Precursors of Romanticism: in English literature

Also Read

      With the publication of lyrical ballads in 1798 literary the Romantic movement started in England. However the simplicity of decision love of nature attachment with human emotions traits of supernaturalism, which are the basic features of Coleridge and Wordsworth poetry, can have its stares another fifty years back in the poetry of James Thomson, William Collins, Thomas Grey, William Cowper etc. We have the fervent of early English Literature in romantics, let us discuss them under the following heads.

James Thomson, William Collins, Thomas Grey, William Cowper
Precursor of Romanticism

      The word “Romantic” is multi-dimensional in its meaning. Lascelles Abercrombie said that it was “The opposite not of classicism but of Realism—a withdrawal from outer experience to concentrate upon inner”. Theodore Watts-Dunton called it. “The Renaissance of Wonder” while Walter Pater said that it was “the addition of strangeness to beauty.” It was in England that the term first became familiar. At first, it was connected with the old romances, tales of chivalry, adventure and love, — in short elements opposed to a sober, rational view of life. The word “romantic” was rehabilitated in the eighteenth century. It denoted a tenor of mind that looked favorably on things of an imaginative and emotional kind it is worth tracing the evolution of the Romantic Movement.

      Neo-Classicism was at its height in the Seventeenth century. In this era, the Ancients enjoyed unlimited authority, and inspired the writers to conform to their patterns. The writers of this Age had a strong belief in the powers of the mind, the intellect in reason, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) maintained that reason alone countervails all the other faculties. This formed the backbone of European thought, and the Romantics were keen on doing away with this influence. The Neo-classicists sought to discover universal truths and establish standards of lasting validity. They ignored the irrational aspects of the creative process-inspiration, the inner impetus of the artist. Imagination was reduced to a minor role, because it was considered a mere caprice. Its function was merely decorative. Thomas Gray (1716-71) was asked by an aspiring poet how to turn a flat piece of prose into a poem. He advised him “to twist it a little into an apothegm, stick a flower in it gild it, with a costly expression.”

      This era soon began to fade. There came the Enlightenment. This was the Age of Johnson. Reason still held sway, but much value was given to good sense and sound reason, rather than to absolute authority. The England of the mid-eighteenth century was in a mood to welcome new ideas. This was evident in the “Pre-Romantics”. This rather awkward term denotes the many innovations in attitudes, ideas and techniques introduced at this time as a replacement for the Neo-classical tenets.

      Pre-Romanticism was also regarded as the Age of Sensibility. Sensibility came to supersede reason as the touchstone of life. The noticeable tendency was for the sensitive heart to contemplate it. The Pre-Romantics developed interest in “nature” and in simple primitive society. The French Philosopher Rousseau’s (1712-78) remedy for the decadence resulting from civilization was the famous “return to nature”.

      The Romantic Movement was a continuation of Pre-Romanticism. English Romanticism is the active reawakening of a creative impulse of a type formerly current. The Romantic spirit can be defined as an accentuated pre-dominance of emotional life, provoked or directed by the exercise of imaginative vision. The wonder of the Romanticists is the enthralling discovery, the lighting up of the inner boundaries beyond the limits of clear consciousness.

      English Romanticism is not the history of a uniform group of tendencies and writers. Till 1815 England was involved in a rational effort to combat the France of Revolutionary times. Hence it is a reaction against this ideal, the Revolutionary, ideal. There was a fuller sense of England’s own tradition. The Lake poets laid stress on the noble dignity of the present class. They took the stand upon emotions that are common to all, and sought to idealize them in their poetry. They may have run counter to orthodox habits of language and style, but were in moral harmony with the majority of the people. The second generation, on the contrary, set up a conflict between the artist and his surroundings. Hence, Romanticism became a literature of social conflict.

      There were symptoms of the imaginative reawakening before the dawn of the eighteenth century. One feature of the pre-Romantic period was an interest in the past. Thomas Percy (1729-1811) Reliques (1765) show the influence of the older English poetry. People still showed interest in ballads. The essential features of the old poetry were brought to the notice of the educated reader though Percy took liberties with the original texts. The rhythmic flow of the ballad form together with the magic of the repeated phrases exerted an obscure influence on the literary instincts of the people. This influence came to the surface and was transformed with the advent Romanticism.

      Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was an example of the growing hold of imagination over the intellectual life of the time. He recalled the flavor of the Elizabethan Age. He was a pathetic figure, a flitting apparition.

      The spirit of Romanticism was seen in other fields too. The theory of the importance of imagination as a basic part of all art, was gradually recognized. In the case of the novel, one could see the cultivation of feeling for its own sake. The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717-97) is the achievement of an enquiring mind. The setting of this novel is medieval Italy. The ‘Gothic Novel’ served to bring out the strangeness and mystery of a distant age. There was a close connection between the psychological origins of the novel of terror, and those which prompted the evocation of a picturesque past. What gave life to the novel was its atmosphere of witchcraft. Stripped of all its atmosphere, the novel is lifeless.

      The spell of Romanticism was brought home to the English readers by Ann Ward (1764-1823) who was popularly known as Mrs. Radcliffe. She was suspicious of the supernatural and took care to reduce the
impression of dread and mystery to nothing more than an illusion. She could not resist the fascinating appeal of the Roman Catholic or popular superstition.

      One feature of Romanticism was the discord between abstract theories on one hand, and latent, concrete doctrines on the other. The background of clear and calculating intellectualism provided to the favor of the English Romantics is symptomatic of the desires of the middle classes. The theory of beauty in art. as in literature, frees itself from the dogma of classicism. Edmund Burke (1729-97) protests against looking for the rules of the beautiful in works that have realized it. Emotion can be explained by a physiological theory. The value of the words lies in their power of radiating an appeal to the senses, and to the imagination. They are not mere intellectual symbols. It is interesting to note that Wordsworth built his theory of poetic diction on this principle.

      The outbreak of the French Revolution in (1789) was immediately folt through the neighboring countries. The influence of the Revolution after 1,800 was part and parcel of the full-grown Romantic Movement. In the first period, the Revolutionary fever had nothing to do with the growth of Romanticism. There was a conflict in the minds of men. The great revolutionary drama appealed to the whole of human nature, but did not create any psychological tone which could be described as unified. The revolution already had adversaries who opposed it in principle.

      William Godwin (1756-1836) the son of a dissenting minister espoused the revolutionary doctrines which was opposed by Burke. He was a philosophical anarchist who believed that government was at best a necessary evil which would disappear in a perfect society. There is something sublime in Godwin’s faith in the power of reason and virtue.

      A look at the eighteenth century reveals the signs of impending change. The fight of orthodoxy against Deism created in the upper classes of society a climate unfavorable to the poetry of the imagination. Yet beneath the cold, rationalistic surface, there was this current of ‘enthusiasm’, the essence of which was personal religion. Allied to this was the movement called ‘Sentimentalism’ which made people more humane to man and beast. There was a new interest in literature and
legends other than those of Greece and Rome. The Romantic Revival had begun, with a revolt of the neo-classicism. The ground had to be cleared and superstition, the architect of the future was Jean Jacques Rousseau. His ideas electrified Europe: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’’ was his claim. The other sentence of his gospel was “God made all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.” He believed that the state is not a divine institution but a human contrivance, an association of men for mutual benefits. Liberty is only with equality. Rousseau did not demand equality in wealth; but only this much—that no man shall be rich enough to buy another, or so poor as to be forced to sell himself. He said “Leave man’s meddling, then and get back to things as they came from God’s hand: return to Nature.” According to Rousseau, nature was opposed to the town. A child’s education should begin with the education of his senses. Nature also meant a simple life. These ideas simmering for a long time mixed in the mass of misery and wrong that collected in France for a long time produced the Revolution.

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very Heaven’
Exclaimed Wordsworth.

      The news of the French Revolution was received in Britain with considerable favor. Some authoritative forces in Britain however, denounced the Revolution. For instance, Burke felt that France had no good cause for revolution at all as she had a strong Constitution which withstood the ravages of time. Burke’s Reflections (1790) provoked many replies. The most effective of them was Thomas Paine’s (1737-1809) Rights of Man (1791). He was aware of the oppression and misery that prevailed there and knew that the only remedy was a revolution.

      Edmund Burke (1729-97) was first an orator. His political insight is made up of concrete perception and accurate psychology. One can see British Conservatism in his arguments. He was hostile to the French Revolution.

      Blake and Burns are most representative of the pre-Romantic poets. Robert Bums (1759-96) presents the crowning example of the complex relation between the Scots and the English. His poetry has the quality of a ‘Superior Classicism’—a classicism which is independent of any school or dogmas. His poetry is more an art of the intellect than of the emotions; yet it is in close touch with all the human elements in life. We can detect the inner elements of Romanticism: personal effusion, sensibility, a keen love for nature, a wealth of imaginative fancy, a sympathetic interest in the poor and in animals. He was profoundly aware of man’s dignity. He was not independent in his views.

      William Blake (1757-1827) the son of an Irishman was born in London. There is absolute sincerity and mystic renunciation in his poetry. His mind goes into the reasons of the Absolute and he presented his thoughts as a group of strange, complicated symbols. The elements of Romanticism are present in his poetry. They are a sense of wonder contemplation of nature through fresh eyes, and whatever belongs to a sensibility suffused with imagination.

      Blake’s doctrine is a vast gospel of liberty. He is the prince of spiritual revolt. His Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) are the most popular of his poems. He has been chiefly considered as a lyric poet. He has the faculty of unreserved self-revelation.

      Certain characteristics acquire an intensity in the nineteenth century, and this is as a result of an inner progress, favored by social and moral surroundings. There was the growth of industry, then the religious awakening in the form of Methodism and Evangelicalism and then the shock provided by the French Revolution. A study of the inner nature and the mental forces governing Romanticism would reveal that Romanticism can be defined only in terms of pure psychology. In England it is the affirmation of a new artistic creed. It is not just a triumph of self. Of course, it gives importance to the self, to the sensibility and imagination of a writer. “The Romantic spirit can be defined as an accentuated predominance of emotional life, provoked or directed by the exercise of imaginative vision, and in its turn stimulating or directing such exercise”. The magic of Romanticism is the enthralling discovery, a progressive lighting up of an inner horizon.

      English Romanticism is not a homogeneous group of tendencies. It consists of two generations. The first phase is a reaction against the Revolutionary ideal of France. One can see traces of mysticism in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. They believed in the dignity of the present race. The Lake poets laid stress on the noble simplicity of a class in which traditional virtues were still seen. This was the situation until 1815. After that, the situation reversed. The second generation of Romanticists breathes a moral revolt. The writers of this generation believed in independence and justice.

      The eighteenth century was pre-eminently an age of great prose and of only second-rate poetry. Its poetry is based on reason and correctness. It banished nature and and sentiment from poetry. But there were some poets who showed certain tendencies that anticipate the romantic poetry. The tendency is manifest as far back as 1726, when Pope was ascendant in the horizon of poetry It was the year of publication of Thomson's Winter. There was a rift in the classical lute and even Pope in his last days was not blind to this on-coming change. A band of young poets arose who ceased to follow the ideas of Pope in response to an inner rhythm within them. Sentiment and imagination made their onslaughts on the very heart of classicism. These writers were not conscious rebels against 'official' poetry. They had not formulated any creed or even passed any adverse judgement upon the matter and manner of the current school of poetry. Dr. Johnson the "bull-dog of classicism" still guarded the gate of the classical school of poetry, upbraiding these who showed any indiscipline in life and letters. The invasion of the new spirit in the house of poetry changed the character of the thought-contents of their poetry and its form and structure, if not its style and diction. This change has been variously described by the historians of literature as 'the dawn of naturalism,' 'the poetry of sentiment,' 'the pre-romantic awakening' etc. 

      The poets of this transition-the most prominent among them are Thomson, Cowper, Collins and Gray - had a strange duality. They belonged to their age by their conscious allegiance to the present but their faces were turned to the future by their inner urge and instinct. Not that they were above the current moralising and didactic vein of poetry; nor that they eschewed that artificial poetic diction, rhetoric and declamation which went by the name of poetry; nor that they got rid of the glamour of classical imitation in form and matter. But they inducted sentiment in place of intellect; they went out of the ball-rooms, boudoirs and parlours of the aristocrats to be face with Nature : they sought new interests old English ballads, Celtic or Welsh legends, in Gothic art, in contemplating on the ruins of the past and so on. They revived the lyric and elegy. They wrote mainly in the heroic couplet, but many of them revived Miltonic blank verse and Spenserian stanza.

      James Thomson:- (1700 to 1748) He took a deep interest in nature. His poem 'The Seasons' (1730) evokes interest in the process of nature. He is fascinated by the fearful aspects of nature such as floods and storms. He is described as a poet of pictorial landscape. He speaks of the interaction between man and nature in 'The Seasons' the great variety and beauty of nature move him deeply his poems remind us of Wordsworth.

      James Thomson was not a great poet but historically his position is very important. His two considerable poems are The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence. He is undoubtedly a poet of imagination, his love of nature is ardent. His early life, spent in the romantic scenery of Roxburghshire brought to him a knowledge of nature. Thus he read the book of nature not with the spectacles of books as Pope did and brought in a fresh open-air atmosphere in his poems. The Seasons is a descriptive poem dealing with natural scenes in different seasons. It is written in blank verse. It is charged with didacticism in the Popian manner; its vocabulary is pompous and frigid. But in his feeling for the sights and sounds of the countryside, Thomson may be called the first precursor of romantic poetry. David Daiches remarks: "Though in his feeling for the sights and sounds of the countryside and the affectionate detail with which he could describe them he displays a sensibility rather different from what we readily associate with the spirit of the age, in his moralising, his using natural description as a jumping off place for generalisations about man, and his deistic view of order, he spoke with the voice of his age and pleased his contemporaries". The Castle of Indolence, written in Spenserian imitation and stanza represents the atmosphere of the lotus-land to which worldweary souls may seek shelter. It is Spenserian in spirit and style. In it Thomson has succeeded in recapturing much of Spenser's rich, longdrawn music. The choice of Spenserian stanza and t of allegorical romance testify to the search for new models and wider poetic scope that set in the age of Johnson.

      William Collins:- (1721 to 1759) He did not write much but all that he wrote is precious. His first Publication was small vol. of poems including the Persian Ecologies (1742) but his Principal work was his Odes (1747) including those to evening and the passion which will leave as long as the language. Collins poetry is distinguished by it's high imaginative quality he finds that landscape evokes ideas and emotions. He particularly loves nature at Twilight. His 'Ode to Evening' is the forerunner of Keats to Autumn. Romantic tendencies such as a return to the past and anti intellectualism may be noticed in his Ode on popular superstitions. Coleridge is impressed with Collins use of superstitions and classical legends. Collins favourite theme of the Twilight scene is illustrated in many of his writing.

      William Collins made a great stride in the transitional movement. His naturalism is carried far and foreshadows Wordsworth. His poetic output like Gray's is very slender, but its quality is high. He wrote a number of Odes, of which Ode to Evening is very familiar to the modern readers. It shows a great power of landscape painting in a simple and direct manner that shows a more delicate art than that of Gray's picture of the evening in the Elegy. The Ode to Pity is charged with tenderness. His Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands seeks to recommend the native folklore of Scotland as poetic material. Collins is essentially a lyric poet and his lyricism is the anticipation of the lyric poetry of the romantic poets. His poetry is the combination of an often artificial and pedantic style with a delicate and intimate poetic vision. A sweet tenderness and subdued pathos bring him nearer to the romantic poets. As Albert has said "In the finest work of Collins ....we are ushered over the threshold of romance."

      Thomas Grey:- (1716 to 1771) In his well known poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" he pays attention to nature and which are dear to the romantic poets probably no poet has had a wider acceptance among all classes of readers then is Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

Gray's letter writings indicate the swing in the taste toward mediaeval literature and Scandinavian folklore. His letters anticipate the romantics love of scenery and nature. He records the different modes of nature in charming detail. Such description paved the way for Wordsworth's memorable description of nature.

      Thomas Gray's poetic output is meagre. Matthew Arnold speaks of him as a born-poet who fell upon an age of prose. The elegiac note is predominant in him. A philosophic melancholy was the main source of his poetic inspiration. His most famous poem is the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. His love of nature is deep and genuine though his pictures of nature are conventional. The picture of the evening in the opening lines of the Elegy is convenitional but Gray makes it an admirable background for his thoughts on the lives of the lowly and poor dead of the village. In the tender feeling shown for "the rude forefathers of hamlet" and the sense of human value even in little things, we see poetry under the influence of the spreading democratic spirit reaching out to include humble aspects of life. His two great odes, The Progress of Poesy and the Bard are filled with the new conception of the poet as an inspired singer rather than an accomplished artist. He is a classicist, in following the gaudy style and conventional phraseology, rhetoric, etc. of the classical school. His 'personifications' have been severely criticised.

      William Cowper:- (1731 to 1800) He is yet another precursor of romanticism his single merit of freshness, simplicity, graceful, honour and the pure idealistic English in which his poem were written gradually obtained recognition and the fame of the poet recluse begin to spread. His 'The Task' was published in (1785) and met with immediate and distinguished success although not formerly it was the fact the beginning of an uprising against the classical school of poetry and the founding of a new school in which nature was the teacher. As Dr Stopford Brooke points out, "Cowper is the first of the poets who loves nature entirely for his own sake" and in him the idea of mankind as a whole is fully formed for his love of nature and religious worship are related activities. He believes that contemplation in the midst of then will reading of books. He prefers the beauty poems. Cowper also attacks Alexander Pope for his smoothness and advocates the manly rough line. This idea is later developed by Wordsworth Cowper anticipated the romantic generation in his political liberalism in his humanitarianism, and faithful rendering of external nature.

      William Cowper wrote a considerable volume of verse but it is mostly mediocre. Some of his poems John Gilpin, Epitaph of a Hare, On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture, The Castaway - are popular. There is tenderness and patn in his verse; his outlook is melancholy. He anticipates Wordsworth and Shelley in his love of the country and disdain for cities, love for lower animals, ardent pasion for liberty and hatred of tyranny and oppression, whether inflicted on man or beast. But his style is of the classical school. It is pompous, affected, didactic. He makes the heroic couplet the sole medium of his verse. Cowper was mainly a didactic poet. But his Task reveals him as a poet of Nature. It is a long poem in blank verse.

      The new spirit in English poetry was also manifest in the poetry of Burns and Blake, although it is fit to call them 'romantics' rather than precursors of romanticism.

       Robert Burns was endowed with a marvellously spontaneous power of genius and unrivalled gift of song. It is a mistake to regard him as an unlettered ploughman. The Cotter's Saturday Night is an unaffected praise of peasant life written in Spenserian stanza. Burne's sole poetical work is his volume of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect published in 1786 at the town of Kilmarnock. This volume includes such poems as the Cotter's Saturday Night, To a Mouse, To a Louse, The Two Dogs, The Holy Fair, Scotch Drik. It contains more than two hundred songs, a great number of epistles, epigrams, elegies and others. His poems are subjective and are charged with emotion. His songs are direct transcripts from personal experience. He wrote frankly as a peasant and represented the feelings and thoughts and racy humour of the Scottish farmers. He wrote about the animals and showed his humanitarian Spirit. He contrasts the homely life of the peasants with the artificial refinements of the fashionable persons.

      In point of time William Blake belongs to the age of transition, but in his thoughts and style he is a romantic. He was averse to the discipline of classical art and revolted against rules and routine. He was a mystic in his attitude and adored childhood and innocence. In his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he anticipated Wordsworth and Shelley in their urge of love and liberty, nature mysticism, simplicity of diction and sweet lyricism. It is said that romanticism was actually founded by Blake and fortified by Wordsworth.

      Similarly, the publication of Bishop Percy's Reliques (1765) which contained some of the oldest and most beautiful specimens of ballad literature is a landmark in the history of the Romantic movement.

      Other minor transitional poets are Thomas Chatterton (The Rowley Poems), Mark Akenside (The pleasures of the Imagination written in blank verse), Christopher Smart (Song to David and Jubilate Agno), William Shenstone (The Schoolmistress in Spenserian stanza), Robert Blair (The Grave in blank verse).

      These transitional poets belong to the Popian tradition in their didacticism, use of pompous phraseology and heroic couplet, but they anticipate changes in poetry in their love of nature, tender feelings for the humble life and animal life, in their democratic spirit and subjectivity, in the revival of native ballads and folk songs, in the revival of blank verse, Spenserian stanza etc.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions