I. Historical Background
The 1776 revolution seemed far away and relatively unimportant to most of the British, more an economic concern than a matter of significant social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the late-18th-century English conservative, even argued in favor of the American cause: besides the inherent unfairness of taxation without representation, he thought the British were violating the property rights of the American colonists, who were, after all, often relatives of the British upper classes. The ideals of the American Revolution did have more significant impact in France (see Thomas Paine's 1791-1792 Rights of Man in particular).
Rousseau's 1762 Social Contract opens with the words: "Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains." The writings of Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire suggested that all men are by nature free and equal. These egalitarian, democratic ideals gave rise to the battle cry "liberty, equality, fraternity" in the revolution of the French masses against an oppressive nobility.
The July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille by the Parisian mob began the French Revolution. In France, England, and all over Europe, there were ecstatic hopes among common people for freedom and equality in a new age of dissolved social barriers. At the beginning, the French Revolution was seen not just as the overthrow of an unjust ruling class but of traditional society altogether: this would be the dawn of the age of the common man, the privileges of birth and heredity would be no more. The revolutionary spirit inspired individual energies and lifted the limits on personal ambition. The idea of a commoner becoming leader of a country ruled for centuries by absolute monarchs was not out of the questionNapoleon, for instance, could happen.
"Europe at that time was thrilled with joy, / France, standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again" (The Prelude, Book VI, 340-42).
In the Reign of Terror under Maximilien Robespierre (May, 1793-July, 1794), thousands of supposed counterrevolutionaries were guillotined, including nobility, royalist sympathizers, and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
After five years of growing disillusionment with political activism and a decline in popular sympathy for the "glorious cause," the Revolution culminated in Napoleon establishing himself as absolute ruler. Napoleon, as you recall, led French armies in wars of aggression all over Europe.
The British aristocracy and government responded to the excitement generated by the French Revolution among the English lower and middle classes with strong reactionary measures; those in power feared the revolutionary contagion would spread to England. The channel coast was watched for possible invasion; the rights of free speech and habeas corpus (no imprisonment without trial) were curtailed; mass public meetings were forbidden without governmental permission; known liberals, radicals and revolutionary sympathizers were spied upon and berated as "Jacobins," and many, including William Blake, were arrested.
After the Revolution turned bloody, most British sympathizers were disappointed and abandoned the French cause. With only one brief pause, from 1793-1815 England was at war with France, who promised aid to any countries who overthrew their rulers and attempted under Napoleon to dominate all of Europe, and English patriotism ran high. English liberals and radicals, though, were still inspired by the ideals behind the French Revolution, "liberty, equality, fraternity"; to an extent, they held the attitude that the French were barbarians with a few good ideas. The seeds of revolutionary change were sown in England in the 1790s, and the cries for reform and a radical new vision in society, politics, and art gave rise to the English "Romantic Era."
A more insidious and profound revolution was born within England herself, the Industrial Revolution. The turn of the 19th century saw the rise of modern technology in the dawning age of machines, factories, and mass production. As Britain moved from a rural, agrarian economy with home-production of textiles and other goods to urban industrialization, there was great material progress for the wealthy manufacturers, which included not just aristocratic landowners but also the more enterprising among the middle class.
But the lower classes paid a heavy price for industrial "progress": manufacturing towns quickly became slums, housing was inadequate, working conditions were terrible, with long hours, tiny wages, and children and women laborers suffering worst of all. Poverty, vice, sickness, early deaththese new "city" problems went largely unchecked by intervention of the "authorities"; laissez-faire policies held that free-market economics would sort out all problemssocial Darwinism before its time. The result: the poor got poorer, the rich richer.
As times got harder for the working classes, social tensions rose. In 1816 workers petitioned and rioted and destroyed industrial machinery. In August, 1819 more than 50,000 disgruntled workers gathered in St. Peter's Field in Manchester to hear poet and activist Leigh Hunt speak. The assembly was peaceable, but nervous authorities called out the military to disperse the crowd. 11 were killed and hundreds wounded in the "Peterloo Massacre."
Continued social tensions resulted in the Reform Bill of 1832, which established new Parliamentary districts to account for the population shift from rural areas to urban and expanded voting rights to include more of the middle class.
II. The Literary Scene
Background: the 18th Century
The Augustan Mode
The literary period of the early to mid-18th century in England is sometimes called the "Augustan Age," indicating the neoclassical spirit of such writers as Pope, Addison, Swift, and Steele, who admired and imitated the great writers from the era of Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (27BC-14AD), namely Virgil, Horace, and Ovid.
Neoclassicism emphasized the classical ideals of reason, form, and restraint. Order, balance, permanence, harmony and stability in nature, society and the self were important to the neoclassicists. Augustan literature favors wit and reason ("What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed"Pope), and places emphasis on polished elegance of expression. The Augustans believed in a strong sense of community, consensus, and shared beliefs, norms and standardstheir preoccupation with nature tended to emphasize the universality of human nature, and they strove to demonstrate the representative (as opposed to the individual). Romantic poetry operates in direct reaction against these communal Augustan ideals.
Origins of Romanticism
The birth and rise of the middle classes in England in the 1700s brought about great advances in literacy, as increasingly servants, merchants, tradesmen, and their families learned to read and write. The expanding market of readers opened the way for mass market publication of books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and "chapbooks." Before the 18th century literacy was generally restricted to the upper classes and the clergy, but by the turn of the 19th century the majority of both suppliers and consumers of the published written word were "common" people.
A fast-growing "common" readership gave rise to dramatic changes in literature: the novel was born and came into its own with the immense popularity of such writers as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Horace Walpole, Fanny Burney, and Ann Radcliffe. While novels were still seen by the elite as an inferior branch of literature, the realization of a great new audience of common readers had its impact upon poetry, too, at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Various features of "popular" literature in the mid- to late-18th century began to receive serious attention from British intellectuals, especially: