british literature romantic period

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2 2 I T H E R O M A N T I C P E R I O D

How such popular acclaim was to be understood and how the new reading
public that bestowed it (and took it away) could possibly be reformed or
monitored when, as Coleridget term “misgrowth” suggests, its limits and
composition seemed unknowable: these were pressing questions for the age.
Opponents of the French Revolutipn and political reform at home pondered
a frightening possibility: if “eventS . . . [had] made us a world of readers” .(as
Coleridge put it, thinking of how newspapers had proliferf,ted in response
to the political upheavals), it might also be true that readers could mahe
events in turn, that the new members of the audience for print would
demand a part in the drama of national politics. Conservatives were well
aware of arguments conjecturing that the Revolution had been the result of
the invention of the printing press three centuries before. They certainly
could not forget that Paine’s Rights of Man-not the reading matter for the
poor the Sunday-school movement had envisioned-had sold an astonish-
ing two hundred thousand copies in a year.

However, the British state had lacked legal provisions for the prepublica-
tion censorship of books since 1695, which was when the last Licensing Act
had lapsed. Throughout the Romantic period therefore the Crown tried out
other methods for policing reading and criminalizing certain practices of
authoring and publishing. Paine was in absentia found guilty of sedition, for
instance, and in l8l7 the radical publisher William Hone narrowly escaped
conviction for blasphemy. Another government strategy was to use taxes to
inflate the prices of printed matter and so keep political information out of
the hands of the poor without exactly violating the freedom of the press. In
the meantime worries about how the nation would fare now that “the people”
read were matched by worries about how to regulate the reading done by
women. In 1807 the bowdlerized edition was born, as the Reverend Thomas
Bowdler and his sister Henrietta produced The Family Shahespeare, concoct-
ing a Bard who, his indelicacies expurgated, could be sanctioned family fare.

Commentators who condemned the publishing industry as a scene of
criminality also cited the frequency with which, during this chaotic time,
best-selling books ended up republished in unauthorized, “pirated” edi-
tions. Novels were the pirates’favorite targets. But the radical underground
of London’s printing industry also appropriated one of the most politically
daring works of Percy Shelley, Queen Mab, and by keeping it in print, and
accessible in cheap editions, thwarted attempts to posthumously sanitize
the poet’s reputation. And in l8l7 Southey, by then a Tory and the King-
dom’s Poet Laureate, was embarrassed to find his insurrectionary drama of
1794, Wat Tyler, published without his permission. There was no chance,
Southey learned, that the publishers who had filched his play and put this
souvenir of his youthful radicalism into circulation would be punished. The
court refused to grant an injunction, citing the precedent that there could
be no protection for publications deemed injurious to the public.

OTHER LITERARY FORTViS

Prose

Although we now know the Romantic period as an age of poetry, centered
on works of imagination, nonfiction prose forms-essays, reviews, political
pamphlets-flourished during the epoch, as writers seized the opportunity

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2 4 I T H E R O M A N T I C P E R I O D

the Romantic poets who were their friends-paid by the page and writing to
a deadline, for a start-their works thus parallel the poetsi in also turning
toward th_e subjective. one conseq,r”n”e of the essayiJts, cultivation of inti-
macy and preference for the- impressionistic over the systematic is that.
when we track the history of prose to the lg20s, we see itl”rra ,p t” ; ;i;;;very different from the one it occupies at the starr of the Romairti” fdri”a.Participants in the Revolution

“ontrou”.ry
of the 1790s had claimed to

speak for all England. By the close of the period the achievement of the
fqryilhl essay was to have brought the medium of prose within ihe

“atego.yof “the literary”-but by distancing it from public life.

Drama
whether the- plays composed during the Romantic period can quarify as lit-
erature has been, by.contrast, more of a puzzle. England th.ougho,rt this
period had a vibrant theatrical culture. Theater criticism, practiceiwith flair
by Hazlitt and Lamb, emerged as a new prose genre; actors like sarah sid-
dons and Edmund Kean numbered the poet.

“-ong
their admirers and

found their way into Romantic poetry; Mary Robinsor, #u, known as an actor
before she was known

“r “n “,rthor.
But there w€re many restrictions limiting

what could- be staged in England and many calls for reform. As places where
crowds gathered, theaters were always cloiely watched by suspicious govern-
ment officials. The English had habitually extolred their theater as a site of
social mixing-a mirror to the political orier in that it supplied all the classes
in the nation (those who, depending on how their tickets *”.. p.i””d, fr”-
quented the box, the pit, or the, gallery) with another sort of rep’resentative
assembly- But during this era disorder seemed the ruler riots b’roke out at
covent Garden in lz92 and 1g09. The link between drama and disorder was
one reason that new dramas had to meet the approval ofa censor before they
could be performed, a rule in place since 1737. Another restriction was that
orrly the Theaters Royal (in London, Drury Lane and covent Garden) had
the legal right to produce “legitimate” (spoken word) drama, leaving the other
stages limited to entertainments-pantomimes and melodramas riainly-in
which dialogue^was by regulation

“l-“ys
combined with music. Ar,

“*rrirrg,,entertainment focused on legitimate drama would not have been so differeit.
The stages and auditoriumi of the two theaters royal were huge spaces,
which encouraged their managers to favor grandiose spectacles o.,’*or” p.”-
cisely, m-ultimedia experiences, involving m-usicians, dirrcers, and artists who
designed_ scenery, besides players and playwrights.

This theatrical culture’s demotion of words might explain why the poets
of the era, however stage-struck, found drama uncongenial.,Nonetheless,
almost all tried their hands. at the form, tempted by the”knowtedge that tt

“plays of certain of their (now less
“rt””-“d;

contemporari”.lH”rr.r”h
cowley and charles Maturin, for example-had met with immense acclaim.
some of-the poets’plays were composed to be read rather than performed:ucloset

dramas,” such as Byron’s Manfred., percy Shelley,ra
‘ero*”tk”u,

unbound., and most of Joanna Baillie s plays on tke passions,plrmitted exper-
imentation with topic and form. others were written

“*pr”rrly
for the stage,

but their authors were hampered by their inexperience and tendency, exacer-
bated by the censorship that errcouraged them to seek safe subject matter in
the past’ to imitate the style of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. There were
exceptions to this discouraging record. coleridge’s tragedy Remorse, for

instance, was a minor hit
ble dramatist among the 1
tragedy The Cenci (182(
daughter and is murdere< cal rather than artistic ol tlre Examiner of Plays; incest, Shelley predicted I

\ovels at the start of the
as far as critics and son
6ensslnsd-not quite resl
ferver skills than other lit
gree claimed by poetry an
undue proportion of read
escapist stories of romant
nise attracted (so some o
rr-ho were women. (By the
men.) Because of its popu
bs about the expansion ol
ture: hence late-eighteentl
described them as massl
instead stamped out auto
sively, however, starting a
historical novels and the
declared a renaissance-i
had its historians, who d,
manner established its p
forms. It was having a ca
Scott compiled and introi
tlre novel began to endang

There had in fact been r
akhough reviewers did not
ofthe eighteenth centurv s
natter-in particular, nev
tor_v. Rather than, as one r
of their own,t’ some novels
Tlre writers now known as
cal theories and represent
Willinms, or, Things as Th
stonecraft, father of Marv
@nstitute an epoch in the
i. shall ever be exactly thr
lmce and entrapment in v
ftrs at the hands of the r
disturbing cat-and-mouse 1
lrter as the conclusion to
things, represents Shelleyi
cnts.) Loyalists attacked thr
mrels their ammunition, r
unal presence.

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2 6 T H E R O A , ‘ I A N T I C P E R I O D

‘ l ‘ h e
N o v e l . I l l u s t r a t i o r r l ‘ r o m l 7 t l 7 b v J a r n c s

\ o r t l r c o t c o l a s c c n c i n W i l l i a r r U a y l c y ‘ s c l i c l a c t i c

lli ::;::l;i:, l’ill1li:i{,,,:,;”‘Ji.i Ii J;i[Hru:’
r r o v c l u n r l s c i z c c l t h c b o o h a s ” l i l t h v t r a s h ” – r v l r i l c
s c c r c t l v i n t c n d i n g t o k c c p i t l b r h c r s c l f ‘ .

A n o t h e r i n r r o v a t i o n i n n o v c l – l l ‘ r i t i n g t o o k s h a p e , s t r a n g e l y e n o u g h , a s a
r c c o v c r v o f r v h a t r , r ‘ a s o l c l . W r i t c r s w h o m w e n o w c l e s c r i b e a s t h e G o t h i c
n o v c l i s t s r e v i s i t c d t h c r o m a n c e , t h e g e n r c i c l e n t i f i e c l a s t h e p r i m i t i v e f o r e –
r L u r n c r o l t t h e r n o r l e r n n o v e l , l o o l i i n g t o a m e d i c v e r l ( i . c . , ” G o t h i c ” ) E u r o p e
t h r r t t h e v p i c t r r r c c l a s a p l a c c o l ‘ g l o o m v c a s t l e s , c l e v i o u s C a t h o l i c m o n k s ,
a n c l s t c a l t l . r v g l ‘ r o s t s . T l ‘ r c s c a u t h o r q – f i 1 s f W a l p o l e , f o l l o v y e d b v C l a r a R e c v e ,
S o p l ‘ r i a l , c c , N ‘ l a t t h c r l ‘ L c n , i s , a n c l t h c h u g e l y p o p u l a r A n n R a d c l i f f e –
c l c v c l o P c c l l i r r t l ‘ r c n o v c l u r e p e r t o r y o l ‘ s c t t i n g s a n c l s t o r y l i n e s m e a n t t < r p L t r v c y t o r c a c l c r s t h e p l e a s r - r r a b l e t c r r o r o l ' r e g r e s s i o n t o a p r e m o c l e r n , p r e - r a t i o n i r l s t a t c .

‘ l ‘ h i s
C i o t h i c [ L r r n w a s a r – x r t h c r i n s t a n c e o f t h e o e r i o d ‘ s

” r o n r l u ‘ l c c r e y i v a l . ” a n o t h c r r . , a r i a t i o n o n t h e c l f b r t t o r e n e w t h e l i t c r i t t u r e o f
t l ‘ r c p r c s c r r t b v r e r . v o r l i i n g t h e p a s t . C l o t h i c f i c t i o n w a s t h u s p r o m o t e c l i n
t c r r – n s r r r r r n i n g p a r a l l c l t o t h o s e i n a c c o u n t s o f t h c p o w e r s o f i p o e t r y : w h e r – r
n o v c l s l r r c a l < r v i t h h u r n c l r r - r r l r e a l i t y , B a r b a u l d e x p l a i n e d , " o u r i m a g i n a t i o n , c l a r t i n g l i r r t h , c r p l o r c s r , r , , i t h r a p t u r c t h e n e w w o r l d w h i c h i s l a i d o p e n t o i t s v i c u ' , u n c l r r j o i c c s i n t h e e x p a n s i o r r o l i l s p o r v e r s . "

Possiblv this “ner,r’ u’orlc[” tr.tts nteitnt to sr-rpply Romantic-period readers
u ‘ i t h a n e s c l r p c r o u t c I ‘ r o n r t h e p r c s c n t a n d f r o m w h a t G o d w i n c a l l e d ” t h i n g s
a s t h e v a r c . ” ( l c r t i t i r r l y , t h e p a s t s t l – r a t G o t h i c n o v e l i s t s c o n j u r e u p a r e c o n –
c c i r ‘ e r l o f i n l a n c i l ‘ u l , I ‘ r c c n h e e l i r r g w a y s ; i t i s c o m i c a l j u s t h o w o f t e n a R e r d –
c l i f f i : h c r o i n e r , r ‘ h o i s s r r p p o s e c l t o i n h a b i t s i x t e e n t h – c c n t u r y F r a n c e c a n a c t
l i l i e a p r o p e r E n g l i s h g i r l o n t h c m a r r i a g e m a r k c t i n t h e 1 7 9 0 s . B u t e v e n t h a t
e r a r r p l c o f a n a c f r l o n i s r n m i g h t s l l g g e s t t h a t s o m e G o t h i c n o v e l i s t s w e r e i n v i t –
i n g r c a c l e r s t o a s s c s s t h c i r s t o r i e s a s e n g a g i n g t h e q u e s t i o n s o f t h e d a y . G o t h i c
h o r r o r s g i l v c r n i r r \ r r r i t e . r s a l a n g u a g e i n r , l ‘ h i c h t o e x a r m i n e t h e n a t u r e o f
D o l v c r – t h e c l c n r t n t s o 1 ‘ s a d i s m a n d m z r s o c h i s m i n t h e r e l a t i o n s b e t w e e n m c n

‘ r \ \ o m e n , f o r i n s r
– – r s o f h i s t o r i c a l . r ,
– C i t a t e o n r , n h o i s .
T h e a s c e n d a n c r ‘
. ‘ , s a f u n c t i o n r , f
: r t o v y o r k s o f h r .

, , 1 – r o t h e r ‘ s t e r r i t r r
: l t h c e n t u r v n o r c
. l i s m ( a l t h o u g h . i
‘ . e l i s t s , m a n \ : \ r e f , .

– r b e i n g r e i n v e n t r
. , r n p u b l i c a f f a j r .

l i c i s , c u s t o m s , c , r .
. t o r r ‘ . N o v e l i s t s l . i

i . , r i a E c l g c v r , o r t h . r
t h c u , a y o f l i l e t , t

. ( l

l l l l l U e n t l i t l l r l t , l
. i t i o n a l t a l c s ” c l e t . r
r s o f ‘ s c e i n g a r c , r
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– r c a l n o v e l s , i r r u r –
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: c o t t a n c l F , c l g c r r ,
‘ r t u r v n o v e l : t h e c l r .
: h l a r g c r s o c i u l s t .

– l h o r , r ‘ f ‘ u r i t i s r r r ,
‘ L i r e c l a s s O I ‘ t e n l . r – ,
. t o r a t i o n a n c l c i l :
. t l r e n r e t o t h e l i r r . t

– t l . r c ‘ r e l a t i o n s h i y r I
h i s t o r v o f ‘ s o c i e t r .

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. . . \ u s t c n ‘ s t o p i c r r
n t i n h e r { i c t i o n s .
t ‘ r t r a o r c l i n : r r v i n

. . i b i l i t v o f l o r . c . ( ,

. r n c L r , S c o t t \ 4 / r o t ( ,
: r t s a n c l f ‘ e c l i n g s i r r .
i d e r l t u l I e v e r u r t
, n t W a u e r l e ) ‘ s c r i e ;
r o v e l – r , r ‘ r i t i n g . H c , .
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The Romantic Period

t

1775 American War of Independence

11775-83)

1 7 8 0 G o r d o n R i o t s i n L o n d o n

f 783 William Pitt becomes prime

minister (serving until 1801 and again in

1 8 0 4 – 6 )

1 7 8 4 D e a t h o f S a m u e l J o h n s o n

1787 W. A. Mozart, Don Giovanni. Society

for the Aboljtion of the Slave Trade founded

1789 Fall of the Bastille (beginning of

the French Revolution)

1790 J. M. W. Turner first exhibits at the

Royal Academy

179l Revolution in Santo Domingo

(modern Haiti)

1792 September Massacres in Paris.

First gas lights in

Britain

1793 Execution of Louis XVI and Marie

Antoinette. France declares war against

Britain (and then Britain against France).

The Reign of Terror

1794 The fall ofRobespierre. Trials for

high treason of members of the London

Corresponding Society

1795 Pitt’s Gagging Acts suppress

freedom of speech and assembly in

Britain

1797 Mary Wollstonecraft dies from

complications of childbirth

1773 Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld),

Poems

1774 J.W. von Goethe] The Sonows of
/

YoungWerther

1776 Adam Smith, Tr?e Wealth of Nations

1778 Frances Burney’ Etelina

1779 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the

English Po ets (17 7 9 -81)

l78l Immanuel Kant, Citique of Pure

Bereon. Jean-Jac1ues Rousseau, Confessions’

J. C. Friedrich Schiller,The Robbers

1784 Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets

1785 William Cowper, The Taslt

1786 William Beckford, Vqthek. Robert

Burns, Poems, Chiefl.y in the Scottish Dialect

1789 Jeremy Bentham, Principles of

Morals and. Legislction. William Blake,

Songs of Innocence

1790 Joanna Baillie, Poems. Blake, The

Maniage of Hemn anA. Hell, Edmund Burke,

Reflections on the Reuolution in France

l79I William Gilpin, Obsenations on the

River Wya Thomas Paine, Rights of Man,

Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest

1792 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication

of the Rights of Wonan

1793 William Godwin, Political Justice

1794 Blake, Songs ofExperience.

Godwin, Caleb Willians. Radcliffe, The

Mysteries oJ Udolpho

1796 Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monh

z a

iUn

Samrel Ta-vlor Colei
lStX) llaria Edge
llr-r’Robinmn. LY
It02-3 \lalter Scr
Srsatisl Bonds
t805 Scott. Tle
t807 \l-sdsswt
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lEll fam.{ula
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Ifi2O John Cb
fimt L4- liatr
{5a- fgla-nJ
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The Romantic Period
t
1775 American War of Independence
11775-83)
1 7 8 0 G o r d o n R i o t s i n L o n d o n
f 783 William Pitt becomes prime
minister (serving until 1801 and again in
1 8 0 4 – 6 )
1 7 8 4 D e a t h o f S a m u e l J o h n s o n
1787 W. A. Mozart, Don Giovanni. Society
for the Aboljtion of the Slave Trade founded
1789 Fall of the Bastille (beginning of
the French Revolution)
1790 J. M. W. Turner first exhibits at the
Royal Academy
179l Revolution in Santo Domingo
(modern Haiti)
1792 September Massacres in Paris.
First gas lights in Britain
1793 Execution of Louis XVI and Marie
Antoinette. France declares war against
Britain (and then Britain against France).
The Reign of Terror
1794 The fall ofRobespierre. Trials for
high treason of members of the London
Corresponding Society
1795 Pitt’s Gagging Acts suppress
freedom of speech and assembly in
Britain
1797 Mary Wollstonecraft dies from
complications of childbirth
1773 Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld),
Poems
1774 J.W. von Goethe] The Sonows of
/
YoungWerther
1776 Adam Smith, Tr?e Wealth of Nations
1778 Frances Burney’ Etelina
1779 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the
English Po ets (17 7 9 -81)
l78l Immanuel Kant, Citique of Pure
Bereon. Jean-Jac1ues Rousseau, Confessions’
J. C. Friedrich Schiller,The Robbers
1784 Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets
1785 William Cowper, The Taslt
1786 William Beckford, Vqthek. Robert
Burns, Poems, Chiefl.y in the Scottish Dialect
1789 Jeremy Bentham, Principles of
Morals and. Legislction. William Blake,
Songs of Innocence
1790 Joanna Baillie, Poems. Blake, The
Maniage of Hemn anA. Hell, Edmund Burke,
Reflections on the Reuolution in France
l79I William Gilpin, Obsenations on the
River Wya Thomas Paine, Rights of Man,
Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest
1792 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication
of the Rights of Wonan
1793 William Godwin, Political Justice
1794 Blake, Songs ofExperience.
Godwin, Caleb Willians. Radcliffe, The
Mysteries oJ Udolpho
1796 Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monh
z a

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l82l Thomas De Quincey, Aonfessions’oJ
an English Opium-Earen Percy Shelley,
Ailonais :

1823 Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia

1824 Letitia Landon,The lmprovisatrice

1826 Mary Shelley, The Last Man

1827 Clare, The Shepherd’s Calenilar

1828 Hemans, Aecords dWoman

l83O Charles Lyell, Pineiples of Geology
(1830-33). Alfred Tennyson, Poeus,
Chiefly Lyrical

l82l Deaths ofKeats inRome and
Napoleon at St. Helena

1822 Franz Scluiert, IJnf.nish4d.
Synphotry. Debth of Percy Shelliy in the
Bay of Spezia, near Lerici; Italy

1824 Death of Byron in Missolonghi

1828 Parliamentary repeal of the Test
and Corporation Acts excluding Dissenters
from state offices

1829 CatholicEmancipation

l83O Death ofGeorge IV; accession of
William IV. Revolution in France

lE32 First Reform Bil l

{hrough the eiglrr
I Spcntor essays o

rtbt not hold its owt
crh as “The Childrel
dms and scholars i
Ecd itinerant ballad 3
fte songs; huntingfr
*o headed to r€rrd
hrcen the Scottish I
rryecially. They ma&
Eds to the tunes and
rfry culture began to
rcd with sensational g

s) and with illiteratc
GTnnt women, for inl
.ilcction The Minslq’d

Through popular bd
lrd elegance that were
*people who renrcml
ar da lost past, clca

lnird ballad scholarshi
&c scene at the nincta

Fdcssor of Rhetoric r

lEvwas “mostglorrii
rilal energies that po
E|L the standardi?ti

Sellads are tricky to
h a complicated rG
Lnriably change, evo
EPatrick Spens,o @
ryin different wor,&
*ins of the Norto;t

hto medieval literatu
* one that Thomas

Wt Poetry 0765),tl
l&crs actually represc
Eildle Ages. Ballads, F
llt minstrels who en
&iively predated the
lrlmlogy. Scholars nq
h the seventeenth c

;:! in the transmission
dry collectors were

trranging for ballads
qrtoacknowledge hov
bcst that many Rom

poetry to the li
that Wordswortl

frreled the primitivr

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