Men rebelled against the aristocracy, the narrow conventions of society, the authority of the church and of the government, against the supremacy of cold classicism in literature, against confining intellectual activity to tangible commonplace things, and against the repression of imagination and of the soul’s aspirations. The two principal forces behind these changes were the Romantic movement, which culminated in changed literary ideals, and the spirit of the French Revolution, which emphasized the close kinship of all ranks of humanity.
The time was preeminently poetic. The Elizabethan age alone excels it in the glory of its poetry. The principal subjects of verse in the age of Romanticism were nature and man. Nature became the embodiment of an intelligent, sympathetic, spiritual force. Cowper, Burns, Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats constitute a group of poets who gave to English literature a new poetry of nature. The majority of these were also poets of man, of a more ideal humanity. The common man became an object of regard. Burns sings of the Scotch peasant. Wordsworth pictures the life of shepherds and dalesmen. Byron’s lines ring with a cry of liberty for all, and Shelley immortalizes the dreams of a universal brotherhood of man. Keats, the poet of the beautiful, passed away before he heard clearly the message of “the still sad music of humanity.”
While the prose does not take such high rank as the poetry, there are some writers who will not soon be forgotten. Scott will be remembered as the great master of the historical novel, Jane Austen as the skillful realistic interpreter of everyday life, De Quincey for the brilliancy of his style and the vigor of his imagination in presenting his opium dreams, and Lamb for his exquisite humor. In philosophical prose, Mill, Bentham, and Malthus made important contributions to moral, social, and political philosophy, while Coleridge opposed their utilitarian and materialistic tendencies, and codified the principles of criticism from a romantic point of view.
REFERENCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
Gardiner, Green, Walker, or Cheney. For the social side, see Traill, V., VI., and Cheney’s Industrial and Social History of England.
The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vols. XI., XII.
Courthope’s A History of English Poetry, Vol. VI.
Elton’s A Survey of English Literature from 1780-1830, 2 vols.
Herford’s The Age of Wordsworth.
Brandes’s Naturalism in England (Vol.
IV. of Main Currents in
Nineteenth Century Literature.)
The Revolution in English Poetry and Fiction (Chap. XXII. of Vol. X. of Cambridge Modern History.)
Hancock’s The French Revolution and the English Poets.