byron can be regarded as a romantic in:
• His life: he was an aristocratic and he dedicated all his life in poetry and political activities, he had lots of sentimental stories and because of it he was rejected by the society and he had to left his country and spend the rest of his life in a sort of exile;
• His worship of liberty, and his rebellion against every sort of oppressive authority:
• His Titanism, that we can see in his wild passions;
• His Satanism, for example hi appreciation for Milton’s Satan;
• His individualism, in fact poetry presents himself under the name and the features of a character;
• His melancholy, that derived from his Calvinist conception and from the relative idea of predestination;
• His interest in history of the past periods;
• His nationalism that we can see in his attention for the situation of the Italians and the Greeks;
• His love for nature considered as a sort of mirror for his feelings: he preferred to describe some natural phenomena than his feelings;
• His taste for exoticism and Gothicism;
• His attention at the contrast between dream and reality;
• His impatience that led him to travel a lot during his life;
• His realization of the so-called of Byronic Hero. (is an idealised but flawed character)
Byron can be considered as a non-romantic in:
• His criticism of society with scepticism and cynism;
• His deflation of romantic ideas;
• His sense of fun which underlay even his gloomiest melancholy;
• His ironic distrust of his own emotions;
• His mock-heroic attitude, which enables him to look at life and death with ironic detachment;
• His concern with the true reality of things;
• His skilful use of satirical couplets, imitating Pope;
• His mastery of “ottava rima” , imitating Italian mock-heroic writers;
• His lucid way of writing ;
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born into a rich Sussex family, and in his College he was nicknamed “mad Shelley” because of his eccentricity and his criticism of social tyranny. Shelley lived in an atmosphere of conservatism which was hostile not only to any radical ideas but even to political moderation. He rebelled against existing religions, laws and customs; he became a republican, a vegetarian and an advocate of free love. Almost all works by Shelley show his restless spirit, his refusal form of social conventions, political oppression and any form of tyranny, and his faith in a better future. His masterpiece is the “Prometheus Unbound” that is a lyrical and philosophical drama. He embraced the theories of neo-Platonism. Materialism became a hope in the moral freedom of man and religious pantheism, and whose anarchical egoism was turned into a humanitarian brotherhood. From Plato he derived his mystical and intellectual belief in a society ruled by ethics and wisdom. Shelley’s realty, however, shows itself to be stronger than the ideal and desire, and his world refuses to change. The poet is bound to suffer and isolates himself from the rest of the world, projecting himself into a better future and hiding beneath a mask of stubborn hope. His approach to nature is instrumental. Finally nature represents the favourite refuge from the disappointment of his melancholy dreams and of his hopes for a better future.
John Keats matured rapidly both as a man and as a poet. Also if he obtained a certificate authorizing to practice as an apothecary, he devoted his life to poetry. Keats travelled to Italy in an effort to recover his health, but died affected by tuberculosis when he was 25 years old. Keats earned everlasting fame for works that he wrote before he was twenty-five: no other major poet was able to do so much in so short life. His best-known works are: “Endymion”, “The fall of Hyperion” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” ( a ballad, where Keats develops the folk theme of beautiful but evil lady into an uncannily powerful expression of a sense of loss, mystery and terror).
Keats was truly a student of his art, and this is another characteristic that distinguishes him from most of the Romantic poets, especially from those of his own generation, because if they occasionally theorised about poetry, they did not think much about technique.
It was his belief in the supreme value of the Imagination which made him a Romantic poet.
What strikes his imagination most is beauty, and it is his disinterested love for it. That differentiates him from the other Romantic writers. Besides the idea of the immortality of beauty, Keats also formulated a theory of “negative capability”, the ability to experience “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. When a man can rely on yhis negative capability, he is able to seek sensation, which is the basis of knowledge since it leads to beauty and truth, and allows him to render it through poetry. This is a new view of the poet’s task.