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THE ENGLISH ROMANTIC PERIOD

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THE ENGLISH ROMANTIC PERIOD

During the reign of George III, there was a long war against Napoleon to save the independence of Britain and the freedom of various states in Europe. Napoleon tried a commercial blockade, cutting off British trade with the continent but it could not be enforced for long because all Europe wanted British and colonial goods. The naval power of France was humbled by Nelson, who obtained the great victory of Trafalgar in 1805. As the crown of Spain had been given to Napoleon’s brother, Britain supported the Spanish resistance for year obtaining great land victories and beginning from Spain the invasion of France, in 1814. George IV’s reign was a period of reforms. The tories were against any interference of the state in economic matters; they at once recognized the independence of Spanish colonies in South america and were in favour of the Risorgimento and the italian struggle for freedom. In 1829 the Bill of Catholic Emancipation was passed and Catholics obtained the same rights as Protestant. In the same year Sir Robert Peel created the Civilian Metropolitan Police and solved the problem of maintaining order without military control. George IV had no children so his brother William succeeded him and Wighs came to power. A reform was necessary in Parliamentary representation and a First Reform Bill was passed in 1832; about 150 seats were taken away from the so-called rotten boroughs. These boroughs were corrupt because they were easily bought and sold to the advantage of a particular faction; their seats were later given to the new industrial towns. In this way, political power passed from agricultural to manufacturing districts. Representation now corresponded to the real number of inhabitants of each district; moreover the right to vote was enlarged to most of the middle classes. Other important events of this period were:




-          the abolition of slavery in the British colonies

-          the introduction of a system of national education

-          the Factory Acts by which the employment of children under nine was forbidden by law and Parliament began to control the working conditions of women and children.

SOCIAL BACKGROUND

The immediate result of the industrial revolution was an increase in production and in the total wealth of the country. The Napoleonic Wars began to make business uncertain and European markets, closely connected with the changing fortunes of the wars, accepted or refused British goods accordingly. Periods of over-production were followed by periods of depression and the consequent fluctuation greatly affected the workers. The wealthier farmers increased the price of corn but this meant new hardship for farm workers, they were often reduced to begging. The situation was little better in the north, where the concentration of factories offered more opportunities for work; but there were no precise regulations regarding conditions, wages and hours of work. To defend their interest, the workers initially appealed to the law, then turned to combinations as their sole defence. In 1799 the Combination Acts were passed making meetings of workers illegal; this allowed employers to keep wages low and left them free to repress any type of agitation. Workers began to attack factories and destroy machine; the worst of this episodes were the work of the “Luddites”. To protect the machines and control the mobs, the government decided to  have recourse to the army: in 1819 a group of soldiers killed eleven people after charging a crowd that had gathered at St. Peter’s Field to listen a radical orator, this event, known as the Peterloo Massacre, shocked the public opinion. The problems of the lower classes were not  disregarded by economist like Ricardo and social reformers like Owen, who had established a radically innovatory textile factory, where he had reduced working hours and limited child labour. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, Britain initially found itself without money and unable to carry out any social and political reforms. The number of unemployed increased and many of them were compelled to emigrate to America. However the situation improved, thanks mainly to a reduction in customs duties, which favoured foreign trade. Unemployment slowly decreased and Combinations, which were now called Trade Unions, were finally legalized in 1825. the problems of the time also affected women, who were often forced to take jobs in factories, in order to help their men-folk. In factories they competed with men and ended by gaining more and more independence. In upper and middle classes, they had no need to work; the wealthier women found themselves with even too much leisure. Some women took to writing domestic novels, while others devoted themselves to humanitarian activities. When William IV died in 1837, the Britain inherited by Queen Victoria was a country still torn by great internal conflicts and with many unsolved problems.

LITERARY PRODUCTION

The term “romanticism”, by the end of the 18th, had already assumed a somewhat meaning and was particularly connected with feelings, imagination and emotional pleasures. The date is approximate but there are certain historical events which can be cited as reference points since they fostered the growth of Romanticism and its future development: the American revolution, the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. As a literary movement, English Romanticism presented a break with the reason and realism, that had characterized the Augustan Age; encouraged individualism and the free expression of personal feelings, and turned to emotion and imagination. Other factors of great importance were: the philosophical thought of such French writers and their concern with nature and man’s emotional and imaginative powers. the German literary movement was strongly nationalistic, it emphasized the value of the individual and advocated a return to nature.



POETRY

The English Romantic period was dominated by poetry but it was a type of poetry different both in form and content. The language was also affected by new ideas of simplicity and democratization: a kind of language really spoken by ordinary people. English Romanticism disregarded the old concept of “man in society”, and focused above all on the individual, as the subject of all meaningful experience and the centre of life and art. The poet came to be see as a prophet divinely inspired that, in the act of creation, was convinced that his mission was to convey truth to mankind, since he considered poetry as an expression of the most profound truths of experience. Although moderately concerned with the political and social problems of his time, the poet tended to introspection and meditation. Egotism and individualism were a constant intrusion of a poet work. The poet spoke of himself, of his passions and his rebellions. In some poets this spirit of revolt resulted in a sort of titanism; in others it led to the exaltation of the irrational and mystic aspects of life, and a concern with the supernatural. Some looked for a Greek ideal of beauty and for the concept of poetry for poetry’s sake. Others found escape from reality in the exotic and distant. This love for distant informed the new interest in history, especially in the Middle Ages. Imagination became the distinguishing feature of the Romantic writer. Far from simply meaning “day-dreaming”, Imagination came to mean the highest and noble gift of the poet who was able to modify or even re-create the world around him. All poets turned to nature as a counterpart to the sordid ugliness of the industrial towns. It conveyed a new sense of intimate communion between nature and man, two different but inseparable parts of the same universe. The romantic conception of nature was influenced by three philosophical theories: Platonism, which saw the world as the image of an ideal metaphysical world; Pantheism according to which nature was moved by a Mighty Power; German Idealism which considered nature as something alive, sharing man’s own feelings.

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

He was born in 1770 in Cumberland; he lost his mother and his father during his childhood, so his sister Dorothy grew him and was his closest friend; in fact when his sister died he had a period of dismay. He was educated first at the grammar school, then at Cambridge were he took his degree. He went to France where he became a fervent supporter of the French revolution but his family obliged him to return to England. His sister Dorothy helped him to recover from his sense of failure, remorse and disillusionment. In 1795 he met Coleridge, with whom he was to develop a long and very productive friendship. He spent all his life without a fixed profession except for writing; he gradually turned to political and religious conservatism, forswearing his previous republican and liberal sympathies. In 1850 he died.

GENESIS OF THE “LYRICAL BALLADS”

The Lyrical Ballads resulted from the co-operation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who had agreed on a division of labour, according to which while Coleridge’s endeavours should be direct to the supernatural, Wordsworth was to give the charm of novelty to things of every day. To reconcile realism and poetry, he was the first to draw inspiration from everyday life, to write in a language as near as possible to actual spoken English. This attempt was not totally new but Wordsworth was the first to bring these experiments to completion and, with his revolutionary ideas on poetic style, he solved the discrepancy between form and content.

A CERTAIN COLOURING OF IMAGINATION

He worked out a theory of poetry, which he expounded in the Preface to lyrical ballads and indicates the main features of his poetry. Poetry was to deal with “incidents and situations from common life”; the best subjects to write about were humble rustic life and simple people living in the countryside. The poems were to be written in a selection of language really used by men as near as possible to the simple language of men. Imagination was to play a very important role with his capacity of colouring, that is to say of modifying the objects observed, so as to present them in an unusual aspect. The poet doesn’t look at nature and simple objects with the realism of objective observation, but sees all things through the eyes of memory, which recollects lost emotions. Feelings are not immediate but originated from emotion recollected in tranquillity. The poet reach the very essence of things and communicate them in a simple language; he is also a moral teacher, whose task is to purify men’s emotions.



OUR BIRTH IS BUT A SLEEP

Our soul comes from God, that is to say from a divine celestial state, where we enjoyed a particular visionary faculty, which may be identified with the Imagination. When we come into the world, we are not entirely forgetful of this pre-existence but it fades away as we grow up, since maturity. The child’s visionary gleam is not totally lost, as nature yet remembers what was so fugitive; through nature the adult can remember his heavenly state and rediscovered God.

THE RAINBOW

The poet, an adult now, is happy whenever he sees a rainbow, as he used to be in his childhood and will continue to be in his old age, since there is a close relationship between the adult and the child and, through the child, between the adult and nature. It is in fact only in childhood that man establishes a perfect communion with nature, which he later perceives die away as he grows up. But the happy moment of childhood can be brought back to him through the ecstasy he can steel feel for a natural event. It is in this sense that the child is father of man whose days may turn into everlasting joy and blessing.

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE

He was born in Devonshire in 1772; after his father’s death he was sent as a charity boy to Christ’s Hospital School in London, where he proved a precocious student and a brilliant talker. He studied at Cambridge but he left the university without taking his degree. Because of increasing rheumatic pains he began to use opium. In 1795 he met William and Dorothy Wordsworth and became friends. This was to prove one of the most fruitful friendship in English literature and coincided with the most fertile period in Coleridge’s poetic career. This association with Wordsworth also helped him to modify hi political ideas: he slowly turned into a reactionary and royalist. He began to increase the opium doses he had been taking and became an opium addict. In London he devoted himself to lecturing, the best known were those on Shakespeare, which proved him one of the greatest Shakespearean critics: it was Coleridge who rediscovered Shakespeare’s genius and interest in Elizabethan drama. Probably as a consequence of a serious quarrel with Wordsworth he settled in London fro ever; here he spent the last years of his life in relative serenity. He died in 1834.

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER

This strange ballad is the story of a crime and its punishment, told by the protagonist himself, an old mariner condemned to expiate his crime by travelling constantly from land to land telling his story and teaching, through his example, love and reverence for all God’s creatures. The poem is divided into seven sections, each ending with a hint at the crime and each constituting a new stage in the progress from crime to punishment. In the first part an ancient mariner meet three gallants bidden to a wedding feast, and detained one. The wedding guest is spellbound by the eye of the old seafaring man and constrained to hear his tale. The mariner tells how the ship sailed southward with a good wind and fair weather, till it reached the line. The wedding guest heard the bridal music, but the mariner continued his tale. The ship is driven by a storm toward the south pole. The land of ice and of fearful sound where non living thing was to be seen. Till a great sea-bird, called the albatross, came through the snow-fog and was received with great joy and hospitality. The albatross proved a bird of good omen and followed the ship as it returned through fog and floating ice. The ancient mariner inhospitably killed the pious bird of good omen. It is here that the actual crime occurs: it is mentioned only the last line but it is made striking in two ways: 1) we don’t know why the mariner kills the albatross; 2) the albatross had been received as a guest by the crew so the crime is against hospitality and breaks the sacred law which links all living things in an ideal brotherhood.

The crew, too, as accomplices of the mariner, begin to be subject to punishment. The ship is becalmed and haunted by spirits. Nothing moves except the slimy things crawling on the sea. The albatross is hung around the mariner’s neck like a cross. When the mariner begins to realized the consequence of his action, the sense of solitude increases and he blesses the water snakes re-establishing pact of love with nature. The mariner’s punishment was a lifelong sense of guilt which will for ever drive the mariner to tell his story and make people wiser; to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loved.






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