Poetry and Politics 101: Romantic Poetry
This series encounters poetry from the last two centuries to consider a fundamental question: what role does poetry play in political society? Poetry’s societal duty is a study that has often been neglected in favor of poetry’s relationship to language and emotion. Poetry and Politics 101 seeks to revitalize poetry in order to engage with its capacity to act as an agent of social and political change. Can poetry affect change? Can it influence people’s opinions? Can it offer a form of guidance in uncertain political times? It will also consider how poetry’s role has changed over time. Once possessing the title of the most widely read form of literature, circulated in newspapers and periodicals, and existing as a dominant feature of cultural response and reaction, poetry’s role in society started to dwindle as new forms of media began to dominate in the late 20th century. This series will work chronologically through significant time periods to consider the evolution of poetry’s role in politics and society over time.
This series will be divided into six chapters:
Poetry and Politics 101: Romantic Poetry
Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I: The Female Voice
Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II: The Male Voice and the Vote
Poetry and Politics 101: Pre-First World War Poetry
Poetry and Politics 101: Post-First World War Poetry
Poetry and Politics 101: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance
Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts
The Romantics are often remembered for their poetry that engages with the reverence of nature, the purity of childhood, the sublime, and the celebration of the individual. Far less popular attention has been endowed to the significance of the political to their poetry and to the ways in which the Romantics employed representations of nature, childhood bliss, and freedom in order to explore and propagate their political biases. The idealism, and indeed the disappointment of the French Revolution, was a particular preoccupation of the Romantics, who saw the revolution, in its most idealized form, as the epitome of freedom and rebellion against tyranny. Many Romantics, such as Shelley and Wordsworth, employed visions of serene nature as allusions to the political, to promises of revolution and the rebirth sparked by the promise of the revolution in France. The Romantics were, in simple terms, both obsessed with and plagued by the politics of the age, endowing poetry with an unprecedented power to engage with and speak for the political. Even where the Romantics tried to ignore politics, their poetry was inevitably defined by it. As Carl Woodring (2013) expresses, the Romantics were defined by the climate of their age, an era of “revolution, reaction, and reform” (Woodring, 2013, pg. 1). Even when a poet attempted to ignore the political, their poetry was still defined by it, for “not to choose is choosing, and withdrawal was reaction” (Woodring, 2013, pg. 1).
Perhaps the best-known instance of the Romantic engagement with the political is Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821). In this essay, Shelley points out the mimetic quality of poetry, in that as a form, it essentially reflects the real world. Shelley endows the poet with grand political responsibility, they are “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society … and the teachers” (Shelley, 1821, pg. 4). As Hugh Roberts (2010) contends, “few authors have made claims as bold as Shelley’s for the direct political efficacy of poetry” (pg. 1). At the close of his defense, Shelley extends his perception of poetry as mimetic, elevating the Romantics for their capacity to connect with “the spirit of the[ir] age” (Shelley, 1821, pg. 45). In this way, Shelley perceives the poet as the prophet of the political world, possessing the ability to transcribe and relate the events of the contemporary world through the poetical.
This conception of Romantic political duty is maintained across all the Romantic poets. As James Chandler et al. (2008) explains, all of the Romantic poets were, in essence, “responding to a new kind of historical horizon and a new sense of the power of poetry to speak to it” (pg. 2). In order to understand this power endowed to poetry, it is significant to understand that the literary culture of the Romantic period was closely aligned with politics. James Chandler (1999) points to the “politicized literary culture of England” (pg. xvi) in the early 19th century, whilst Woodring (2013) alerts us to the fact that this was a period of time in which “most poems were read in the light of political principles” (pg. 1). As such, the responsibility of poetry to respond to the political was not just encouraged but expected in this era, explaining Woodring’s (2013) elevation of the Romantic “creation of poetry as a social act” (pg. 231).
The Significance of the French Revolution
The French Revolution was a defining event of the Romantic period. It is significant to note the centrality of revolution to Romantic rationale, so much so that the beginning of the Romantic movement is often connoted with the beginnings of the French Revolution. For poets who saw the industrialized monarchical state as a tyrannical restriction of freedom, the French Revolution offered a glimpse of liberty, emancipation, and hope. Aiden Day (1996) speaks of the “inspirational role of the French revolution in Romantic ideology”, augmented by the “progressively rebellious impulse at the heart of that ideology” (pg. 3). The revolution was remarkable for the Romantics, with the new National Assembly proclaiming “freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious tolerance … and equal justice before the law” (Tackett, 2015, pg. 1). Such freedom mirrored the Romantic vision of the possibilities for freedom in a state free from tyranny. Timothy Tackett (2015) explores how the revolution was “fueled by an ever-expanding conception of liberty and equality” (pg. 1), ideals that would have enthralled the Romantics who were disillusioned with the British political state.
However, the atrocities that appeared with the creation of the First Republic, designated as the "Reign of Terror", soon fostered a sense of disillusionment for the Romantics. Far from a liberating revolution for the people, between 1793 and 1794, the revolution became a horrific scene of state-sanctioned violence and mass executions. The promises of liberation soon faltered, as “an increasingly dictatorial government was promoting … repression” (Tackett, 2015, pg. 1). The inspiration from what the early stages of the French Revolution had come to stand for, however, stuck with the Romantic poets. Disillusioned with the outcome of this revolution across the water, they turned to poetry to transcribe their disappointment, and to evaluate their own ideas of an ideal revolution. The revolution defined their age, and so it is only logical that the revolution would define their poetry.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” epitomizes the Romantic preoccupation with revolution and the power of nature to act as an analog for political events, turmoil, and change. “Ode to the West Wind” is an exemplar of Romantic political poetry, modeling the political power the Romantics endowed to forces of nature. A crucial critical opinion that illuminates our understanding of Shelley’s intentions for the poem comes from Ronald Tetreault (2019). In his understanding of the poem, Shelley evokes faith in the form of prayer, not as a fundamentally religious ideology, but as “an emerging political one” (pg. 203). In this way, Shelley’s preoccupation with the natural processes of change in the poem, epitomized by his summative conclusion “if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (Shelley, 1820, line 70), serves to convince the reader of the naturalization of the political process of change:
A belief in the necessity of social renewal was indispensable to an age of revolution, and if this renewal could be seen as somehow akin to a ‘natural’ process the ideology of political change might come to be regarded as less radical and impractical than many might think (Tetreault, 2019, pg. 203).
In this way, Shelley’s insistence that Spring, with its connotations of rebirth and fertility, will always follow the desolation of Winter, serves to convince the reader that the oppression of human freedom will be naturally followed by a social renewal. This stance of the poem’s political goal is supported by other critical interpretations. Demson (2010) argues that Shelley’s interest in nature and agriculture “was an essential part of his radical politics” (pg. 279) and that his implementation of the agrarian in his poetry “must be judged reactionary” (Demson, 2010, pg. 279). Further, John Williams (1989) considers that nature and natural landscapes were a “necessarily persistent backdrop” (pg. 1) for Romantic poetry, and they “habitually provided an analog for the eighteenth-century political ‘prospect’” (Williams, 1989, pg. 1).
Faith through prayer, as suggested by Tetreault (2019), is evoked by Shelley from the first line of “Ode to the West Wind.” The poem begins with a call to the “wild West Wind,” which possesses the power to reinvigorate the dead leaves, spreading the “winged seeds” (Shelley, 1820, line 7) which await their bloom “like a corpse within its grave” (line 8). The deathly quality Shelley endows on Winter reflects the disintegration of the current state of the world, with the “sleep of winter connot[ing] the frost of tyranny, privilege, superstition, and priestcraft” (Tetreault, 2019, pg. 277). Similarly, as the seeds lay awaiting a natural renewal, so does the world lay in a state awaiting an awakening, in which its “decaying leaves are shed” (Shelley, 1820, line 16). Just as the Romantics viewed the French Revolution as an apocalyptic event, Shelley endows an apocalyptic quality to his own interpretation of the political awakening. The “black rain, and fire, and hail” (line 28) that forgoes the “dying year” (line 24) evokes a classical evocation of the apocalypse that precedes rebirth. As the biblical flood cleansed the earth, so too will the rain, and fire, and hail.
As the poem progresses, Shelley’s prayer for political renewal grows in intensity. In the sixth stanza, the speaker begs for the west wind to “share / the impulse of thy strength” (Shelley, 1820, line 46), admitting the prayer is evoked in “sore need” (line 52). The Romantic preoccupation with the bliss of childhood innocence aligns here with political ideology. The speaker reminisces that “in [his] boyhood”, he was a “comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven” (lines 48-49). As he has grown older, he has become disillusioned with the state of the political world and regrets that he is in need of a prayer he had no wish for in his youth. By stanza five, Shelley directly addresses the political power of poetry, and of the poet himself. His prayer turns inward, begging the wind to “make me thy lyre, even as the forest is” (Shelley, 1820, line 57). In his wish to align with the power of nature, begging “be thou me, impetuous one” (line 62), Shelley strives to align with the revolutionary potential of nature, to spark change and natural processes of renewal. Just as the seeds of the first stanza implement renewal, the speaker begs for a literary power that mirrors this natural process. In his wish for the wind to “drive [his] dead thoughts over the universe / Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!”, Shelley “invariably sets himself up as a prophet” (Duffy, 1984, pg. 355). The evocation of “dead” is crucial here. As Edward Duffy (1984) explores, Shelley has not previously been successful in utilizing the power of his words to spark change. The failure of the French Revolution, and the subsequent failures of the Romantics to invoke a political revolution through the power of the verse, has caused Shelley to turn inward. The evocation of the poet’s dead thoughts, then, represents a “self-consciously failed writer” (Duffy, 1984, pg. 362). Crucially, Shelley still finds hope in the power of nature to inspire change. Shelley “turns his failure into the sign that his words are in season for a time of endemic failure” (Duffy, 1984, pg. 362). As Spring relies on Winter, Shelley relies on his dead thoughts, like seeds that will bloom with the awakening world.
There is hope in the poem, then, “that these words might yet be the trumpet of a prophecy to an earth … un-awakened” (Duffy, 1984, pg. 362). The world may seem irredeemable, but Shelley finds hope in the Winter of his contemporary world, hope that the “ashes and sparks” (Shelley, 1820, line 67) will arise from the “unextinguish’d hearth” (line 67), spreading his “words among mankind” (line 67) in such a way that will spark a revolution of political renewal.
Ultimately, in “Ode to the West Wind”, Shelley places faith in the natural process of the seasons as an allegory for political renewal. The poem is a prayer, an act of devotion to the wind that revives what seemed dead and irredeemable in Winter. Ultimately, the poem politicizes nature so as to naturalize political processes of change.
Wordsworth’s affiliation with politics has historically been a troubling connection. Many critics have attested to Wordsworth’s refusal of politics in his later poetry, despite his radical youth. However, as Woodring (2013) confirms, in consideration of the Romantics, withdrawal must be considered a reaction (pg. 1). Paul Cantor’s (2007) consideration of the politics of Wordsworth’s most famous poem, The Prelude, enlightens Woodring’s perception of withdrawal. Whilst the French Revolution at first appears remarkably absent from the epic poem, with John Hodgson (1992) claiming that “explicit revolution is not usually located” where expected, “in France” (pg. 45), Cantor (2007) makes the argument that the “oblique allusions” (pg. 382) to the French Revolution are an incidental evocation of its significance.
It is first significant to address the significance of politics to our understanding of Wordsworth. John Williams (1989) insists that “Wordsworth … was a man obsessed with political life whose poetry was in part a product of this obsession” (pg. 2), with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wife Sara Coleridge writing “how gravely and earnestly Coleridge and Wordsworth [used] to discuss the affairs of the nation … as if it were their private concern” (Qtd in Williams, 1989, pg. 2). It is evident, then, that politics was a defining feature of Wordsworth's life and, presumably of his poetry too.
Much like Shelley, Wordsworth doubts the power of his words as a catalyst for political action. In The Prelude, Cantor (2007) understands the speaker’s evocation of “much wanting, so much wanting, in myself” (Wordsworth, 1850, I. 266) as evidence of Wordsworth’s uncertainty in “his own abilities as a poet” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 380). The opening of the poem, by Cantor (2007), is a case study of Romantic frustration, with the power of words in an “unheroic, ignoble, and unpoetic age” (pg. 381). However, as Wordsworth embarks upon an epic journey of revelation, unraveling the events of his childhood that led to his destiny as a poet, he succeeds in “turning his poetic weakness into poetic strength” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 381), a feat “paradigmatic” (pg. 381) of the Romantic poets. The obscurity of Wordsworth’s political subject in The Prelude has baffled some scholars. After all, The French Revolution was, as for most Romantics, the “greatest – most epic- event of Wordsworth’s lifetime” (Cantor, 2007 pg. 383). Yet, in his search for a political event that would earn him his place among the great epic poets of literary history, Wordsworth (1850) seems to ignore the French Revolution, referring only to an obscure “Frenchman” of the 16th century who roamed “about / Withering the Oppressor” (I. 205-11). For Cantor (2007), this allusion has the feel of “poetic evasion” (pg. 393), for what better subject to “celebrate liberty and portray the struggle against tyranny” (pg. 377) than a direct reference to the grand revolution of his age.
In other points of the poem, Wordsworth does refer more directly to the revolution. He recounts the early promise of the revolution, a “time when Europe was rejoiced, / France standing on top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again” (Wordsworth, 1850, VI. 352-4). In a Shelleyan approach, Wordsworth points to the regenerative potential of the revolution, to rebirth humanity into a world of liberation and freedom. This reflects Wordsworth's early position as a politically involved radical, who saw in the revolution's great promise, with the hope it would spread across Europe to England. However, as we have seen, the Romantics quickly became disillusioned as the French Revolution failed to fulfill its promise of liberty, instead heralding a new era of tyrannical control. Wordsworth’s realization that the revolution “was not going to fulfill his – or humanity’s – dreams” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 386) became a catalyst in Wordsworth’s turn from political action. The French Revolution and its politics were still crucial for Wordsworth, but he reshaped this obsession into a subjective preoccupation, concerned solely with how the French Revolution shaped the course of his own life and journey as a poet. As he states within the poem:
these are things / of which I speak, only as they were storm / Or sunshine to my individual mind, / No further (Wordsworth, 1850, X. 103-6).
In a markedly Romantic turn into the self and individualism, Wordsworth viewed the revolution as an event that occurred “so that [he] can overcome a way of thinking that is standing in the way of his poetic process” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 384). His turn from the political to the personal, then, is still a political response, for withdrawal is a reaction. This evasion, then, comes to represent Wordsworth’s disdain for the political events in France, and his disappointment that they did not successful manifest the utopian liberty it first promised. Further, this evasion transcends the theoretical and speaks volumes of the political situation in England. Wordsworth’s avoidance of outward politics in his epic also serves as a reflection of the fact that “supporters of the French cause in England were actively persecuted, their publications suppressed” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 387). An analysis of the Prelude then, enlightens an attempt to engage with the political that was dampened both by disillusionment with the events in France, and fear of persecution in England. “Wordsworth’s revaluation of politics” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 390), then, relies on a turn to the self, with the poet finding nobility not in the grand public sphere of action, but in “his private life as a poet” (pg. 390). Turning to himself as the hero of the poem and diminishing the political, quite ironically, represents his political views and beliefs. Finding only disappointment in the bloodshed and continued tyranny of events in France, Wordsworth neglects the political in his poetry as a mimetic venture: to reflect his disillusionment with the political events of Europe.
Wordsworth’s attempt to reinvigorate the epic in The Prelude, repositioning himself as the hero of the poem, makes for a “fascinating case study in the interrelation of politics and literature” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 400). The political aspect of Wordsworth’s poem is markedly different from Shelley’s poetical approach, though no less Romantic. Wordsworth troubles the political, tiptoeing around it in his poem, in order to reflect his disillusionment with war and revolution as the successful route to human liberation from tyranny. Whereas, Shelley engages more directly with the political, still finding hope in revolution, as highlighted by his faith in natural renewal as an allegory for social renewal. However, both poets find a common cause in the power they endow to the poet in politics. Just as Shelley believes his words will spark social renewal in his prayer to drive his dead thoughts over the universe to quicken the rebirth of the world, Wordsworth also viewed his “own poetry as the best means of liberating humanity” (Cantor, 2007, pg. 400).
The poetry of Shelley and Wordsworth illuminates the Romantic preoccupation with the political, their obsession with revolution and social renewal, and the disillusionment that marked their poetical careers. While these careers ultimately led to a turn inward, a recognition of the power of poetical intervention in politics is explored. Disillusioned with the war and rebellion of their age, the Romantics turned to nature, and their own political abilities, as the true catalysts for political change. Their poetry epitomizes the Romantic obsession with nature, of the self, of the power of poetry; obsessions that could not escape the political, no matter how hard the poet might try.
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Demson, M. (2010). “Percy Shelley’s Radical Agrarian Politics”. Romanticism. 16(3), pp.. 279-292.
Duffy, E. (1984). Where Shelley Wrote and What He Wrote For: The Example of “The Ode to the West Wind.” Studies in Romanticism, 23(3), 351–377.
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Tetreault, R. (2019). “The Dramatic Lyric.” In The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form, Toronto Press, pp. 197-234.
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