Romanticism and Urbanization
When considering the Romantic poets, many critics and readers have traditionally associated them with rural settings and the natural world, viewing them as removed from urban settings. But by the time that Romanticism arose in Britain, the industrial revolution and changes in the economy had altered the country. Many people had moved into cities for the purpose of work, which led cities to become the center of the country’s economic and social life. Despite these societal changes, the association of Romanticism with urban settings is apt, as many of the Romantics emphasized this mode of living. Due to their separation from the natural environment, burgeoning cities fostered a sense of nostalgia for the times in which nature was more accessible. Much of William Wordsworth’s poetry conveys a longing for life away from the city, while other poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelly, used naturalistic metaphors, for instance the wind, to express the desire for political change.
This insistence on the natural world notwithstanding, Romanticism was inextricably linked to the urban world, as it developed alongside it. Some of the poets considered a part of this aesthetic movement place the city as the setting for their poems, thus creating urban poetry; poets like William Blake and even William Wordsworth feature London in their poetry. Some critics have noted the ways the consumer-based economy, which was facilitated by urban life, influenced the Romantic poets’ consideration of the world around them. This consumer culture prompted desire for items that were wanted rather than needed, leading these poets to convey a sense of longing for the unavailable in their poetry. During this time, the city also became an important site for the art world, as there were many new forms of art that were displayed in the city. Critics have noted that these displays of art influenced the way poets represented the world around them in their poetry.
Many of the Romantic poets were political radicals: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early part of their careers, as well as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelly, and Lord Byron. These poets were against oppression both within the country and outside of it, as imperialism was becoming an important part of England’s economy. Because London was the center of this empire, many of these politically-radical poets rejected the city, preferring the idealized countryside because it did not possess imperial connotations. However, due to its political centrality, London was a place in which one could be engaged with politics, with radical political groups becoming important networking groups. London also became an important site for poetic networking: important critic William Hazlitt and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge delivered a series of lectures that informed the public of what was taking place in poetry at this time. Coleridge, because of his discussion of his theories of literature, was able to construct a public representation of himself.
While there was a tension between the urban and rural in Romantic literature, the city became an indispensable site for this work. It could not have existed apart from it because it was in part a reaction to urbanization. The city connected these poets to the masses, and social consciousness was an important feature for many of these poets. Even while resisting the city, urban life influenced these poets and helped them construct the poetry that has since become associated with this time period.
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