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Transcript of English Romanticism
1798 - 1832
Historical eras are not bright lines. For example, the Romantic Period, according to some (and with good cause), actually began with the French Revolution in 1789. Our text, being more literary minded, begins it in 1798 with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge's _Lyrical Balads_.
Even though many eras have ambiguous beginnings, the Romantic Period is still odd.
It's the smallest literary period, spanning only 34 years.
What could have happened in those 34 years to make this period so important?
E. T. A. Hoffmann in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with dramatic imagery:
Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony-Romanticism
Pachelbel's Canon in D -
Theme from a Summer Place - 1959
Break on Through (to the Other Side)
The Doors - 1967
One of the first things we should realize about historical eras is that they are sometimes reactive. Like a pendulum, an historical era may reach one extreme only to swing back to the other extreme. Of course the analogy is a bit rough, but in some significant ways, the Romantic Period can be seen as a reaction against the Enlightenment.
Historically, the Enlightenment had focused predominantly on stability, but with the advent of the Romantic Period, the pendulum had swung to the opposite side – change. These rapid changes, evident not only politically and socially, but also economically, took the form of REVOLUTIONS!
Revolutions toward the end of the Enlightenment, set the stage for the Romantic Period. The American Revolution (1775-1783), though embarrassing, was not seen as a world-changer for the British (most likely because they assumed the fledgling nation wouldn’t last long), but the revolution’s focus on personal freedoms and representative democracy did inspire others (namely, liberal British poets and French revolutionaries).
In fact, when the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, Romantic poets heartily approved the armed uprising of the poor against the entitled, callous, oppressive aristocracy – that is until…
The Reign of Terror (1793-1794) led to tens of thousands of French aristocratic and middle-class deaths, including 16,594 executed by guillotine alone. This bloody turn shocked the British who were aware of Britain’s own class struggles. Suddenly, reform movements that had seemed benign were now regarded with suspicion. If the lower classes were granted too much power and freedom, would they revolt like the French had? Would London’s streets run red with blood like Paris’s?
Worse, the Reign of Terror allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to take over the French government. After declaring himself emperor, he attempted to conquer most of Europe. So much for an American-style democracy!
Fortunately Napoleon’s fleet was resoundingly defeated by Horatio Nelson’s British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, saving Britain from the threat of invasion, but Napoleon didn’t meet his final defeat until 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. (From that point on, the term “Waterloo” has taken on the meaning of one’s final defeat!)
More fundamentally, a completely different revolution was occurring in England that would change the landscape of not only Britain, but the entire world – The INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION!
"The era known as the Industrial Revolution was a period in which fundamental changes occurred in agriculture, textile and metal manufacture, transportation, economic policies and the social structure in England. This period is appropriately labeled “revolution,” for it thoroughly destroyed the old manner of doing things; yet the term is simultaneously inappropriate, for it connotes abrupt change. The changes that occurred during this period (1760-1850), in fact, occurred gradually." - Joseph A. Montagna
Watt Steam Engine
These technological advancements transformed Britain's economy from an agricultural one to an industrial one. Though these advancements brought many positive effects, there were many negative effects too such as increasing poverty, appalling work conditions, and oppression of workers through laissez-faire economic policies that reduced government interference in business.
But wait, how could technological advancements increase poverty?
Simple! Advanced technology meant that work was done more efficiently - fewer workers were needed to produce the same product, so many workers lost their jobs. This loss of employment led some workers to riot and try to destroy the machinery they saw as replacing them. These became know as "Luddite" riots, and ever since, to be known as a "Luddite" meant you were against new technologies.
In response to these negative effects of political and economic revolution, Romantic writers turned to nature for truth and beauty!
The publication of _Lyrical Ballads_ in 1798 best summed up
the attitudes of Romantic poets and defined five features of
Side note - "Romantic" poets aren't about "love" per se; the term comes from German literary critics and could refer to medieval romances, which came from the French "roman," meaning simply story. The term may try to evince a more primitive literature outside the confines of "classical" ideas and rules.
Five features of English romanticism:
Emphasis on personal experience and the glorification of the individual
Poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling" - valuing emotion and imagination as opposed to Neoclassicism's logic and artificiality
Love of nature as catalyst for self-discovery and antidote to civilization's industrial dehumanization
Celebration of the ordinary and commonplace
Fascination with the supernatural and exotic
split between the natural and supernatural
Wordsworth's poetry concentrated on the Natural and commonplace:
"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:"
Coleridge's poetry focused on the Supernatural
"Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold."
Wordsworth and Coleridge, along with William Blake, make up the Early Romantics.
They would be akin to today's Rock 'n' Roll gods like early John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
The Late generation Romantic poets included
Percy Bysshe Shelley
These guys lived fast and died young.
They were the rock stars of their time!
(Think Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix!)
Poetry wasn't the only genre around. Novels, which had been introduced during the Enlightenment, also took on new flavors.
Historical novels, such as those written by Sir Walter Scott, focused on traditional legends and folk tales.
Novels of manners, such as those written by Jane Austen,
focused on the daily life of genteel rural villages. Though she
is in some ways a very Neoclassical writer, her emphasis on the
commonplace and the emotions of her characters suggest some
The most romantic of the novels were gothic novels!
Mary Shelley's novel _Frankenstein_ is typical of the genre where mystery and horror abound!
The keys that I want
you to remember for
this unit are the contrasting
traits. A cool way to understand
this contrast is with music.
A more familiar way to look at this contrast
is with the music of the '50s and '60s
Did you know?
The band The Doors took its name from Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception, the title of which was a reference to a William Blake quotation: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."
Even though the '60s saw its share of excess,
it did succeed in several reform movements.
Likewise, the Romantic Period had its ups and
downs. The period ended on a high note though: in 1832, Parliament passed the first Reform Bill, ushering in a new era of greater awareness of social issues. Rock on!
Gothic - generally refers to anything "medieval"
To neoclassicists, gothic = “barbaric"
To romantics, it was a positive term relating to the medieval, natural, primitive, wild, free, authentic, and romantic.
The Beauty of Nature
Beauty in design and symmetry
The Orderliness of Nature
A chart that contrasts Neoclassic and Romantic traits will prove helpful as you analyze Romantic writing
Even though they were rock stars, they
were rock stars with a social conscience!
Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland,
should be mentioned in this group too.
His focus was on traditional folk songs,
kind of like Arlo Guthrie or Bob Dylan.