Romanticism emerged as a reaction to three important trends in the 1700s. One was the Age of Enlightenment, the idea that reason was all important. The Romantics believed that reason could only take you so far. To get a true understanding of life, you needed intuition and feeling. The second was a reaction against classicism, which emphasized order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality. The Romantics thought that life was wild and even messy. They thought that experience could not be squeezed into something orderly and calm. The last was a reaction against materialism, which was the pursuit of money and wealth. Materialism increased with the Industrial Revolution. As factories were built in the cities to make wool into cloth, farmers were force off the land where they had lived and worked for generations. Work life in the factories was dirty and dangerous. Small children had to work twelve or more hours, six days a week. Many were killed on the job and the factory owners did not care. The terrible condition of life in the cities was one of the main reasons that the Romantics appreciated nature so much.
Romanticism in England is most commonly connected at first with the poets William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. These three are known as the early Romantics. Later other great poets would come along. The most important of the later Romantics were John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord George Byron. Coleridge and Wordsworth, who wrote the book "Lyrical Ballads" together in 1798, said in the preface of the book,
"The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure."
The quotation illustrates that Romanticism was a new idea and that the common people mattered in this revolutionary movement.
In the beginning of Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" he uses common language: "By thy long gray beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am the next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din."
Classical poets would not have started out a poem in a street scene like this. These are common people attending a friend's wedding, and they are not interested in what this mariner has to tell them, but Coleridge spends the rest of the poem making them.
In William Blake's "London" he describes the hardships caused by the industrial revolution: "In every cry of Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear,"
Blake shows that people think that they are trapped because they have been accustomed to the routines and jobs that are not natural. Romantics see freedom from these "mind-forged manacles" as what people should be striving for.
In the next stanza he takes a shot at kings and governments: "And the hapless Soldiers sigh,
Runs in blood down Palace walls,"
The poem ends with Blake equating marriage with death:
"And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse."
In contrast to "London" Blake wrote poems like "Piping down the Valleys Wild" which, instead of showing what is bad, shows the good things that romantics stand for: "Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me,
"Pipe a song about a Lamb";
So I piped with merry chear.
"Piper pipe that song again."
So I piped, he wept to hear."
The child in this poem represents what people start out life as. This idea shows that life is a corrupting experience....