I haven’t yet talked about the third module I’m studying this semester, Romantics and Victorians. Heck, the very name has a tangible aura of dread to it. ‘The Romantics? You mean those guys who were loud and complicated and went for lots of walks? And the Victorians? That century where everybody wrote about the workhouse all the time and put modesty covers over table-legs? Count me out!’
Well, it’s not as bad as all that. I’ll talk about the Victorians later when the course has delved deeper into them, but today I’ll spend a little time on that strange group of people known as the Romantics, or the practitioners of Romanticisms. The names are iconic: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron — add to them some other famous names who have drifted into the umbrella term over the years, such as Blake, Wollstonecraft, Hazlitt, and even Austen. What makes this vast group of writers Romantic? A spirit of freedom, revolution, unity, passion, poetry, respect for nature, nonconformity, the attribute of being alive in the early 19th century. Even these things don’t apply to all of the above — maybe we could say Romanticism is fulfilling a satisfactory amount of the above? Maybe we should ask an expert.
The scope of the Romantics is vast but that means it’s very difficult to say you don’t like them. That would be dismissing a huge variety of writers, most of whom have been grouped together entirely outside of their control or desire. If you don’t like the melancholy musings of Keats, you can turn to Coleridge’s dreamy ballads, and if you don’t like those then you can drop into Pride and Prejudice for something a bit more down to earth. Part of what makes the Romantic Period so interesting is investigating how all these different authors intertwine, finding the links where there never seemed to be links before.
A study of the Romantics means a study of what have come to be the most popular store of poems in any period of English literary history. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, ‘To Autumn’, ‘The Tyger’. These are all the kind of poems that get anthologised right down to GCSE level, and in this module you examine exactly what makes them great, and why they’ve become an everyday part of our language. What I’m saying is this: give the most popular group of poets in English literature a chance. And now for something completely ‘Kubla Khan’:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.