Why Romantic?

 Great Britain 1798

Generally speaking, the poetry of any period attempts to express the thoughts and aspirations of that period in durable form. It is a reaction to and product of the social conditions that produced the poet, reflecting his vision of the world and his view of the function of poetry in society.

Huge changes had taken place in the social, religious, cultural, economic and political landscape of Great Britain during the two and a half centuries preceding the turn of the nineteenth century. The important moments of political change can be fairly easily summarised: the break with the Roman Catholic Church that occurred under Henry VIII, and the subsequent establishment of an independent Church of England with the King of England at its head; the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and the ensuing Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell; the deposition of King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and the choice of George of Hanover as king in 1714. In a long process, political power passed increasingly from the Court, the Church and the landed aristocracy to a Parliament representing broader interests, including commerce, science and manufacture. Greater freedom of thought won against religious oppression allowed the development of observation based speculation, fact recording and science, and scientific development allowed the growth of new industrial processes, manufacture and commerce. By the end of the eighteenth century a whole new class of citizen had arisen aware that the ideals and aspirations of the early Georgian period were no longer their own.       

The time was exactly right for Lyrical Ballads, the product of a collaboration between Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1843) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

William Wordsworth

Lyrical Ballads

As young men, both Coleridge and Wordsworth had espoused idealistic, not to say revolutionary ideas about society. Coleridge had proposed establishing an ideal community in the Americas with his poet friend Robert Southey (1774-1843) and their wives, and he had toured England to preach the non-conformist gospel. Wordsworth had visited France at the time of the French revolution, and sympathised with the revolutionary ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Even though their youthful ardour had considerably cooled by 1798, due in part at least to the bloody aftermath of the French revolution which culminated in the Reign of Terror of 1793/94, liberal and / or revolutionary political ideas nevertheless formed an important part of the inspiration for their poetical productions by informing their attitudes, particularly towards inequality, class, and privilege.

Both poets had close links with and were partly financed by some of the people who represented the new moneyed classes. From 1798, Thomas Wedgewood, known for his pottery, provided an annuity for Coleridge of 150 a year (in 2010 terms, around 7,500): Tom Poole, a Somerset tanner, philanthropist and literary enthusiast provided him with accommodation at Nether Stowey in Somerset; and John and Azariah Pinney, important landowners in the West Indies, provided accommodation for Wordsworth and his sister at Racedown Lodge on the Devon / Somerset border. These people clearly had an enthusiastic appreciation of the work of the two poets, which goes some way towards explaining why they were prepared to finance them in part. Coleridge writes to his publisher Cottle in June 1797:

T Poole's opinion of Wordsworth is that he is the greatest man he ever knew; I coincide.


Josiah Wedgewood (founder of Wedgewood pottery, father of Thomas) 

Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems was published anonymously in October 1798. The Advertisement of two pages which preceded the poems expressed succinctly Wordsworth's intentions with regard to his poetry, forming a sort of brief manifesto for the poems, which were presented as 'experiments' to establish how far the language and subject matter from the 'lower and middle orders' of society could be used for poetic purposes.

Title page of Lyrical Ballads from 1798

The publication sold out reasonably quickly, and met with a largely favourable press. Wordsworth brought a second edition to publication in late 1800 under his own name, adding a second volume of poems entirely his own, and moving Coleridge's Ancient Mariner from the head of the first volume to a position near the end.

Titlepage of Lyrical Ballads with other poems (1800).
'Quam nihil ad genium, Papiniane, tuum' means 'something not at all to your taste, Papinian', and is taken from John Selden's Introduction to Michael Drayton's Poly Olbion (1613).
Papinian was a prominent Roman jurist, but Wordsworth is probably here humourously intending 'Papiniane' to mean 'follower of Alexander Pope'.

In the new Preface (of seventeen pages) Wordsworth set out a detailed justification of his poetry, his objects and his ideas about poetic taste and poetic diction, commenting that, for subject matter:

Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation 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 situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated...

Though seemingly innocuous, this was actually a revolutionary programme. Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Edinburgh Review In October of 1802, took up the cudgels, and attacked this 'new school of poetry', which he called 'the Lake Poets', identifying Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey as its chief exponents. He realised that the ideas expressed by Wordsworth in the Preface were a direct and far-reaching challenge to the poetic orthodoxy of Neo-Classicism.

Coleridge's main contribution to the work is hardly mentioned by critics at the time, except to label it 'unintelligible' (eg Southey, writing in the Critical Review), but it nevertheless became a key work in the Romantic movement, with its emphasis on balladry, on imagination and on a supposed golden age of ancient English poetry.

Lyrical Ballads thus served to focus attention on a new type of poetry written in a style in opposition to what was until that point the accepted orthodoxy. It defined a break with the past, and paved the way for the acceptance of poetry with an emphasis not on order and rationality, harmony and balance, but rather on nature and feeling, subjectivity, passion, and imagination.

The development of Romanticism

It was clear fairly early on to commentators that an important literary event had occurred with the appearance of Lyrical Ballads. Leigh Hunt writes (The Feast of Poets, 1814) that Wordsworth is 'capable of being at the head of a new and great age of poetry', and by 1816, Francis (now Lord) Jeffrey acknowledges that the 'wits of Queen Anne's time have been gradually brought down from the supremacy which they had enjoyed, without competition, for the best part of a century.' William Hazlitt (Lectures on the English Poets, 1818) observes that

Mr Wordsworth is at the head of that which has been denominated the Lake school of poetry.... This school of poetry had its origin in the French revolution, or rather those sentiments and opinions which produced that revolution; and which sentiments and opinions were indirectly imported into this country in translations from the German... Our poetical literature had, towards the close of the last century, degenerated into the most trite, insipid, and mechanical of all things in the hands of the followers of Pope and the old French school of poetry. It wanted something to stir it up, and it found that some thing in the principles and events of the French revolution... The change in belles lettres was as complete, and to many persons as startling, as the change in politics, with which it went hand in hand. There was a mighty ferment in the heads of statesmen and poets, kings and people.

Personally, of course, Wordsworth very quickly sold out his youthful opposition to the established order, becoming himself a part of that order, on oracle, a Great Poet, an institution, and a distributor of stamps. It was Byron (1788-1824), Shelley (1792-1822) and Keats (1795-1821) who carried forward the banner of Romanticism, enshrining in their own lives the Romantic ideals of doomed youth, poisoned genius, and disaffection with society, though their poetry nowhere shook the foundations of the established order. Their challenge, if indeed challenge it was, being more superficial, less serious, and less threatening even though more extravagant and, in Shelley's case, more extreme in revolutionary intent.

Lord Byron in Eastern costume

Two other poets who were writing during the period offer an interesting comparison to Wordsworth because, while Wordsworth himself was a university educated member of the middle classes who chose to write about the rural poor, Robert Burns (1759-1796) and John Clare (1793-1864) really were part of the rural poor, and produced poetry of exceptional quality from unlikely beginnings, Burns being the son of a tenant farmer, and Clare the son of a farm labourer. But for all his poetic ardour and talent, his understanding of and ability to express the aspirations, foibles, fears, and emotions of the common man, Burns' poetry was too obviously committed to changing the social order to be effective politically. He was quickly and easily identified as a malcontent, and his poetry, though approaching nearer to the goal of all great poetry than the poetry of any of the other Romantics in speaking to everybody, everywhere, was easily countered, or rather chanelled into the tame persona of Scotland's national poet, where he still languishes, allbeit famously and somewhat truculently.

John Clare can perhaps be seen as England's answer to this gifted Scot, the most astonishing product of inauspicious beginnings. This self educated man was able to master poetic form and produce poetry of thrilling brilliance on everyday subjects and on nature in particular, passing later to express with uncanny exactitude psychological conditions which were to become more and more common as the century progressed, as more and more people were thrown from the land which their ancestors had inhabited from time immemorial to become rootless wanderers in urban environments stripped of all nature.

Finally, we have William Blake (1757-1827), the visionary, whose profoundly imaginative poetry was matched by his artistic ability as an engraver, and who produced arguably some of the most interesting, lasting, and astonishing works in the English language, who was dismissed during his lifetime as 'an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement'. It may be said that Coleridge visited the realm of the imagination from time to time, aided perhaps by his addiction to laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol), and that Wordsworth tried to get there through intense observation and reflection, but Blake seems to have lived in his imagination permanently.

Links to Biographies of the Romantic Poets

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

William Wordsworth

George Gordon, Lord Byron

John Keats

Bysshe Bysshe Shelley

John Clare

Robert Burns

William Blake


The poet biographies, criticism, translations, commentary and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott