Peter Ackroyd, writer, historian and presenter of The Romantics, explains how Romantic poetry brought about a revolution in ideas in the early 19th century that changed the face of the world today.
The Romantics are important because they helped to define, and indeed to create, the modern world. They helped to fashion the way in which we all now think and imagine.
Blake - radical protest and the imagination
William Blake was the first of the great English Romantics, principally because he was the first of the English poets to assault the principles of science and commercialism in an age when the twin imperatives of industrialisation and ‘system' were beginning to dominate human life. He wrote lyrics. He wrote vast verse epics. He wrote verse dramas. All of them were filled with a yearning for spiritual reality, and for a redefinition of the human imagination beyond the Newtonian precepts of order and control. He redefined the poetry of radical protest.
Coleridge and Wordsworth - nature and the sublime
The generation of Romantic poets who came after him, principally among them Coleridge and Wordsworth, helped to redefine the concept of nature as a healing and spiritual force. They were the first to recognise the redemptive powers of the natural world, and were truly the pioneers in what has since become the ‘back to nature' movement. Anyone who yearns to walk beside the sea, or to ascend a mountain, or to row across a lake, owes a great debt to these two English poets.
Coleridge also looked inward, as well as outward, and in his meditative poetry he enlarged the boundaries of the individual sensibility; he introduced into his verse all the nightmare and drama of his opium-induced visions, so that human nature itself was enlarged and redefined as the subject of poetry.
Together Wordsworth and Coleridge helped to create a new definition of the sublime and the beautiful, evincing an aesthetic very different from the orthodox classical principles of formal symmetry and proportion.
Byron, Shelley and Keats - celebrity and the individual
They were followed by another generation of English Romantic poets who in one form or another fashioned the modern notion of the individual poetic voice. From the work and example of Shelley, Byron and Keats two extremely important concepts were introduced to the English imagination.
From Byron came the idea of the writer as hero or celebrity - he inaugurated the cult of personality in literary terms. From Shelley and from Keats, and especially from the manner of their early deaths, came the notion of the poet as the isolated genius, sorrowful and suffering. They confirmed the status of the poet as above the ordinary laws of society.
Shelley's professed atheism marked him out as a rebel and an outcast, whose pronouncements would always be regarded with suspicion by his more orthodox contemporaries. His poetry was ‘difficult', too, not to be understood by the multitude. From his example sprang the tradition of modern and modernist poetry of the twentieth century.
Keats's aesthetic preoccupations led him to the conclusion that poetry could become a substitute for religion, and that it could provoke its own pieties. This was also a revolutionary sentiment that changed forever the popular understanding of poetry.
Between them the Romantic poets altered the way in which we understand literature and indeed the world.
- Read the Open University biography of Peter Ackroyd
- Peter Ackroyd's London, on BBC History
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