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Certain key critical concepts resound through Romanticism. The conceptual master events of the age – to adapt a phrase of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s – have generally been seen as nature, selfhood, and the imagination. It is a critical commonplace that Romanticism paid more attention to nature in its sublime aspects as opposed to the preoccupation with a more ordered and restrained account of nature which was adopted in the earlier eighteenth century. William Wordsworth described how as a young man in the English Lake District he encountered both the sublime and the beautiful sides of the natural world, and was ‘fostered alike by beauty and by fear’ (The Prelude, 1805, i, 306). This terminology is of course Burkean, and Edmund Burke’s 1757 aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry Into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, strongly influenced both Romantic poetry and the Gothic novel in this period. Test
Returning to our narrative of traditional accounts of Romanticism, William Wordsworth is generally seen as espousing a new form of poetry which builds on the neo-classical model of ‘mimesis’ or imitation in favour of a more expressive model of self-expression, ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’ as he calls in it the ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads (1802). For Wordsworth, poetry was a mixture of the mimetic and the expressive, what he calls ‘an ennobling interchange of action from within and from without’ (The Prelude, 1805, xii, 376-7) and the creative imagination, that key Romantic critical concept, informs much of high Romantic argument, whether in moments of inspiration and power, as per ‘Daffodils’ or in darker moments, as per Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Dejection. An Ode’, or in much of Lord Byron’s work, most particularly in the self-tormenting Byronic figure (Byron offered a notion of poetry as a darker form of expression than that evident in Wordsworth: the ‘lava of the imagination’ (‘Letter to Annabella Millbanke’, 1813) as he called it).
A series of critical concepts echo through the first generation of Romantic poets: nature, the sublime, the creative imagination, ‘spots of time’ (The Prelude, 1805, xi, 258) (key moments in Wordsworth’s life on which he looked back for imaginative nourishment in his adult existence). Robert Southey captures some of the essence of such Romanticism when he quoted, in a note to his 1805 poem Madoc, the words of the Welsh bard, Iolo Morganwg:
‘The three primary and indispensible requisites of POETIC GENIUS are, an EYE THAT CAN SEE NATURE, a HEART THAT CAN FEEL NATURE, and a RESOLUTION THAT DARES FOLLOW NATURE’
(The Poetical Works of Robert Southey, London: Longman, Green and Roberts, 1860, Vol 5, p. 183).
As we have seen, the second generation of male Romantic poets added theoretical developments and nuances of their own, in such concepts as Byron’s lava of imagination, and Byronism itself, through to John Keats’ twin notions of the ‘egotistical sublime’, a self-possessed poetic iconoclasm best encapsulated, he thought, in William Wordsworth, and ‘negative capability’, an empathetic ability to accept other points of view, best exemplified in William Shakespeare. In Shelley, we see both political radicalism and an idealistic take on the importance of poetry and of poets (who ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (A Defence of Poetry, 1821)).
More recently, historians of women’s poetry of the Romantic age have argued that the conceptual iconography of male Romanticism does not approximate to the poetical concerns of the major female poets of the late Georgian era. They have focused attention, for instance, on matters to do with the social, family, motherhood, and commonality, in the work of Mary Robinson, isolation, grief, and separation in that of Charlotte Smith, and the celebrations of both female creativity and national potency in the later work of Felicia Hemans.
There is much secondary literature in this Routledge Historical Resource on these key critical concepts which resound through Romantic poetry and prose. In this resource, you will find work on the critical and philosophical thought of the Romantics, from general accounts such as Roland A. Duerksen’s ‘The Critical Mode in British Romanticism’ to studies of individual authors, such as S. T. Coleridge (J. R. de J. Jackson’s Method and Imagination in Coleridge’s Criticism), John Keats (Shahidha Kazi Bari’s Keats and Philosophy) and William Wordsworth (W. J. B. Owen’s Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism