The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1789-1830

The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1789-1830

The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1789-1830

The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1789-1830

Synopsis

The Romantic Period was one of the most exciting periods in English literary history. This book provides a comprehensive and up-to-date account of the intellectual and cultural background to Romantic literature. It is accessibly written and avoids theoretical jargon, providing a solid foundation for students to make their own sense of the poetry, fiction and other creative writing that emerged as part of the Romantic literary tradition.

Excerpt

Revolution

An event described by one of the leading English Romantic poets as ‘the master-theme of the epoch in which we live’ has obvious claims to be put first in any contextual study of the period. It is inconvenient that the event Shelley refers to – the French Revolution – is one which has been the source of profound and lasting disagreement among historians, and the subject of a frightening estimated two thousand publications a year; inevitably, the version of the Revolution that literature students are served up is vastly simplified and possibly very partisan. To make matters worse, the other revolution that traditionally features in introductions to the period, the industrial revolution (discussed in a later section), is a historical battlefield of similar proportions. The student is therefore required to come to terms with a ‘dual revolution’ the causes, nature, consequences – even the very existence – of which are hotly contested; nevertheless, the obligation to offer some kind of route map of this disputed territory is clear.

Although frequently described as a ‘world-historical event’ of immense significance, the word ‘event’ is awkwardly applied to the French Revolution, which appears rather as a concatenation of events stretching over a number of years – a complex process, riddled with contingency, with no inevitable beginning and no predetermined outcome. Popular identification of the Revolution with a single day of action, the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, finds little support among historians, who tend rather to distinguish a ‘preRevolution’ from the Revolution itself, and to dissolve the unity of the latter into multiple overlapping phenomena: a ‘bourgeois revolution’ and a ‘popular revolution’; the revolution in Paris, the municipal revolution in provincial towns, the revolution in the countryside. What seems reasonably clear is that the events of 1789, which amounted to the collapse of an entire social and political system, were the product of accumulating tensions and discontents at all levels of society, exaggerated by accidents of nature and given expression in a new political vocabulary disseminated by Enlightenment thinkers. The aristocracy resisted attempts to make it bear the crippling cost of the country’s involvement in the American War of Independence; the bourgeoisie increasingly resented barriers to free trade, their exclusion from public office, and their lack of representation in government; the peasantry reacted angrily to measures taken by ‘improving’ landowners to raise productivity and the imposition of new feudal obligations; and they, in common with urban wage-earners and craftsmen, were hit hard by disastrous harvests in 1787–9 which pushed food . . .

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