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May 3, 2017
Robert Southey and the Literary Life
“No one of his generation lived so completely in and for literature as did Southey. ‘He is,’ said Byron, ‘the only existing entire man of letters.’ With him literature served the needs both of the material life and of the life of the intellect and imagination; it was his means of earning daily bread, and also the means of satisfying his highest ambitions and desires.
“This, which was true of Southey at five-and-twenty years of age, was equally true at forty, fifty, sixty. During all that time he was actively at work accumulating, arranging, and distributing knowledge; no one among his contemporaries gathered so large a store from the records of the past; no one toiled with such steadfast devotion to enrich his age; no one occupied so honorable a place in so many provinces of literature.
“There is not, perhaps, any single work of Southey’s the loss of which would be felt by us as a capital misfortune. But the more we consider his total work, its mass, its variety, its high excellence, the more we come to regard it as a memorable, an extraordinary achievement.”
From Southey, by Edward Dowden. English Men of Letters Series, 1880.
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Racedown Cottage, the first residence of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in the Lake District
April 7, 2017
On this date William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, UK.
Few brother-sister relationships in literary history have affected the course of western literature like that of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. The story of that relationship is the story of natural and shared genius, yet the genius of one relegated, obscured, and subordinated in her lifetime to the genius celebrated in his lifetime. Yet, William’s genius was dependent greatly upon that of his sister’s. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals were not published in her lifetime, but they reveal her genius and they reveal that she was for many of the early Wordsworth poems her brother’s collaborator. It’s not that William took advantage of his sister or that he would have denied her role as his partner if asked. Nineteenth-century English society took advantage of her.
Regardless, William Wordsworth received the acclaim of history and the western world as he dominated his age and mightily helped the worldwide paradigm change that was Romanticism.
Dorothy and William spent their childhoods apart with relatives after the deaths of their parents. So when they came together in early adulthood they really did not know each other well.
Here in a letter to her close friend Jane Pollard from February 1792, Dorothy offers her early impressions of her brother, at first comparing him to their brother Christopher:
Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I may not know how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men.
In another letter to Pollard from June of that year, Dorothy writes an introduction to her brother whom she hopes Pollard will soon meet:
But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, ‘But I know how blinded you are.’ Well, my dearest, I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other’s reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not, then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain, though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance; but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric.
March 10, 2017
On this date in 1772 Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hanover. He died in 1829. Here are a few notes I made in writing my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.
Friedrich von Schlegel, the younger brother of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and one of the early Jena Romantics, was a leading German Romantic theorist whose ideas were popularized by his brother. He published frequently in the Athenaeum Magazine. His writings on Greek, Indic, and modern literature established a mode of thinking for his contemporaries and successors. Schlegel was notable for his studies of the history of literature, particularly Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, published in 1818. His method was to contrast classical and romantic literature and expound his theory of what he termed “romantic irony,” or the consciousness on the part of the artist of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal artistic goal and the limited possibilities of achievement.
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February 23, 2017
On this date in 1821 John Keats died in Rome. Here are some notes I made for a draft entry on Keats’s death in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:
By the end of the year 1820 Keats’s declining health rapidly accelerated. After February he never wrote another poem. His temper darkened and he began his short life as a recluse. Some of his bitterness began to be directed toward Fanny Brawne. As a desperate measure Keats accepted the Shelleys’ invitation to travel to Italy and share their residence in Pisa. So in September 1820, accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn, Keats moved to Italy. But his health was such that the move either did not help at all or it hastened the end. His close association with the Shelleys and with the Byron circle was brief. On 10 December he suffered a major hemorrhage followed in January with another severe attack. John Keats died in Rome near midnight on 23 February 1821. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome near the tomb of Caius Cestius close to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s burial place. Keats’s tombstone epitaph reads, “Here lies One/ Whose Name was writ in Water.”
John Keats seemed to have a premonition of an early death for most of his brief adult life. Take a look at one of his most familiar sonnets, “When I Have Fears.”
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
John Keats wrote this sonnet at the same time as he wrote “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” in January 1818. Lord Houghton published both poems posthumously in 1848. “When I Have Fears” is one of Keats’s few Shakespearean sonnets. When the poet realizes that death may prevent him from achieving poetic fame and enjoying passionate love, he understands that love and fame are of no consequence ultimately. They sink to nothingness before the threat of oblivion
A tidbit: Notice the two dominant metaphors of the first and second quatrains respectively: that of the harvest and that of a cloudy night. The imagery of the first two quatrains seems to relate to the nature of the imagination, involving work and maturity in the first while the imagery of the second involves chance and inspiration.
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
Emily Brontë (1818-1848)
Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o’er the snow-wreaths deep,
Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.
Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floor;
Not one shivering gust creeps through pane or door;
The little lamp burns straight, its rays shoot strong and far:
I trim it well, to be the wanderer’s guiding-star.
Frown, my haughty sire! chide, my angry dame!
Set your slaves to spy; threaten me with shame:
But neither sire nor dame nor prying serf shall know,
What angel nightly tracks that waste of frozen snow.
What I love shall come like visitant of air,
Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;
What loves me, no word of mine shall e’er betray,
Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.
Burn, then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear—
Hush! a rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air:
He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.
Image: the Bronte Parsonage Museum /Bronte+Museum+Former+Home+Famed+Bronte+Sisters/
John Keats (1795-1821)
In Drear-Nighted December
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.
Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.
Image: Dark Winter Landscape P1000697_MS465_EagleLake_131222_v1_resize.JPG
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
A Christmas Carol
The shepherds went their hasty way,
And found the lowly stable-shed
Where the Virgin-Mother lay:
And now they checked their eager tread,
For to the Babe, that at her bosom clung,
A Mother’s song the Virgin-Mother sung.
They told her how a glorious light,
Streaming from a heavenly throng.
Around them shone, suspending night!
While sweeter than a mother’s song,
Blest Angels heralded the Savior’s birth,
Glory to God on high! and Peace on Earth.
She listened to the tale divine,
And closer still the Babe she pressed:
And while she cried, the Babe is mine!
The milk rushed faster to her breast:
Joy rose within her, like a summer’s morn;
Peace, Peace on Earth! the Prince of Peace is born.
Thou Mother of the Prince of Peace,
Poor, simple, and of low estate!
That strife should vanish, battle cease,
O why should this thy soul elate?
Sweet Music’s loudest note, the Poet’s story,
Didst thou ne’er love to hear of fame and glory?
And is not War a youthful king,
A stately Hero clad in mail?
Beneath his footsteps laurels spring;
Him Earth’s majestic monarchs hail
Their friends, their playmate! and his bold bright eye
Compels the maiden’s love-confessing sigh.
Tell this in some more courtly scene,
To maids and youths in robes of state!
I am a woman poor and mean,
And wherefore is my soul elate.
War is a ruffian, all with guilt defiled,
That from the aged father’s tears his child!
A murderous fiend, by fiends adored,
He kills the sire and starves the son;
The husband kills, and from her board
Steals all his widow’s toil had won;
Plunders God’s world of beauty; rends away
All safety from the night, all comfort from the day.
Then wisely is my soul elate,
That strife should vanish, battle cease:
I’m poor and of low estate,
The Mother of the Prince of Peace.
Joy rises in me, like a summer’s morn:
Peace, Peace on Earth! The Prince of Peace is born!