The date of the Romantic period of literature begins in 1798 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth and ends in 1832. The Romantic period is an era in which a literary revolution took place inside social and economic aspects. In some histories of literature, the Romantic Period is called the ‘Age of Revolutions’.
Power and wealth were gradually transferred from the landholding aristocracy to the large-scale employers of modern industrial, communities. An old population of rural farm laborers became a new class of ban industrial laborers.
The period was one of rapid change as the nation was transformed from an agricultural country to an industrial one. The laws of a free market was developed by the economist Adam Smith in his book Wealth of Nations (1776) that dominated people’s lives.
At the same time, a shift in the balance of power took place. Power and wealth were gradually transferred from the landholding aristocracy to the large-scale employers of modern industrial, communities. An old population of rural farm laborers became a new class of ban industrial laborers. This new class came to be called the working class. These laborers were concentrated in cities and the new power of a large and restive mass began to make itself felt.
The Industrial Revolution created social change, unrest, and eventually turbulence. Deep-rooted traditions were rapidly overturned. In the countryside, the open fields and communally worked farms were ‘enclosed’. Increasing mechanization both on the land and in the industrial factories meant continuing high levels of unemployment. Workers in the rural areas could no longer graze the animals on which they partly wended for food and income. The Industrial Revolution paralleled revolutions in the political order. In fact, Britain was at war during most of the Romantic period, with a resultant political instability.
Political movements in Britain were gradual, but in countries such as France and the United States political change were both more rapid and more radical.
The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 struck an early blow for the principle of democratic freedom and self-government, but it was the early years of the French Revolution, with its slogan of ‘Equality, liberty and fraternity’, which most influenced the intellectual climate in Britain.
Debate in Britain was polarized between support for radical documents such as Tom Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), in which he called for greater democracy in Britain, and Edmund Burke’s more conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
An important influence fell on the poets Wordsworth and Shelley, who advocated a gradual evolution towards the removal of poverty and the equal distribution of all wealth. As the French Revolution developed, support for it in Britain declined. There was violence, extremism and much bloodshed as sections of the old aristocracy were massacred, as the members of the new French Republic fought among themselves and with other countries, and as Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor and then-dictator of France. In Britain, these events were witnessed with some dismay.
In The Prelude, a long autobiographical poem, Wordsworth wrote that in the early years of the French Revolution ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’.
Many of these issues are alive today as they were two hundred years ago. The recovery of many female writers’ works in recent years is one significant sign that our relationship with the Romantic period is an ongoing and ever-changing one.