In a letter to Byron in 1816, Percy Shelley declared that the French Revolution was "the master theme of the epoch in which we live" — a judgment with which many of Shelley's contemporaries concurred. As one of this period's topics, "The French Revolution: Apocalyptic Expectations," demonstrates, intellectuals of the age were obsessed with the concept of violent and inclusive change in the human condition, and the writings of those we now consider the major Romantic poets cannot be understood, historically, without an awareness of the extent to which their distinctive concepts, plots, forms, and imagery were shaped first by the promise, then by the tragedy, of the great events in neighboring France. And for the young poets in the early years of 1789–93, the enthusiasm for the Revolution had the impetus and high excitement of a religious awakening, because they interpreted the events in France in accordance with the apocalyptic prophecies in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; that is, they viewed these events as fulfilling the promise, guaranteed by an infallible text, that a short period of retributive and cleansing violence would usher in an age of universal peace and blessedness that would be the equivalent of a restored Paradise. Even after what they considered to be the failure of the revolutionary promise, these poets did not surrender their hope for a radical reformation of humankind and its social and political world; instead, they transferred the basis of that hope from violent political revolution to a quiet but drastic revolution in the moral and imaginative nature of the human race.
"The Gothic," another topic for this period, is also a prominent and distinctive element in the writings of the Romantic Age. The mode had originated in novels of the mid-eighteenth century that, in radical opposition to the Enlightenment ideals of order, decorum, and rational control, had opened to literary exploration the realm of nightmarish terror, violence, aberrant psychological states, and sexual rapacity. In the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), the ominous hero-villain had embodied aspects of Satan, the fallen archangel in Milton's Paradise Lost. This satanic strain was developed by later writers and achieved its apotheosis in the creation of a new and important cultural phenomenon, the compulsive, grandiose, heaven-and-hell-defying Byronic hero. In many of its literary products, the Gothic mode manifested the standard setting and events, creaky contrivances, and genteel aim of provoking no more than a pleasurable shudder — a convention Jane Austen satirized in Northanger Abbey. Literary Gothicism also, however, produced enduring classics that featured such demonic, driven, and imaginatively compelling protagonists as Byron's Manfred (NAEL 8, 2.636–68), Frankenstein's Creature in Mary Shelley's novel, Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and, in America, Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby-Dick.
The topic "Tintern Abbey, Tourism, and Romantic Landscape" represents a very different mode, but one that is equally prominent in the remarkably diverse spectrum of Romantic literature. Tintern Abbey, written in 1798, is Wordsworth's initial attempt, in the short compass of a lyric poem, at a form he later expanded into the epic-length narrative of The Prelude. That is, it is a poem on the growth of the poet's mind, told primarily in terms of an evolving encounter between subject and object, mind and nature, which turns on an anguished spiritual crisis (identified in The Prelude as occasioned by the failure of the French Revolution) and culminates in the achievement of an integral and assured maturity (specified in The Prelude as the recognition by Wordsworth of his vocation as a poet for his crisis-ridden era). In this aspect, Tintern Abbey can be considered the succinct precursor, in English literature, of the genre known by the German term Bildungsgeschichte — the development of an individual from infancy through psychological stresses and breaks to a coherent maturity. This genre came to include such major achievements as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh in verse (NAEL 8, 2.1092–1106) and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in prose.
However innovative, in historical retrospect, the content and organization of Tintern Abbey may be, a contemporary reader would have approached it as simply one of a great number of descriptive poems that, in the 1790s, undertook to record a tour of picturesque scenes and ruins. There is good evidence, in fact, that, on the walking tour of the Wye valley during which Wordsworth composed Tintern Abbey, the poet and his sister carried with them William Gilpin's best-selling tour guide, Observations on the River Wye . . . Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. As Gilpin and other travelers point out, the ruined abbey, however picturesque, served as a habitat for beggars and the wretchedly poor; also the Wye, in the tidal portion downstream from the abbey, had noisy and smoky iron-smelting furnaces along its banks, while in some places the water was oozy and discolored. These facts, together with the observation that Wordsworth dated his poem July 13, 1798, one day before the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, have generated vigorous controversy about Tintern Abbey. Some critics read it as a great and moving meditation on the human condition and its inescapable experience of aging, loss, and suffering. (Keats read it this way — as a wrestling with "the Burden of the Mystery," an attempt to develop a rationale for the fact that "the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression"; see NAEL 8, 2.945–47.) Others, however, contend that in the poem, Wordsworth suppresses any reference to his earlier enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and also that — by locating his vantage point in the pristine upper reaches of the Wye and out of sight of the abbey — he avoids acknowledging the spoliation of the environment by industry, and evades a concern with the social realities of unemployment, homelessness, and destitution.
"The Satanic and Byronic Hero," another topic for this period, considers a cast of characters whose titanic ambition and outcast state made them important to the Romantic Age's thinking about individualism, revolution, the relationship of the author—the author of genius especially—to society, and the relationship of poetical power to political power. The fallen archangel Satan, as depicted in Milton's Paradise Lost; Napoleon Bonaparte, self-anointed Emperor of the French, Europe's "greatest man" or perhaps, as Coleridge insisted, "the greatest proficient in human destruction that has ever lived"; Lord Byron, or at least Lord Byron in the disguised form in which he presented himself in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Manfred, and his Orientalist romances; these figures were consistently grouped together in the public imagination of the Romantic Age. Prompted by radical changes in their systems of political authority and by their experience of a long, drawn-out war in which many of the victories felt like pyrrhic ones, British people during this period felt compelled to rethink the nature of heroism. One way that they pursued this project was to ponder the powers of fascination exerted by these figures whose self-assertion and love of power could appear both demonic and heroic, and who managed both to incite beholders' hatred and horror and to prompt their intense identifications. In the representations surveyed by this topic the ground is laid, as well, for the satanic strain of nineteenth-century literature and so for some of literary history's most compelling protagonists, from Mary Shelley's creature in Frankenstein to Emily Brontë's Heathcliff, to Herman Melville's Captain Ahab.
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