The term Romanticism describes a profound change of sensibility - of ways of thought and feeling - that took place in Europe at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Related developments in literature, political thought, philosophy and religion all contributed to the emergence of a movement of which the influence continues to be felt at the end of the twentieth century. Current ideas about the individual, society, nature and art - and the relationships between them - all owe something to the Romantic movement. And the poetry, paintings and etchings of William Blake made a major contribution to this revolution in ways of seeing.


Again, ‘revolution’ is a key word. Romanticism in part drew its impetus from the political revolutions in America and France. To begin with at least, it espoused the cause of liberty, of democracy and the rights of man, and in this respect it endorsed eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking. But Romanticism should also be seen as a reaction against the scientific and rationalist philosophies of the Enlightenment, haunted as they were by Isaac Newton and Classical Physics. These philosophies not only seemed to have gone some way towards erasing God, or at least ‘mystery’, from the universe, but also provided the impetus for the transformation of Britain into an industrial and urban culture. A basic paradox to grasp, then, is that the Romantic writers were both of their times and opposed to them. Blake was typical in this dual response: he subscribed to the politics of the Enlightenment, but not to what he saw as the ‘single vision’ of Newtonian materialism.

Therefore, although the ideological foundations of Romanticism may be confused - and indeed became increasingly contradictory – certain concepts were at its core and found their most significant expression in a new kind of literature that focused on concepts such as:

·         liberty (the equivalent at a personal level of the political revolutions taking place in America and France)

·         the primacy of authentic individual experience (the ‘self)

·         an emphasis on intense feeling (including terror)

·         the creative imagination (for Blake, the God-like power in humanity)

·         the Importance of nature (as a source of vital power and as a moral guide)


Developments in a number of fields and some influential texts should be noted in the formation of these ideas.


The literature of Romanticism comprised a reaction against the so-called ‘Augustan’ writers earlier in the eighteenth century, such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, whose themes and style were shaped by the Enlightenment. A famous poem by Samuel Johnson starts like this:

observation with extensive view,
mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil,
each eager strife.
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear,
desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide;
As treach’rous phantoms in
the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice,
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d,
When vengeance listens to the fools request.

The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)

It is worthwhile considering the ways in which, writing like this differs from that of the Romantics and of William Blake in particular. Adopting a tone of lofty detachment and moral righteousness, Johnson sets out to reveal the varieties of human folly when pride and ambition triumph over reason, restraint and moderation ‘How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice.’ This was characteristic of the Augustans. Their concern was with the behaviour of men and women in society (‘the busy scenes of crowded life’) and the rules of moral conduct. Consequently satire was their favourite mode - a literary means of exposing and attacking vetu’rous pride’ and human egotism.


The agenda of the Romantic writers was to be quite different. Instead of reason, they celebrated emotion. Indeed, they wished to put mystery and the irrational, back into a universe they felt to have been devalued by a mechanistic Newtonian world view. Instead of rules, they celebrated freedom in life and art. Where the Augustans put the emphasis on humans as social beings, the Romantics celebrated the individual. For the Augustans, nature was human nature (seen largely in urban settings) whereas for the Romantics it denoted the countryside as a source of inspiration and moral guidance (although this is probably less true of Blake than, say, William Wordsworth). For the Augustans, the imagination - which for Blake was the God-like power in human beings and the fount of wisdom and insight – was a source of delusion (the ‘treach’rous phantoms’ in Johnson’s poem). Unlike the Romantics, therefore, self-expression and the exploration of new areas of experience were not priorities for these writers. On the contrary, they concentrated an expressing what they saw as timeless and universal truths - ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’ as Pope put it in An Essay on Man.


In the light of Pope’s remark, it is clear that the Augustans placed great emphasis on the craftsmanship of the poet. The skill of the writer lay in the successful manipulation of existing poetic forms (usually the heroic couplet, as In The Vanity of Human Wishes) to communicate the theme. This explains the vogue for imitation by the Augustan writers of past masters of the art (The Vanity of Human Wishes is an imitation of the Tenth Satire of the Roman writer Juvenal) The pleasure for a sophisticated reader derived from the perception of how the writer had exploited figurative language and the couplet form to ‘dress up’ a thought. By contrast, the Romantics were much more experimental in finding ways of expressing their authentic feelings and developed the notion of ‘organic form.’ By this they meant that the form of the poem was to be dictated by the emotion, the subject and treatment, and not by pre-existing conventions. This accounts for Blake’s deliberately simple, even child-like, style in Songs of Innocence - and it is also a conscious reaction to writing like that of Johnson.


Thus, the Romantic writers switched attention from subject, form and audience, which were uppermost for the Augustans, to the poet’s own mind, feelings and ideas. Inspiration and genius were valued above decorum and the poet assumed the role of prophet and visionary.


This is especially true of William Blake. But it would be mistake to assume that he appeared out of the blue. From the mid-eighteenth century the emergence of the Romantic sensibility, which his work so confidently expressed was evinced by the appearance of new themes and emphases in both poetry and fiction. Themes such as:

·         Descriptions of natural scenes and meditative style; nature as moral teaches

·         Medieval past, the ballad form and the figure of the hero

·         The cult of the primitive

·         The inspired poet as social prophet / visionary in a sublime and savage landscape

·         Solitary meditations on the human condition

·         Foregrounding of those on the margins of society – the rural poor, children, servants, criminals, women

·         Gothic horror, the terrors of the imagination and the supernatural, ‘dreams and fairy tales


The coming of age of this new literary movement was confirmed by the publication of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1794 and Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1797-8. In fiction, the vogue for the Gothic novel reached its height with Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and M. C. Lewis’ The Meek (1796).



The two most influential writers here are Edmund Burke (1729-97) and Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809) whose writings highlight the fundamental ideological divisions of the period and the contradictions at the heart of Romanticism itself.


Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

This was an assault on the Ideas which had inspired the Revolution. Burke rejected the idea that reason could bring about a complete break with the past (i.e. the ‘end of history’) and thereby fashion an ideal society. He Considered the notion of the perfectibility of man to be an illusion and argued that equality was unnatural because he believed that property and rank were fundamental to a Christian kingdom. He said that the revolutionaries had lurched back into savagery undoing centuries of progress and development of civilization. His thinking was underpinned by fear of the mob. He lamented the destruction of the ancien regime and said that now ‘the age of chivalry is gone ... the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.’ By contrast, he argued for social evolution rather than revolution and stressed the continuity of history. Burke played an influential role in the development of the modern Conservative party in the nineteenth century and his writing underpinned the conservative strain in Romanticism which gained ground at that time.


Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man Part I (1791)

Paine was a republican who refuted Burke’s ideas. An Enlightenment thinker, he vigorously asserted the power of reason and common sense to counter the injustice and privilege perpetrated by aristocracy and monarchy. He argued that such hierarchical social organization was in itself fraudulent, as men were created equal. Like Blake, who was a close friend, Paine wished to emphasize the real miseries suffered by ordinary people in the social structure defended by Burke. He was alerted by Blake to the government’s intention to prosecute him for this publication and he fled to France. In his absence he was found guilty of treason and condemned, if he ever returned to England, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Initially, he was warmly received In France but as a moderate was eventually imprisoned by the Jacobins and narrowly avoided the guillotine. He then fled to America, where his earlier writings had influenced the American revolutionaries alongside whom he had fought



Jean-Jacques Rousseau : Discourses (1710,1754). The Social Contract (1762)

Rousseau believed that feelings were more important than reason in human affairs. Unlike the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that human beings were naturally wicked, Rousseau argued that they were naturally good. He claimed that civilisation with its emphasis on property and power, corrupted human beings, in contrast to earlier philosophers who had claimed the civilising influence of society. Rousseau promoted the idea of the Noble Savage. He stressed the importance of nature, which fostered natural instincts, as opposed to book-learning. Once separated from nature, human beings cease to be happy or virtuous. His view of the state of man in society is summed up in the famous sentence ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’ (The Social Contract). Rousseau did not deny the need for government, but said that it should always reflect the will of the people - a position endorsed by the American Declaration of Independence. He opposed tyrannical government and called for justice for the underprivileged. Rousseau’s emphasis on freedom, the self, feelings, nature, and the primacy of childhood clearly had an enormous influence on the Romantic and revolutionary movement. However, Blake attacked him as an irreligious freethinker.


William Godwin: As. Essay Concerning Political Justice (1793)

In fact, Rousseau did influence Blake, through Blake’s close friend William Godwin who was himself a follower of Rousseau. Godwin was a radical and idealist with an almost impossibly high conception of the nobility of human beings and a total Enlightenment faith in reason. He attacked monarchy, aristocracy and social inequities of all kinds. Godwin believed that the rational human being was necessarily also benevolent and a lover of justice. The evil in the world, he thought, derived from property which promoted exploitation and inequality. Therefore, the abolition of property, together with law, government, institutions and even marriage, would lead to human and social perfection. But Godwin could not support revolutionary action to achieve these ends as this would have involved the overthrow of reason. This explains why radicals as well as conservatives criticized his text. Godwin had a considerable impact on all the Romantic poets (especially Shelley). He also wrote a powerful novel, Caleb Williams (1794), which was both a vehicle for his ideas and an indictment of social oppression.



John Wesley (1703-91) was the founder of Methodism, an evangelical movement within the Church of England, which became a separate body in 1795. Wesley’s ministry began about 1740 and was notable for his prodigious energy. During his lifetime he preached some 40,000 sermons, many delivered in the open air. Methodism stressed feeling as a route to God, and it is here that it made its contribution to the emergent Romantic movement, by contrast with the Augustans, for whom reason was the way to God: ‘God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light’ (Pope). The singing of hymns (many of them written of course by Wesley himself) by the whole congregation was a new practice and helped characterise the fervent Methodist spirit. It seems likely that the vigorous uplifting rhythms of Wesley’s hymns are echoed in some of Blake’s poems. Wesley particularly attracted the working class but Methodism spoke also to many middle-class people who felt excluded from the Established Church.


A footnote: utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics.

In making their assault on the old hegemony of aristocracy and Established Church the commercial and professional middle classes enlisted powerful new theories devised by their intellectual allies in the light of the emerging social and economic conditions. These theories too were the product of Enlightenment thinking and were to help shape the ideologies of the emerging urban, industrial Britain. The Romantics reacted against these theories and their social consequences. This is especially true of Blake, for whom industrialism and its theories were the fruits of Newtonian materialism, and served only to augment the suffering of ordinary people.


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is the father-figure of utilitarianism. Bentham, a lawyer, set out to rationalize society’s business arrangements. Starting from the assumption that human beings are fundamentally selfish. He proposed the idea of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ as the touchstone for social policy. He argued that less law meant more liberty, and that if the state left people alone, they would, by the pursuit of their own interests, automatically promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Initially, then, the theory was strongly non-interventionist but in the long run it led to far-reaching legal, social, political and economic reform later in the nineteenth century. In the period when Blake was writing, it was the source of much hardship and resentment.


The darker aide to this theory is perhaps confirmed by the ideas of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). His Essay on the Principle of Population (as it affects the future improvement of society) (1798) provided justification for a non interventionist utilitarianism. He declared that population growth always outstrips the means of subsistence, therefore governments should let poverty - and the disease and starvation which inevitably follows from it - take its natural course to reduce numbers in society.


Utilitarians embraced wholesale the economic theories of Adam Smith (1723-90). His The Wealth of Nations (1776) endorsed tree trade and competition in the market place and revolutionised the economic theories of the day.