Bamford Edge, the Peak District
Romanticism – the artistic and intellectual movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – has inspired me since my teenage years, when I first began reading English literature. William Blake, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth – I devoured the works of these Romantic poets, swept away by the beauty and sentiment of all that I read.
What is it about Romanticism that so inspires me, and generations of other writers and readers? In essence, a single truth: emotion.
Romanticism as a movement grew out of a need to feel, at a time when industrialisation and rationalisation as part of the Age of Enlightenment had brought a stark, cold reality to life. The movement was most evident in the arts, but also had an influence in education, science and politics. Romanticism rejected Classicism, with its focus on order and balance and rationality, in favour of imagination and spontaneity and emotionalism. The Romantics were visionaries, transcending the mundane and determined to freely express their emotions (and in doing so encourage the expression of emotion in the audience) in a way that was ground-breaking for the time.
As Wordsworth wrote, his poems were ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. The word ‘overflow’ is especially telling for its connotations; the Romantics did not adhere to strict rules for their art, but let their feelings rule. What mattered most was imagination and the freedom to express its creations.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818), a key artwork of the Romantic movement
Many Romantics had a particular regard for nature, for its purity and beauty. Such emotion can be stirred by being close to nature; Romantics sought these emotional experiences by spending time in the outdoors. A famous Romantic poem inspired by nature is ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth, of the Lake Poets (a group of poets who lived in and were inspired by the beautiful Lake District in the North of England). It so perfectly conveys how nature can make us feel:
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Spring in Troutbeck, the Lake District
Here is another Romantic poem that invites us to feel nature; it was one of the last poems written by John Keats, who died tragically young.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Autumn in Ullswater, the Lake District
Poems like these invite us to connect emotionally with nature – to, as William Blake wrote in his poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’, ‘see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower’.
The Romantics were keen to capture what they called the sublime. In his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, philosopher Edmund Burke wrote:
The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.
Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Mont Blanc’ conveys this awe edged with fear:
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters – with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves…
Romantic poetry is wonderfully vivid and imaginative, and I find such solace in the words. Dr Stephanie Forward, writing for the British Library, explains: ‘The Romantics highlighted the healing power of the imagination, because they truly believed that it could enable people to transcend their troubles and their circumstances.’
There are so many more wonderful Romantic poems I could share with you here. ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake (What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?). ‘Frost at Midnight’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart / With tender gladness, thus to look at thee). ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats (Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.)
I will leave you with my favourite Romantic poem, which is by Lord Byron and was inspired by a moment when, at a party he was attending, he saw a woman who struck him as utterly beautiful. The emotion here… it is everything I strive to encapsulate in my own writing.
She Walks in Beauty
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Anne Beatrix Wilmot, the lady who inspired Bryon’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’
Picture credits: 1) Daniel_Kay/Shutterstock; 2) National Portrait Gallery; 3) PhilMacDPhoto/Shutterstock; 4) ATGImages/Shutterstock; 5) Marc Kargel/Unsplash; 6) Wikipedia – public domain.