Romantic Poetry and its History. . .
The two most popular and widely read poems of the Romantic period (1770-1830) would now surprise us. They were both traditional eighteenth-century pastorals, today almost totally forgotten. The first was James Thomson’s The Seasons, originally published in 1730 and universally admired and reprinted for over a century. (‘That is true fame,’ murmured Coleridge, when he found a well-worn copy thrown down in the parlour of a Devonshire inn in 1798.) The second was Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy, a rural idyll in rhyming couplets which sold over 60,000 copies between 1800 and 1810. Yet neither the much-loved Thomson nor the best-selling ‘ploughboy poet’ Bloomficld (actually a London cobbler) is a name we now associate with Romanticism.
What extraordinary force suddenly buried their reputations and brought about such a seismic shift in popular taste? One answer is simply: the dazzling Lord Byron and the intoxicating idea of the poet as ‘Romantic genius’.
This powerful idea of individual genius appears early in the history of Romanticism, and with a strong political impulse, inspired by both the American and the French revolutions.
Yet the ‘self of the Romantic poets was by no means solitary in historical terms. A glance at their individual biographies shows how frequently their paths crossed and how often creative groups formed, as well as how rapidly they dissolved. In this sense there was not one but a whole series of Romantic circles, forever moving outwards. A geographical map of Romanticism would locate a least a dozen sacred gathering places in Britain and in Europe: the Quantock Hills in the 1790s, Grasmere in the 1800s, Lake Geneva in 1816 and Italy after 1818.
Romantic Travel – Sites of Literary Pilgrimage. . .
A modern extension of Romantic travel has been to make the Romantics’ own houses (or at least their temporary lodgings upon earth) the sites of literary pilgrimage. This is a peculiarly British phenomenon, combining the notion of museum heritage with that of modern hagiography. Here are places of meditation and remembrance. They have become secular shrines, many administered in a priest-like way by private foundations or the National Trust. They include, most famously, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey and the Keats House in Hampstead. Further afield can be found the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome, Shelley’s Casa Magni near Lerici, Tuscany, and Byron’s Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice. More recherche locations might include Clare’s lunatic asylum in Northampton, Mary Tighe’s tomb in Ireland and Trelawny’s cave on Mount Olympus.
Science and Poetry. . .
What is far less well known is that the world of science also produced Romantic figures, whose discoveries were seen as great adventures of the mind. William Herschel, with his discovery of the seventh planet Uranus in 1781 and his theories of galaxies outside the Milky Way, made astronomy the most popular science of the age and a field in which theological problems of the Creation, and extraterrestrial life, could be imaginatively discussed. The chemist Humphry Davy proved one of the most brilliant public lecturers of James Northcote, RA (1746-1831).
Women Writers in Poetry!
The position of women writers within the Romantic Circle is particularly anomalous. Jane Austen is now a cult figure, but was not widely admired until Austen Leigh’s Memoir of 1870. By contrast, Mary Wollstonecraft was apparently doomed to a century of obscurity by the noble, well-intentioned Memoirs of her husband in 1798. Mary Robinson, one of the most glamorous figures of her entire generation, sank into complete oblivion until suddenly recovered by two simultaneous biographies in 2004. Many other women poets, like Mary Tighe and Laetitia Landon, remain unjustly forgotten
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