What defines the Romantic movement in poetry? What makes some Romantic writers canonical? We’ve discussed both questions in class, though of course we haven’t reached concise answers (probably because there aren’t any).
The movement can be defined by as the period between its beginning and end (say, around 1780 to 1850?), but the parenthetical years are arbitrary and don’t give us any sense of what occurred during that time. Examining historical context from this time, though, can provide insight into Romanticism’s key drivers. Specifically, the movement came shortly after the Enlightenment in Europe, which promoted individualism and inspired people to think about the world in a rational, critical manner. All of a sudden, people felt they had valid opinions to offer, and expressed their understandings of truth through prose, artwork, poetry, and various other media. Much of this rethinking of values and truths centered around political theory, leading to revolutions like the one in France. The idea was that people, through reason, could be intelligent enough to create a utopia essentially from scratch, lacking any sort of clear precedent. Needless to say this often didn’t work, and it seems people became disillusioned with the idea that we could just blow through our problems by thinking them through like robots.
So take that individualism and the excitement that a single person (who wasn’t royalty) could make a real, positive difference in the world, and combine it with a disillusionment with reason’s failure to solve problems, and you’ve got Romanticism. People are filled with this desire to express themselves, to show what’s amazing about the world, but they want to do this through passionate emotions and sensory experience rather than logical analysis. Thus you’ve got a wistfulness for youth’s blissful ignorance, when troubling thoughts didn’t undermine happiness. You’ve got fantastical tales, idealistic imaginings of love, and a fascination with art’s expression of reality (and the accompanying subjective commentary, both one’s own and one’s interpretation of that of the artist) rather than a consistent, singular definition of reality. Essentially, artists (including poets) were rejecting what came before and breaking the rules.
But as we discussed, you can’t break the rules TOO much. The mark of a new movement is a break from tradition, true, but if one tries to break too intensely or too quickly he becomes an outcast rather than a canonical poet. The canonical Romantic poets were masters of breaking the rules in such a way that they displayed they understood them and respected them, but wanted to challenge people. Readers love the idea that they’re reading something new and fresh, but can only identify that newness if it’s presented in a similar fashion to the old stuff. If it’s too different, there’s no basis for comparison. It would be hard for John Clare, an uneducated man and peasant poet, to become famous just after the Enlightenment, because his style differed so dramatically from the wealthy nobles who were allowed to write previously. Byron, on the other hand, offered fun new humor, but still wrote like a Lord in many ways and lived the life typical of previous celebrity. Accordingly, he was extremely popular. Basically, he figured out how to break the rules JUST enough to get people’s attention without turning them off. It’s a delicate balance, and that balance is a crucial feature of any movement, whether Romanticism or Rock and Roll (which, by the way, is an interesting comparison, I think).