Romanticism and Politics
Despite the movement’s obsession with the self, Romanticism was closely associated with politics, in particular of the revolutionary kind. Indeed, Romanticism itself was in part formed in response to the political changes of the late 18th century. Political and intellectual movements at the time encouraged the assertion of individual and national rights and thus questioned kings’ and courtiers’ right to rule home and abroad. In particular, the American and French Revolutions were bloody demonstrations of these new views. For the English Romantic Poets, the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath was the most influential event in their young lives.
Thus most Romantic Poets were, at least in their youth, political radicals. Even Wordsworth, who later sold-out by becoming Poet Laureate, visited Revolutionary France in 1791, and was deeply impressed. He fell in love with a Frenchwoman and only returned due to tensions between Britain and France and his poor finances. His head was turned from the Revolution, however, by the brutal Reign of Terror. Coleridge was similarly enamored, and when the Napoleonic Wars broke out between the nations, he was decidedly anti-Britain: â[I] blessed the paeans of delivered France/ and hung my head and wept at Britain’s name.
Shelley was an anarchist. Following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, in which 15 protestors against parliamentary oppression died when charged by cavalry, Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy, a poem so controversial that it was not published in his lifetime: ârise, like lions after slumber/in unvanquishable number/shake your chains to earth like dew/which in sleep had fallen on you/ye are manyâthey are few!’. As for Byron, he used his seat in the House of Lords to urge social reform, support the machine-vandalizing Luddites, and argue for the end of established religion, on the grounds that it inhibited personal freedom.