ROMANTICISM – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Emerson, Whitman

Romanticism is the term used to denote a period and style of literature that involved the moving away from the traditional Neoclassic structure and subject matter, as a result of “a dissatisfaction with rules and inherited restrictions.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 129)  In his Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth declared that the revolutionary times called for writers to

chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them . . . in a selection of language really used by men; and . . . to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination.”(Wordsworth, 1802)

He also believed that in the “low and rustic life . . . the essential passions of the heart . . . mature . . . [with] less . . . restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language”. (ibid)  This ideal of using colloquial language and common subject matter, linked with the expressing of emotions and feelings, was contrary to the altruistic precursive works that overflowed with nymphs, shepherds and purling brooks, and relied heavily on Greek and Latin mythological classics.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge delved into the imagination, Coleridge coining the definition still used today that set it apart from fancy and involved the engagement of thought by the writer.  They used the landscape as the bearer of a unifying power until they went their separate theoretical ways. People were perceived and portrayed as individuals, not just as part of their culture, and readers were encouraged to link the protagonists of works to their authors.  There arose ideas of nationalism based on individuals as a group of people, rather than governmental, political.  Literature reflected this concentration on the individual, psychologically and socially.

 The Romantic poet used Nature as a foil for culture – the grim cities that represented the evils of industrialisation, with their pollution, crowds, and smog.  For the Romanticists the countryside which they revered was created by God, as a psychological resource, as universal, supernatural and spiritual. Romanticists tried to find out the truth about the relationship between themselves and the world in which they lived, to see the world as a whole world, but in single focus showing the social changes.  They saw the natural world as an active agent with a moral quality that corrected mistakes, and were deeply concerned with the immensity of the world and universe.  They attempted to express the inexpressible, those extreme moments that escaped their grasp – the Sublime.

In the 1830s Romanticism crossed the Atlantic to America, where it was adopted and developed into a particular American poetic form.  Emerson wrote a manifesto for the first American Romantic poets with his article, ‘The American Scholar’, in which he stated that the scholar is the poet, the writer, the person of imagination, who should be everybody, each character that he/she creates.  Emerson was far more optimistic than the European Romantics. America was the centre of expansion, capitalism and exploitation were rampant, and the American psyche encompassed the idea of trying again until success was attained.

Romanticism became a dynamic force in American literary and social thought.  Emerson: “Instead of the sublime and beautiful, the mean, the low, the common are explored and poetised.  Literature of the poor, feelings of the child, philosophy of the street, and the meaning of household life are the topics of the time.”(Source: A Taylor, lecture) The everyday, the familiar is stressed rather than the exotic or ancient culture.  Emerson saw the Universe as a harmonious place into which man fitted harmoniously, and believed that specialisation isolated the individual from the rest of the world, spiritual and physical.  He called his form, of Romanticism, Transcendentalism.

Literally relating to Emerson’s views, Whitman took Romantic ideas and cast them in a new form, encompassing the qualities of equality, liberty and solidarity.  Born during the Depression, in 1819, Whitman responded to technology and its effect on people, wrote Civil War poems, and was for his time, openly gay.  Not only was his content revolutionary, but also his structure.  With his development of free verse, he broke down the distinctions between poetry and prose.

In his poem, ‘Song of Myself’ (Norton, 1983, p. 760) written in 1855, with its 52 sections for the 52 weeks of the year, Whitman created a structure of his own, using sentence length lines for speedy recitation, and repetition to form patterns at the beginning and at the end of lines.  He invited the reader to connect with liberty, to be in harmony and unity with the Cosmos. In part 1, he links the individuals within society – “And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (ibid, p. 760, lines 2-3).  In part 2, the ‘grass’ symbolizes anti-racist and anti-classist attitudes – the grass “Growing among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.” (ibid, p. 761, lines 108-109).  In part 11 Whitman sensualises the soul and spiritualizes the body, reinforcing the rights for men and women alike.  The sexual nature of the subject matter, and the prose-like structure with its lack of rhyme and metre, indicates how far the American Romanticists had moved from the Neoclassical restrictions.  In part 24, Whitman focussed on the highly personal with his autobiographical confessional statements –

          Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veiled and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
(ibid, p. 762, lines 516-518)

His Civil War poems give cameos of the effects of war on man – each poem reflecting a different mood.  ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ is fast moving, intrusive, exhortative.  The poem disturbs the reader, as the drums disturb the lives of the people

Leave not the bridegroom quiet . . .
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace . . .
Make no parley -. . .
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man . . .
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties” (ibid, p. 769, lines 5, 6, 16, 17, 18, & 19)

Although an abolitionist, a great supporter of Lincoln, and the Union, Whitman saw the way War ripped individuals from their families and communities.  His poem ‘Cavalry Crossings Ford’ on the other hand is an imaginative blend of landscape and man – the cavalry men “take a serpentine course” along “the silvery river” in which their “splashing horses loitering stop to drink”. (ibid, p. 769, lines 2, & 3)  It is a visual picture of a peaceful moment, yet with the underlying message that they are en route to war.

While putting Emerson’s theories into practice, especially being everybody, Whitman used his imaginary vision.  His subjects were not gained first hand – he didn’t do a fraction of the things he wrote about.  Living mainly in Long Island, he wrote poems that utilised birds, the moon, the beach and sea/ocean.  As a narrator, Whitman dissolves into his landscape, creating an atmosphere to envelop the reader.  His poems, ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ and ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ are examples of his fascination with these subjects, incorporating the birds’ songs, of lost love and death respectively, as translations.  The birds themselves are the theme-bearers.

‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ depicts the man-made versus nature.  The clash of the powerful steam locomotive, with its “black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,” (ibid, p. 781, line 4) and belching steam, with the “storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,” (ibid, p. 781, line 15) epitomises the evils of industrialisation as it destroys the harmony of the spiritual landscape.

  Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
  Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
  Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
  To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
   (ibid, p. 781, lines 21, 23-24)

Civilization will inexorably encroach on Nature, despite the efforts and concerns of cosmic individuals.

‘The Dismantled Ship’ depicts nature versus the man-made.  It reverses the order.  The “old, dismasted, gray and batter’d ship [is] disabled, done,” (ibid, p. 781, line 3) by the forces of the ocean – the pounding of waves, and the grinding of the beach sand.  Yet until it is completely gone it stands as a stark warning to other man-made things that battle the natural elements.

Whitman in his poetry tackled all the Romantic areas, breaking all the Neoclassic rules.  Only the use of the ‘thee, thy, thou’ remained as a reminder of what the Romanticists had left behind.

 Jud House  14/11/1998


 Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

 Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (REFERRED TO AS NORTON)

Wordsworth, W (1802) ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ Revised Edition.

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