Development of English poetry since the age of Shakespeare Nineteenth Century (The Romantic Age)
Poetry before the Age of Shakespeare–
The history of English poetry is spread well over a thousand years. The first great writing in the modern English language was Chaucer (1340-1400) though it is difficult for a modern reader to understand his language without some help. The next great English poet before the age of Shakespeare is Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). His great thought incomplete poem is known as The Faerie Queen. Another important poet belonging to the age previous to Shakespeare’s is Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586). Spenser and Sidney are normal included in the Age of Elizabeth, which is often used as a synonym for the Age of Shakespeare.
Poetry in the age of Shakespeare–
Shakespeare’s age is one of the most glorious periods in the history of English poetry. England of this period is often remembered as a “nest of singing birds.” Almost all the poetic forms had their full and free expression at the hands of gifted poets. It is difficult to enumerate the name of all the good of this age. Shakespeare (1564-1616) stands above them all as a towering mountain. Among the other memorable names we can note Thomas Wyatt and Surrey, who were responsible for introducing the sonnet into the English language. Sir Philip Sidney is perhaps the greatest among the sonnet–writers of this age, except Shakespeare. Other goods poets of this age are Michael Drayton Compion, and Samuel Daniel. Shakespeare in known to the world as a truly great dramatist But much of his drama is nothing but poetry of the highest order. He has left behind not only 154 sonnets, the great sonnet-sequence in the English language, but also two important longer poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Licorice,
Poetry in the Age of Milton–
Nearly three decades of the 179 century are dominated by the towering personality of Milton, John Milton (1608-1674) is the only epic poet in the English language in the real sense of the word. The most prominent qualities or Milton’s Poetry are its fervent appeal, its sincere tone, and its grandeur. Milton’s age was torn by conflict between the king and his followers (the Royalists) on the one
hand and the parliament and its supporters (the Puritans) on the other. The conflict in the political sphere led to the outbreak of Civil War in 1642. The out-come was the victory of the parliament and the triumph of Puritanism. Apart from Milton, the other poets of the age were influenced either by John Donne or by Ben Jon son. Donne is the leader of a school of poetry known as the Metaphysical School. Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw are the major metaphysical poets. In their poetry religious fervour and faith is tempered by a certain intellectualism and a certain conceit in phrase. Herrick and Marvell represent the tradition of classical purity of expression handed down by Jonson.
The Neoclassical Poetry–
The Restoration of monarchy (1660) marks the beginning of a new spirit and a new trend in English poetry. The new spirit is best described by the term” Neo classical,” The 17th century was a great age of the development of scientific and philosophical thought. There was also the influence of French thought on the English mind. Slowly and gradually literature, religion, and philosophy came under the influence of reason which was opposed to mystery and emotionalism.
Consequently a new type of poetry was born. Lyrical poetry lost its intensity and wildness. The spirit of satire reigned supreme in the poetry of this age. The heroic couplet became the most convenient and popular vehicle of literary expression. It was marked by smoothness, grace, antithesis and balance John Dryden (1631-1700) in the second half of the 17th century and Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in the first half of the 19th century are the most prominent poets in this tradition. We may briefly enumerate here the main characteristics of the neo-classical poetry. They are
- Study and imitation of the best present in the ancient literatures of Greece and Rome.
- Supreme authority of human reason and judgment over emotion and imagination.
- The poet speaks as a general representative of mankind.
- The interest in life and its problems is rather superficial in nature. It is more critical than sympathetic.
- Poetry was more concerned with the artificial life in towns and cities and avoided rural life and the common man.
- The poets were fond of looking at Nature through the mirror of books. First-hand observation of nature was rarity.
- An artificial language for poetry was evolved. Certain words were marked as “Poetic” while others were not.
- The heroic couplet became in course of time the most popular verse form.
Thus, the 18th century poetry was narrow in scope, artificial and critical in outlook.
The Pre-romantic Poetry–
Reaction against the neo-classical ideals of poetry began in the middle of the 18th century, Poets began to look at man and Nature more closely. An important contribution was made in this direction by Bishop Perey’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry which revived keen interest in the ballad and the popular song, James Thomson’s The Seasons was another landmark. The poets of this transition period made some bold experiments in poetic invention. They wrote charming poems touching the life of the common man, and they seriously attempted to paint nature from personal observation. Their importance lies in the fact that they serve as a link between the Neo classical and the Romantic schools of poetry. The most prominent poets of this period are Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, Collins, Gray and William Blake.
Poetry in The Romantic Age—
The first three decades of the 19th century are known as the Romantic Age in English literature. Especially in poetry it symbolized a reaction, or rather a revolt, against the principles governing the Neo-classical poetry of the previous century. It was inspired partly by the spirit of the French Revolution and partly by the German philosophy of the age. It is one of the most glorious periods in English poetry. Both in output and in quality it excels any other period accept the Elizabethan Age. Many labels have used to describe this complex period of English poetry. Sometimes it is called the “Romantic Revival” Sometimes the “Romantic Revolt.” In reality it is both a revival and a revolt. It is a revival of the romantic spirit, or a second flowering of the same, the first being represented by the Elizabethan age. The great of the age glorified Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton and they tried to recapture the spirit of medieval romances through ballads. “The Lyrical Ballads” published in 1798 jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge became a kind of manifesto of the Romantic poetry. The main characteristics of the poetry of the age may be summed up as follows-
- It was the poetry of man as an individual, as opposed to man as a social being which was the case with much of the poetry of the previous age. The poetry of this age is highly individualistic in nature.
- The Romantic poets had looked directly at nature and they had observed it closely. Nature in their hands became alive and inspiring. Each of the great Romantics had his won vision of nature. Unlike the bookish, wooden “nature” of the neo-classical, it was “Nature” for the Romantics, a living moral force closely linked with the life of man.
- In the words of C. H. Harford, “It was an extraordinary development of imaginative sensibility.”
- Poetry for these poets provided a means of escape from the pressure of the ordinary routine of life.
- It was a romantic reconstruction of the spirit of the past, an attempt to create a sense of wonder in everything, even in the most familiar objects.
- Nearly all the Romantic poets were inspired by a sense of mystery regarding the nature of human life in this universe.
- The lyric poetry reached new heights of perfection in the hands of the great Romantics. It was an age of experiment and new forms in lyrical poetry flourished freely. All the Romantics enjoyed a high lyrical gift. But their attempts to write long narrative or descriptive poems generally proved to be a failure more or less. There are only a few significant exceptions.
- The “heroic couplet” no longer remained the only good medium of poetic expression. Many old stanza forms were again brought back and handled with great skill by the Romantic poets. Moreover, they created and invented verse forms of their own to suit the demands of their genius.
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