If there is one constant in life, it is change. Human beings are not static creatures. Historical change is inevitable. Each social and historical context gives rise to a different world view and, thus, different interpretations of the world. As a result, thinkers from different historical periods stress various cultural and critical issues or aspects thereof and, as a result, often come to different conclusions from each other. As a result, for example, how we conceptualise human identity is not a given or a constant: different people in different places and at different times have different interpretations of what it means to be human. It is important to map, therefore, the historical development of humankind in order to trace how different social and historical contexts interpret the world in specific ways. This is especially important if we are to understand how and why a particular writer / thinker held the views which they did.

Accordingly, for purposes of classification and to aid in understanding the world views pertinent to specific places and historical periods, Western cultural / intellectual history is divided roughly as follows:

  • the Classical period (5th century BC);

  • the ‘Dark Ages’;

  • the Medieval period (1100-1500);

  • the Renaissance (1500-1660);

  • the Enlightenment (1660-1785);

  • Romanticism (1785-1830);

  • the Modern period (1830-1945);

  • the Postmodern period (1945- ).

Another way of dividing Western cultural / intellectual history is as follows:

  • Prehistory (before human history);

  • The Premodern (from classical times to the ‘dark ages’);

  • The Early Modern (from Medieval times to the Enlightenment);

  • The Modern (from Romanticism to the Second World War);

  • The Postmodern (since the Second World War).

Evidently, these classifications are variable and not written in stone.


Several characteristics are subsumed under the rubric ‘Romanticism.’ For most scholars, the term implies a departure from the Neo-classical qualities of reason, moderation and order which reigned supreme during the period of the so-called Enlightenment which preceded the Romantic era. Although some thinkers like Arthur Lovejoy have suggested that it is better to think in terms of several Romanticisms rather than a single Romanticism, others such as Roland Stromberg or M. H. Abrams have suggested that it has been possible to discern certain common traits shared by the Romantics which I have adumbrated in the table below:



Reason, common sense

Emotion, feeling, passion


Intuition, vision




Disorder, spontaneity

City, humanly cultivated gardens

Country, divinely created natural phenomena

John Locke (Empiricism)

René Descartes (Rationalism)

Immanuel Kant (Transcendental Idealism)

G. W. F. Hegel

Objective (mind qua passive recorder of sense impressions emanating from the external world)

Subjective (mind qua creative faculty which imposes order and coherence on the external world)

Realism (the text qua mirror that reflects reality)

Symbolism (the text qua lamp that reveals the spiritual world that shines through reality)

Artist qua voice of reason

Artist qua seer, visionary

Precision of thought, clarity of diction

Mystery, enigma: use of symbolism

Conformity (to certain norms derived from the Ancients) to the point of formulaic application of traditional rules

Rejection, revolt and eccentricity: break with past and the embrace of modernity resulting in stylistic autonomy

Didactic: literature must be ‘utile et dulce,’ that is, both entertaining and educational by appealing to the Reason

Expressive: literature is largely about the self-expression of the poet; if it is didactic, it does so by appealing to the emotions

The Beautiful

The Sublime

The question is, how can we explain the fact such a remarkable transformation (what some would call today a paradigm shift) took place in European thought from about the year 1789? Marxism gives us a way of understanding this shift in the dominant ideology as the consequence of (or determined by) certain socio-historical changes, in particular the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, which occurred in Europe around this time.

The Industrial Revolution

Karl Marx offers in The German Ideology an account of European economic and social history from about the Middle Ages of which I can only give the most simplistic of outlines. According to Marx, the history of Europe is divisible into successive stages that are not viewable, however, as part of the progressive self-realisation of Spirit in matter (Hegel’s theory). Each stage of history is identical, rather, with a particular economic mode of production, that is, it is differentiated from those which came before it and those to follow by the peculiar way in which the physical needs of its inhabitants are met and the specific nature of the social relationships which are associated therewith. (This is where Marx’s Base/superstructure becomes a very useful tool of social analysis, a ‘template,’ as it were, which historians can impose upon a given society in order to understand its economic and social organisation as well as, consequently, its social institutions and ideologies.) Medieval times were marked by a predominately agricultural economy, a rigidly hierarchical system of social relations and the population was largely concentrated in the countryside. Feudal landlords owned immense tracts of land worked by peasants (serfs or villeins, so-called) who, in return for a temporary allowance of land to live on, gave most of their crop to the lords and served in their armies when need be. The nation-state as we know it today did not, for the most part, exist. Allegiance to the Church and the wealthy were the cornerstones of the dominant ideology of the day which historians have come to call the ‘Great Chain of Being: to wit, the view that everybody was born into a certain niche or level of society in a divinely-ordained scheme of things which no one was encouraged to question. Sheep-farming and, thus, the manufacture of wool came to be the mainstay of the English economy by the time of the Renaissance.

History, according to Marx, progresses dialectically: each stage sows the seeds of its own undoing because the existing forces of production (in this case, the use of land for agricultural and other purposes) come into conflict with the inevitably changing nature of the social relations of production. As time passed, in other words, the peasants so needed by the feudal lords grew in numbers to the point where subsistence off the land became nigh impossible. In England, the land utilised by small subsistence farmers was seized by their larger neighbours (in the course of a process called ‘enclosure’) and used to graze sheep. Thousands were left landless and many emigrated to towns that would become cities in time. There, they learned crafts and other skills which they then sold to their neighbours. These crafts were the antecedent of the industries which would emerge in later centuries in the course of what historians have come to call the Industrial Revolution and their practitioners were the forerunners of the captains of industry who would subsequently spring to prominence. The landless serfs of yesterday eventually became the factory-owning middle class of the Industrial Revolution. As technologies improved and factories developed, those who owned the means of production (or capital) came to depend in turn upon large amounts of cheap labour. (Marx theorised in Capital that capitalists make a profit only when they pay labourers less than their work deserve--he called this the extraction of surplus value from their labour. Capitalism depends upon and thus encourages cheap supplies of labour.) Society became even more rigidly divided on the basis of class: the aristocracy (the traditional owners of the land) coexisted and competed in a losing battle for ascendancy with the bourgeoisie (the middle class who grew wealthy on the basis of their ownership of the factories) and the proletariat (the working classes whose living and working conditions were deplorable.) As land became a less important economic factor in the course of the Industrial Revolution, the dominance of the traditional landowning class slowly but surely receded. In its place, the bourgeosie became the dominant class, it came to wield political power (Marxists argue that the Westminister system of democracy that was at this time rising to the fore is an institution that fosters the dominance of the bourgeosie), and its outlook and values came to be the dominant ideology even as the gap between the middle class and the proletariat was ever widening.

Many critics argue that it is imperative to seek to understand the poetry produced during the so-called Romantic period (1780-1830) in the light of the socio-historical changes broadly outlined above and, in particular, the Industrial Revolution (and its attendant social changes) which was well underway by this time. Any literary work is, from the Marxist point of view, largely determined by the dominant ideology of the historical epoch of its origin and of which its author necessarily at least to some degree partakes. Raymond Williams contends that we tend to have a false general conception of the Romantic artist as someone "by nature indifferent to the crude worldliness and materialism of politics and social affairs" (269) and more "devoted . . . to the more substantial spheres of natural beauty and personal feeling" (269). Nothing could be further from the truth, he asserts, because these were interlocking rather than opposing interests. Not only were the Romantics politically active in a variety of ways that were "essentially related to a large part of the experience from which the poetry itself was made" (270), but they lived through a crucial period "in which the rise both of democracy and of industry was effecting qualitative changes in society, changes which by their nature were felt in a personal as well as a general way" (270).

Christopher Cauldwell contends that it was, paradoxically, a socio-economic phenomenon, the Industrial Revolution, which fostered the growth of an ethos of individualism: it had the effect of "making the poet increasingly view himself as a man removed from society, as an individualist realizing only the instincts of his heart and not responsible to society’s demands" (121). By this time, the factory was beginning to supersede the farm as the main engine of the economy with the result that there was an increasing cleavage in society between the industrial bourgeosie and the landed aristocracy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the landless, propertyless proletariat. Everything ideological that threatened the economic expansion and, thus, social dominance of the bourgeosie was to be altered or eliminated, whether this be religion (for which philosophy was substituted), the law, the monarchy, etc. As Cauldwell puts it, the rise to dominance of the bourgeosie is inseparable from the emerging critique of the Enlightenment and of the rationalism upon which the latter was predicated. The bourgeosie

advanced the conception of the naturally good man, born free but everywhere in chains. Such revolts against existing systems of laws, canons, forms, and traditions always appear as a revolt of the heart against reason, a revolt of the feelings and the sentiments against sterile formalism and the tyranny of the past. (122)

For Cauldwell, each Romantic poet is a bourgeois revolutionary. Each yearns for freedom. To them, the "instincts are ‘free,’ and society everywhere puts them in chains" (117). Their yearning is for a ‘return to the natural man,’ to a ‘natural’ rather than artificial language, to a nature unspoilt by mankind. Their endpoint hoped for is the liberated, natural, individual self, one ‘vented’ in a form of poetry conceived as the "expression of the sentiments and the emotions of the individual figure, the ‘independent’ bourgeois" (127).

Cauldwell hastens to point out that the revolutionary objectives of the bourgeois Romantics are illusory. They ignore the fact that the "feelings, aspirations, and emotions" (124) which they yearn to liberate are necessarily, from a Marxist vantage-point, the ideological "product of the social relations" (124) in which they exist. What is more, they yearn for freedom from the forces of production and the social relations of industrialism even as they enjoy its largesse:

Wordsworth’s ‘Nature’ is of course a Nature freed of wild beasts and danger by eons of human work, a Nature in which the poet, enjoying a comfortable income, lives on the products of industrialism even while he enjoys the natural scene ‘unspoilt’ by industrialism. The very division of industrial capitalism from agricultural capitalism has now separated the country from the town. The division of labour involved in industrialism has made it possible for sufficient surplus produce to exist to maintain a poet in austere idleness. (124)

Moreover, they do not recognise that the shattering of the social relations which they so ardently hoped for will merely give way to newly configured but equally oppressive social relations in which the bourgeosie will have cemented their place as the ruling class. What they really yearn for, in short, is the freedom only of their own class. They pay no attention to the yearnings for freedom of the working classes. (For society to be truly free, Cauldwell insists, all classes must be free, indeed society must be classless.)

The French Revolution

For Cauldwell, the French Revolution of 1789, conducted in the name of liberty, fraternity and equality for all, was the epitome of the bourgeois revolt and the desire to wrest political power from the hands of the landed aristocracy which composed the ranks of the nobility. It too was centred around the belief that "once the existing social relations that hamper a human being are shattered, the ‘natural man will be realized’--his feelings, his emotions, his aspirations" (124). Where Marxists such as Cauldwell emphasise the Industrial Revolution, M. H. Abrams is of the view that the crucial event of the period was the French Revolution and that the "dominant idea" (27) of the period was the view that the times were pregnant with change. Abrams’s thesis is that the Romantic period was an age

obsessed with the fact of violent and inclusive change, and Romantic poetry cannot be understood, historically, without awareness of the degree to which this preoccupation affected its substance and form. (29)

These socio-political events were widely associated with the emergence of revolutionary theories of literature. In other words, the "political, intellectual, and emotional circumstances of a period of revolutionary upheaval affected the scope, subject-matter, themes, values, and even language" (29) of Romantic poetry. It is for this reason that Abrams asserts that the Romantics were "all centrally political and social poets" (43) who were "obsessed with the realities of their eras" (43) (this is especially visible in the political and social prose commentaries which they wrote). He contends accordingly that it is wrong to characterise Romanticism as a "mode of escapism, an evasion of the shocking changes, violence and ugliness attending the emergence of the modern industrial and political world" (43).

Abrams points out that the first generation of Romantic poets reached their literary maturity in the last decade of the eighteenth century, during which period the full cycle of the French Revolution played itself out. "Old things seemed passing away, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race" (31). Revolution against the King and obsolete laws, it was thought, would cure all problems and foster felicity for all. Radical thinkers such as the Frenchman Condorcet and the Englishman Godwin had a vision of mankind "morally transformed" (33) and "living in a state of total economic and political equality" (33). ‘Man regenerate in a world renewed’ was the slogan of the times. However, the increasingly violent and bloody turn taken by the Revolution ultimately led to an air of disillusionment but not before encouraging a sense of apocalyptic violence (as figured in the Book of Revelations)--the sense that out of bloodshed and excess would come good. Poets like William Blake accordingly adopted a particularly oracular conception of their own artistic and social role: Neo-classical doctrines such as urbanity, decorum, good taste and didacticism (all founded on the appeal to a universal Reason) give way to a vatic conception of poetry--a "poetry of inspired vision . . . populated by allegorical and supernatural characters" (38)--and exhibiting the "virtues of spontaneity, invention, and an ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘creative’ imagination" (38). Blake, like so many of his contemporaries, envisioned the French Revolution as the portent of apocalypse and his voice is that of the poet-prophet of the Old and new Testaments. As Abrams puts it, the Romantic Bard is "one ‘who present, past, and future sees’" (45) and whose procedure "in dealing with current affairs . . . is often panoramic, his stage cosmic, his agents quasi-mythological, and his logic of events apocalyptical" (45-6). Consequently, certain

terms, images, and quasi-mythical agents tend to recur and to assume a specialized reference to revolutionary events and expectations: the earthquake and the volcano, the purging fire, the emerging sun, the dawn of glad day, the awakening earth in springtime, the Dionysian figure of revolutionary destruction and the Apollonian figure of the promise of a bright new order. (53-4)

The intention of many of the Romantic poets is often to assert that Providence operates "in the seeming chaos of human history so as to effect from present evil a greater good" (46). It is precisely this "politics of vision" (44), "uttered in the persona of the inspired poet-priest" (44), which sometimes tends to obscure the political interests of the Romantics.

The sense of despair and sheer pessimism, the air of tragedy which pervades later Romantic poetry is attributable, Cauldwell argues, to the failure of the French Revolution which ended in bloody excess much to the dismay of its most fervent champions in France and elsewhere. Abrams likewise contends that the poetry written during the heyday of Romanticism was written not, by contrast to the visionary poems of the 1790's, in the mood of revolutionary exaltation but in the later mood of revolutionary disillusionment or despair. In much of the verse of the period, hope and joy are counterposed explicitly or implicitly to dejection, despondency and despair in a way that denotes the "limitless faith in human and social possibility aroused by the Revolution, and its reflex, the nadir of feeling caused by its seeming failure" (54). Indeed, there is a tendency in many poems of the later Romantic period to abandon all hope and fall into dejection, to surrender to the feeling that "man’s infinite hopes can never be matched by the world as it is and man as he is" (56). This, however, is frequently converted into a source of consolation: the infinite longings which inhere in the human spirit may inevitably be thwarted but they are the measure of man’s greatness and potential. Militant activism gives way in the later poetry to spiritual quietism, a wise passiveness wary of hoping to effect change on a collective scale. There is a movement away from the collective to the individual, from external action to imaginative introspection, from the empirical world to that of the creative and imaginative faculty.

European Imperialism

There is another immensely important determinant on the poetry of the nineteenth century which should not be overlooked: European imperialism, colonialism, trans-Atlantic slavery, and racism.  However, we will defer discussion of these issues until week 8.

Recommended Readings:

The Socio-Historical Context of Romanticism

  • Gaull, Marilyn English Romanticism: the Human Context
  • Halliday, F. E. England: a Concise History: "The Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic War"
  • Stromberg, Roland European Intellectual History Since 1789
  • Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class
  • Williams, Raymond The Country and the City
  • Williams, Raymond Culture and Society, 1780-1950

Romantic Poetry in its Socio-Historical Context

  • Abrams, M. H. "English Romanticism: the Spirit of the Age" (in Robert Gleckner, et al., eds. Romanticism: Points of View)
  • Aers, David, et al., eds. Romanticism and Ideology: Studies in English Writing 1765-1830
  • Butler, Marilyn Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830
  • Cauldwell, Christopher "The Bourgeois Illusion and Romantic Poetry" (in Robert Gleckner, et al., eds. Romanticism: Points of View)
  • Harvey, A. D. English Poetry in a Changing Society 1780-1830
  • Prickett, Stephen, ed. The Context of English Literature: the Romantics
  • Williams, Raymond "The Romantic Artist" (in Robert Gleckner, et al., eds. Romanticism: Points of View)

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