Before introducing this last group of Romantic Poets, the one known as that of the Second Generation, it is necessary to underline the political and historical issues that greatly influenced not only the public debate in Britain, but these artists’ stand points and outlook as well, so as to understand their literary works and sources of inspiration.
So, if the outbreak of the French Revolution had ignited, in a great part of intellectuals, great expectations for a world that could actually foresee the opportunity to implement social justice, the sweep of terror that ensued soon after brought forth an even more extraordinary disappointment that led many – Wordsworth, for one – to close nervous collapse. The strong clash between those who had supported Jacobinism (in favour of the French Revolution) but had seen in time where it might lead to and turned back (Edmund Burke, for instance) and those who despite the risks kept on regardless of the consequences (Thomas Paine) produced, in Britain, a sweep towards conservative policy that shattered all together any hope for change.
Moreover, Napoleon’s appearance on the international scene with his insatiable appetite for power and the aim he pursued to conquer the continent was another element of instability and turmoil that involved Britain in a war that lasted more than twenty years and left Europe in a worse state of affairs than before. In fact, after Napoleon’s conclusive defeat a new challenge faced the continent for many countries claimed national sovereignty and independence from previous occupations. It was the case of Greece, Poland and Italy that gave life to nationalism, a new ideal that impressed and attracted Byron.
In the mean time the war against France had weakened Britain’s trade and the new industrial economy, unemployment increased drastically emphasizing even more the gap between the middle classes and the working class. The landed gentry especially was hardly affected by the hardships that the rest of the population faced, the wealth and power of the nation was still in the hands of those who owned land and enjoyed privileges that they did not want to lose so they repressed with force any show of discontent. Trade Unions were forbidden, freedom of press strongly repressed and denied the most basic claims for human rights. This led to social unrest that, at times, gave way to violent acts such as artisans destroying machines in the belief that it was their widespread use in factories that deprived them of work.
Nevertheless some successes can be registered as well, the slave trade was abolished thanks to efforts carried out in Parliament by William Wilberforce, while Hannah More fought to provide basic education to working children and a reform of prisons was also initiated. However, much was still to do.
It is in this social and historical context that the Second Generation Romantic Poets must be viewed and appreciated because they did try to find answers through their art to such important issues that proved an intellectual challenge in a world that was rapidly and radically changing.
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON (1788-1824)
George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron, was an unconventional aristocrat who lived an adventurous life in the true spirit of the Romantic hero. He was rich and handsome but suffered a physical handicap, he had a deformed foot, despite this deformity while at University in Cambridge he proved to be a very skilful sportsman. Before dedicating himself to poetry and the political cause he indulged in drinking and gambling. He was also brilliant at conversation and when he began writing poetry his success allowed him to become a social and literary celebrity.
As many young aristocrats of his time he went on his Grand tour in 1809 and visited Spain, Portugal, Malta, Albania, Greece and the Middle East. Being a restless young man and living recklessly he married and soon separated because of a scandal which saw him involved in an incestuous relationship with his half-sister after which he left England and travelled through Switzerland, living with Shelley in Geneva, then moving to Venice, Milan where he became involved in the patriot conspiracy against the Austrian rule; he then again met the Shelleys at Pisa and after Shelley’s death, he went to Greece where he took up the Greek cause for independence from Turkey and trained troops in Missolonghi where he died of a fever in 1824.
Unlike many of his contemporaries he acquired fame and great recognition for his literary works while still living.
Some of his most important literary accomplishments are:
– Hours of Idleness, (1807), a small volume of lyric poems fiercely attacked in the ‘Edinburgh Review’
– English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is his reply to the critic’s attacks to the above poems, proving his ability in satirical writing according to 18th century style
– Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the first two cantos were published in 1812 when he returned to England after his Grand Tour and contained the inspiring experiences of those journeys; the third canto was produced while he stayed in Geneva and the fourth and last one was written while he was in Venice, in 1818
– The Giaour, The Corsair, Lara, were a series of verse narratives that he published after the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and which increased his reputation as a poet
– Manfred (1817), a tragedy written while he was in Venice along with
– Beppo (1818), a mock-heroic poem and where he also began his masterpiece
– Don Juan, a mock-epic.
The Byronic Hero
Byron did not have in mind to be a Romantic poet, in fact he expressed strong criticism against Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, yet the way he lived, his personal reputation, as well as what he achieved with his literary works, in England and abroad contributed to create what is known as the Byronic hero.
Ironically he is the only one among all the other Romantic poets who was a regarded as a model to be admired in literary circles even outside England and greatly influenced international writers such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Balzac, just to mention a few. When we refer to the Byronic hero we are outlining a proud individualistic character who rejects conventional moral rules and is an outsider of society. He is handsome and attracts women of whom he refuses their love, he is admired or envied by men. He is of noble birth but rude in his manners, he is passionate, moody, restless and this mixture of rebellion and suffering along with eroticism is very well portrayed in some of his most famous works and, furthermore, was irresistible in his age.
The Byronic hero is not only a literary character, it actually embodies his real personality which is complex and contradictory. Byron firmly believed in individual liberty and fought all his life against any type of constraint, he did all he could do be himself without any compromise. This freedom is an idea he advocated for all men and he set out to fight against tyrants. He spoke out against social injustices by using the witty satirical poetic style that became common in the 18th century, and he uses nature as a setting, a landscape where he portrays an isolated man whose feelings are mirrored by the wildest and exotic natural sceneries that he describes. So nature does not give him consolation or joy, it has no message to convey.
Byron used, throughout, his writings the classic 18th century poetic diction despite the fact that many of his themes deeply belong in the Romantic Age. He used a many different types of metres ranging from Spenserian stanza (a nine-line stanza ending with a lengthened one: the first eight lines are written in iambic pentameter, the ninth in iambic hexameter) to the ‘ottava rima’ (an eight-line stanza rhyming abababcc). As already stated Byron was brilliant at conversation and at writing letters as well, this helped him display the potentiality of colloquial language enriching his conversational style in many works well adapting to a wide range of topics and vocabulary.
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822)
Shelley was the eldest son and heir of a very wealthy conservative Member of Parliament and lived during a time that had outrun the idealistic drive of the French Revolution followed by a surge of nationalism in many European countries and therefore grew up in an atmosphere of such conservative politics that strenuously contrasted not only radical ideas but moderate ones as well. Being a rebel at heart he fought against all sorts of conventional customs, laws and existing religions. He became a republican, a vegetarian and advocated free love; his contempt for any form of conformism was matched by his interest in the occult sciences and scientific experiments.
All of this is evident right from the start in his very first writings and from early youth, in fact he was expelled from Oxford University because of the publication of a radical pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811) in which he challenged the existence of God. At nineteen he married the sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrooke, they had two children and were always on the move, they lived in Ireland for a time and there Shelley was involved in the revolutionary propaganda against Catholicism and English rule. His ideas are clearly outlined in the poem Queen Mab (1813). When Shelley and his wife came back to England they became aware of their unsuccessful marriage and decided to separate. He later eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin, and went to Switzerland where Mary, in 1817, wrote her novel Frankenstein, at this time they met Byron. In 1818 the Shelleys left England permanently and went to live in Italy where the poet wrote much of his best works. He died in accident at sea off the shores of Livorno in 1822 and was buried in the protestant cemetery of Rome.
– The Necessity of Atheism (1811), a radical pamphlet in which he challenged the existence of God
|While in Switzerland:
– The Revolt of Islam (1817), an epic revolutionary poem about his conviction that only love could deliver men from any social claims. He used the Gothic symbol of the wanderer to express his idea of history and to explain that individual violence is caused by social inequity.
|While in Italy
– Ode to the West Wind (18199,
– To a Skylark (1820),
– The Cenci (18299, a verse tragedy,
– Prometheus Unbound (1820), a lyrical drama regarding intellectual rebellion, the desire for spiritual liberty and the belief that evil would be overcome by the power of love;
– Adonais (1821), an elegy written in honour of John Keats;
– Epipsychidion (1821), a long poem inspired to the poet by his platonic love of a beautiful Italian girl;
– A Defence of Poetry (1821), an essay about the importance of poetry, it was left incomplete because of his death.
Literary Themes – The Poet as a Prophet and a Titan
A rebel and unconventional Shelley strongly refused not only social conventions but also political oppression of any sorts and he nurtured great faith in a better future. His main literary themes focus on freedom and love as the remedies against the faults and evils of society along with the belief that man could, eventually, overcome any political, moral and social conventions. In his essay A Defence of Poetry he emphasizes the idea that poetry can be considered the expression of imagination because it contains a revolutionary creativity that can change the reality of an increasingly material world. At the same time, though, Shelley fears that the real world he lives in could prove to be stronger than his desire, as a poet, to make his ideal world come true.
The real world refuses to change and that is why, according to Shelley, the poet is bound to suffer and he will therefore isolate himself from the rest of the world which he refuses and he will hide behind a mask of stubborn hope. In this scenario, then, Shelley, as Byron, sees the poet both as a prophet and a Titan who will challenge the world through his art. So the poet’s task is to help mankind to reach an ideal world where freedom, love and beauty are delivered from their enemies, such as tyranny, destruction and alienation.
Nature as a Source of Joy and Pleasure
As far as Nature is concerned, Shelley’s theory is that it sympathises with man, and is for him an eternal source of joy and happiness. He shares with Wordsworth the idea that nature is permeated by the great Spiritual Force which animates everything (Shelley proclaimed himself an Atheist, yet he did believe in a universal spiritual source, of which man is a part. Man may change, decay and die, but his spirit will join the eternal Spirit of the Universe, which continually creates new life.) But, unlike Wordsworth, he found no message for man in it, only pleasure. Moreover, while Wordsworth’s inspiration was never originated by direct sensation, but by recollection of it, Shelley’s was immediate. Ecstasy was in fact the product of direct perception, which he considered superior even to the thought and feeling. It was indeed a kind of sensation in a pure state, so deep and intense as to perceive even the most immaterial aspects of nature. Perception alone, therefore, could lead to total mutuality and identification between man and nature.
Writing Techniques and Style
Shelley uses images and symbols to render his ideas vivid to the reader, often contrasting with the accepted associations. His poetic style is very rich and, at times, his use of metaphors and symbols make it difficult to understand what he really means. However, once the reader grasps the meaning of his verse, then it is possible to fully enjoy the wealth of his poetic imagery and the musicality of his lines. He uses a wide range of metric and stanzaic forms (he mastered well the Spenserian stanzas, the couplet, the blank verse and Dante’s terza rima.) He wrote political ballads, classical elegies but he is best remembered for his short lyric poetry.
JOHN KEATS (1795-1821)
Keats is perhaps the greatest and most representative of the Romantic poets belonging to the second generation, although he was barely known outside the circle of his intellectual friends he later achieved fame and consideration. He is Romantic because of his fondness of sensation, the Middle Ages, the Greek civilisation and the idea of the artist which he all blended together along with the cold Neo-classical love for reason while coming up with a very personal synthesis of all these elements, as Ugo Foscolo did.
He was born in London and belonged to a humble but comfortable family. He soon devoted his life to writing and literature in an almost religious pursuit of art. Family tragedies (his mother and brother died of tuberculosis), financial problems and a hopeless love affair (he fell in love with Fanny Brawne) shadowed his life. He himself died of TB at twenty-five. His poetry obviously resented and was greatly influenced by his impending death and tragic events of his life in fact most of his poems are imbued with a sense of melancholy, death and mortality. Keats believed in the absolute essence of poetry and thought of it as the only reason to live, the only means to defeat and overcome death. Poetry was to spring naturally from his inner soul, it wasn’t meant to contain a message or convey a philosophical theory, but only to reproduce what the poet’s imagination suggested.
Keats’ central theme of all his poetry is imagination mainly concerned with beauty because it was the only consolation he found in a life full of sadness and misunderstanding. The memory of beauty was to him a source of pure joy. Beauty could be either physical or spiritual and both are interwoven, but physical beauty was the expression of the spiritual, which was eternal and immortal. An artist dies but the beauty he has created through his art lives beyond him.
Another theme dear to him was that of nature and, like it was for Wordsworth, he was deeply inspired by it although, unlike his predecessor, nature represents for Keats yet a different form of beauty, since, he stated that the beauty that originates from the imagination is far more superior than the one perceived by the senses because it is the creative imagination that bestows upon beauty a greatness that mere perception lacks.
Keats idea of the poet was that of a man capable of experiencing uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason. In other words his confused theory of the “negative capability”, sees the poet as capable of shedding his own identity so as not to be concerned with a moral judgement thus, opening himself fully to the complex reality around him. He turned to the distant classical work for inspiration, but he recreated and re-interpreted it with the eyes of a Romantic.
The medieval past made up of legends; magic and supernatural elements constitute his third great source of inspiration. He recreates these elements through his own Romantic imagination and the result is an atmosphere always sensual and somewhat morbid.
His exaltation of beauty above all human qualities inspired nearly all the English 19th century poets. After his death he became the idol of writers such as Tennyson, Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes, who saw in his Cult of Beauty the exaltation of Art for Art’s sake. Keats, however, did not perceive beauty as a mere aesthetic concept, to him it was a moral one as well. It wasn’t an end in itself, but a source of good and consolation. Generation after generation could communicate not only the joy of art, but above all the of life itself.
Keats’ best works were written between 1816 and 1819 and he earned everlasting fame through the one wrote before he was twenty-five. His production can be roughly grouped into:
Early Minor Poems (1816-17)
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, on his delight at reading George Chapman’s 17th century translation of Homer’s Odyssey.
Sleep and Poetry, showing Wordsworth’s influence on his poetry and containing an invective against the Augustan tradition in English poetry.
I Stood Tip-Toe, which shows Keats’ enthusiasm for Greek myth and natural beauty.
Narrative Poems (1818-19)
Endymion, a long poem in four books in rhymed couplets, on the love of the shepherd Endymion for the moon goddess Diana. It is an immature work full of obscure allegory.
Isabella or the Pot of Basil, a story in “ottava rima” based on a grotesque and tragic tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Hyperion, an unfinished epic and mythological fragment on the defeat of the Titans by the Gods (reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost).
The Fall of Hyperion; A Dream: it is a remake of the previous work in which he changed the introduction and some of the text, trying to shake off his art Milton’s influence.
The Eve of St. Agnes, a romantic love story in the midst of a family feud, it echoes Romeo and Juliet. It is written in Spenserian stanzas and its pure, rich diction makes it a masterpiece.
Lamia, the story of a witch who is transformed by Hermes from a serpent into a beautiful maiden and then into a serpent again.
Lyrical Poems (1819-1820)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a ballad on the idealisation of romantic love.
When I Have Fears
Bright Stars are both sonnets.
The Great Odes
Ode to Psyche
Ode to a Nightingale
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ode on Melancholy
Ode on Indolence
(including the ones written to Fanny Brawne), described by Eliot as “the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet”.
© L. R. Capuana