To date, we have traveled through the Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Literary periods, from times where ideas were completely suppressed to an age of free thinking and uncensored questioning.
Enlightenment gave a painful birth to a new era. The year was 1798, the acknowledged beginning of the Romantic Literary Period. America won its independence from Great Britain a few years before and enlightenment ideals fueled the French Revolution, turning one of the most powerful countries into a battle ground. Although both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution make for fascinating study, our focus is on the literary works of this era.
Romanticism cannot be defined as a simple theme, style or aesthetic. As a result of Enlightenment, the literary field opened to endless possibilities and the writers took full advantage. The main point that severs Romanticism from Enlightenment is that the focus rests on the individual more than society with individual imagination and consciousness spawning creativity. Poets and authors of this era were so fascinated with the possibilities that they often sought to alter their state of consciousness in order to achieve greater depth. They idealized a simpler life, a more serene state of being. Previously established strictures on poetic form and expression were ignored and innovation became the new normal. Obscure language was set aside for the more accessible, common language of the time. One of the most popular themes was the serenity of country living or what we recognize as pastoral poetry.
Today, I will spotlight one of my favorite poets of the Romantic Literary Period, William Wordsworth, a major British poet whose work helped bring romanticism to the forefront. He was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland in 1770 to a middle-class family and attended St. John’s College in Cambridge.
His literary career began with Descriptive Sketches in 1793 followed closely by Lyrical Ballads. In 1807, his reputation was fueled by Poems in Two Volumes. At this point in his career, even his critics were singing praises to his work.
These successes in short form poetry (relatively speaking) led him to work on longer pieces, specifically a lengthy three-part philosphical poem, Recluse, containing views of man, nature and society. The third part of this poem, The Prelude, was published after his death in 1850.
As an example of Wordsworth’s short work, I present one of my favorite poems.
IT is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder–everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
A little background gives this poem emotion that isn’t readily obvious. Wordsworth opens by describing the scene, the setting sun and the quiet sea. Beginning at the sixth line, he begins speaking to a young girl and directs her to listen to the mighty Being who makes a sound like everlasting thunder. He then addresses the child and explains that she is equally divine to the nature that surrounds them.
The greatest power in this poem isn’t revealed in the text but rests in the unspoken knowledge that the young girl in the poem is his daughter, Caroline. They had been separated for ten years by the war in France. For Wordsworth, his daughter is so much a part of the beautiful miracle of nature that her living presence stands beside God long before her time of death. This is pure love and adoration.
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights and this introduction into the Romantic Literary Period. I hope I inspired you to read more of Wordsworth’s poetry and that you will see the beauty that previous literary periods made possible.