The Concept of the Individual in Literature of the Romantic Period

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This essay will explore how the newly important concept of the individual in literature of

the Romantic period influenced the genre, and in particular how this was a response to the

rationalization of nature and neglect of the individual upheld by the Enlightenment

Movement. In order to demonstrate this, a close analysis of some poetic works by Samuel

Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and William Blake will be examined.

The Romantic period placed great importance on creativity, imagination and the value of

the self, Wordsworth and Coleridge were particularly influential in Britain with regards to

the burgeoning of the movement. The movement of romanticism and its concern with the

importance of the individual was the antithesis of the philosophy of enlightenment and its

concern with such views as held by the Empiricists. Their Philosophical beliefs were

primarily concerned with a theory of knowledge, the notion that experience is crucial to

the formulation of ideas, which gave very little allowance for creative development or

freedom of the human spirit. The Romantics fascination with imagination, art and the self

is a critical response to the almost mechanical viewpoint of many of the figure heads of

the Enlightenment movement. Peter Widdowson writes that ‘the characteristics of

Romanticism in its celebration of nature and the natural goodness of human nature, its

valuing of feeling and emotion over reason, and its propagation of an educational method

in which a pupil would develop freely in accordance with the inclinations of their own

innate nature' (English Literature and its Contexts, pg 91) Jacques Barzun also writes that

‘Romanticism places a high value upon the individual. According to some, it exaggerates

the worth and power of the individual man' (Classic Romantic and Modern, pg 6) and

while I would agree with the fact that Romantic Literature embraced the idea of the

individual I would disagree that this worth was unjust as it quite positively encouraged a

sense of freedom that allowed writers to explore their emotions and then express them

openly and honestly within their work. The Romantics interest in the idea of the

individual is reflected in their fascination with nature and the knowledge of ones true self,

it also praises uniqueness and the exploration of human mental potentialities. The

Romantics endeavoured to acquire an affinity with nature and a greater respect for the

individuality of humans and believed that we as individuals were not subject to any kind

of scientific control but that the ultimate shaping of the individual could be achieved

through the power of imagination and emotion.

"Frost at Midnight" by Coleridge is a conversational poem that perfectly captures the core

beliefs of the Romantics, their fascination with imagination. In this poem it is expressed

through relation to the speakers (Coleridge) surroundings, through his connection with

the past, present and hopes for the future. In terms of Romantic poetry it is very typical in

that it explores the effects that nature has upon the imagination and ultimately the

relationship of humans and the natural world. The first line portrays a scene of

tranquillity, one that is certainly conducive to quiet reflection, "The Frost performs its

secret ministry, Unhelped by any wind" (Coleridge Complete Poetical Works, pg 240)

allowing Coleridge to explore the spatiality of his own mind;

"thin blue flame

Lies on my low-burnt fire,

and quivers not;

Only that film, which fluttered on the grate"

(Coleridge Complete Poetical Works, pg 240) this film "flaps" and "freaks" just as his

own mind fills with fluttering thoughts over which he has no control.

The power of individual thought is most definitely integral to this work;

"Tis Calm indeed! So calm, that it...
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