British and North-American Romanticism. Origins and Context.
Created on February 7, 2021
Vídeo-presentación para la asignatura de Romanticismo inglés y norteamericano (USC). 2020-2021.
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Romanticismo inglés y norteamericano [G5061444] Grado en Lengua y Literatura Inglesas Universidade de Santiago de Compostela
Elena Guerreira Labrador Academic year 2020-2021
British and North-American Romanticism: Origins and Context
The Origins of British Romanticism
- The forty years in Great Britain from 1785 to 1825, the period generally construed as the age of Romanticism, saw a crucial transition between an Enlightenment world view and the values of modern, industrial society [...] Although the counterrevolutionary and Napoleonic wars were all too real, leaving Europe exhausted and (except for Great Britain) bankrupt, they might stand as well as a metaphor for an age of conflict, stress, and tumult (The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, Preface, xiii).
- Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1800): Union Act 1707.
- United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1800-1922): Union Act 1800.
- George III (1760-1801; 1801-1820).
- George IV (1820-1830).
- Countercurrents of Enlightenment culture [...] become main currents of Romantic thought [...] constituted a pre-Romanticism that coexisted with the official Enlightenment [...] They have taught us that many forces, often clashing, were at play in both periods (The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, Brown 28-29).
- From 1760 to 1790 a fluid, expanding society is mirrored in artistic forms and styles [...] The arts in the same period can betray a more introverted and pessimistic mood, which is sufficiently common to seem equally characteristic. Unease, disturbance, an obsession with death, a gloating and often perverse sexuality (Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, Butler 27).
- The Gothic fantasists have often been interpreted as expressing a reaction against the optimism and confident rationalism of majority taste [...] the disruptive, desolating aspect of change, increased mobility, loosened ties within the large old family units; at the same time, evidence everywhere that urban life, however sophisticated, had made no secure advances over poverty and hunger, crime and injustice, disease and premature death (Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, Butler 27-28).
- The taste for Gothic coincides suggestively with a taste for new, very emotional or millenarian religious cults, both in England and on the Continent. Methodism is a phenomenon of the mid-eighteenth century: later came a host of minor cults and, about the turn of the century, prophets and Saviour-figures such as Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott [...] And help all too commonly had to be called upon, against the common conditions of human life, illness, poverty and early death (Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, Butler 28).
- Pre-Romantic traits are undoubtedly present throughout the eighteenth century [...] we can say that Romanticism grows out of Enlightenment. [...] Romanticism incorporates its antithesis (The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, Brown 30-31).
- ‘Age of Sensibility’. The term defines writers in the period roughly following the death of Pope (1744) through to the publication of Lyrical Ballads (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 1).
Age of Sensibility
- Philosophically, the ancestry of the ‘Age of Sensibility’ is often traced back to the Earl of Shaftesbury, who collected his main writings in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times, which was first published in 1711. Shaftesbury stressed that human beings have ‘affections’, both for themselves and for the creatures around them. Benevolence, founded in this capacity for ‘affections’ and the ability to sympathise profoundly with the sorrows and joys of one’s fellows, was asserted by Shaftesbury as an innate human characteristic (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 1).
Age of Sensibility
- It was characterised by an admiration of the sublime as that power in nature and art that inspires awe and deep emotion [...] Instead of Classical writers such as Virgil, Horace and Ovid there was a turn to models such as Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. And along with these models came an interest in ballads, folk literature and mediaeval romance (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 1).
Age of Sensibility
- American Romanticism does not map directly onto either British or continental European Romanticisms. While British Romanticism is usually set approximately between 1789 and 1832, American Romanticism is observed as a phenomenon occurring approximately from the mid-1830s to the earlier 1860s [...] The key document in the emergence of a fully fledged American Romanticism was an essay, ‘Nature’, published by Emerson in 1836 (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- Ending of Romanticism: the beginning of the Civil War (1861).
- ‘Nature’ became an informal manifesto for an association of New England thinkers and writers, a kind of initiating sub-group within the Romanticist tendency of nineteenth-century American writing, which was centred around Emerson who lived near Boston in the town of Concord. The group [...] came to be known as the Transcendental Club because of its philosophically idealist orientation, a disposition that largely went along with left of centre political sympathies (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- This way of thinking, drawing on Coleridge, assimilates at the same time Coleridge’s familiarity with the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists, who had reacted against the materialist, mechanistic thought of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1674) (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- The roots of American exceptionalism are very often traced back to the early colonial period and to the beliefs that directed the Puritan settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 [...] The community would set up a renovated church and society in the New World on Puritan principles. It would stand as an exception from the imperfection into which religion and society in the Old World had fallen (Romanticism, Day).
- The exceptionalism of America came to be reformulated again in Emerson’s ‘Nature’. The essay opens with a rejection of the European second-handedness of much American cultural perception and asserts the need for a new American relationship with the universe (Romanticism, Day).
- Thoreau presents the ascetic self-sufficiency that he practised during his sojourn in the woods as something that freed him from the self-imposed suffering under which modern Westerners labour (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- Thoreau’s Romanticism here passes beyond the high Romantic celebration of Nature and parallels what in England was a mid-Victorian engagement with a physical world increasingly defined by new geological and early evolutionary thought (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- Thoreau’s deep empathy in Walden for those living alienated, unnatural, commodified lives in the American society of his day involved at once his attitude toward slavery.(Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
Henry David Thoreau
- The institution of slavery that Thoreau protested against as a liberal white abolitionist had been exposed from within through the publication in Boston, in 1845, of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, Written by Himself. A runaway slave, Frederick Douglas’ narrative falls within the category of Romantic self-writing or autobiography, a genre that occupies a wide spectrum of types and forms, from Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals, to Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) and Thoreau’s Walden or Life in the Woods (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- What is distinctive about Douglas’ particular kind of ‘self-writing’ is something contingent upon his experience of the world at the time when he was a slave. Narrative of the Life does not merely explore interiority, it records the way in which Douglas, as a consequence of a particular incident in his life as a slave, grasped the means of access to a kind of interiority that he had been denied in his status as a slave (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- A grand celebration of a new subjective, a celebration on a continental scale, lay at the centre of the work of Walt Whitman [...] In the opening poem of his Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 and reworked in successive editions, Whitman celebrates the vast range, multiplicity and diversity of the natural contexts of America and of human activity in those contexts. Early in the poem, Whitman picks up where, in ‘Nature’, Emerson had started, when he observed that Americans of his day did not apprehend God and nature directly but through traditions inherited from the European past (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- In the same impulse as wanting to make it new, Whitman insists that the self that speaks in Leaves of Grass is a representative, neither a national nor an egoistical, self; a self that will refract all the voices of America, one or more of which the reader, correspondingly, may find within themself (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- In the early 1860s [...] Emily Dickinson, in her hauntingly staccato style, wrote of the deathly oppression of despair, a governing condition where the gravest meaning lies (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- A different kind of dark romanticism, one of perverted subjectivity, was the forte of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote brilliant Gothic melodramas about disturbed states of mind, such as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) and ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ (1843), where the acutely over-wrought tension of the writing captures the mentally unstable character of the protagonists. But a more profound disturbance drives the work of other writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville (Romanticism, Day, Chapter 4).
- Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
- Curran, Stuart (ed). The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Day, Aidan. Romanticism. Second Edition. iBook. Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2012.