Thematic Perspectives of the Romantic Movement
The Romantic Movement was an artistic expression against the aristocracy’s political and social ideals of the eighteenth century including the crusade of scientists to rationalize the beauty and truth in nature. Poets during the Romantic Movement took their task seriously, finding freedom of expression against the conformity and idealistic mores of their time by employing common archetypal themes against the aristocracy and the loss of innocence. With that said, a look will be taken into three of the main themes: that of the love for nature, democracy, and individualism, by analyzing the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and William Blake for their deeper meanings and political and social commentary.
To begin with, Romanticism and the Romantic Movement grew from a compulsion to discover and discuss the beauty in nature, untamed, un-harnessed by scientists or strip malls. Poetry in this form defined a passion hardly expressed before in combination with social commentary and serves the greater purpose of highlighting the theme of loving nature and its picturesque abilities for both beauty and truth apart from outside influences or interference.
In nature materializes the path to the soul, and with that, many people believe, a knowledge and understanding of God. Many modern mediation techniques require the participant to walk in silence and solitude on a forest path (or other natural park or path, without distractions of the sounds and attitudes of the city) for the purpose of finding the spiritual realm through understanding nature and the beauty and truth that it possesses.
It might seem, to many critics, that “the romanticists were trying to reach God” (Riasanovsky, 82). And, indeed, they did. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” illustrates not only a need to communicate and be acknowledged by God, but also a recognition of the divine in this world. Within the poem, the speaker is essentially pleading with the West Wind, an all-powerful being, to imbue him with its power to manifest and create. As the wind is just, after all, wind, the speaker decides, by Stanza Five, to request that the wind “make me thy lyre (Shelley, ln 57), and to “play” the speaker as if they were a leaf or a wave in the ocean. Indeed, the wind could be a powerful force for the speaker, and as a result, the speaker requests that the wind “drive my dead thoughts over the universe…scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth/ashes and sparks, my words among mankind…[and make them] the trumpet of a prophecy” (lns 63-69). In this, the speaker of the poem is praying to the wind, the divine being of the sky and universe, to help to share the speaker’s ideas throughout the world in the hopes that the ideas might inspire, even if the ideas are nothing compared to the power that the wind yields.
Shelley’s poetry is pure Romanticism. Metaphorically, the wind serves as the everlasting, all-encompassing, all-knowing hand of God, a heavenly essence from the realm of the divine. The West Wind, specifically, highlights the changing in seasons, from the cold and barren soils of winter, to the fertile and lush gardens of spring. This, indeed, is nature at its finest. Even further, Shelley uses the poetic device of employing the speaker of the poem to have a conversation with the West Wind—a conversation that could be read, almost, as a prayer, a pleading, to a higher power. More, it is in this element that a reader of this poem can better understand the value of nature when seeking the divine. For, in nature lies the truth—it is unyielding, always present, and will always change with the seasons—just as one’s relationship with God or a higher power might change, yet be always present, throughout a lifetime.
From Shelley’s poetry as an example, it can be said that “more emphasis might be placed on the quasi identity of the central romantic paradox and the basic Christian orientation: the finite and the infinite, continuous struggle unto death toward the ideal, man and God…except that the essence of God was changing” (Riasanovsky, 82). What many causal readers failed to understand is that Romanticism was the rise of a new era, not just for poetry, but for religion and spiritual understanding as well. In a study and love for nature, poets found an outlet for finding and recognizing God in the world around them, which served, in its own way, as a small spark for the Christian religion—a spark that sent many Christians looking for God in places they never would have considered before, opening up the ideal that God is not only everywhere, but could be anything—that God was always around, and always listening. God, for the first time, was truly an omniscient, all-encompassing being.
This thematic perspective is defined by the “human inability to adequately address God, speak of God, or praise God…of course, [is] commonplace in Christianity” (Riasanovsky, 82). More, the main problem in any religion, especially Christianity, is the need to feel an awareness to the deity being worshipped. People lose faith if they pray to empty halls, despite the hymns and church functions. The true God, one worth worshipping, is the God that people can find within themselves and within the world around them—and it is this profound, transcendent commentary which fed the fire of Romantic poetry.
Further, the aristocratic ideals following the Industrial Revolution served to, at least to many Romantic poets, destroy the very foundation of democracy—by focusing solely on material means and gains—and it was their solemn task to expose these harmful ideals to the public in the only method that would allow them such self-expression without recrimination. Indeed, with the employment of metaphors, similes, and analogies, anything became possible for their commentary as they could claim that these literary forms had many meanings and parallels, especially to the reader, and the poets had little control over what the people who read their poems chose to believe. Moreover, “modern readers are frequently bored, annoyed, or even disgusted by the endless replaying…of the romantic agony, whether on the subject of love, friendship, artistic creativity, or other pursuits and by what the psychologists would call the persistent non-adjustive response of the protagonists” (Riasanovsky, 82) and thus the analogies and commentaries became more clever to maintain their audience.
Indeed, in metaphors came the path to truth and served as their breeding ground for clever and precise social commentary. As seen in William Wordsworth’s “The World is too Much with Us,” Wordsworth takes the theme of nature up a level to define man’s spiritual loss by choosing and focusing solely upon material means. Wordsworth believed that while materialism might mean greater wealth for society, it also meant the destruction of something much greater—spiritual enlightenment. By this time, the Romanticists fully believed that in nature came the path to God and spiritual awakening; however, with its literal destruction (chopping down trees for parking lots), mankind was seeing, for the first time in history, the beginning of the downfall of humanity.
Moreover, Wordsworth highlights the ideal of an industrialized society crushing a spiritual, enlightened society by symbolically defining the adornment of society by literally throwing away God and religion. The speaker of the poem cries out that “we have given our hearts away,” (Wordsworth, ln 4) and “we are out of tune” (ln 8). In this moment, the speaker is openly praying for salvation from the industrialist and aristocratic ideals that have taken the world to its current position.
In the end, the speaker decides that “I’d rather be/a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” (lns 9-10). It seems that the world has chosen materialism over nature and, unfortunately, this means the end of an enlightened, spiritual human race. For Wordsworth, this choice meant the loss of both spirituality and a progressive, free-thinking, democratic country. Wordsworth’s poem also holds a hint of nature as a helpless thing, overtaken by the cruel world that surrounds it. However, if, as many poets hold true, nature can be compared directly to either God, or one’s connection to God and spiritual thinking, sense determines that such a connection could, in reality, be considered a helpless thing. Indeed, for each person, God and religion have their own path, and, if enough people believe a certain ideal is true, such as the rise of materialism and the loss of religion, than it can certainly fade away. God and spiritual wisdom are not within the world to hold the people captive or force them into spiritual enlightenment. That choice is fully each person’s own. To Wordsworth, this meant that the world was in trouble and defined “the tossing [of] democracy of humankind” (Symons, 248) that he and many of the other Romantic poets felt.
Further, Romantic poets found social commentary in the form of lyrical beats their salvation and path to self-expression from the repression of the aristocracy. More, “one can only note that romanticism did have a part in the rise of nationalism, as it did in other important nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments. For example, what, exactly, was its contribution to the evolution of individualism, subjectivism, and existentialism? When does romanticism stop being romanticism and become something else” (Riasanovsky, 97). In this, Romanticism formed the greater ideal of pure, unadulterated observations on the world and the loss of many essential things within it, that of nature, spiritualism, democracy, and innocence.
Finally, William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” does much to demonstrate the ideal of the loss of innocence by placing into prose the exploitation of children in the workforce, remarking that it is demonstrates the tragic end for more than the youth of those young boys. The poem itself was written the same year as the French Revolution and serves as Blake’s soap box for what he believed to be the appalling conditions of children in the work force, most especially, that of young boys doing the man’s task of the chimney sweep. The speaker of the poem is a young chimney sweep, who recounts his life and a dream that he had in which a majestic angel rescues the boys from their terrible work and takes them to a wonderful sunny meadow. The loss of innocence as a theme within this poem is clear, and yet, Blake also highlights the loss of innocence not only from boyhood into manhood at too early an age, but the loss of spiritual guidance and love as well. In this job, the dangerous work of a chimney sweep, a task meant for grown men, children are forced to risk their lives without proper compensation or guidance. More than that, the boys grow up in their harsh reality without ever experiencing the warmth of God or spiritual enlightenment. To them, that is only a dream, lost to them as is their innocence.
Overall, the Romantic Movement was an artistic expression against the aristocracy’s political and social ideals of the eighteenth century including the crusade of scientists to rationalize the beauty and truth in nature. Romantic poets formed their verse into social commentary and expression against the conformity and idealistic mores of their time by employing common archetypal themes against the aristocracy and the loss of innocence. More, from a look and examination into three of the main themes: that of the love for nature, democracy, and the loss of innocence, by analyzing the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and William Blake, their deeper meanings and political and social commentary are defined.
Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper.” No date of publication. Poetry Online. 23 July 2009
Pfau, Thomas, and Robert F. Gleckner, eds. Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion.
Durham, NC: 1998).
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. The Emergence of Romanticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” 2009. The Oxford Book of English Verse:
1250-1900 Online. 23 July 2009 <http://www.bartleby.com/101/610.html>
Symons, Arthur. The Romantic Movement in English Poetry. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1909.
Wordsworth, William. “The World is too Much with Us.” 2009. The Oxford Book of English
Verse Online. 23 July 2009 <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww317.html>