For most of us, when we read the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron and Coleridge (“the Big 5”), we read their poetry in the high school or college classroom. We might get a paragraph or two of introduction to the times in which they lived and wrote, but we don’t usually get much beyond that. Unless a gifted teacher, determined to help the class understand, goes into great detail about the Romantic era.
As Richard Holmes reminds us in The Romantic Poets and Their Circle, Romantic poetry didn’t spring from nothing; it had a context, a very broad context, involving the other creative arts, politics, culture, society, war and revolution. What was happening in poetry was important because it both influenced and reflected what was happening in society at large, especially British society.
Holmes, professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the British Academy, has a deep background in the Romantic period. His works include Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), Coleridge: Early Visions (1989), Footsteps (1996), Selected Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1996), Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998), Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2001), and The Age of Wonder (2010). He’s also the author of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage (2011) and Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (2014).
This particular work is a comparatively small volume of some 136 pages, written and assembled for Britain’s National Portrait Gallery in London. It features in introductory essay and some 30 short entries on the Romantic poets and the painters, editors, essayists, and writers who formed the literary culture of the period that covers approximately 1770 to 1830.
Consider what was happening during that period: the American and French revolutions; the rise and ultimate defeat of Napoleon; the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; the growing demands for universal male suffrage and the first stirrings of the idea that women might have rights, too; scientific breakthroughs; the War of 1812. And Holmes notes that something which arose then that we today find completely familiar was the Romantic notion of genius, or illumination from within, including a marked emphasis on individual feelings.
It was also an age of counterrevolution – Napoleon’s defeat and the restoration of the Bourbons, the Congress of Vienna that ushered in the “Age of Metternich,” the often brutal suppression of worker unrest in Britain. It is. Perhaps, another reason why the Romantic period seems so familiar to us today – it was an age of extremes in politics, society and even personal morality.
As short a volume as it is, The Romantic Poets and Their Circle is a succinct introduction to the people and the period whose influence continues today.
This month at Tweetspeak Poetry, I have a series on the poet John Keats and the Keats Walk I took while recently in London. Last week, I introduced the series with “Keats and a Walk into His Life.” Tomorrow, I look at the religion and politics that influenced his poetry.
Painting (top): Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” oil on canvas by J.M.W. Turner (1812). Tate Britain Museum, London.