From the Lake District to Lake Geneva
The supreme majesty of the alluring green hills and tranquil lakes of north-western England's Lake District invited the Lake poets, the first generation of British Romantic poets, to wander its meadows and meditate at its falls. This was where the heart of the sublime lay. It was thus an ideal setting for the beginnings of British Romanticism. It's patrons were none other than William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Amidst the French and Industrial Revolutions, two poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, along with Wordsworth's sister Dorothy, met with each other and collaborated on Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth's love for nature and Coleridge's talent for words made Lyrical Ballads a singular poetic work of great industry; it single-handedly introduced the spirit of Romanticism to Britain. The preface to Lyrical Ballads indeed heralded the end of an age and the beginning of a new one:
It is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets themselves.
The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title (Noyes 357).
The idea of reading for pleasure rather than for one's own moral instruction was not entirely new. The Gothic novel had come decades before Lyrical Ballads (1798). However, the idea that poetry should express emotion, imagination, and nature was particularly unheard of. Wordsworth's "The Tables Turned" prescribes the notion of abandoning one's pursuit of knowledge for one's pursuit of nature.
The Lake Poets brought the Romantic style to poetry. A new freedom of expression was introduced, bringing forth emotional and sensory imagery, and innovations in form and rhythm made poetry more musical and rich. Many themes included the "vanity of human wishes, the instability of beauty, and the inevitability of death" (Noyes xxxiii). Keats' Ode on Melancholy wraps up all of these themes:
She dwells with Beauty-Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure night,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips (Noyes 1194)
Much of the tone of Romanticism involved brooding, melancholy, frustration, suffering, and despair. This spanned from the poems of Coleridge to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe. Death and despair went hand in hand in much of the poetry of the second generation of Romanticism.
The second generation of Romanticism was led by Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Shelley's ill and short-lived friend, John Keats. Their poetry was more impassioned than the previous generation's. There was more of an inclination towards the exotic and supernatural, which became part of reality to them. This led to the direct creation of the science fiction novel, the modern horror novel and the Byronic hero. These poets were also influenced by Hellenism, and the Romantics revived it in their poetry. Shelley and Keats constantly alluded to elements of Greek mythology, and a clear example is seen in Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820).
In the Summer of 1816, Mary (Shelley) had left her father's house in England to run off with Percy Shelley. With her step-sister Claire Clairmont, they reached the shores of Lake Geneva, where in the Villa Diodoti they joined Lord Byron and John Polidori (Byron's physician). On one stormy night, June 16th, Percy and Mary couldn't return to their own lodgings and had therefore to stay in Villa Diodoti with Byron and Polidori. Together they read aloud German ghost stories from Fantasmagoriana. In one such story, a group of travelers related their encounters with supernatural beings. This inspired Lord Byron to challenge his guests to a ghost-story writing contest. The results were Polidori's Vampyre, the first modern vampire story, a story fragment by Byron, an insignificant story by Percy, and Frankenstein, by Mary.
The status of
prose during the Romantic age was fed by the work of Jane
Austen. Sir Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer-Lytton redefined
the historical novel. Maria Edgeworth's amusing novels of
Irish peasantry and Thomas Love Peacock's satires of Shelley's
circle also typified the Romantic Age. Among non-fictional
works, the essays of William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and
Thomas de Quincey served to enlighten and berate the English