Romanticism in Britain

Om den litterære delen av romantikken i GB.

The Constitution of the United States of America, the French Revolution and the industrial revolution that lead to England becoming an industrial country, are all changes that woke feelings in the British people. This was the start of what we call the “Age of Romanticism” in Britain. This period reaches from 1790 to 1830. The poets, like everybody else, were interested in politics and most of the poets from the Romantic period supported the radicals. They wanted revolution, and supported therefore the French revolution enthusiastically. They also supported Napoleon at first, but when they saw how violent the war was, they abandoned his beliefs. The same thing happened with the French revolution. They saw the revolution grew in violence and lost their belief in it. Many poets also felt cheated by the revolution. They thought they saw a way to a better life, but the revolution only made things worse.


After their dreams were scattered by the outcome of the revolution, many of the “old” Romantics, who were born before all these changes, turned to a more conservative political view. Many of the “younger” Romantics criticised the “old” Romantics for their turnabout. They still wanted democracy and radical change. They supported later the Nationalists in Italy and Greece.


The poets in the Romantic period were individualists who wanted their freedom to write how they wanted. They felt the old “rules” and “forms” took the heart and emotion out of the poetry. Therefore they intentionally “broke” all the old “rules” of form, rime etc. Some of the younger poets went later back to the “neo-Classical” way of writing, but in the Romantic period the poets mainly wrote without any “rules”. Another thought they had about writing was the use of common language. The “old” Romantics used simple language, or “rustic language” as they called it, but the younger ones who wrote more in a neo-Classical way used the old “correct” language, which I’d like to demonstrate here:

William Wordsworth
“The Prelude”
Lord Byron
“Stanzas for Music”


Normally you wouldn’t call William Wordsworth’s language in “The Prelude” for “rustic”, but you have to take it to consideration that this poem was written over 200 years ago an that they had a quite different language then. If you compare the language in “The Prelude” with the language in “Stanzas for Music”, you can easily see the difference between the Romantic (“rustic”) language, and the neo-Classic (“correct”) language.


Through all ages poets have used nature in their work, and this was no different in the Romantic period. But you couldn’t call the Romantics “nature poets”. They were interested in nature, especially “wild” nature like mountains, rivers and waterfalls, and used it to enrich their language. Many poets believed that nature was an important issue in life and that you could often find the answers to many essential questions of fundamental truth, if you studied it. Therefore many poets used nature as a symbol of what they wanted to express. Romantics weren’t satisfied whit just observing and describing nature, they used the answers they got from observing it and placed what they meant was the fundamental truths in life and reshaped nature with it.


Besides writing about political issues, the Romantics were especially interested in a person’s development in different societies. They often compared life in the country with life in the city, the life of a simple man and the life of a highly educated and rich man, and they looked upon children as free and innocent minds, which were unspoilt by civilisation. Another theme Romantic writers love, is being alone. This theme makes a lot of the Romantic works melancholic. Themes, that also were important in the Romantic period, were the “unusual” things in life. The exceptional, the wonderful and the supernatural were subjects many poets studied and wrote about. Many Romantics thought of old “folk-tales” as fresh material in their poetry.


English Romanticism was most strongly expressed in poems, but the writers also wrote plays, novels, essays and “fascinating” letters. The romantic period was a period full of thoughts and wondering. Many of the writers wanted to find answers to different questions in life, often by studying the nature, and must have felt that they expressed themselves best through poems. Still some of the best-known novels in the world were written in Britain during this period (ex. Frankenstein). The theme in many novels, such as “Frankenstein”, is the natural goodness being corrupted by an evil authority, which is strongly Romantic. Other known and important works are “Lyrical Ballads” by Wordsworth and Coleridge (1798), the Preface to “Lyrical Ballads” by Wordsworth, “The Prelude” by Wordsworth and “A Vindication of the Rights of a Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792).


The best-known poets from this period are:

  • William Blake (1757 - 1827)
  • Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)
  • William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1822)
  • Lord Byron (1788 - 1824)
  • Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792 - 1822)
  • John Keats (1795 - 1821)
Of these men, the best-know poet was William Wordsworth. He was born before USA became independent, before the French Revolution and before the industrialism had changed Britain. He saw all these changes and they all had a big influence on his writing. You can see his “early” poems are all with a great enthusiasm and hope for democracy and revolution, but as he grew older and saw what was really going on, he changed his political view as he realised that what he had hoped for couldn’t be solved through revolution and war, but in some other way. You can see a big change in William Wordsworth’s poems after his “dreams” where scattered. This was also the situation for many of the other great Romantic poets. William Wordsworth, together with Samuel T Coleridge, wrote “Lyrical Ballads” (a collection of poems) which gained a lot of attention from the people for its use of language. Two years later William Wordsworth wrote a preface to “Lyrical Ballades” to defend this use of language. This preface is one of the most famous explanations to what Romanticism was all about.


Even if the best-known and most important poets from this period are all men, also women wrote poems and other kinds literature with just as much enthusiasm as the men. In fact the best-known novel from this period was written by a woman, Mary Shelly who wrote “Frankenstein”.


The best-known female poets from this period are:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797)
  • Mary Shelly (1797 - 1851) (Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft)
  • Jane Austen (Novellist)
  • Dorothy Wordsworth (Sister of William)
The Romanticism was the last period in the history of literature where only a small part of the working-class could read or write, which indicates that the literature written in this period, and the previous periods, were mainly written for the upper class. This tendency is starting to turn towards the end of the Romantic period. We can also see that subjects like women rights are carefully being brought up at the end of the Romantic period, a subject more and more common in the history of literature.

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