Extending from about 1789 until 1837, the romantic age stressed emotion over reason. One objective of the French Revolution (1789-1799) was to destroy an older tradition that had come to seem artificial, and to assert the liberty, spirit, and heartfelt unity of the human race. To many writers of the romantic age this objective seemed equally appropriate in the field of English letters. In addition, the romantic age in English literature was characterized by the subordination of reason to intuition and passion, the cult of nature much as the word is now understood and not as Pope understood it, the primacy of the individual will over social norms of behavior, the preference for the illusion of immediate experience as opposed to generalized and typical experience, and the interest in what is distant in time and place.
The first important expression of romanticism was in the Lyrical Ballads (1798) of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, young men who were aroused to creative activity by the French Revolution; later they became disillusioned with what followed it. The poems of Wordsworth in this volume treat ordinary subjects with a new freshness that imparts certain radiance to them. On the other hand, Coleridges main contribution, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, masterfully creates an illusion of reality in relating strange, exotic, or obviously unreal events. These two directions characterize most of the later works of the two poets.
For Wordsworth the great theme remained the world of simple, natural things, in the countryside or among people. He reproduced this world with so close and understanding an eye as to add a hitherto unperceived glory to it. His representation of human nature is similarly simple but revealing. It is at its best, as in Tintern Abbey or Ode on Intimations of Immortality, when he speaks of the mystical kinship between quiet nature and the human soul and of the spiritual refreshment yielded by humanitys sympathetic contact with the rest of Gods creation. Not only is the immediacy of experience in the poetry of Wordsworth opposed to neoclassical notions, but also his poetic style constitutes a rejection of the immediate poetic past. Wordsworth condemned the idea of a specifically poetic language, such as that of neoclassical poetry, and he strove instead for what he considered the more powerful effects of ordinary, everyday language. Coleridges natural bent, on the other hand, was toward the strange, the exotic, and the mysterious. Unlike Wordsworth, he wrote few poems, and these during a very brief period. In such poems as Kubla Khan and Christabel, the beauties and horrors of the far distant in time or place are evoked in a style that is neither neoclassical nor simple in Wordsworths fashion, but that, instead, recalls the splendor and extravagance of the Elizabethans. At the same time Coleridge achieved an immediacy of sensation that suggests the natural although hidden affinity between ...
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