What are the contours of Romanticism beyond the ‘Big Six’ poets, who we at least think we know? There is no doubting the achievements of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake, or Byron, Shelley and Keats: but their poetry sprang from a culture as infinitely rich and various as their verse itself, marked by social ferment and the radical ideas of revolutionaries in Europe and the Americas.
On my upcoming Online Reading Group, Beyond Romanticism: Green Lanes & Byways, The Poetry School asked me to expand our perspective of this incredibly fertile period in British poetry beyond the first and second ‘generations’ of big-hitting poetic heavyweights, taking a sojourn down some of the green lanes and byways of British Romanticism, from its roots in eighteenth-century loco-descriptive, pastoral and georgic poetry, through its lesser-known poets, thinkers and painters.
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the ‘Big Six’ are all, well, men. With Beyond Romanticism we’ll read at least as many female as male poets, a bare minimum for redressing this historical imbalance. Female poets responded to all the big issues of the day which were to make their male counterparts famous: Helen Maria Williams wrote about the French Revolution and the abolitionist movement against the Slave Trade; Anna Laetitia Barbauld tackled the Napoleonic Wars with Eighteen Hundred and Eleven; while Mary Robinson and Charlotte Smith renewed the sonnet sequence with Sappho and Phaon and Elegiac Sonnets respectively, both of which addressed the social position of women. Robinson’s daring ventriloquism of Sappho also allowed her to express an erotic desire that would otherwise have been censured, as in ‘Sonnet VIII. Her Passion Increases’, which asks
Why, through each aching vein, with lazy pace
Thus steals the languid fountain of my heart,
While, from its source, each wild convulsive start
Tears the scorched roses from my burning face?
All these women, and many more, were thoroughly conversant in the eighteenth-century taste for landscape and, along with the Lake School, were shaping influences on the direction of that taste as it moved from the stately to the wild, the neoclassical to the Romantic.
Meanwhile, everyone knows that Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal, a masterpiece in prose-poem compression, gave her brother William the crystalline images at the centre of the many of his most familiar poems, right? Dancing daffodils, anyone?
I’m also hoping to set the familiar Romantic poets in their broader social and artistic contexts. As well as the perhaps more familiar struggle between William Godwin, Edwin Burke and Thomas Paine over the meanings of social justice, ‘common sense’ and revolution, we’ll look at more marginal expressions of unrest.
For instance, the brilliant, eccentric Thomas Spence’s political pamphlets offer a wonderful and little-known example of writing at the borders of utopian literature, political economy and activism. They outline his daring ‘Land Plan’, conceived while living in Newcastle (where he was friends with the legendary bird-engraver Thomas Bewick) and refined in the paranoia and revolutionary fervour of 1790s police-state London. Like his contemporary William Blake, Spence employed the fugitive distribution methods of the radical artisan culture of the capital – broadsides, pamphlets, engravings – as well as daubing his slogans across the walls of buildings and hammering them into his own DIY coinage, defacing the King’s image with demands such as ‘Full Bellies You Rogues; Land In Partnership And Fat Bairns; Small Farms And Liberty; No Landlords.’ How’s that for agitprop?
Spence was not alone in his social concern with protest: along the way we will also encounter John Clare’s anti-enclosure poetry, in the context of the rapidly-changing rural economy, as peasants were driven from the land in ever-greater numbers. Where did many of them end up? In the cities, filling up the nascent factory system. And when they got there, they got organized, leading to an upsurge in periodicals in which the writings of working people were disseminated as never before.
We’ll spend some time on two such poets, the hymn-writer and editor James Montgomery and the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ Ebenezer Elliott.
These poets were not unaware of the marginality of their vocation – in a sardonic reflection on the meagre rewards of the craft of verse for most, as distinct from the Romantic cult of celebrity that had grown up around the few, Elliott rued that
In these days, every mother’s son or daughter
Writes verse, which no one reads except the writer,
Although, uninked, the paper would be whiter,
And worth, per ream, a hare, when you have caught her.
Hundreds of unstaunched Shelleys daily water
Unanswering dust; a thousand Wordsworths scribble;
And twice a thousand Corn Law Rhymers dribble
Rhymed prose, unread. Hymners of fraud and slaughter,
By cant called other names, alone find buyers –
Who buy, but read not. ‘What a loss in paper,’
Groans each immortal of the host of sighers!
‘What profanation of the midnight taper
In expirations vile! But I write well,
And wisely print. Why don’t my poems sell?’
Perhaps this is no less true today. Elliott’s early book, Vernal Walk, was an imitation written while he was just 17 – after a schooling in which he was ‘taught to write and little more’ – of the most influential poetic figure of the previous generation, James Thompson. We will go back to this generation of poets’ georgic celebrations of idealized landscapes, trade and agrarian change, viewing them as key precursors to, and ambiguous antagonists of, the poetic revolution signalled by Lyrical Ballads. On the road we’ll encounter the rural cadences of William Cowper and the botanical precision of Charlotte Smith (both great influences on Wordsworth), the now-neglected Lake Poet Robert Southey, and the mysterious Scottish Bard ‘Ossian’. Smith’s educational nature poetry for children now looks prescient in its detailed attentiveness to the smallest detail, as in the opening stanza of ‘The Winter Snow-Drop’:
Like pendant flakes of vegetating snow,
The early herald of the infant year;
Ere yet the adventurous crocus dares to blow,
Beneath the orchard boughs thy buds appear.
Beyond Romanticism will also make comparative sorties into the Romantic movement in Europe, especially Germany, where Heinrich Heine’s The Romantic School provided an early critical definition of the movement. Heine’s study was published in 1833, at the very margin of Romanticism’s conventional time frame, and this limit leads us, finally, to think about the outer limits of ‘the Romantic’ and about the Romantic inheritance. For instance, the legacy of Romanticism in British and American poetry is huge and continuing, as well as contested and problematic. So we’ll read some interesting moments in recent poetry, on both sides of the Atlantic, which wrestle with the on-going Romantic project, without accepting or rejecting it entirely.
Perhaps, after all, Romanticism is still with us, in its attitude towards landscape and the non-human world, towards the self and society and towards the political. But those shaping attitudes must be re-examined now more than ever, at a time of ecological crisis and uncertain political futures. Going back to the age that saw the formation of the Romantic worldview, and going beyond its most familiar poetic figures, will help us to get a handle on the cultural role of Romanticism today – and indeed tomorrow.
Go on a long weekend excursion of the soul and ramble through the neglected greats of the 18th century and beyond on Dan’s new online reading group, Beyond Romanticism: Green Lanes & Byways. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.