Now that my week-long break is over, I just started a new class (2, actually) at SNHU for my Master’s program. And because I am sick and tired of not posting to here regularly, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the period we are studying in the class: British Romanticism.
Here is what I wrote for my first post. I particularly was intrigued by the stuff on Keats.
They Felt Things
The following is a painting by German artist Caspar David Friedrich called “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Crafted in 1818, this oil painting is everything presently connoted with Romanticism. Take a look:
The notable thing about the painting and, in turn, the era, is the contrast between the foreground and the background. The foreground features a human male on a rock surveying the water (background). He is on a solid foundation gazing upon the unstable landscape of a powerful earth. The background, the insurgent waves crashing against the solid foreground, is bold and dynamic, with angry brush strokes and an omniscient grace that almost combats the human wanderer. This contrast, this combat between the author and the subject, is quintessential of an era when artist and author grappled with nature, emotion, and reason in work after work.
Transcribing a 40-year period into a pretty sentence is typically foolish, but if it were ever to be attempted, the aforementioned grappling with emotion, nature, and reason (of which I encompass everything from philosophy to social commentary) would need to be included to properly discuss British Romanticism. The textbook for this course does an excellent job in establishing the groundwork for the period, explaining at length the political, social, and intellectual landscapes of the era. Almost all of them were associated with an aspect of revolution.
As is explained in the early pages of “The Age of Romanticism,” the ideals of British Romanticism can be traced to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The emotional fervor of the falling of the Bastille in 1789 synthesized a new landscape in which: “A new dawn was on the horizon. For liberals and for many authors, artists, and intellectuals this dawn was a rosy one, promising not only greater equality and better government in France itself; but also the beginning of a thoroughgoing transformation of the world” (XXXVII). Yet that optimism didn’t exactly pan out. The following 30-40 years resulted in terror and military overreach that further rooted the ideal expectations of the intellectual class and the reality of the, for lack of better terms, secular society.
For a moment, before taking a look at the Industrial Revolution and the effects it had on a society who had already been disrupted by social and political uncertainty, I want to interrupt and explain how I would – and intend to – engage my classmates in further discussions about romanticism (This is just in case that part of the prompt wasn’t rhetorical). The thought of expectations versus reality, of an ideal overwrought with sensibility versus the reality on any given situation or object keeps bringing my mind back to the following scene from the movie 500 Days of Summer:
Had any of the authors we will read about in this course been alive today, I’d like to think their sensibilities would manifest in a way similar to this scene does. Implementing, analyzing, and contrasting video like this is crucial in crafting a thought that exists on many levels. It’s what I would/will do.
Refocusing on the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the burgeoning period of British Romanticism, it’s important to look at, as the textbook notes, the pace of change that occurred in the nation. From the book: “From being a largely rural nation with a largely agricultural economy, Britain became an urban nation with an economy based in manufacturing. James Watt’s refinement of the steam engine and James Hargreaves’ invention of the Spinning Jenny … were only the most famous of a host of changes that produced a boom in industrialization” (XLI). Families with long histories farming were being cast aside, forced into abject poverty, begging to eat and living in the wilderness. Moreover, the wealth began to become concentrated differently. Business and factory owners began to develop power and funds, creating a class of new money to reside somewhere between the old money, the people without any money, and the nobles that had one or the other. Authors like Jane Austen focused on this heavily in their pieces.
Thus far the biggest factors of the romantic discussion have been the social mobility brought by the Industrial Revolution and the political dissent caused by the French Revolution. In addition to explaining the foundations of British Romanticism in the aforementioned periods, “The Age of Romanticism” lists five subheads that are crucial in understanding to properly develop a full idea of what British Romanticism was about. And while each subsection obviously had a substantial impact on the era, the one that needs to be discussed further is “The Romantic Mind and Its Literary Productions.”
The key takeaway from this sub-heading is that while all of the external change in society was happening, an internal change was occurring in many of the authors and artists of the time period. As the book notes: “It was very much an individual freedom; the freeing of the individual mind and the individual soul took pride of place. Subjective experience and the role that is played in the individual’s response to and experience of reality are dominant themes in the works of romantics” (L). The experience of reality could be everything from the world of politics to social structure, nature, human and non-human, to falling in love. And while this could go on speaking about the minutia of the business practices or the changes in phonetics, it’s important to remember that British Romanticism, at its core, is all about a feeling.
To end (and I’m going to break back into first for the moment), there was a poem by Keats that I rather enjoyed as it expresses the ideals of the period yet does some other things really interestingly. Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Mercy” is about a woman the speaker meets on a hillside. The speaker becomes infatuated with her, making her trinkets and showing her every affection of love. But with the turn the speaker dreams of kings, princes, and warriors who give warning on the fairy’s child. Letting him know that “La belle dame sans mercy hath thee in thrall” (825). The poem obviously has romantic signifiers. The speaker starts of in nature, is taken aback, as if he were wrapped up in some sort of fever storm, by a woman, dotes upon her incessantly, and then questions all of it, ending back in nature. Obviously nature is a constant, something that can be seen in a lot of romantic works. The woman, while she isn’t exactly a temptress (although she is a fairy’s child – an unobtainable object), is inconsistent, as she isn’t there in the beginning or the end of the story. The change, however, exists in the feelings of the speaker. The first and last graphs are completely the same with the exception of their first lines, representing some sort of shift in the speaker.
Another thing about the Keats poem that is immensely interesting is the difference between the titles in the first and the second draft. According to the footnotes the second draft, from the previous paragraph, was published in 1820. The first draft, found in letters to George and Georgina Keats (by the way, who marries someone that has almost exactly the same first name they do?), was first printed in 1848. The intriguing thing about them (one of the intriguing things) is the difference in titles. The second draft is written, “La Belle Dame Sans Mercy” and the second is penned, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The only difference is in the last letter of the last word. So, the residing question, why change it in 1820? The idea I am running with, and would love to find scholarly info on if I ever got the shot to write an article on Keats, is that he made the initial change from “Merci” to Mercy” to insert a bit of British sentiment. If the British were so taken aback by the events in France in the period, wouldn’t it only be natural to insert themselves into some French context? Furthermore, if that is the case, how does that change the meaning of the poem? Does the poem shift from a pre-gothic sensibility whining about a woman and move into a perceived notion of how the French treats kings and princes (of which France executes and the brits admire)? The shift from I to Y is very pronounced and worthy of being discussed.
The last thing about this poem, romanticism, and writing/literature in general is the fact the first draft was published after Keats’ death. To that I only have the following: this proves that sense writing/literature began to be distributed, editors are only out for a buck.
Keats, John. “La Belle Dame Sans Mercy.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Toronto. Broadview. 825. 2010. Print.