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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: VII. The Romantic Movement (1790–1832)

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)


AFTER the age of Elizabeth the greatest contribution that has been made to the poetry of the English language is the gift of what is known as the Romantic Movement. The term “romantic,” however, is so vague and has so many different meanings that it becomes necessary for us to distinguish the sense in which it is here used. Literature wherever it is produced is a combination of three elements: Fact, Imagination, and Form. That period is described roughly as realistic when the predominant interest of the writer is centered around the facts about which he is writing; classic, when his chief attention is given to the form, manner, or style in which he clothes his ideas; and romantic, when the imagination permeates the material and shapes the form of expression. We can, therefore, call this period an age of romanticism, because, though a certain amount of attention is given to basic ideas, facts, and details about which the poet is writing, and though the variety of his material and the intensity of his emotion naturally are reflected in a greater freedom of poetic form, the distinguishing and outstanding characteristics of all the poets of this day are the extraordinary vitality and range of their imagination. We shall see that in one respect the Romantic Movement comes near to the original meaning of “romance” as we have already used the term, but the period is one in which such a type of story-telling does not predominate. It is only one factor in a very large and more inclusive movement.

Historical Background

This period is one that may be described from every point of view as an age of reaction against bondage, whether the restraint be a social or a literary one. It is a time of rapid transition from a period of restricted activity to one of boundless energy. It is an age of sudden and even startling growth from a time when the poetic imagination and æsthetic sensibilities of men’s emotions were dormant to a more glorious day when even
  • “the meanest flower that blows can give
  • Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
  • And it is a period in which the old dreams of the champions of the people and the visions of the gifted seers among the poets are realized so that by the magic of their evocation, like the great hall of Pandemonium in ‘Paradise Lost,’ the huge fabric of nineteenth-century society rises out of the dross of revolution, and the magnificent structure of romantic poetry is reared from the desert of eighteenth-century literature.

    The revolution that occurs in letters in this age runs parallel to the social and economic phenomena that make their appearance nearly everywhere in the world. In 1776 the American Colonies had declared their independence as a protest against the chafing restriction of an unintelligent and selfish domination. From 1789 to 1799 the French Republic was cleansing itself in blood and was unconsciously preparing itself for another baptism in the fires of war. England was engaged shortly afterwards in the War of 1812 abroad and in a series of minor industrial revolutions at home which, together with the invention of machinery, the application of steam, and the consequent changes in the distribution of agrarian population, were to provide the materials for the engrossing economic problems of the Victorian era. In English politics, too, the Revolution was not the less significant or widespread, until the Reform Bill of 1832 laid the foundations of the democracy of modern England.

    This, then, is an age of growing democracy. Burns, the great champion of the poor and humble, was there to teach the world that

  • “The rank is but the guinea stamp;
  • The man’s the gowd for a’ that.”
  • The young Wordsworth, prophet of simplicity and truth, carried away by what he then believed to be the ideals of the French Revolution, cried,
  • “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
  • But to be young was very heaven.”
  • Shelley and Coleridge, each in his way a dreamer of dreams, saw the vision of an ideal republic on the banks of the Susquehanna where a beneficent nature would do away with human labor and the millennium would come as the leisurely days slipped by in calm philosophizing. Adam Smith in his ‘Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776), and Thomas Paine in his ‘Rights of Man’ (1791), put into influential prose the underlying doctrines of social and industrial revolution, and prophesied the ultimate significance of labor. To them, directly or indirectly, Godwin, the fruitless philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, earliest of the champions of woman’s rights, Ruskin, with his doctrine of beauty in work, and Morris, with his practical embodiment of his theories, all owe much.

    Characteristics of the Romantic Movement

    This period is one that in literature is so complex and so closely interwoven in all its aspects that, to see it “steadily and see it whole,” one is forced by way of preparation to make a certain temporary analysis of its outstanding characteristics. The student should remember, however, that any arbitrary classification of this sort is of value only as a scaffolding in building up the ultimate structure of his conception of the Romantic Movement. A real appreciation and knowledge of the age can come only from a prolonged and sympathetic reading of the poets themselves, and not from the mere memorizing of a list of characteristics which are intended to be only a momentary guide.

    For convenience, therefore, we may consider the Romantic Movement as a great age of discovery in the spiritual and emotional world akin to that expansion of the geographical world which took place in the age of the Tudors. Roughly speaking, one may say that the Romantic poets discovered ten things:

    1, Freedom; 2, Nature; 3, the Individual; 4, Simplicity; 5, the Past; 6, Beauty; 7, Wonder; 8, Dreams; 9, Emotion; 10, Variety of expression.

    Each of these component elements of the Romantic Movement deserves a brief, separate consideration, with some slight indication of the character of the writers who were the chief exponents of these new phases of English poetry.


    If there was one thing dear to the heart of the Romanticist it was freedom. Restraint of any kind was sufficient to make him unhappy as an individual or to provoke an outburst if he and a number of others socially like-minded began to consider what they believed to be their corporate wrongs. Their ideal of freedom was a complex one. It sought political freedom for the individual and political independence for the state. It was socialistic to its foundation and, partly owing to its sympathy with the poor and downtrodden, it was an avowed enemy of plutocracy. In this particular respect, therefore, the romantic poets are partly the spokesmen of their age and partly the prophets of the new dawn. This impulse to freedom combined ultimately with the new revelation of the significance of the individual to develop the schemes of social amelioration into which Ruskin, Morris, Kingsley, and F. D. Maurice subsequently threw themselves with full strength and whole soul.

    Wordsworth in many of his political sonnets sounds the lofty note of national freedom, not in any insular mood, but generous enough to hope that “the Nations shall be great and free.” Shelley in ‘Prometheus Unbound’ carries the ideal still higher into the heights of the ethereal where thought becomes rarefied and the lyrical cry of the enthusiast of freedom becomes lost in the music of the spheres. But this “bright and ineffectual angel,” who sped on the wings of the morning and whose coursers were shod with the light, found the republic within the four narrow walls of home too difficult to manage, and even his hopeful vision of an ideal republic on the banks of the pleasant-sounding Susquehanna became but the wreck “of a dissolving dream.” Byron, who gave his life in the struggle for Grecian freedom, manifested in his tempestuous existence his thorough-going belief in the right to individual liberty, and stopped at times in the onrush of his passion to gaze with understanding eyes upon the ruins of great nations of the past where Freedom had tarried for a while.


    The eighteenth century infinitely preferred the man-made town to the country, upon which they looked with scorn as God’s uncomfortable creation. Now, however, Wordsworth comes as the prophet of a new era of nature-worship, and to him is due the credit for having pointed out to his fellowmen, both by word and deed, the inspiration and the consolation which nature can supply to the tired spirit. With him, indeed, this cult rises to heights of lofty idealism.

    Wordsworth includes within his experience four distinct conceptions of Nature which are held by poet and ordinary man alike. There is first the child-like attitude which regards Nature as a great objective power, a distinct and gigantic personality, tolerant, beneficent, or hostile according to mood or provocation. When he stealthily takes a boat for an evening row on the lake, the boy Wordsworth feels that the mountains are rising to overtake him, and his early experiences in trapping and bird-nesting give Nature’s countenance an accusing cast. From this mood he passes to one of pure objective enjoyment when Nature to him was “all in all,” the source of satisfying sensation and enduring emotion,

  • “That had no need of a remoter charm
  • By thought supplied, nor any interest
  • Unborrowed from the eye.”
  • The third stage in the poet’s development comes when he finds in Nature a power to soothe, calm, and elevate the spirit, and experiences a lustration of “the inward eye which is the bliss of solitude” akin to the cleansing of the dusty trodden wayside by the dews of the morning,
  • “While with an eye made quiet by the power
  • Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
  • We see into the life of things.”
  • The last and highest mood consists of being rapt out of the ordinary sphere of life into the very heart of Nature, in a kind of mystic and momentary identification of the spirits of man and earth in a strange fit of passion that amounts to a sort of cosmic intuition and that sees all things “sub specie æternitatis.” When
  • “Such rebounds our inward ear
  • Catches sometimes from afar—
  • Listen, ponder, hold them dear;
  • For of God,—of God they are.”
  • Byron, Shelley, and Keats, too, are poets of Nature, but with a difference. Byron can describe with a magnificent and transient energy the fury of an Alpine tempest or can sketch with a facile pen the banal background of an amour, and can make his pictures of classic lands effectively set off the action of his narrative. Shelley, with a brush dipped in the blue of heaven, paints “a lovely vale in the Indian Caucasus,” or makes the West Wind visible, or gives us a glimpse of “the lone Chorasmian shore” and “solemn midnight tingling silentness”—but all is large and vague and atmospheric as a Wagnerian setting dimly lighted. Keats lived to “burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” and felt the pain of too much beauty. To him Nature was full of the color of the rainbow, the warmth of the generous South, and the odors of orient spices. Mortality weighed too heavily on his fragile spirit, and Nature in her prodigality of sensation was unconsciously cruel to her too-loving lover.

    The Individual

    If the Romantic Movement revealed nature to mankind, it also went one step farther and accomplished the still more difficult task of revealing man to himself, of lightening for him “the burthen and the mystery,” and of helping him to bear “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world.”

    Most people have at some time or another experienced that Copernican revolution within themselves whereby the self is suddenly, in a flash of revelation, seen to be the centre of its experience, a little system of its own within that vast whirling universe of human life which wheels its infinitely complex course on all sides. The significance of the individual comes in the same manner to the thoughtful reader who first sees into the heart of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, who is willing to forget the elaborate and sophisticated epigrams of the eighteenth century and to enter, as a little child, into the kingdom of romantic verse, looking forward with the eye of faith to the day when, with Browning, he can believe that the only thing worth studying is the human soul. That the individual sometimes discovered himself to be a person of enthralling interest the experience of Byron will prove; but in general the significance of this renaissance of self is not spectacular but humble; it is not negative and destructive, but sympathetic and inclusive—a flooding of the soul with the new light of brotherhood which had at first flared luridly in the French Revolution.

    The two dangers of this creed of self are that the individual should take himself too seriously and that he should magnify the insignificant. The poets of this Romantic movement are great enough, however, to have avoided these pitfalls into which Tennyson at times, and the minor moderns frequently, stumbled. It is the mark of genius to be able by the magic touch of art to transmute into the enduring gold of fine poetry the evanescent and the individual. This Keats can do, and Shelley; Wordsworth and Byron, in their own way and at their best, are also touched with the gift of this inscrutable alchemy.


    The strongest emotions are the simplest. The most illuminating ideas are often the most obvious when lucidly expressed. Real life is simple, near, open, and translucent. All this the classicists had forgotten. They had shut out the sunlight; they had denied the fundamental emotions; they had turned their gaze from the simple and the poor. Shut within their tower of convention and gazing only on a mirrored reflection of life, they, like the Lady of Shalott, had not been able to support the burden of a real emotion, and the autumn of their year had come and the passing of their poetry. With it passed the fine-spun epigrams and delicately woven epithets, products of the artist who turned his back upon the open fields and upon God’s sunlight.

    Now come Burns with his revelation of the simple manners and warm good-will of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’; Wordsworth, singing of “the yellow flowers, children of the flaring hours,” and finding, like Shakespeare, philosophy by the wayside, and, like Browning, infinite significance in the smile of a child. The mere thought of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ suffices, when set side by side with ‘Strange fits of passion have I known,’ to disclose the almost immeasurable gulf that now separates the romanticists from the classicists.

    It is difficult for the half-educated to recognize simplicity as a quality of high art; yet, for all their apparent complexity, Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare have it—for simplicity does not mean childishness but childlikeness; not emptiness, but clarity. It was a passionate belief in the ultimate significance of simplicity that led Wordsworth to write in his ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’:

  • “The principal object, then, proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination…. Humble 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, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated.”
  • One great service, then, that the Romantic Movement rendered to English literature was to re-assert the eternal truth that one way, at least, of entrance into the kingdom of English letters was to become as a little child.

    The Past

    The re-discovery of the past is not entirely due to the poets of the Romantic Movement. Macpherson had published his ‘Ossian’ in 1762. Walpole in 1764 had written his ‘Castle of Otranto,’ and Bishop Percy in 1765 had rescued from comparative oblivion the ‘Reliques of Ancient Poetry’ which were later to inspire Scott to prepare his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ (1802–3) and to give us in ‘Waverley’ (1814) the first of an undying series of historical novels in which “the Wizard of the North” by his magic re-created the life of distant lands and earlier years. Nor must we forget among the earlier singers Blake, the master of mysticism, or the pathetic figure of Chatterton whose ‘Rowley Poems’ were more noticeable in his own day than they are in ours. There was, then, a distinct preparation for, or transition to, Romanticism in these early pseudo-Gothic romances, in the interest in Wales and the far north, in the echoes of mediæval popular poetry and superstitions.

    But the Romantic Movement is not merely a continuation of this interest in a newly discovered subject-matter which fascinated by its strangeness or charmed by its quaintness. The Romantic poets developed a new point of view with regard to the past. Instead of merely esteeming it for its novelty and for its objective differences from the material to which they were accustomed, they developed in themselves a subjective attitude which made the past eternal and an age in which they, by the extraordinary sensitiveness of their imaginative sympathy, could take their ease. In this way their literary years spent thus in the past, whether of Mediæval Europe or Greece or Rome, were times of widening life as well as of escape from the insensibly hardening conventions which inevitably pursued the poetry of nature after its first few careless and exuberant years.

    Their initial sensation was the sudden glad surprise of unexpected discovery such as Keats felt “on first looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), which changed, as the fecund significance of an old world ever new began to stir within his imagination, to “a most dizzy pain” when the spirit reluctantly found itself too weak to bear the heavy weight of “such dim-conceived glories.” Shelley was to know the same unquietude, accompanied by the celestial music of the winds and the harmonies of earth, in a vision of the past and future (‘Prometheus Unbound,’ 1820), and was to build therefrom that tenuous idealism which sometimes seems so like the baseless fabric of a dream. And Byron was to find in “the Niobe of Nations” not merely the “lone mother of dead empires” but a city wherein his soul could dwell with the mighty and tempestuous spirits of the past, peopling the moon-lit ruins of colossal decay with gladiators and emperors and all the fanfare of a triumphant paganism.


    Keats is the great revealer of romantic beauty. He stands midway between Wordsworth, who has made us see more than merely yellow in the “primrose by the river’s brim,” and Ruskin and Morris who preached and practiced beauty as a necessity of life. At the outset the fact must be emphasized that beauty is not regarded by the Romantic poets as merely the source of exquisite or concentrated physical sensation. Even Wordsworth insists that we look upon daffodils with
  • “that inward eye
  • Which is the bliss of solitude.”
  • It is beauty spiritualized and lifted into the serene light of the imagination which these poets celebrate, preferring not to dwell upon the corporeal opulence that perhaps unjustly brought condemnation upon Rossetti for his “hothouse poetry,” nor upon the enervating satiety which too often detracts from the melodious verse of Swinburne, with whom languorous Beauty seems ever to watch the death of Love. With Keats, on the contrary,
  • “A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
  • Its loveliness increases; it will never
  • Pass into nothingness; but will keep
  • A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
  • Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
  • It is this belief in the immortality of beauty as a cardinal fact of life that leads Keats to identify truth and beauty in his incomparable ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1820) from which we learn the paradox that

  • “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”—
  • that the joy of anticipation is reward, enough as well as real, and that attainment, in the difficult dispensation of the gods of old, is the ultimate punishment of “all breathing human passion.” Not otherwise does the unmatched music of his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) teach the same lesson to the ear.

    The achievement of the Romantic poets is that they found a philosophy of sensation by which they spiritualized their art. In Wordsworth we find the revelation of the eternal beauty of mountain and vale, of cottage and countryside; in Keats, a passionate, because brief, sojourn at the foot of the rainbow of the world’s color and a worship of the divine forms of immortal ideas; in Shelley, a lyrical enthusiasm for the wide spaces of earth and air and an ear attuned to catch the music of the spheres; in Coleridge, a perception of the beauty instead of the terror of the supernatural; and in Byron, a lusty love of human life and a worship of the gray beauty that still lingers upon the face of the ancient mistress of the world.


    The Romantic Movement has been described not inaccurately, in one phase at least, as “a renascence of wonder.” The eighteenth century prided itself upon its understanding of life and even indulged in the unprofitable pleasure of mocking existence. But the poets of the next age looked upon the world with the wondering gaze of children, and not with the unhappy and sophisticated eyes of old men. All things appeared to them “appareled in celestial light” and seemed enveloped in “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” And that is why their poetry endures with a perennial appeal: to wonder is to live for all time, but to be wise is to pass with a generation.

    It was Wordsworth who preached youth everlasting in his ‘Intimations of Immortality’ (1807); Coleridge, whose ‘Ancient Mariner’ (1798) holds us with his skinny hand to wonder at the spirits of the deep and to confess the beauty of the wild wastes of ocean; Shelley, who as a boy sought for ghosts and as a poet felt the “shadow of some unseen Power” in whose awful loveliness he recognized the features of Intellectual Beauty; and Keats, who dwells between the “dim-conceived glories of the brain” and the starry firmament which shines even in his last sonnet.


    The Romantic spirit has a miraculous touch. It opens the eyes of men to a vision of another world. Some of the poets, such as Keats, Byron, and Scott, dreamed of the past and in their dreams saw the beauty of Greece, the glory that was Rome, or the romance of mediæval Europe. Within themselves and within their readers these poets built up the fabric of their dream, touched with the golden glamour of a day long dead, or looming far away like “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.” The retrospective vista that was thus opened liberated the soul of the poet from the domination of the present. It allowed him to roam at will through the city states of Greece; it made him a freeman of the Roman empire instead of a slave of his own generation; or it welcomed him to the castle or crusade of a later age. Not the least important phase of the Romantic Movement, then, is this temporal liberation of the personality of the poet. Even the somewhat prosaic Wordsworth, tramping the solid hillside of his Lake country, longs to
  • “Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
  • Or hear old Triton blow his wreathéd horn.”
  • But not all the dreams were echoes of the past. Some were visions prophetic of the future. Rousseau had sounded the call of “Back to Nature,” and had unconsciously laid the foundations of modern suburban philosophy. Not content with going back to the civilization of the greater ancients, the enthusiastic devotees of this millennial dream courageously sought what they vaguely thought of as the Golden Age, a Utopia whose local habitation a weary world has thus far found only in fairy tales and in the realm of romantic poetry. Thomas More might, in his island, hold an unflattering mirror to society; Bacon might foreshadow the modern university in his ‘New Atlantis’; Bellamy and Wells might look backward or forward like Januses at the outposts of civilization—but Shelley and Coleridge would realize their dreams on the banks of the Susquehanna. Futile though their effort was, all enthusiasm and no basis, the iridescent colors of their vision still cast a glamour through the passing years. Soon Ruskin was to seek the regeneration of the individual and of society in the beautifying of common life, making a fine art out of the dross of prosaic things; Carlyle was to disagree with the ease-loving enthusiasts of earlier schemes, and, with the characteristic reaction of his personality, to preach the doctrine of salvation through work and not through idleness; and Morris was to combine theory and practice in making the hand achieve the visions of his mind. Even in America the desire to make life over, to live anew in the dream of some happier mode of existence, was to lead to the ephemeral experiments at Brook Farm and Fruitlands.

    But all of these amateurs of the art of living had their eyes fixed on the land which they saw in dreams rather than upon the reality which lay at their feet. What they accomplished practically has passed with the years or has been swallowed up in the tide of progress. In literature, however, their dreams still live; still we see them in the distance where

  • Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
  • For ever and for ever,”
  • and the search for which is the eternal quest of poet and prophet alike. The vision of the Romanticist may be a failure when judged by the uncomprehending standards of common men, but sometimes in the scales of truth the “shadow of a magnitude” outweighs the cash-account of Plugson of Undershot.


    The significance of emotion in art and in life is seldom widely recognized by Anglo-Saxon peoples. It may be that those who write are predominatingly rationalistic in character or interests, and are therefore perhaps prone to magnify the importance of intellect. It may be that the tendency is merely a phase of the life of an age, as it was in the eighteenth century. At any rate, the Romantic Movement was a free and glad recognition of the rights of emotion, a passionate realization of feeling as perhaps the fundamental fact of life, and of expression and variety as positive and necessary factors in existence of incomparably greater value than repression and uniformity.

    Wordsworth in his ‘Preface’ recognized the new supremacy of emotion in poetry where the calm propriety of eighteenth-century intellect had previously reigned, and he made it the prime source of his inspiration. His conviction of the nature of the poet is so different from the eighteenth-century trust in verbal dexterity that the passage is worth quoting as a kind of “Magna Charta” defining the rights of future poets.

  • “What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. To these qualities he has added, a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than anything which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves; whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.”
  • This belief that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” is significant in that it leads to the consciously didactic tone assumed by Wordsworth, and ultimately to the philosophic convictions of such poets as Tennyson in ‘In Memoriam,’ Browning in ‘Saul,’ ‘Rabbi ben Ezra,’ and a host of other poems, or Meredith in ‘The Woods of Westermain’ and ‘Earth’s Secret.’ Emotion, then, has its value not merely, as before, in the initial stimulus of the poet, nor again only in the induced stimulation of the reader, but rather in the new recognition of emotion as a key to the understanding of life. This is the essence of the romantic point of view. This is the kernel of the romantic philosophy.

    Variety of Expression

    If one turns over the pages of the poets of the eighteenth century, he cannot but be impressed with the limitation of metrical technique displayed by these writers, who confine themselves almost entirely to the heroic couplet. With the transitional period of Naturalism, the ode begins to show its formal variety, but still with the coldness and correctness of classicism. The new, simple, and varied emotions of the romantic poets required for their expression an instrument that was adaptable to the new demands of poetry. It was a time when the old ways of doing things were being discarded in every walk of life and when innovation was not of itself its own condemnation. With this spirit of freedom abroad, it is not unnatural that the restrictions of the heroic couplet should be felt to be irksome. With new forms of government in the making, and new classes of society rousing themselves from sleep, we need not be surprised if the poet, ever sensitive to change and ever seeing beyond the moment, should break away from the old order and begin to lay the foundation of a finer and more elaborate structure of English verse.

    Almost without exception the romantic poets wrote the sonnet and wrote it well. They could also manage the heroic couplet and do excellently in blank verse. But their range was wider, their power greater. Let the reader but examine the following bird-poems, to take a single example, and he will catch a melody unheard in the eighteenth century: Wordsworth’s ‘To the Cuckoo’ and ‘To a Skylark,’ Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark,’ and Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’ Or let him read the changing cadences of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ or the songs of ‘The Lady of the Lake’; let him listen to Byron sing of ‘The Isles of Greece,’ or to Shelley chant the magic choruses of ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and of ‘Hellas’; let him see how easily he steps from line to line in ‘Endymion’ and realize how Keats could use the couplet so skillfully that one never suspects its possibility of monotonous repetition.

    Then he will realize how great and how varied was the achievement of the poets of the Romantic Movement in the mere matter of the mechanics of their art. The poets who were to come—Tennyson, Morris, Rossetti, Arnold, Swinburne, Browning, and Meredith—were all to profit by the experiments and achievements of their romantic predecessors, and, inspired by them, were to carry on worthily the high art of matching lofty ideas and deep emotions with a fitting melody of words.

    Reading Recommended

  • 1770–1850William Wordsworth
  • 1771–1832Sir Walter Scott
  • 1772–1834Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • 1774–1843Robert Southey
  • 1788–1824Lord Byron
  • 1792–1822Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • 1795–1821John Keats
  • Prose

    The prose of the Romantic period is significant in four different departments. In the first place, it carries on, in the work of Scott and Jane Austen, the development of fiction. The Waverley Novels, which gave Scott for the second time the pre-eminence in British letters, were an “Open Sesame” to the romantic riches of mediæval life and history; and Jane Austen disclosed, through her tolerant microscope in her village laboratory, the unsuspected structure of the human social fabric.

    In the second place, the scope of journalistic writing was being widened. The newspaper was now a common fact, even a necessary factor in life. That periodical literature could serve more permanent purposes than the mere publishing of ephemeral news is attested at this time by the rise of the great periodicals: the Edinburgh Review in 1802, the Quarterly Review in 1808, Blackwood’s Magazine in 1817, the Westminster Review in 1824, the Spectator in 1828, and Fraser’s Magazine in 1830—all of them important because the chief writers of this period were associated with them either as editors, contributors, or critics, and because of the powerful and significant position which some of them assumed in building the foundations of nineteenth-century literary criticism.

    The essay, in the next place, is one of the most significant prose contributions of the period. No one can think of this time without seeing the slight, pathetic, valiant figure of Charles Lamb, without catching echoes of the impassioned and inspired table-talk of Coleridge, that “archangel, a little damaged,” or without hearing the “headlong nonsense” of that most careless and astounding of mortals, Thomas De Quincey.

    Many of the minor essayists of the day were contributing to the magazines or were lecturing and writing about economics, politics, and philosophy. Side by side with the delightful whimsies and the pathetic memories of Elia, there are acute and penetrating disquisitions on matters of national import, such as those by Malthus, Smith, Bentham, and Mill; and there are far-flung speculations and trenchant criticisms of matters of literary art from the pens of Southey, Landor, Hazlitt, and Hunt. Prose is becoming an effective instrument for the expression of ideas, either inchoately revolutionary or well organized and systematically related. It has also mastered the art of the whimsical, the personal, the reminiscent. It has still to wait for Ruskin to elevate it to the loftier regions of symphonic sound and to a biblical force and simplicity of expression. It has still to wait for Carlyle to show it how to glow with all the moral fervor of an intense spiritual conviction even amid the ruins of a shattered syntax.

    Reading Recommended

  • 1723–1790Adam Smith
  • 1748–1832Jeremy Bentham
  • 1771–1832Sir Walter Scott
  • 1772–1834Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • 1774–1843Robert Southey
  • 1775–1834Charles Lamb
  • 1775–1817Jane Austen
  • 1775–1864Walter Savage Landor
  • 1778–1830William Hazlitt
  • 1784–1859Leigh Hunt
  • 1785–1859Thomas De Quincey
  • Chronological Table

  • 1783Great Britain recognizes independence of United States.
  • 1786Death of Frederick the Great.
  • 1789National Assembly formed in Paris. Storming of the Bastille. Declaration of the rights of man. Washington inaugurated president of United States.
  • 1791Death of Mirabeau. Meeting of the Legislative Assembly.
  • 1792Meeting of National Assembly: France becomes a republic.
  • 1793Execution of Louis XVI. The Reign of Terror.
  • 1794Fall of Robespierre.
  • 1795Third partition of Poland.
  • 1796Bonaparte invades Italy. Death of Catherine II of Russia.
  • 1798Roman Republic and Helvetic Republic founded. Nelson defeats French fleet in the Battle of the Nile.
  • 1799Death of Washington.
  • 1800Wordsworth’s Preface to the ‘Lyrical Ballads.’
  • 1801Ireland and England united.
  • 1802Peace of Amiens with France. Napoleon made consul for life. Edinburgh Review begins.
  • 1804Napoleon proclaimed emperor.
  • 1805Death of Nelson in Battle of Trafalgar.
  • 1806End of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • 1807Slave trade abolished in British dominions.
  • 1808Reforms of Stein and Scharnhorst in state and army of Prussia. Quarterly Review begins.
  • 1809Napoleon victorious at Wagram. Treaty of Schönbrunn.
  • 1810Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise.
  • 1812–1815War between England and United States.
  • 1812Capture of Moscow. Napoleon’s retreat.
  • 1813Napoleon defeated at Leipsic.
  • 1814Capture of Paris. Abdication of Napoleon. Scott begins the Waverley Novels.
  • 1815Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon goes to St. Helena.
  • 1817Blackwood’s Magazine begins.
  • 1821Beginning of Greek war of independence. Keats dies in Rome.
  • 1822Reform of English criminal code. Shelley drowned in Italy.
  • 1823Promulgation of Monroe Doctrine.
  • 1824Lord Byron dies in Greece. Westminster Review begins.
  • 1825Trade unions permitted in England.
  • 1828Spectator begins.
    Repeal of Corporation and Test Acts in England.
    Beginning of the Zollverein in Germany.
  • 1829Roman Catholic Emancipation Act.
    Independence of Greece.
  • 1830Revolution in Belgium.
    Manchester and Liverpool Railway opened.
    Fraser’s Magazine begins.
  • 1832First Reform Act. Sir Walter Scott dies.
  • 1833Slavery abolished in British Empire.
    Bill for the relief of children in factories.
    Civil War in Spain.
  • 1837–1901Victoria reigns.