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The Romantic Period

1. When was it?

c.1785-c.1830

2. Who was writing?

William BlakeRobert Burns
Mary WollstonecraftWilliam Wordsworth
Dorothy WordsworthSamuel Taylor Coleridge
George Gordon, Lord ByronPercy Bysshe Shelley
John Keats

3. History

The Enlightenment had brought about great social transformation in England, with endeavours for a fairer social model and an embracing of scientific, industrial and philosophical order. Such feelings were not only in England: a want for better conditions led to revolutions in France and America. 
The fallout from the former transformed Europe. Napoleon installed himself as emperor and duly attempted to restructure Western Europe, taking land and reducing Spanish influence so much that the Spanish Empire in Latin America crumbled. However, nationalism and anti-French sentiment created resistance coalitions, and England was a key player in the Napoleonic Wars. When the coalitions won, France’s subsequent weakness led to the creation of the states of Italy and Germany, and set the stage for the dominance of the British Empire.
Many artists and commoners supported the ideals of the French Revolution: revolutionary thought, greater liberty, enhanced rights, and rising artistic importance. The sense of living in extraordinary times was labelled ‘a spirit of the age’, and although disappointed with what followed, the romantic ideals were sown. A feeling that English arts had stalled during the Enlightenment, as science and logic dominated, further fanned the idea of an artist as a revolutionary.
Romanticism was an attempt to fight against the rationalisation of the era by injecting feelings and imagination into its arts. Whilst science could continue with objectivity, art should represent the emotion of the heart.

4. Traits

Romanticism primarily placing emotion over reason, and so concepts such as love, fear, awe, and personal expression became the most obvious characteristics of the genre. As an offshoot of this, most romanticism involves individualism rather than social critiques.
The catalysts for expressing this emotion included previously used ideas, such as love. However, the movement also heavily embraced nature. Whereas factories, cities and trading were becoming fundamental parts of modern life, Romanticism looked at the grandeur of the environment. Furthermore, unlike previous artists, the Romantics were not only interested in their emotions stirred by beauty, but also the sublime. This meant that even the ugly, vast, or over-powering was venerated.
Along with nature, the supernatural was a common side feature of Romantic work, as were the daring tales of Greek and Roman mythology. The Romantic hero was a frequently described individual, and had similarities to the ancient heroes: driven by emotions, keen to seek experience, and not controlled by organisations and authorities, he was viewed as wild and passionate.
For many, the Romantic Period has come to be defined by six poets: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The poets themselves had varying careers and lifestyles: the wild and early deaths of Byron, Shelley and Keats whilst living in Europe counters Wordsworth, who grew old and conservative back in Britain.

5. Timeline

The Lives of the Romantic Poets

1792Wordsworth has an illegitimate child in France, for whom he financially pays for the next 37 years.
1807While in Malta, Coleridge begins a full-blown opium addiction that will plague him until he dies in 1834, with the final 18 years having to be spent living with his doctor.
1808The wealthy young Byron travels the East, racking up huge debts over the next three years.
1812Byron becomes a celebrity with the release of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
Two of Wordsworth’s five non-illegitimate children die within 3 months of each other.
1813Byron meets his half-sister, with whom he is rumoured to start an incestuous relationship.
1814Byron’s half-sister has a child.
Despite having a child and pregnant wife, 21-year old Shelley persuades 16-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of his mentor, to run away to Europe with him. They also take her sister Claire for her French skills, but leave another sister Fanny, who is in love with Shelley. Mary becomes pregnant. When they return, Mary’s father disowns her.
1815The Shelleys’ child dies.
Byron escapes rumours and debts by marrying into money and having a child. However, his infidelity – including with both his half-sister and Mary Godwin’s sister, Claire – ruin the marriage within a year.
1816Byron’s wife leaves him, taking their child. Disgraced and in debt, Byron abandons the UK for Europe, where he rents a palace in Venice and promptly starts an affair with his landlord’s wife.
Yearning for Byron, Claire convinces Mary and Shelley to travel to Europe with her, and invites Byron to meet Shelley. The four travel around Europe, and Claire becomes pregnant with Byron’s child.
Mary, Shelley and Claire return to England, whereupon the other sister, Fanny, kills herself.
Two months later, Shelley’s abandoned wife also kills herself.
Shelley marries Mary, hoping to get his children back, but the courts don’t give him custody. Shelley and his wife, Mary Shelley, repair their relationship with her father.
1817Claire has Byron’s child. With Byron still in Europe, the Shelleys support the child and daughter.
Shelley befriends John Keats.
Byron ends his affair with the landlord’s wife to start one with the wife of a sick, unemployed baker.
The two mistresses meet and fight. Byron sells his Scottish family home, making himself liquid again.
1818Byron finds a new, bigger palace where he keeps animals, including monkeys. He begins affairs with both a married 19-year old Countessa and another married woman, abandoning the baker’s wife, who tries to commit suicide twice. Meanwhile, Venetians get used to see Byron swimming in The Grand Canal, sometimes fully dressed in the height of fashion.
The Shelleys and Claire move to Italy so Byron’s daughter can meet her father. During their stay in Italy, the Shelleys lose a child in infancy, and then register another child of unknown parentage.
Rumours suggest a child of Shelley and Claire, Shelley and a maid, or an abandoned child they found.
Byron writes letters home saying he has had over 200 lovers since moving to Italy, costing him £2500, and then names the women and their sexual skills.
In England, a penniless Keats befriends Coleridge.
1819The Shelleys lose another child.
1820The Shelleys’ child of unknown parentage dies.
In England, Keats is now seriously ill and decides to recover in Italy.
1821Keats, aged 25, dies.
Byron puts his daughter into a convent and then ignores her. The daughter dies the following year.
1822Shelley drowns, aged 29, while sailing in Italy. Death is officially ruled an accident caused by a sudden storm, although there are rumours of both suicide and a botched effort to kill Byron.
1823Byron decides to abandon his life in Italy and join the fight for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, for which he charters a boat and sails to Greece. He then spends £4000 on fixing Greek navy boats, and gives £6000 to a group of Greeks that claim the Greek government owes them money, leading to several people trying to extort more money from him. He adopts a 9 year old Turkish girl, and tries to seduce his Greek boy servant, who takes more of his money.
1824Byron becomes ill and, after trying bloodletting as a cure, dies of a cold at the age of 36.

6. Examples

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud 
by William Wordsworth

Know Your Book

Title: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (a.k.a. Daffodils)
Author: William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Published: 1804
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; lyrical poetry
Synopsis: The poet goes for a walk and comes across some daffodils beside a lake. Struck by their beauty, he admires how they ‘dance’ in the wind more delightfully than the waves, and feels great happiness. The daffodils become a joyful memory: later, whenever the poet feels anxious at home, he simply recollects the daffodils and happiness returns.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

She Walks in Beauty 
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Know Your Book

Title: She Walks in Beauty
Author: Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) (1788-1824)
Published: 1814
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; lyrical poetry
Synopsis: The poet speaks about a beautiful unknown woman he sees. The woman appears to walk in an aura of beauty, which the poet first notes by saying all light and darkness exist in her eyes. He continues to say that her face expresses serene thoughts, with her features being soft, calm and eloquent. His conclusion is that this is the face of a kind soul, whose thoughts are peaceful and heart is innocent.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

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