History of Literature

English literature



The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century



English literature


The Romantic period


Leigh Hunt
John Stuart Mill

William Blake  I.  "Songs of Innocence", II. "Songs of Experience", III. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", IV-V. "The Book of Job"

William Wordsworth  "The Prelude"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge  "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"  PART I, PART II-IV, PART V-VI, PART VII Illustrations by Gustave Dore
Dorothy Wordsworth
William Lisle Bowles
Thomas Campbell
Samuel Rogers
Thomas Moore
Helen Maria Williams
Mary Robinson
Robert Southey
George Crabbe


The nature of Romanticism

As a term to cover the most distinctive writers who flourished in the last years of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, “Romantic” is indispensable but also a little misleading: there was no self-styled “Romantic movement” at the time, and the great writers of the period did not call themselves Romantics. Not until August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s Vienna lectures of 1808–09 was a clear distinction established between the “organic,” “plastic” qualities of Romantic art and the “mechanical” character of Classicism.

Many of the age’s foremost writers thought that something new was happening in the world’s affairs, nevertheless. William Blake’s affirmation in 1793 that “a new heaven is begun” was matched a generation later by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The world’s great age begins anew.” “These, these will give the world another heart, / And other pulses,” wrote John Keats, referring to Leigh Hunt and William Wordsworth. Fresh ideals came to the fore; in particular, the ideal of freedom, long cherished in England, was being extended to every range of human endeavour. As that ideal swept through Europe, it became natural to believe that the age of tyrants might soon end.

The most notable feature of the poetry of the time is the new role of individual thought and personal feeling. Where the main trend of 18th-century poetics had been to praise the general, to see the poet as a spokesman of society addressing a cultivated and homogeneous audience and having as his end the conveyance of “truth,” the Romantics found the source of poetry in the particular, unique experience. Blake’s marginal comment on Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses expresses the position with characteristic vehemence: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the alone Distinction of Merit.” The poet was seen as an individual distinguished from his fellows by the intensity of his perceptions, taking as his basic subject matter the workings of his own mind. Poetry was regarded as conveying its own truth; sincerity was the criterion by which it was to be judged.

The emphasis on feeling—seen perhaps at its finest in the poems of Robert Burns—was in some ways a continuation of the earlier “cult of sensibility”; and it is worth remembering that Alexander Pope praised his father as having known no language but the language of the heart. But feeling had begun to receive particular emphasis and is found in most of the Romantic definitions of poetry. Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” and in 1833 John Stuart Mill defined poetry as “feeling itself, employing thought only as the medium of its utterance.” It followed that the best poetry was that in which the greatest intensity of feeling was expressed, and hence a new importance was attached to the lyric. Another key quality of Romantic writing was its shift from the mimetic, or imitative, assumptions of the Neoclassical era to a new stress on imagination. Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw the imagination as the supreme poetic quality, a quasi-divine creative force that made the poet a godlike being. Samuel Johnson had seen the components of poetry as “invention, imagination and judgement,” but Blake wrote: “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.” The poets of this period accordingly placed great emphasis on the workings of the unconscious mind, on dreams and reveries, on the supernatural, and on the childlike or primitive view of the world, this last being regarded as valuable because its clarity and intensity had not been overlaid by the restrictions of civilized “reason.” Rousseau’s sentimental conception of the “noble savage” was often invoked, and often by those who were ignorant that the phrase is Dryden’s or that the type was adumbrated in the “poor Indian” of Pope’s An Essay on Man. A further sign of the diminished stress placed on judgment is the Romantic attitude to form: if poetry must be spontaneous, sincere, intense, it should be fashioned primarily according to the dictates of the creative imagination. Wordsworth advised a young poet, “You feel strongly; trust to those feelings, and your poem will take its shape and proportions as a tree does from the vital principle that actuates it.” This organic view of poetry is opposed to the classical theory of “genres,” each with its own linguistic decorum; and it led to the feeling that poetic sublimity was unattainable except in short passages.

Hand in hand with the new conception of poetry and the insistence on a new subject matter went a demand for new ways of writing. Wordsworth and his followers, particularly Keats, found the prevailing poetic diction of the late 18th century stale and stilted, or “gaudy and inane,” and totally unsuited to the expression of their perceptions. It could not be, for them, the language of feeling, and Wordsworth accordingly sought to bring the language of poetry back to that of common speech. Wordsworth’s own diction, however, often differs from his theory. Nevertheless, when he published his preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800, the time was ripe for a change: the flexible diction of earlier 18th-century poetry had hardened into a merely conventional language.


Leigh Hunt

born Oct. 19, 1784, Southgate, Middlesex, Eng.
died Aug. 28, 1859, Putney, London

English essayist, critic, journalist, and poet, who was an editor of influential journals in an age when the periodical was at the height of its power. He was also a friend and supporter of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Hunt’s poems, of which “Abou Ben Adhem” and his rondeau “Jenny Kissed Me” (both first published in 1838) are probably the best known, reflect his knowledge of French and Italian versification. His defense of Keats’s work in the Examiner (June 1817) as “poetry for its own sake” was an important anticipation of the views of the Aesthetic movement.

Hunt, at his best, in some essays and his Autobiography (1850; in part a rewriting of Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, 1828), has a distinctive charm. He excels in perceptive judgments of his contemporaries, from Keats to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As a Radical journalist, though not much interested in the details of politics, he attacked oppression with indignation.

The poems in Juvenilia (1801), his first volume, show his love for Italian literature. He looked to Italy for a “freer spirit of versification” and translated a great deal of Italian poetry, and in The Story of Rimini (1816), published in the year of his meeting with Keats, he reintroduced a freedom of movement in English couplet verse lost in the 18th century. From him Keats derived his delight in colour and imaginative sensual experience and a first acquaintance with Italian poetry. Much of Hunt’s best verse was published in Foliage (1818) and Hero and Leander, and Bacchus and Ariadne (1819).

In 1808 Leigh Hunt and his brother John had launched the weekly Examiner, which advocated abolition of the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, and reform of Parliament and the criminal law. For their attacks on the unpopular prince regent, the brothers were imprisoned in 1813. Leigh Hunt, who continued to write The Examiner in prison, was regarded as a martyr in the cause of liberty. After his release (1815) he moved to Hampstead, home of Keats, whom he introduced in 1817 to Shelley, a friend since 1811. The Examiner supported the new Romantic poets against attacks by Blackwood’s Magazine on what it called “the Cockney school of poetry,” supposedly led by Hunt.

In Hunt’s writings for the quarterly Reflector (1810–11), politics was combined with criticism of the theatre and of the fine arts, of which he had considerable knowledge. Imagination and Fancy (1844), his most sustained critical work, draws interesting parallels between painting and poetry. It was in the weekly Indicator (1819–21) and The Companion (1828), however, that Hunt published some of his best essays. He continued to write for periodicals until his death.



John Stuart Mill

British philosopher and economist

born May 20, 1806, London, Eng.
died May 8, 1873, Avignon, France

English philosopher, economist, and exponent of Utilitarianism. He was prominent as a publicist in the reforming age of the 19th century, and remains of lasting interest as a logician and an ethical theorist.

Early life and career
The eldest son of the British historian, economist, and philosopher James Mill, he was born in his father’s house in Pentonville, London. He was educated exclusively by his father, who was a strict disciplinarian. By his eighth year he had read in the original Greek Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the whole of the historian Herodotus. He was acquainted with the satirist Lucian, the historian of philosophy Diogenes Laërtius, the Athenian writer and educational theorist Isocrates, and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English. At the age of eight he started Latin, the geometry of Euclid, and algebra and began to teach the younger children of the family. His main reading was still history, but he went through all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities and, by the age of 10 could read Plato and the Athenian statesman Demosthenes with ease. About the age of 12, he began a thorough study of Scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle’s logical treatises in the original. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied the work of the Scottish political economist and philosopher Adam Smith and that of the English economist David Ricardo.

While the training the younger Mill received has aroused amazement and criticism, its most important aspect was the close association it fostered with the strenuous character and vigorous intellect of his father. From his earliest days he spent much time in his father’s study and habitually accompanied him on his walks. He thus inevitably acquired many of his father’s speculative opinions and his father’s way of defending them. But he did not receive the impress passively and mechanically. The duty of collecting and weighing evidence for himself was at every turn impressed upon the boy. His childhood was not unhappy, but it was a strain on his constitution and he suffered from the lack of natural, unforced development.

From May 1820 until July 1821, Mill was in France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham, the English Utilitarian philosopher, economist, and theoretical jurist. Copious extracts from a diary kept at this time show how methodically he read and wrote, studied chemistry and botany, tackled advanced mathematical problems, and made notes on the scenery and the people and customs of the country. He also gained a thorough acquaintance with the French language. On his return in 1821 he added to his work the study of psychology and of Roman law, which he read with John Austin, his father having half decided on the bar as the best profession open to him. This intention, however, was abandoned, and in 1823, when he had just completed his 17th year, he entered the examiner’s office of the India House. After a short probation he was promoted in 1828 to assistant examiner. For 20 years, from 1836 (when his father died) to 1856, Mill had charge of the British East India Company’s relations with the Indian states, and in 1856 he became chief of the examiner’s office.

In 1822 Mill had read P.-E.-L. Dumont’s exposition of Bentham’s doctrines in the Traités de Législation, which made a lasting impression upon him. The impression was confirmed by the study of the English psychologists and also of two 18th-century French philosophers—Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who was also a psychologist, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, who was noted for his emphasis on physical sensations. Soon after, in 1822–23, Mill established among a few friends the Utilitarian Society, taking the word, as he tells us, from Annals of the Parish, a novel of Scottish country life by John Galt.

Two newspapers welcomed his contributions—The Traveller, edited by a friend of Bentham’s, and The Morning Chronicle, edited by his father’s friend John Black. One of his first efforts was a solid argument for freedom of discussion in a series of letters to the Chronicle on the prosecution of Richard Carlile, a 19th-century English radical and freethinker. Mill seized every chance for exposing departures from sound principle in Parliament and courts of justice. Another outlet was opened up for him (April 1824) with the founding of the Westminster Review, which was the organ of the philosophical radicals. In 1825 he began work on an edition of Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence (5 vol., 1827). He took part eagerly in discussions with the many men of distinction who came to his father’s house and engaged in set discussions at a reading society formed at the home of English historian George Grote in 1825 and in debates at the London Debating Society, formed in the same year.

Public life and writing
The Autobiography tells how in 1826 Mill’s enthusiasm was checked by a misgiving as to the value of the ends that he had set before him. At the London Debating Society, where he first measured his strength in public conflict, he found himself looked upon with curiosity as a precocious phenomenon, a “made man,” an intellectual machine set to grind certain tunes. The elder Mill, like Plato, would have put poets under ban as enemies of truth; he subordinated private to public affections; and Landor’s maxims of “few acquaintances, fewer friends, no familiarities” had his cordial approval. The younger Mill now felt himself forced to abandon these doctrines. Too much in awe of his father to make him a confidant, he wrestled with his doubts in gloomy solitude. He emerged from the struggle with a more catholic view of human happiness, a delight in poetry for its own sake, a more placable attitude in controversy, a hatred of sectarianism, and an ambition no less noble and disinterested but moderated to practical possibilities. Gradually, the debates in the Debating Society attracted men with whom contact was invigorating and inspiring. Mill ceased to attend the society in 1829, but he carried away from it the conviction that a true system of political philosophy was something much more complex and many-sided than he had previously had any idea of, and that its office was to supply, not a set of model institutions but principles from which the institutions suitable to any given circumstances might be deduced.

Mill’s letters in The Examiner in the autumn of 1830, after a visit to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of the younger liberals, may be taken as marking his return to hopeful activity; and a series of articles on “The Spirit of the Age” appeared in the same paper in 1831. During the years 1832 and 1833 he contributed many essays to Tait’s Magazine, The Jurist, and The Monthly Repository. In 1835 Sir William Molesworth founded The London Review, with Mill as editor. It was amalgamated with The Westminster (as The London and Westminster Review) in 1836, and Mill continued as editor (latterly as proprietor, also) until 1840. In and after 1840 he published several important articles in The Edinburgh Review. Some of the essays written for these journals were reprinted in the first two volumes (1859) of Mill’s Dissertations and Discussions and give evidence of the increasing width of his interests. Among the more important are “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties” (1833), “Writings of Alfred de Vigny” (1838), “Bentham” (1838), “Coleridge” (1840), “M. De Tocqueville on Democracy in America” (1840), “Michelet’s History of France” (1844), and “Guizot’s Essays and Lectures on History” (1845). The twin essays on Bentham and Coleridge show Mill’s powers at their splendid best and indicate very clearly the new spirit that he tried to breathe into English radicalism.

During these years Mill also wrote his great systematic works on logic and on political economy. His reawakened enthusiasm for humanity had taken shape as an aspiration to supply an unimpeachable method of proof for conclusions in moral and social science; the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte had some influence here, but the main inspiration undoubtedly came from the English scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, whose physics had already been accepted as a model of scientific exposition by such earlier British philosophers as John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and James Mill. But he was determined that the new logic should not simply oppose the old logic. In his Westminster review (of 1828) of Richard Whately’s Elements of Logic, he was already defending the syllogism against the Scottish philosophers who had talked of superseding it by a supposed system of inductive logic. He required his inductive logic to “supplement and not supersede.” For several years he searched in vain for the means of concatenation. Finally, in 1837, on reading William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences and rereading John F.W. Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, Mill at last saw his way clear both to formulating the methods of scientific investigation and to joining the new logic onto the old as a supplement. A System of Logic, in two volumes, was published in 1843 (3rd–8th editions, introducing many changes, 1851–72). Book VI is his valiant attempt to formulate a logic of the human sciences—including history, psychology, and sociology—based on causal explanation conceived in Humean terms, a formulation that has lately come in for radical criticism.

Mill distinguished three stages in his development as a political economist. In 1844 he published the Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, which he had written several years earlier, and four out of five of these essays are solutions of perplexing technical problems—the distribution of the gains of international commerce, the influence of consumption on production, the definition of productive and unproductive labour, and the precise relations between profits and wages. Here for the most part Mill appears as the disciple of David Ricardo, striving after more precise statements and reaching forward to further consequences. In his second stage, originality and independence become more conspicuous as he struggles toward the standpoint from which he wrote his Principles of Political Economy. This was published in 1848 (2 vol.; 2nd and 3rd eds., with significant differences, 1849, 1852), and, at about the same time, Mill was advocating the creation of peasant proprietorships as a remedy for the distresses and disorder in Ireland. Thereafter, he made a more thorough study of Socialist writers. He was convinced that the social question was as important as the political question. He declined to accept property, devised originally to secure peace in a primitive society, as necessarily sacred in its existing developments in a quite different stage of society. He separated questions of production and distribution and could not rest satisfied with the distribution that condemned the labouring classes to a cramped and wretched existence, in many cases to starvation. He did not come to a Socialist solution, but he had the great merit of having considered afresh the foundations of society. This he called his third stage as a political economist, and he says that he was helped toward it by Mrs. Taylor (Harriet Hardy), who became his wife in 1851.

It is generally supposed that Mill writes with a lover’s extravagance about Harriet’s powers. He expressly says, indeed, that he owed none of his technical doctrine to her, that she influenced only his ideals of life for the individual and for society, and that the only work directly inspired by her is the essay on the “Enfranchisement of Women” (Dissertations, vol. 2). Nevertheless, Mill’s relations with her have always been something of a puzzle.

During the seven years of his marriage Mill became increasingly absorbed in the work of the British East India Company and in consequence published less than at any other period of his life. In 1856 he became head of the examiner’s office in the India House, and for two years, till the dissolution of the company in 1858, his official work kept him fully occupied. It fell to him as head of the office to write the defense of the company’s government of India when the transfer of its powers was proposed. Mill opposed the transfer, and the documents in which he defended the company’s administration are models of trenchant and dignified pleading. On the dissolution of the company, Mill was offered a seat in the new council but declined it and retired with a pension of £1,500. His retirement from official life was followed almost immediately by his wife’s death at Avignon, France. He spent most of the rest of his life at a villa at Saint-Véran, near Avignon, returning to his house at Blackheath only for a short period in each year.

The later years
Mill sought relief by publishing a series of books on ethics and politics that he had meditated upon and partly written in collaboration with his wife. The essay On Liberty appeared in 1859 with a touching dedication to her and the Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform in the same year. In his Considerations on Representative Government (1861) he systematized opinions already put forward in many casual articles and essays. It has been remarked how Mill combined enthusiasm for democratic government with pessimism as to what democracy was likely to do; practically every discussion in these books exemplifies this. His Utilitarianism (in Fraser’s Magazine, 1861; separate publication, 1863) was a closely reasoned attempt to answer objections to his ethical theory and to remove misconceptions about it. He was especially anxious to make it clear that he included in “utility” the pleasures of the imagination and the gratification of the higher emotions; and to make a place in his system for settled rules of conduct.

Mill also began to write again on the wider philosophical questions that had occupied him in the Logic. In 1865 he published both his Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and his Auguste Comte and Positivism, but in both writings his motives were largely political. It was because he regarded the writings and sayings of Sir William Hamilton as the great fortress of intuitional philosophy in Great Britain that Mill undertook to counter his pretensions. In dealing with Comte, Mill distinguished sharply between Comte’s earlier philosophical doctrine of Positivism and his later religion of humanity. The doctrine he commended (as he had frequently done previously) because he regarded it as a natural development of the outlook of George Berkeley and Hume; the religion he attacked because he saw in it merely another attempt to foist a priestly hierarchy upon suffering humanity. It is noticeable that Mill’s language in these books is much closer to the language of Bentham and James Mill than it had been since his boyhood, and it was as an act of piety that in 1869 he republished his father’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind with additional illustrations and explanatory notes.

While engaged in these years mainly with theoretical studies, Mill did not remit his interest in current politics. He supported the North in the U.S. Civil War, using all his strength to explain that the real issue at stake in the struggle was the abolition of slavery. In 1865 he stood as parliamentary candidate for Westminster, on conditions strictly in accordance with his principles. He would not canvass or pay agents to canvass for him, nor would he engage to attend to the local business of the constituency. He was with difficulty persuaded even to address a meeting of the electors but was elected. He took an active part in the debates preceding the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill, and helped to extort from the government several useful modifications of the bill, for the prevention of corrupt practices. The reform of land tenure in Ireland (see his England and Ireland, 1868, and his Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question, 1870), the representation of women (see below), the reduction of the national debt, the reform of London government, and the abrogation of the Declaration of Paris (1856)—concerning the carriage of property at sea during the Crimean War—were among the topics on which he spoke. He took occasion more than once to enforce what he had often advocated, England’s duty to intervene in foreign politics in support of freedom. As a speaker Mill was somewhat hesitating, but he showed great readiness in extemporaneous debate. Elected rector of St. Andrews University, he published his “Inaugural Address” in 1867.

Mill’s subscription to the election expenses of the freethinker and radical politician Charles Bradlaugh and his attack on the conduct of Gov. E.J. Eyre in Jamaica were perhaps the main causes of his defeat in the general parliamentary election of 1868. But his studied advocacy of unfamiliar projects of reform had made him unpopular with “moderate Liberals.” He retired with a sense of relief to Avignon. His villa was filled with books and newspapers; the country round it furnished him with a variety of walks; he read, wrote, discussed, walked, botanized. He was extremely fond of music and was himself a fair pianist. His stepdaughter, Helen Taylor (died January 1907), was his constant companion after his wife’s death. Mill was an enthusiastic botanist all his life and a frequent contributor of notes and short papers to the Phytologist. During his last journey to Avignon he was looking forward to seeing the spring flowers and completing a flora of the locality.

Mill did not relax his laborious habits or his ardent outlook on human affairs. The essays in the fourth volume of his Dissertations (1875; vol. 3 had appeared in 1867)—on endowments, on land, on labour, and on metaphysical and psychological questions—were written for the Fortnightly Review at intervals after his short parliamentary career. In 1867 he had been one of the founders, with Mrs. P.A. Taylor, Emily Davies, and others, of the first women’s suffrage society, which developed into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and in 1869 he published The Subjection of Women (written 1861), the classical theoretical statement of the case for woman suffrage. His last public activity was concerned with the starting of the Land Tenure Reform Association, for which he wrote in The Examiner and made a public speech a few months before his death; the interception by the state of the unearned increment on land and the promotion of cooperative agriculture were the most striking features in his program, which he regarded as a timely compromise in view of the impending struggle between capital and labour in Europe. He died in 1873, and his Autobiography and Three Essays on Religion (1874) were published posthumously.

A bronze statue of Mill stands on the Thames embankment in London, and G.F. Watts’s copy of his original portrait of Mill hangs in the National Gallery there.

Influence and significance
Mill was a man of extreme simplicity in his mode of life. The influence that his works exercised upon contemporary English thought can scarcely be overestimated, nor can there be any doubt about the value of the liberal and inquiring spirit with which he handled the great questions of his time. Beyond that, however, there has been considerable difference of opinion about the enduring merits of his philosophy. At first sight he is the most lucid of philosophers. Many people have spoken of the marvelous intelligibility of his writing. Usually, however, it is not long before doubts begin to creep in. Although the lucidity remains, its span is seen to be somewhat limited, and one sometimes has the uneasy feeling that he is being equally lucid on both sides of a question.

Oddly enough, however, this judgment has not led to any neglect of Mill. Little attention is now paid to Hamilton or to Whewell, but Mill’s name continually crops up in philosophical discussions. This is partly due to the fact that Mill offers a body of doctrine and a set of technical terms on many subjects (notably on induction) that have proved extremely useful in the classroom. But a more important reason is that he has come to be regarded as a sort of personification of certain tendencies in philosophy that it is regarded as continually necessary to expound or expose because they make such a powerful appeal to serious minds. Thus he is or says he is a Utilitarian; yet nothing, it is pointed out, could tell more strongly against Utilitarianism than certain passages in his writings. Then again, he is said to be an Empiricist (although he says himself that he is not), and his theories of the syllogism and of mathematics are constantly used to demonstrate the fatal consequences of this way of thinking.

It is misleading to speak without qualification of Mill’s Utilitarianism. Nor is it sufficient to add that Mill modified the Utilitarianism that he inherited from Bentham and from his father in one way and another in order to meet the criticisms that it encountered in Victorian times. He does, it is true, sometimes give that impression (as in his essay Utilitarianism); but elsewhere (as in his essay On Liberty) he scarcely attempts to conceal the fact that his premises are completely independent of Bentham’s. Thus, contrary to the common belief, it appears to be very hazardous to characterize offhand the precise position of Mill on any major philosophical topic. He sometimes behaved with a reckless disregard of consequences more suitable to a Romantic than to a Utilitarian. He is thoroughly romantic, again, and thoroughly representative of his age in the eagerness with which he seeks out and endeavours to assimilate every last exotic line of thought which shows any signs of vitality. He himself claimed to be superior to most of his contemporaries in “ability and willingness to learn from everybody,” and indeed, for all his father’s careful schooling, there was never anybody less buttoned up against alien influences than Mill. In his writings there can be discerned traces of every wind of doctrine of the early 19th century.

Richard Paul Anschutz




Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge

Useful as it is to trace the common elements in Romantic poetry, there was little conformity among the poets themselves. It is misleading to read the poetry of the first Romantics as if it had been written primarily to express their feelings. Their concern was rather to change the intellectual climate of the age.
William Blake had been dissatisfied since boyhood with the current state of poetry and what he considered the irreligious drabness of contemporary thought. His early development of a protective shield of mocking humour with which to face a world in which science had become trifling and art inconsequential is visible in the satirical An Island in the Moon (written c. 1784–85); he then took the bolder step of setting aside sophistication in the visionary Songs of Innocence (1789). His desire for renewal encouraged him to view the outbreak of the French Revolution as a momentous event. In works such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93) and Songs of Experience (1794), he attacked the hypocrisies of the age and the impersonal cruelties resulting from the dominance of analytic reason in contemporary thought. As it became clear that the ideals of the Revolution were not likely to be realized in his time, he renewed his efforts to revise his contemporaries’ view of the universe and to construct a new mythology centred not in the God of the Bible but in Urizen, a repressive figure of reason and law whom he believed to be the deity actually worshipped by his contemporaries. The story of Urizen’s rise was set out in The First Book of Urizen (1794) and then, more ambitiously, in the unfinished manuscript Vala (later redrafted as The Four Zoas), written from about 1796 to about 1807.

Blake developed these ideas in the visionary narratives of Milton (1804–08) and Jerusalem (1804–20). Here, still using his own mythological characters, he portrayed the imaginative artist as the hero of society and suggested the possibility of redemption from the fallen (or Urizenic) condition.

William Blake Dante and Virgil at the Gates of Hell (Illustration to Dante's "Inferno")

William Blake

"Songs of Innocence"

II. "Songs of Experience"

III. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"

IV-V. "The Book of Job"


see also collection: Blake William - artist

British writer and artist

born Nov. 28, 1757, London, Eng.
died Aug. 12, 1827, London

English engraver, artist, poet, and visionary, author of exquisite lyrics in Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) and profound and difficult “prophecies,” such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), The First Book of Urizen (1794), Milton (1804[–?11]), and Jerusalem (1804[–?20]). The dating of Blake’s texts is explained in the Researcher’s Note: Blake publication dates. These works he etched, printed, coloured, stitched, and sold, with the assistance of his devoted wife, Catherine. Among his best known lyrics today are The Lamb, The Tyger, London, and the Jerusalem lyric from Milton, which has become a kind of second national anthem in Britain. In the early 21st century, Blake was regarded as the earliest and most original of the Romantic poets, but in his lifetime he was generally neglected or (unjustly) dismissed as mad.

Blake was born over his father’s modest hosiery shop at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London. His parents were James Blake (1722–84) and Catherine Wright Armitage Blake (1722–92). His father came from an obscure family in Rotherhithe, across the River Thames from London, and his mother was from equally obscure yeoman stock in the straggling little village of Walkeringham in Nottinghamshire. His mother had first married (1746) a haberdasher named Thomas Armitage, and in 1748 they moved to 28 Broad Street. In 1750 the couple joined the newly established Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London. The Moravian religious movement, recently imported from Germany, had had a strong attraction to the powerful emotions associated with nascent Methodism (see Moravian church). Catherine Armitage bore a son named Thomas, who died as a baby in 1751, and a few months later Thomas Armitage himself died.

Catherine left the Moravians, who insisted on marriages within the faith, and in 1752 married James Blake in the Church of England chapel of St. George in Hanover Square. James moved in with her at 28 Broad Street. They had six children: James (1753–1827), who took over the family haberdashery business on his father’s death in 1784; John (born 1755, died in childhood); William, the poet and artist; another John Blake (born 1760, died by 1800), whom Blake referred to in a letter of 1802 as “my Brother John the evil one” and who became an unsuccessful gingerbread baker, enlisted as a soldier, and died; Richard (1762–87), called Robert, a promising artist and the poet’s favourite, at times his alter ego; and Catherine Elizabeth (1764–1841), the baby of the family, who never married and who died in extreme indigence long after the deaths of all her brothers.

William Blake grew up in modest circumstances. What teaching he received as a child was at his mother’s knee, as most children did. This he saw as a positive matter, later writing, “Thank God I never was sent to school/ To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool[.]”

Visions of eternity
Visions were commonplaces to Blake, and his life and works were intensely spiritual. His friend the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that when Blake was four years old he saw God’s head appear in a window. While still a child he also saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the fields and had a vision, according to his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist (1828–61), of “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” Robinson reported in his diary that Blake spoke of visions “in the ordinary unemphatic tone in which we speak of trivial matters.…Of the faculty of Vision he spoke as One he had had from early infancy—He thinks all men partake of it—but it is lost by not being cultiv[ate]d.” In his essay A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake wrote:

I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation… ‘What’ it will be Questiond ‘When the Sun rises, do you not See a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty!’

Blake wrote to his patron William Hayley in 1802, “I am under the direction of Messengers from Heaven Daily & Nightly.” These visions were the source of many of his poems and drawings. As he wrote in his Auguries of Innocence, his purpose was

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

He was, he wrote in 1804, “really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand.” Blake’s wife once said to his young friend Seymour Kirkup, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.”

Some of this stress on visions may have been fostered by his mother, who, with her first husband, had become a Moravian when the group was in its most intensely emotional and visionary phase. In her letter of 1750 applying to join the Moravians, she wrote that “last Friday at the love feast Our Savour [sic] was pleased to make me Suck his wounds.”

Blake’s religion
Blake was christened, married, and buried by the rites of the Church of England, but his creed was likely to outrage the orthodox. In A Vision of the Last Judgment he wrote that “the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being,” whom Blake called variously Nobodaddy and Urizen, and in his emblem book For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, he addressed Satan as “The Accuser who is The God of This World.” To Robinson “He warmly declared that all he knew is in the Bible. But he understands the Bible in its spiritual sense.” Blake’s religious singularity is demonstrated in his poem The Everlasting Gospel (c. 1818):

The Vision of Christ that thou dost See
Is my Visions Greatest Enemy

Both read the Bible day & night
But thou readst black where I read White.

But some of the orthodox not only tolerated but also encouraged Blake. Two of his most important patrons, the Rev. A.S. Mathew and the Rev. Joseph Thomas, were clergymen of the Church of England.

Blake was a religious seeker but not a joiner. He was profoundly influenced by some of the ideas of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, and in April 1789 he attended the general conference of the New Church (which had been recently founded by followers of Swedenborg) in London. Blake’s poem The Divine Image (from Songs of Innocence) is implicitly Swedenborgian, and he said that he based his design called The Spiritual Preceptor (1809) on the theologian’s book True Christian Religion. He soon decided, however, that Swedenborg was a “Spiritual Predestinarian,” as he wrote in his copy of Swedenborg’s Wisdom of Angels Concerning the Divine Providence (1790), and that the New Church was as subject to “Priestcraft” as the Church of England.

Blake loved the world of the spirit and abominated institutionalized religion, especially when it was allied with government; he wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible (1797), “all […] codes given under pretence [sic] of divine command were what Christ pronounced them, The Abomination that maketh desolate, i.e. State Religion” and later in the same text, “The Beast & the Whore rule without control.” According to his longtime friend John Thomas Smith, “He did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship.” For Blake, true worship was private communion with the spirit.

Education as artist and engraver
From childhood Blake wanted to be an artist, at the time an unusual aspiration for someone from a family of small businessmen and Nonconformists (dissenting Protestants). His father indulged him by sending him to Henry Pars’s Drawing School in the Strand, London (1767–72). The boy hoped to be apprenticed to some artist of the newly formed and flourishing English school of painting, but the fees proved to be more than the parental pocket could withstand. Instead he went with his father in 1772 to interview the successful and fashionable engraver William Wynne Ryland. Ryland’s fee, perhaps £100, was both “more attainable” than that of fashionable painters and still, for the Blakes, very high; furthermore the boy interposed an unexpected objection: “Father, I do not like the man’s face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged.” Eleven years later, Ryland was indeed hanged—for forgery—one of the last criminals to suffer on the infamous gallows known as Tyburn Tree.

The young Blake was ultimately apprenticed for 50 guineas to James Basire (1730–1802), a highly responsible and conservative line engraver who specialized in prints depicting architecture. For seven years (1772–79) Blake lived with Basire’s family on Great Queen Street, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. There he learned to polish the copperplates, to sharpen the gravers, to grind the ink, to reduce the images to the size of the copper, to prepare the plates for etching with acid, and eventually to push the sharp graver through the copper, with the light filtered through gauze so that the glare reflected from the brilliantly polished copper would not dazzle him. He became so proficient in all aspects of his craft that Basire trusted him to go by himself to Westminster Abbey to copy the marvelous medieval monuments there for one of the greatest illustrated English books of the last quarter of the 18th century, the antiquarian Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (vol. 1, 1786).

Career as engraver
On the completion of his apprenticeship in 1779, Blake began to work vigorously as an independent engraver. His most frequent commissions were from the great liberal bookseller Joseph Johnson. At first most of his work was copy engraving after the designs of other artists, such as the two fashion plates for the Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum-Book (1782). He also engraved important plates for the Swiss writer John Caspar (Johann Kasper) Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (vol. 1, 1789), for the English physician Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1791), and for his friend John Gabriel Stedman’s violent and eccentric Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), which included illustrations titled A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows and Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave.

Blake became so well known that he received commissions to engrave his own designs. These included 6 plates for Original Stories from Real Life (1791), a collection of narratives for children by Johnson’s friend Mary Wollstonecraft, and 43 folio plates for part one of Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts (1797), with a promise, never fulfilled, for a hundred more. Blake’s style of designing, however, was so extreme and unfamiliar, portraying spirits with real bodies, that one review in The British Critic (1796; of Gottfried August Bürger’s Leonora) called them “distorted, absurd,” and the product of a “depraved fancy.”

Because of the éclat with which they were published, the best-known engravings after Blake’s own designs were those for Robert Blair’s poem The Grave (1808). In 1805 the entrepreneur Robert Hartley Cromek paid Blake £21 for 20 watercolours illustrating Blair’s poem and agreed to publish folio (large-format) prints after them engraved by Blake. The number of designs was whittled down, without notifying Blake, from 20 to 15 to 12. Worst of all, the lucrative commission for engraving them, worth perhaps £300, was taken from Blake, without informing him, and given to the fashionable Italian engraver Luigi Schiavonetti. To add critical insult to commercial injury, when the work was published in 1808, the radical weekly The Examiner mocked the absurdity of “representing the Spirit to the eye,” and the reactionary Antijacobin Review not only deplored the designs as “the offspring of a morbid fancy,” which “totally failed” “ ‘to connect the visible with the invisible world,’ ” but also mocked Blake’s poetical dedication of the designs “To the Queen”:

Should he again essay to climb the Parnassian heights, his friends would do well to restrain his wanderings by the strait waistcoat. Whatever licence we may allow him as a painter, to tolerate him as a poet would be insufferable.

The frontispiece to the work was an engraving after Thomas Phillips’s portrait of Blake (above), which became the best-known representation of the artist. It shows him with a pencil in his hand, indicating, truthfully, that he is an artist, and wearing a waistcoat and an elegant frilled stock, suggesting, falsely, that he is a gentleman. The most remarkable feature of the portrait, however, is the prominent eyes. According to Blake’s acquaintance Allan Cunningham, at the sitting Blake and Phillips talked of paintings of angels, and Blake said that the Archangel Gabriel had told him that Michelangelo could paint an angel better than Raphael could. When Blake demanded evidence that Gabriel was not an evil spirit, the voice said,

“ ‘Can an evil spirit do this?’ I [Blake] looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked, the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that—it was the arch-angel Gabriel.” The painter marvelled much at this wild story; but he caught from Blake’s looks, as he related it, that rapt poetic expression, which has rendered his portrait one of the finest of the English school.

Later important commissions included plates for William Hayley’s biography of the poet William Cowper (1803–04), for sculptor John Flaxman’s illustrations for the Iliad (1805) and the works of Hesiod (1817), and for the Wedgwood ware catalogue (1816?), as well as marvelously modest and poignant little woodcuts after his own illustrations for a school edition of Virgil published in 1821 by the physician and botanist Robert John Thornton.

Blake also published his engravings of his own designs, though mostly in very small numbers. One of the best known is Glad Day, also called Albion Rose (designed 1780, engraved 1805?), depicting a glorious naked youth dancing upon the mountaintops. Even more ambitiously, he invented a method of printing in colour, still not clearly understood, which he used in 1795 to create his 12 great folio colour prints, including God Judging Adam and Newton. The latter shows the great mathematician naked and seated on a rock at the bottom of the sea making geometric designs. These were printed in only two or three copies apiece, and some were still in his possession at his death.

More publicly visible were Blake’s engravings of his enormous design of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (1810), his 22 folio designs for the Book of Job (1826), and his 7 even larger unfinished plates for Dante (1826–27). Though only the Chaucer sold well enough to repay its probable expenses during Blake’s lifetime, these are agreed today to be among the greatest triumphs of line engraving in England, sufficient to ensure Blake’s reputation as an engraver and artist even had he made no other watercolours or poems.

Marriage to Catherine Boucher
In 1781 Blake fell in love with Catherine Sophia Boucher (1762–1831), the pretty, illiterate daughter of an unsuccessful market gardener from the farm village of Battersea across the River Thames from London. The family name suggests that they were Huguenots who had fled religious persecution in France.

According to Blake’s friend John Thomas Smith, at their first meeting he told her how he had been jilted by Polly Wood, and Catherine said she pitied him from her heart.

“Do you pity me?” asked Blake.

“Yes, I do, most sincerely.”

“Then,” said he, “I love you for that.”

“Well, and I love you.”

Blake returned to Soho to achieve financial security to support a wife, and 12 months later, on Aug. 18, 1782, the couple married in her family’s church, Saint Mary’s, Battersea, the bride signing the marriage register with an X.

It was an imprudent and highly satisfactory marriage. Blake taught Catherine to read and write (a little), to draw, to colour his designs and prints, to help him at the printing press, and to see visions as he did. She believed implicitly in his genius and his visions and supported him in everything he did with charming credulity. After his death she lived chiefly for the moments when he came to sit and talk with her.

Not long after his marriage, Blake acquired a rolling press for printing engravings and joined his fellow apprentice James Parker in opening a print shop in 1784. Within a year, however, Blake had left the business and returned to making rather than selling prints.

Death of Robert Blake
One of the most traumatic events of Blake’s life was the death of his beloved 24-year-old brother, Robert, from tuberculosis in 1787. At the end, Blake stayed up with him for a fortnight, and when Robert died Blake saw his “released spirit ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, ‘clapping its hands for joy,’” as Alexander Gilchrist wrote. The occasion entered into Blake’s psyche and his poetry. In the epic poem Vala or The Four Zoas (manuscript 1796?–1807?), he writes, “Urizen rose up from his couch / On wings of tenfold joy, clapping his hands,” and, in his poem Milton, plates 29 and 33 portray figures, labeled “William” and “Robert,” falling backward as a star plunges toward their feet. Blake claimed that in a vision Robert taught him the secret of painting his designs and poems on copper in a liquid impervious to acid before the plate was etched and printed. This method, which Blake called “Illuminated Printing,” made it possible for Blake to be his own compositor, printer, binder, advertiser, and salesman for all his published poetry thereafter, from Songs of Innocence to Jerusalem (1804[–20?]).

Career as an artist
While pursuing his career as an engraver, in 1779 Blake enrolled as a student in the newly founded Royal Academy of Arts; he exhibited a few pictures there, in 1780, 1784, 1785, 1799, and 1808. His greatest ambition was as an artist; according to his friend Henry Crabb Robinson, “The spirit said to him, ‘Blake be an artist & nothing else. In this there is felicity.’” His materials were watercolours and paper, not the fashionable oil on canvas, and he painted subjects from the Bible and British history instead of the portraits and landscapes that were in vogue. And increasingly his subjects were his own visions.

His friends were artists such as the Neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman, the book illustrator Thomas Stothard, the sensationalist painter Henry Fuseli, the amateur polymath George Cumberland, and the portrait and landscape painter John Linnell. Blake’s patrons were mostly concerned with his art, and most of his correspondence was about engravings and paintings. Only Cumberland bought a significant number of his books.

Blake’s first really important commission, which he received in about 1794, was to illustrate every page of Edward Young’s popular and morbid long poem Night Thoughts—a total of 537 watercolours. For these he was paid £21 by the ambitious and inexperienced young bookseller Richard Edwards, brother of the illustrated-book publisher James Edwards. From these 537 designs were to be chosen subjects for, as a promotional flyer touted, 150 engravings by Blake “in a perfectly new style of decoration, surrounding the text” for a “MAGNIFICENT” and “splendid” new edition. The first of a proposed four parts was published in 1797 with 43 plates, but it fell stillborn from the press, and no further engraving for the edition was made. Its failure resulted at least in part from the fact that its publisher was already preparing to go out of business and neglected to advertise the book or almost even to sell it. The work was largely ignored or deplored, and its commercial failure had profound consequences for Blake; he wrote to George Cumberland in 1799, “I am laid by in a corner as if I did not Exist, & Since my Youngs Night Thoughts have been publish’d Even Johnson & Fuseli have discarded my Graver.”

Most of his large commissions thereafter were for watercolours rather than engravings. For John Flaxman, he painted 116 designs illustrating Thomas Gray’s poems (1797–98); for his faithful patron Thomas Butts, a functionary in the office of the Commissary General of [Military] Musters, he created 135 temperas (1799–1800) and watercolours (1800–1809) illustrating the Bible; and he executed 8 watercolours (1801?) for Milton’s Comus, 6 for Shakespeare (1806 and 1809), 12 for Paradise Lost (1807), and 6 for Milton’s ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1809), all for the Rev. Joseph Thomas of Epsom, not far from the village of Felpham (where Blake lived for a while). Later Butts commissioned 12 watercolours for Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (1816?) and 12 for Paradise Regained (c. 1816–20); Linnell had Blake create 6 watercolours for the Book of Enoch (1824–27), plus 102 illustrations for Dante (1824–27) and 11 for what began as an illuminated Genesis manuscript (1826–27); 29 unfinished watercolours (1824–27) for John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were still in Blake’s possession at his death. Blake also drew scores of “Visionary Heads” (1818–25) of the mighty or notorious dead, which were fostered and often commissioned by the artist and astrologer John Varley.

Of all these commissions, only illustrations for Job (1826) and Dante (1838) were engraved and published. The rest were visible only on the private walls of their unostentatious owners. Blake’s art and his livelihood were thus largely in the hands of a small number of connoisseurs whose commissions were often inspired as much by love for the man as by admiration for his art.

Patronage of William Hayley and move to Felpham
Upon the commercial failure of his Night Thoughts engravings, Blake accepted an invitation from Flaxman’s friend the genteel poet William Hayley to move to the little seaside farm village of Felpham in Sussex and work as his protégé. Blake’s work there would include making engravings for Hayley’s works and painting tempera portraits of literary notables for Hayley’s library and miniature portraits for his friends. Blake rented for £20 a year a charming thatched cottage, which he and Catherine found enchanting, and on arriving he wrote, “Heaven opens here on all sides her Golden Gates.” He worked industriously on Hayley’s projects, particularly his Designs to a Series of Ballads—published for Blake’s benefit (1802)—and Hayley’s biography (1803–04) of his friend the poet William Cowper, with engravings printed by Catherine. “Mr Hayley acts like a Prince,” Blake wrote on May 10, 1801; Blake’s host gave him commissions, found him patrons, and taught him Greek and Hebrew.

Hayley’s well-meant efforts to foster Blake’s commercial success, however, strained their relationship. In Blake’s manuscript notebook,
he expressed his resentment thus: :

When H---- finds out what you cannot do

That is the very thing he[’]ll set you to.

Blake had already determined to return to London when he was beset by legal troubles.

Charged with sedition
When the peace established in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens broke down in 1803, Napoleon massed his army along the English Channel. British troops were rushed to the Sussex coast, with a troop of dragoons billeted in the pub at Felpham. On Aug. 12, 1803, Blake found one of the dragoons, named John Schofield, lounging in his garden and perhaps tipsy. Blake asked him to leave and, on his refusal, took him by the elbows and marched him down the street to the Fox Inn, 50 yards (46 metres) away. In revenge, Schofield went to his officer with his comrade Private John Cock, and they swore that Blake had “Damned the King of England.” The complaint was taken to the magistrate, a charge was laid, and Blake was forced to find bail and was bound over for trial for sedition and assault first at the quarter sessions in Petworth (Oct. 4, 1803), where a True Bill was found against Blake, and then at Chichester (Jan. 11, 1804). (The words “True Bill” are written on a bill of indictment when a grand jury, after hearing the government witnesses, finds that there is sufficient cause to put a defendent on trial.) Despite the fact that the magistrates were all country gentlemen—one of them, the duke of Richmond, who commanded all troops in the south of England, was, Hayley wrote, “bitterly prejudiced against Blake”—with the support of Hayley as a character witness and of the lawyer whom Hayley had hired, Blake was, according to The Sussex Weekly Advertiser, “by the Jury acquitted, which so gratified the auditory, that the court was, in defiance of all decency, thrown into an uproar by their noisy exultations.” He later incorporated his accusers and judges into his poems Milton and Jerusalem.

Blake’s exhibition (1809–10)
There were few opportunities for a wider public to view Blake’s watercolours and his temperas. He showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours (1812) and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence.

Blake’s most determined effort to reach a wider public was his retrospective exhibition of 16 watercolours and temperas, held above the Blake family hosiery shop and home on Broad Street from 1809 to 1810. The most ambitious picture in the exhibition, called The Ancient Britons and depicting the last battle of the legendary King Arthur, had been commissioned by the Welsh scholar and enthusiast William Owen Pughe. The painting, now lost, was said to have been 14 feet (4.3 metres) wide by 10 feet (3 metres) tall—the largest picture Blake ever made, with what an advertisement for the exhibition described as “Figures full as large as Life.” The young art student Seymour Kirkup said it was Blake’s “masterpiece,” and Henry Crabb Robinson called it “his greatest and most perfect work.”

The first three pictures listed in the exhibition catalogue—The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c. 1805–09), The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (1805?), and Sir Jeffrey Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on Their Journey to Canterbury (1808)—defined the style of the pictures and the expectations of the viewers. In his Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures (1809), Blake said that he “appeals to the Public,” but he scarcely attempted to accommodate his rhetoric to his audience. The works on display, he wrote, were “copies from some stupendous originals now lost…[which] The Artist having been taken in vision into the ancient republics, monarchies, and patriarchates of Asia, has seen.” Blake also inveighed against fashionable styles and artists, such as the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens—whom he called “a most outrageous demon” (i.e., villain)—and “that infernal machine called Chiaro Oscura” (a technique of shading, see chiaroscuro).

Only a few persons saw the exhibition, perhaps no more than a couple dozen, but they included Robinson, the essayist and critic Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, and Robert Hunt, brother of the journalist and poet Leigh Hunt. Robert Hunt wrote the only printed notice (in the radical family weekly The Examiner) of the exhibition and its Descriptive Catalogue, and through his vilification they became much more widely known than Blake had been able to make them. Hunt described the pictures as “wretched,” the Descriptive Catalogue as “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity,” and Blake himself as “an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” Few more destructive reviews have appeared in print, and Blake was devastated. He riposted by incorporating the Hunt brothers into his poems Milton and Jerusalem, but the harm was done, and Blake withdrew more and more into obscurity. From 1809 to 1818 he engraved few plates, his commissions for designs were mostly private, and he sank deeper into poverty.

Blake as a poet
Blake’s profession was engraving, and his principal avocation was painting in watercolours. But even from boyhood he wrote poetry. In the early 1780s he attended the literary and artistic salons of the bluestocking Harriet Mathew, and there he read and sang his poems. According to Blake’s friend John Thomas Smith, “He was listened to by the company with profound silence, and allowed […] to possess original and extraordinary merit.” In 1783 Harriet Mathew’s husband, the Rev. Anthony Stephen Mathew, and Blake’s friend John Flaxman had some of these poems printed in a modest little volume of 70 pages titled Poetical Sketches, with the attribution on the title page reading simply, “By W.B.” It contained an “advertisement” by Reverend Mathew that stated, “Conscious of the irregularities and defects to be found in almost every page, his friends have still believed that they possessed a poetic originality which merited some respite from oblivion.” They gave the sheets of the book, uncut and unsewn, to Blake, in the expectation that he would sell them or at least give them away to potential patrons. Blake, however, showed little interest in the volume, and when he died he still had uncut and unstitched copies in his possession.

But some contemporaries and virtually all succeeding critics agreed that the poems did merit “respite from oblivion.” Some are merely boyish rodomontade, but some, such as To Winter and Mad Song, are exquisite. To the Muses, lamenting the death of music, concludes,

How have you left the antient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

Eighty-five years later, Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote that in these lines “The Eighteenth Century died to music.”

Blake never published his poetry in the ordinary way. Instead, using a technology revealed to him by his brother Robert in a vision, he drew his poems and their surrounding designs on copper in a liquid impervious to acid. He then etched them and, with the aid of his devoted wife, printed them, coloured them, stitched them in rough sugar-paper wrappers, and offered them for sale. He rarely printed more than a dozen copies at a time, reprinting them when his stock ran low, and no more than 30 copies of any of them survive; several are known only in unique copies, and some to which he refers no longer exist.

After experimenting with tiny plates to print his short tracts There Is No Natural Religion (1788) and All Religions Are One (1788?), Blake created the first of the poetical works for which he is chiefly remembered: Songs of Innocence, with 19 poems on 26 prints. The poems are written for children—in Infant Joy only three words have as many as two syllables—and they represent the innocent and the vulnerable, from babies to beetles, protected and fostered by powers beyond their own. In The Chimney Sweeper, for example,

[…]the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Sustained by the vision, “Tom was happy & warm” despite the cold.

In one of the best-known lyrics, called The Lamb, a little boy gives to a lamb the same kind of catechism he himself had been given in church:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb

I a child, & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.

The syllogism is simple if not simplistic: the creator of child and lamb has the same qualities as his creation.

Most of Blake’s poetry embodies myths that he invented. Blake takes the inquiry about the nature of life a little further in The Book of Thel (1789), the first of his published myths. The melancholy shepherdess Thel asks, “Why fade these children of the spring? Born but to smile & fall.” She is answered by the Lilly of the Valley (representing water), the Cloud (air), and the Clod of Clay (earth), who tell her, “we live not for ourselves,” and say that they are nourished by “he that loves the lowly.” Thel enters the “land unknown” and hears a “voice of sorrow”:

“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile!”

The poem concludes with the frightened Thel seeing her own grave there, shrieking, and fleeing back to her valley.

Blake’s next work in Illuminated Printing, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790?), has become one of his best known. It is a prose work in no familiar form; for instance, on the title page, no author, printer, or publisher is named. It is in part a parody of Emanuel Swedenborg, echoing the Swedish theologian’s “Memorable Relations” of things seen and heard in heaven with “Memorable Fancies” of things seen and heard in hell. The section titled “Proverbs of Hell” eulogizes energy with lines such as “Energy is Eternal Delight,” “Exuberance is Beauty,” and “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” The work ends with “A Song of Liberty,” which celebrates the values of those who stormed the Bastille in 1789: “Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer […] curse the sons of joy […] For every thing that lives is Holy.”

America, A Prophecy (1793) and Europe, A Prophecy (1794) are even more daringly political, and they are boldly acknowledged on the title pages as “Printed by William Blake.” In the first, Albion’s Angel, representing the reactionary government of England, perceives Orc, the spirit of energy, as a “Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities,” but Orc’s vision is of an apocalypse that transforms the world:

Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;

For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease

For every thing that lives is holy

The mental revolution seems to be accomplished, but the design for the triumphant concluding page shows not rejoicing and triumph but barren trees, bowed mourners, thistles, and serpents. Blake’s designs often tell a complementary story, and the two visions must be combined in the reader’s mind to comprehend the meaning of the work.

The frontispiece to Europe is one of Blake’s best-known images: sometimes called The Ancient of Days, it represents a naked, bearded old man leaning out from the sun to define the universe with golden compasses. He seems a familiar image of God, but the usual notions about this deity are challenged by an image, on the facing title page, of what the God of reason has created: a coiling serpent with open mouth and forked tongue. It seems to represent how

Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth:
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face […]

Then was the serpent temple form’d, image of infinite
Shut up in finite revolutions, and man became an Angel;
Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crown’d.

This God is opposed by Orc and by Los, the imagination, and at the end of the poem Los “call’d all his sons to the strife of blood.” The work’s last illustration, however, is not of the heroic sons of Los storming the barricades of tyrannical reason but of a naked man carrying a fainting woman and a terrified girl from the horrors of a burning city.

In the same year as Europe, Blake published Songs of Experience and combined it with his previous lyrics to form Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. The poems of Songs of Experience centre on threatened, unprotected souls in despair. In London the speaker, shown in the design as blind, bearded, and “age-bent,” sees in “every face…marks of woe,” and observes that “In every voice…The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.” In The Tyger, which answers The Lamb of Innocence, the despairing speaker asks the “Tyger burning bright” about its creator: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” But in the design the “deadly terrors” of the text are depicted as a small, meek animal often coloured more like a stuffed toy than a jungle beast.

Blake’s most impressive writings are his enormous prophecies Vala or The Four Zoas (which Blake composed and revised from roughly 1796 to 1807 but never published), Milton, and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. In them, his myth expands, adding to Urizen (reason) and Los (imagination) the Zoas Tharmas and Luvah. (The word zoa is a Greek plural meaning “living creatures.”) Their primordial harmony is destroyed when each of them attempts to fix creation in a form corresponding to his own nature and genius. Blake describes his purpose, his “great task,” in Jerusalem:

To open the immortal Eyes
Of man inwards into the worlds of thought; into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

Like the Zoa Los, Blake felt that he must “Create a System or be enslav’d by another Mans.”

Milton concerns Blake’s attempt, at Milton’s request, to correct the ideas of Paradise Lost. The poem originated in an event in Felpham, recorded in Blake’s letters, in which the spirit of Milton as a falling star entered Blake. It includes the lyric commonly called “Jerusalem” that has become a kind of alternative national anthem in Britain:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Last years
Blake’s last years, from 1818 to 1827, were made comfortable and productive as a result of his friendship with the artist John Linnell. Through Linnell, Blake met the physician and botanist Robert John Thornton, who commissioned Blake’s woodcuts for a school text of Virgil (1821). He also met the young painters George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert, who became his disciples, called themselves “the Ancients,” and reflected Blake’s inspiration in their art. Linnell also supported Blake with his commissions for the drawings and engravings of the Book of Job (published 1826) and Dante (1838), Blake’s greatest achievements as a line engraver. In these last years Blake gained a new serenity. Once, when he met a fashionably dressed little girl at a party, he put his hand on her head and said, “May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me.”

Blake died in his cramped rooms in Fountain Court, the Strand, London, on Aug. 12, 1827. His disciple Richmond wrote,

Just before he died His Countenance became fair—His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven. In truth He Died like a saint[,] as a person who was standing by Him Observed.

He was buried in Bunhill Fields, a burial ground for Nonconformists, but he was given the beautiful funeral service of the Church of England. For a list of Blake’s principal works, see Sidebar: William Blake’s principal writings, series of drawings, and series of engravings.

Reputation and influence
Blake was scarcely noticed in his own lifetime. No contemporary reviewed any of his works in Illuminated Printing, but his designs for Blair’s The Grave and his Descriptive Catalogue of his exhibition were reviewed savagely and at length in The Antijacobin Review (1808) and The Examiner (1808, 1809)—in the latter publication he was called “an unfortunate lunatic.” After a flurry of obituaries in 1827 and brief lives of him in books by John Thomas Smith (1828) and Allan Cunningham (1830), the first important book on Blake was Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus” (1863). Volume 1 was the biography, concentrating on Blake as an unknown artist, and volume 2 printed many of Blake’s poems and designs, most of them for the first time in conventional typography. Gilchrist’s work was completed after his death in 1861 by a coterie of Pre-Raphaelites, chiefly the artist-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother, William Michael Rossetti. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne was so carried away by Blake that he published an exclamatory and influential study William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868). Gilchrist’s book opened the floodgates of criticism, and since 1863 Blake has been considered a major figure in English poetry and art.

In the 1890s Blake was taken up by William Butler Yeats and Edwin John Ellis. They collaborated on a massive three-volume, extensively illustrated edition of Blake (1893), which introduced much of Blake’s prophetic poetry to the public for the first time—in texts that are often seriously corrupt: words misread, parts omitted, and “facts” invented. Their work was continued with other editions by Ellis and by Yeats and with a biography by Ellis called The Real Blake (1907), in which he claimed, with no shadow of justification, that Blake’s father was a renegade Irishman named John O’Neil, a fiction with which Yeats agreed..

Among the most influential works on Blake have been an essay by poet T.S. Eliot (1920) and the books of Northrop Frye (Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 1947), David V. Erdman (Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times, 1954), and Joseph Viscomi (Blake and the Idea of the Book, 1993). Blake’s appeal is now worldwide, and it is not just his poetry that has attracted international attention. There have been major exhibitions of Blake’s art in London (1927); Philadelphia (1939); London, Paris, Antwerp (Belg.), and Zürich (1947); Hamburg (1975); London (1978); New Haven (Conn., U.S.) and Toronto (1982–83); Tokyo (1990); Barcelona and Madrid (1996); and London and New York City (2000–01). Blake has come to be regarded as a major poet, as one of the most fascinating British artists, as an original thinker, and as a conundrum of endless fascination.

Blake’s influence has been traced in the works of authors as diverse as Yeats, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and American writer and monk Thomas Merton. His ideas have been included in detective stories and in formidable novels such as The Horse’s Mouth (1944) by English author Joyce Cary and Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (2002; originally published in Japanese, 1983) by the Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe. Blake, who set his own poems to music and died singing them, has had an impact on the world of music as well. His works have been set as operas, and he has served as inspiration for an enormous number of musical composers, including Hubert Parry and pop musicians.

Each copy of Blake’s works in Illuminated Printing differs in important ways from all others, and a clear idea of the power and delicacy of his books and drawings can be obtained only by seeing the originals. The most extensive collection of Blake’s drawings and temperas is in the Tate Britain (London); important collections of his books are held by the British Museum Print Room (London), the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, Eng.), Harvard University libraries (Cambridge, Mass., U.S.), the Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif., U.S.), the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), the Morgan Library and Museum (New York City), the Yale University Library (New Haven), and the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven).

G.E. Bentley



William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, meanwhile, were also exploring the implications of the French Revolution. Wordsworth, who lived in France in 1791–92 and fathered an illegitimate child there, was distressed when, soon after his return, Britain declared war on the republic, dividing his allegiance. For the rest of his career, he was to brood on those events, trying to develop a view of humanity that would be faithful to his twin sense of the pathos of individual human fates and the unrealized potentialities in humanity as a whole. The first factor emerges in his early manuscript poems The Ruined Cottage and The Pedlar (both to form part of the later Excursion); the second was developed from 1797, when he and his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, with whom he was living in the west of England, were in close contact with Coleridge. Stirred simultaneously by Dorothy’s immediacy of feeling, manifested everywhere in her Journals (written 1798–1803, published 1897), and by Coleridge’s imaginative and speculative genius, he produced the poems collected in Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume began with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, continued with poems displaying delight in the powers of nature and the humane instincts of ordinary people, and concluded with the meditative Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth’s attempt to set out his mature faith in nature and humanity.

His investigation of the relationship between nature and the human mind continued in the long autobiographical poem addressed to Coleridge and later titled The Prelude (1798–99 in two books; 1804 in five books; 1805 in 13 books; revised continuously and published posthumously, 1850). Here he traced the value for a poet of having been a child “fostered alike by beauty and by fear” by an upbringing in sublime surroundings. The Prelude constitutes the most significant English expression of the Romantic discovery of the self as a topic for art and literature. The poem also makes much of the work of memory, a theme explored as well in the Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. In poems such as Michael and The Brothers, by contrast, written for the second volume of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth dwelt on the pathos and potentialities of ordinary lives.

Coleridge’s poetic development during these years paralleled Wordsworth’s. Having briefly brought together images of nature and the mind in The Eolian Harp (1796), he devoted himself to more-public concerns in poems of political and social prophecy, such as Religious Musings and The Destiny of Nations. Becoming disillusioned in 1798 with his earlier politics, however, and encouraged by Wordsworth, he turned back to the relationship between nature and the human mind. Poems such as This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, The Nightingale, and Frost at Midnight (now sometimes called the “conversation poems” but collected by Coleridge himself as “Meditative Poems in Blank Verse”) combine sensitive descriptions of nature with subtlety of psychological comment. Kubla Khan (1797 or 1798, published 1816), a poem that Coleridge said came to him in “a kind of Reverie,” represented a new kind of exotic writing, which he also exploited in the supernaturalism of The Ancient Mariner and the unfinished Christabel. After his visit to Germany in 1798–99, he renewed attention to the links between the subtler forces in nature and the human psyche; this attention bore fruit in letters, notebooks, literary criticism, theology, and philosophy. Simultaneously, his poetic output became sporadic. Dejection: An Ode (1802), another meditative poem, which first took shape as a verse letter to Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, memorably describes the suspension of his “shaping spirit of Imagination.”

The work of both poets was directed back to national affairs during these years by the rise of Napoleon. In 1802 Wordsworth dedicated a number of sonnets to the patriotic cause. The death in 1805 of his brother John, who was a captain in the merchant navy, was a grim reminder that, while he had been living in retirement as a poet, others had been willing to sacrifice themselves. From this time the theme of duty was to be prominent in his poetry. His political essay Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal…as Affected by the Convention of Cintra (1809) agreed with Coleridge’s periodical The Friend (1809–10) in deploring the decline of principle among statesmen. When The Excursion appeared in 1814 (the time of Napoleon’s first exile), Wordsworth announced the poem as the central section of a longer projected work, The Recluse, “a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society.” The plan was not fulfilled, however, and The Excursion was left to stand in its own right as a poem of moral and religious consolation for those who had been disappointed by the failure of French revolutionary ideals.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge benefited from the advent in 1811 of the Regency, which brought a renewed interest in the arts. Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare became fashionable, his play Remorse was briefly produced, and his volume of poems Christabel; Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep was published in 1816. Biographia Literaria (1817), an account of his own development, combined philosophy and literary criticism in a new way and made an enduring and important contribution to literary theory. Coleridge settled at Highgate in 1816, and he was sought there as “the most impressive talker of his age” (in the words of the essayist William Hazlitt). His later religious writings made a considerable impact on Victorian readers.


William Wordsworth

"The Prelude"

English author

born April 7, 1770, Cockermouth, Cumberland, Eng.
died April 23, 1850, Rydal Mount, Westmorland

English poet whose Lyrical Ballads (1798), written with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped launch the English Romantic movement.

Wordsworth was born in the Lake District of northern England, the second of five children of a modestly prosperous estate manager. He lost his mother when he was 7 and his father when he was 13, upon which the orphan boys were sent off by guardian uncles to a grammar school at Hawkshead, a village in the heart of the Lake District. At Hawkshead Wordsworth received an excellent education in classics, literature, and mathematics, but the chief advantage to him there was the chance to indulge in the boyhood pleasures of living and playing in the outdoors. The natural scenery of the English lakes could terrify as well as nurture, as Wordsworth would later testify in the line “I grew up fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” but its generally benign aspect gave the growing boy the confidence he articulated in one of his first important poems, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey . . . ,” namely, “that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”

Wordsworth moved on in 1787 to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Repelled by the competitive pressures there, he elected to idle his way through the university, persuaded that he “was not for that hour, nor for that place.” The most important thing he did in his college years was to devote his summer vacation in 1790 to a long walking tour through revolutionary France. There he was caught up in the passionate enthusiasm that followed the fall of the Bastille, and became an ardent republican sympathizer. Upon taking his Cambridge degree—an undistinguished “pass”—he returned in 1791 to France, where he formed a passionate attachment to a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon. But before their child was born in December 1792, Wordsworth had to return to England and was cut off there by the outbreak of war between England and France. He was not to see his daughter Caroline until she was nine.

The three or four years that followed his return to England were the darkest of Wordsworth’s life. Unprepared for any profession, rootless, virtually penniless, bitterly hostile to his own country’s opposition to the French, he lived in London in the company of radicals like William Godwin and learned to feel a profound sympathy for the abandoned mothers, beggars, children, vagrants, and victims of England’s wars who began to march through the sombre poems he began writing at this time. This dark period ended in 1795, when a friend’s legacy made possible Wordsworth’s reunion with his beloved sister Dorothy—the two were never again to live apart—and their move in 1797 to Alfoxden House, near Bristol. There Wordsworth became friends with a fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and they formed a partnership that would change both poets’ lives and alter the course of English poetry.

Their partnership, rooted in one marvelous year (1797–98) in which they “together wantoned in wild Poesy,” had two consequences for Wordsworth. First it turned him away from the long poems on which he had laboured since his Cambridge days. These included poems of social protest like Salisbury Plain, loco-descriptive poems such as An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches (published in 1793), and The Borderers, a blank-verse tragedy exploring the psychology of guilt (and not published until 1842). Stimulated by Coleridge and under the healing influences of nature and his sister, Wordsworth began in 1797–98 to compose the short lyrical and dramatic poems for which he is best remembered by many readers. Some of these were affectionate tributes to Dorothy, some were tributes to daffodils, birds, and other elements of “Nature’s holy plan,” and some were portraits of simple rural people intended to illustrate basic truths of human nature.

Many of these short poems were written to a daringly original program formulated jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and aimed at breaking the decorum of Neoclassical verse. These poems appeared in 1798 in a slim, anonymously authored volume entitled Lyrical Ballads, which opened with Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and closed with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” All but three of the intervening poems were Wordsworth’s, and, as he declared in a preface to a second edition two years later, their object was “to choose incidents and situations from common life and to relate or describe them . . . in a selection of language really used by men, . . . tracing in them . . . the primary laws of our nature.” Most of the poems were dramatic in form, designed to reveal the character of the speaker. The manifesto and the accompanying poems thus set forth a new style, a new vocabulary, and new subjects for poetry, all of them foreshadowing 20th-century developments.

The second consequence of Wordsworth’s partnership with Coleridge was the framing of a vastly ambitious poetic design that teased and haunted him for the rest of his life. Coleridge had projected an enormous poem to be called “The Brook,” in which he proposed to treat all science, philosophy, and religion, but he soon laid the burden of writing this poem upon Wordsworth himself. As early as 1798 Wordsworth began to talk in grand terms of this poem, to be entitled The Recluse. To nerve himself up to this enterprise and to test his powers, Wordsworth began writing the autobiographical poem that would absorb him intermittently for the next 40 years, and which was eventually published in 1850 under the title The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind. The Prelude extends the quiet autobiographical mode of reminiscence that Wordsworth had begun in “Tintern Abbey” and traces the poet’s life from his school days through his university life and his visits to France, up to the year (1799) in which he settled at Grasmere. It thus describes a circular journey—what has been called a long journey home. But the main events in the autobiography are internal: the poem exultantly describes the ways in which the imagination emerges as the dominant faculty, exerting its control over the reason and the world of the senses alike.

The Recluse itself was never completed, and only one of its three projected parts was actually written; this was published in 1814 as The Excursion and consisted of nine long philosophical monologues spoken by pastoral characters. The first monologue (Book I) contained a version of one of Wordsworth’s greatest poems, “The Ruined Cottage,” composed in superb blank verse in 1797. This bleak narrative records the slow, pitiful decline of a woman whose husband had gone off to the army and never returned. For later versions of this poem Wordsworth added a reconciling conclusion, but the earliest and most powerful version was starkly tragic.

In the company of Dorothy, Wordsworth spent the winter of 1798–99 in Germany, where, in the remote town of Goslar, in Saxony, he experienced the most intense isolation he had ever known. As a consequence, however, he wrote some of his most moving poetry, including the “Lucy” and “Matthew” elegies and early drafts toward The Prelude. Upon his return to England, Wordsworth incorporated several new poems in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), notably two tragic pastorals of country life, “The Brothers” and “Michael.” These poems, together with the brilliant lyrics that were assembled in Wordsworth’s second verse collection, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), help to make up what is now recognized as his great decade, stretching from his meeting with Coleridge in 1797 until 1808.

One portion of a second part of The Recluse was finished in 1806, but, like The Prelude, was left in manuscript at the poet’s death. This portion, Home at Grasmere, joyously celebrated Wordsworth’s taking possession (in December 1799) of Dove Cottage, at Grasmere, Westmorland, where he was to reside for eight of his most productive years. In 1802, during the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Wordsworth returned briefly to France, where at Calais he met his daughter and made his peace with Annette. He then returned to England to marry Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend, and start an English family, which had grown to three sons and two daughters by 1810.

In 1805 the drowning of Wordsworth’s favorite brother, John, the captain of a sailing vessel, gave Wordsworth the strongest shock he had ever experienced. “A deep distress hath humanized my Soul,” he lamented in his “Elegiac Stanzas” on Peele Castle. Henceforth he would produce a different kind of poetry, defined by a new sobriety, a new restraint, and a lofty, almost Miltonic elevation of tone and diction. Wordsworth appeared to anticipate this turn in “Tintern Abbey,” where he had learned to hear “the still, sad music of humanity,” and again in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (written in 1802–04; published in Poems, in Two Volumes). The theme of this ode is the loss of his power to see the things he had once seen, the radiance, the “celestial light” that seemed to lie over the landscapes of his youth like “the glory and freshness of a dream.” Now, in the Peele Castle stanzas, he sorrowfully looked back on the light as illusory, as a “Poet’s dream,” as “the light that never was, on sea or land.”

These metaphors point up the differences between the early and the late Wordsworth. It is generally accepted that the quality of his verse fell off as he grew more distant from the sources of his inspiration and as his Anglican and Tory sentiments hardened into orthodoxy. Today many readers discern two Wordsworths, the young Romantic revolutionary and the aging Tory humanist, risen into what John Keats called the “Egotistical Sublime.” Little of Wordsworth’s later verse matches the best of his earlier years.

In his middle period Wordsworth invested a good deal of his creative energy in odes, the best known of which is “On the Power of Sound.” He also produced a large number of sonnets, most of them strung together in sequences. The most admired are the Duddon sonnets (1820), which trace the progress of a stream through Lake District landscapes and blend nature poetry with philosophic reflection in a manner now recognized as the best of the later Wordsworth. Other sonnet sequences record his tours through the European continent, and the three series of Ecclesiastical Sketches (1822) develop meditations, many sharply satirical, on church history. But the most memorable poems of Wordsworth’s middle and late years were often cast in elegiac mode. They range from the poet’s heartfelt laments for two of his children who died in 1812—laments incorporated in The Excursion—to brilliant lyrical effusions on the deaths of his fellow poets James Hogg, George Crabbe, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb.

In 1808 Wordsworth and his family moved from Dove Cottage to larger quarters in Grasmere, and five years later they settled at Rydal Mount, near Ambleside, where Wordsworth spent the remainder of his life. In 1813 he accepted the post of distributor of stamps for the county of Westmorland, an appointment that carried the salary of £400 a year. Wordsworth continued to hold back from publication The Prelude, Home at Grasmere, The Borderers, and Salisbury Plain. He did publish Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807; The Excursion in 1814, containing the only finished portions of The Recluse; and the collected Poems of 1815, which contained most of his shorter poems and two important critical essays as well. Wordsworth’s other works published during middle age include The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), a poem about the pathetic shattering of a Roman Catholic family during an unsuccessful rebellion against Elizabeth I in 1569; a Thanksgiving Ode (1816); and Peter Bell (1819), a poem written in 1798 and then modulated in successive rewritings into an experiment in Romantic irony and the mock-heroic and coloured by the poet’s feelings of affinity with his hero, a “wild and woodland rover.” The Waggoner (1819) is another extended ballad about a North Country itinerant.

Through all these years Wordsworth was assailed by vicious and tireless critical attacks by contemptuous reviewers; no great poet has ever had to endure worse. But finally, with the publication of The River Duddon in 1820, the tide began to turn, and by the mid-1830s his reputation had been established with both critics and the reading public.

Wordsworth’s last years were given over partly to “tinkering” his poems, as the family called his compulsive and persistent habit of revising his earlier poems through edition after edition. The Prelude, for instance, went through four distinct manuscript versions (1798–99, 1805–06, 1818–20, and 1832–39) and was published only after the poet’s death in 1850. Most readers find the earliest versions of The Prelude and other heavily revised poems to be the best, but flashes of brilliance can appear in revisions added when the poet was in his seventies.

Wordsworth succeeded his friend Robert Southey as Britain’s poet laureate in 1843 and held that post until his own death in 1850. Thereafter his influence was felt throughout the rest of the 19th century, though he was honoured more for his smaller poems, as singled out by the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, than for his masterpiece, The Prelude. In the 20th century his reputation was strengthened both by recognition of his importance in the Romantic movement and by an appreciation of the darker elements in his personality and verse.

William Wordsworth was the central figure in the English Romantic revolution in poetry. His contribution to it was threefold. First, he formulated in his poems and his essays a new attitude toward nature. This was more than a matter of introducing nature imagery into his verse; it amounted to a fresh view of the organic relation between man and the natural world, and it culminated in metaphors of a wedding between nature and the human mind, and beyond that, in the sweeping metaphor of nature as emblematic of the mind of God, a mind that “feeds upon infinity” and “broods over the dark abyss.” Second, Wordsworth probed deeply into his own sensibility as he traced, in his finest poem, The Prelude, the “growth of a poet’s mind.” The Prelude was in fact the first long autobiographical poem. Writing it in a drawn-out process of self-exploration, Wordsworth worked his way toward a modern psychological understanding of his own nature, and thus more broadly of human nature. Third, Wordsworth placed poetry at the centre of human experience; in impassioned rhetoric he pronounced poetry to be nothing less than “the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man,” and he then went on to create some of the greatest English poetry of his century. It is probably safe to say that by the late 20th century he stood in critical estimation where Coleridge and Arnold had originally placed him, next to John Milton—who stands, of course, next to William Shakespeare.



Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"    PART I, PART II-IV, PART V-VI, PART VII

Illustrations by Gustave Dore


born Oct. 21, 1772, Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, Eng.
died July 25, 1834, Highgate, near London

English lyrical poet, critic, and philosopher. His Lyrical Ballads, written with William Wordsworth, heralded the English Romantic movement, and his Biographia Literaria (1817) is the most significant work of general literary criticism produced in the English Romantic period.

 Early life and works
Coleridge’s father was vicar of Ottery and headmaster of the local grammar school. As a child Coleridge was already a prodigious reader, and he immersed himself to the point of morbid fascination in romances and Eastern tales such as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. In 1781 his father died suddenly, and in the following year Coleridge entered Christ’s Hospital in London, where he completed his secondary education. In 1791 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge. At both school and university he continued to read voraciously, particularly in works of imagination and visionary philosophy, and he was remembered by his schoolmates for his eloquence and prodigious memory. In his third year at Cambridge, oppressed by financial difficulties, he went to London and enlisted as a dragoon under the assumed name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. Despite his unfitness for the life, he remained until discovered by his friends; he was then bought out by his brothers and restored to Cambridge.

On his return, he was restless. The intellectual and political turmoil surrounding the French Revolution had set in motion intense and urgent discussion concerning the nature of society. Coleridge now conceived the design of circumventing the disastrous violence that had destroyed the idealism of the French Revolution by establishing a small society that should organize itself and educate its children according to better principles than those obtaining in the society around them. A chance meeting with the poet Robert Southey led the two men to plan such a “pantisocracy” and to set up a community by the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. To this end Coleridge left Cambridge for good and set up with Southey as a public lecturer in Bristol. In October 1795 he married Sara Fricker, daughter of a local schoolmistress, swayed partly by Southey’s suggestion that he was under an obligation to her since she had been refusing the advances of other men.

Shortly afterward, Southey defected from the pantisocratic scheme, leaving Coleridge married to a woman whom he did not really love. In a sense his career never fully recovered from this blow: if there is a makeshift quality about many of its later events, one explanation can be found in his constant need to reconcile his intellectual aspirations with the financial needs of his family. During this period, however, Coleridge’s intellect flowered in an extraordinary manner, as he embarked on an investigation of the nature of the human mind, joined by William Wordsworth, with whom he had become acquainted in 1795. Together they entered upon one of the most influential creative periods of English literature. Coleridge’s intellectual ebullience and his belief in the existence of a powerful “life consciousness” in all individuals rescued Wordsworth from the depression into which recent events had cast him and made possible the new approach to nature that characterized his contributions to Lyrical Ballads (which was to be published in 1798).

Coleridge, meanwhile, was developing a new, informal mode of poetry in which he could use a conversational tone and rhythm to give unity to a poem. Of these poems, the most successful is “Frost at Midnight,” which begins with the description of a silent frosty night in Somerset and proceeds through a meditation on the relationship between the quiet work of frost and the quiet breathing of the sleeping baby at the poet’s side, to conclude in a resolve that his child shall be brought up as a “child of nature,” so that the sympathies that the poet has come to detect may be reinforced throughout the child’s education.

At the climax of the poem, he touches another theme, which lies at the root of his philosophical attitude:

. . . so shalt thou see and hear

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language, which thy God

Utters, who from eternity doth teach

Himself in all, and all things in himself.

Coleridge’s attempts to learn this “language” and trace it through the ancient traditions of mankind also led him during this period to return to the visionary interests of his schooldays: as he ransacked works of comparative religion and mythology, he was exploring the possibility that all religions and mythical traditions, with their general agreement on the unity of God and the immortality of the soul, sprang from a universal life consciousness, which was expressed particularly through the phenomena of human genius.

While these speculations were at their most intense, he retired to a lonely farmhouse near Culbone, Somersetshire, and, according to his own account, composed under the influence of laudanum the mysterious poetic fragment known as “Kubla Khan.” The exotic imagery and rhythmic chant of this poem have led many critics to conclude that it should be read as a “meaningless reverie” and enjoyed merely for its vivid and sensuous qualities. An examination of the poem in the light of Coleridge’s psychological and mythological interests, however, suggests that it has, after all, a complex structure of meaning and is basically a poem about the nature of human genius. The first two stanzas show the two sides of what Coleridge elsewhere calls “commanding genius”: its creative aspirations in time of peace as symbolized in the projected pleasure dome and gardens of the first stanza; and its destructive power in time of turbulence as symbolized in the wailing woman, the destructive fountain, and the voices prophesying war of the second stanza. In the final stanza the poet writes of a state of “absolute genius” in which, if inspired by a visionary “Abyssinian maid,” he would become endowed with the creative, divine power of a sun god—an Apollo or Osiris subduing all around him to harmony by the fascination of his spell.

Coleridge was enabled to explore the same range of themes less egotistically in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” composed during the autumn and winter of 1797–98. For this, his most famous poem, he drew upon the ballad form. The main narrative tells how a sailor who has committed a crime against the life principle by slaying an albatross suffers from torments, physical and mental, in which the nature of his crime is made known to him. The underlying life power against which he has transgressed is envisaged as a power corresponding to the influx of the sun’s energy into all living creatures, thereby binding them together in a joyful communion. By killing the bird that hovered near the ship, the mariner has destroyed one of the links in this process. His own consciousness is consequently affected: the sun, previously glorious, is seen as a bloody sun, and the energies of the deep are seen as corrupt.

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The very deep did rot; O Christ!

That ever this should be!

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

Upon the slimy sea.

Only at night do these energies display a sinister beauty.

About, about, in reel and rout

The death-fires danced at night;

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green, and blue and white.

After the death of his shipmates, alone and becalmed, devoid of a sense of movement or even of time passing, the mariner is in a hell created by the absence of any link with life. Eventually, however, a chance sight of water snakes flashing like golden fire in the darkness, answered by an outpouring of love from his heart, reinitiates the creative process: he is given a brief vision of the inner unity of the universe, in which all living things hymn their source in an interchange of harmonies. Restored to his native land, he remains haunted by what he has experienced but is at least delivered from nightmare, able to see the ordinary processes of human life with a new sense of their wonder and mercifulness. These last qualities are reflected in the poem’s attractive combination of vividness and sensitivity. The placing of it at the beginning of Lyrical Ballads was evidently intended to provide a context for the sense of wonder in common life that marks many of Wordsworth’s contributions. While this volume was going through the press, Coleridge began a complementary poem, a Gothic ballad entitled “Christabel,” in which he aimed to show how naked energy might be redeemed through contact with a spirit of innocent love.

Troubled years
Early in 1798 Coleridge had again found himself preoccupied with political issues. The French Revolutionary government had suppressed the states of the Swiss Confederation, and Coleridge expressed his bitterness at this betrayal of the principles of the Revolution in a poem entitled “France: An Ode.”

At this time the brothers Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood, who were impressed by Coleridge’s intelligence and promise, offered him in 1798 an annuity of £150 as a means of subsistence while he pursued his intellectual concerns. He used his new independence to visit Germany with Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. While there Coleridge attended lectures on physiology and biblical criticism at Göttingen. He thus became aware of developments in German scholarship that were little-known in England until many years later.

On his return to England, the tensions of his marriage were exacerbated when he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife, at the end of 1799. His devotion to the Wordsworths in general did little to help matters, and for some years afterward Coleridge was troubled by domestic strife, accompanied by the worsening of his health and by his increasing dependence on opium. His main literary achievements during the period included another section of “Christabel.” In 1802 Coleridge’s domestic unhappiness gave rise to “Dejection: An Ode,” originally a longer verse letter sent to Sara Hutchinson in which he lamented the corrosive effect of his intellectual activities when undertaken as a refuge from the lovelessness of his family life. The poem employs the technique of his conversational poems; the sensitive rhythms and phrasing that he had learned to use in them are here masterfully deployed to represent his own depressed state of mind.

Although Coleridge hoped to combine a platonic love for Sara with fidelity to his wife and children and to draw sustenance from the Wordsworth household, his hopes were not realized, and his health deteriorated further. He therefore resolved to spend some time in a warmer climate and, late in 1804, accepted a post in Malta as secretary to the acting governor. Later he spent a long time journeying across Italy, but, despite his hopes, his health did not improve during his time abroad. The time spent in Malta had been a time of personal reappraisal, however. Brought into direct contact with men accustomed to handling affairs of state, he had found himself lacking an equal forcefulness and felt that in consequence he often forfeited the respect of others. On his return to England he resolved to become more manly and decisive. Within a few months he had finally decided to separate from his wife and to live for the time being with the Wordsworths. Southey atoned for his disastrous youthful advice by exercising a general oversight of Coleridge’s family for the rest of his days.

Coleridge published a periodical, The Friend, from June 1809 to March 1810 and ceased only when Sara Hutchinson, who had been acting as amanuensis, found the strain of the relationship too much for her and retired to her brother’s farm in Wales. Coleridge, resentful that Wordsworth should apparently have encouraged his sister-in-law’s withdrawal, resolved shortly afterward to terminate his working relationship with William and Dorothy Wordsworth and to settle in London again.

The period immediately following was the darkest of his life. His disappointment with Wordsworth was followed by anguish when a wounding remark of Wordsworth’s was carelessly reported to him. For some time he remained in London, nursing his grievances and producing little. Opium retained its powerful hold on him, and the writings that survive from this period are redolent of unhappiness, with self-dramatization veering toward self-pity.

In spite of this, however, there also appear signs of a slow revival, principally because for the first time Coleridge knew what it was to be a fashionable figure. A course of lectures he delivered during the winter of 1811–12 attracted a large audience; for many years Coleridge had been fascinated by William Shakespeare’s achievement, and his psychological interpretations of the chief characters were new and exciting to his contemporaries. During this period, Coleridge’s play Osorio, written many years before, was produced at Drury Lane with the title Remorse in January 1813.

Late life and works
In the end, consolation came from an unexpected source. In dejection, unable to produce extended work or break the opium habit, he spent a long period with friends in Wiltshire, where he was introduced to Archbishop Robert Leighton’s commentary on the First Letter of Peter. In the writings of this 17th-century divine, he found a combination of tenderness and sanctity that appealed deeply to him and seemed to offer an attitude to life that he himself could fall back on. The discovery marks an important shift of balance in his intellectual attitudes. Christianity, hitherto one point of reference for him, now became his “official” creed. By aligning himself with the Anglican church of the 17th century at its best, he hoped to find a firm point of reference that would both keep him in communication with orthodox Christians of his time (thus giving him the social approval he always needed, even if only from a small group of friends) and enable him to pursue his former intellectual explorations in the hope of reaching a Christian synthesis that might help to revitalize the English church both intellectually and emotionally.

One effect of the adoption of this basis for his intellectual and emotional life was a sense of liberation and an ability to produce large works again. He drew together a collection of his poems (published in 1817 as Sibylline Leaves) and wrote Biographia Literaria (1817), a rambling and discursive but highly stimulating and influential work in which he outlined the evolution of his thought and developed an extended critique of Wordsworth’s poems.

For the general reader Biographia Literaria is a misleading volume, since it moves bewilderingly between autobiography, abstruse philosophical discussion, and literary criticism. It has, however, an internal coherence of its own. The book’s individual components—first an entertaining account of Coleridge’s early life, then an account of the ways in which he became dissatisfied with the associationist theories of David Hartley and other 18th-century philosophers, then a reasoned critique of Wordsworth’s poems—are fascinating. Over the whole work hovers Coleridge’s veneration for the power of imagination: once this key is grasped, the unity of the work becomes evident.

A new dramatic piece, Zapolya, was also published in 1817. In the same year, Coleridge became associated for a time with the new Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, for which he planned a novel system of organization, outlined in his Prospectus. These were more settled years for Coleridge. Since 1816 he had lived in the house of James Gillman, a surgeon at Highgate, north of London. His election as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824 brought him an annuity of £105 and a sense of recognition. In 1830 he joined the controversy that had arisen around the issue of Catholic Emancipation by writing his last prose work, On the Constitution of the Church and State. The third edition of Coleridge’s Poetical Works appeared in time for him to see it before his final illness and death in 1834.

Coleridge’s achievement has been given more widely varying assessments than that of any other English literary artist, though there is broad agreement that his enormous potential was never fully realized in his works. His stature as a poet has never been in doubt; in “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” he wrote two of the greatest poems in English literature and perfected a mode of sensuous lyricism that is often echoed by later poets. But he also has a reputation as one of the most important of all English literary critics, largely on the basis of his Biographia Literaria. In Coleridge’s view, the essential element of literature was a union of emotion and thought that he described as imagination. He especially stressed poetry’s capacity for integrating the universal and the particular, the objective and the subjective, the generic and the individual. The function of criticism for Coleridge was to discern these elements and to lift them into conscious awareness, rather than merely to prescribe or to describe rules or forms.

In all his roles, as poet, social critic, literary critic, theologian, and psychologist, Coleridge expressed a profound concern with elucidating an underlying creative principle that is fundamental to both human beings and the universe as a whole. To Coleridge, imagination is the archetype of this unifying force because it represents the means by which the twin human capacities for intuitive, non-rational understanding and for organizing and discriminating thought concerning the material world are reconciled. It was by means of this sort of reconciliation of opposites that Coleridge attempted, with considerable success, to combine a sense of the universal and ideal with an acute observation of the particular and sensory in his own poetry and in his criticism.

Thomas De Quincey’s biography on Samuel Taylor Coleridge appeared in the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (see the Britannica Classic: Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

John Bernard Beer



Dorothy Wordsworth

born Dec. 25, 1771, Cockermouth, Cumberland, Eng.
died Jan. 25, 1855, Rydal Mount, Westmorland

English prose writer whose Alfoxden Journal 1798 and Grasmere Journals 1800–03 are read today for the imaginative power of their description of nature and for the light they throw on her brother, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth.

Their mother’s death in 1778 separated Dorothy from her brothers, and from 1783 they were without a family home. The sympathy between William and Dorothy was strong; she understood him as no one else could and provided the “quickening influence” he needed. When in 1795 he was lent a house in Dorset, she made a home for him there. At Alfoxden, Somerset, in 1796–98, she enjoyed with Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge a companionship of “three persons with one soul.” She went with them to Germany (1798–99), and in December 1799 she and William settled for the first time in a home of their own, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake District, remaining there after his marriage (1802) and moving with the family to Rydal Mount in 1813. In 1829 she was dangerously ill and thenceforth was obliged to lead the life of an invalid. Her ill health affected her intellect, and during the last 20 years of her life her mind was clouded.

The Alfoxden Journal (of which only the period from January to April 1798 survives) is a record of William’s friendship with Coleridge that resulted in their Lyrical Ballads (1798), with which the Romantic movement began. The Grasmere Journals contains material on which William drew for his poetry (notably her description of daffodils in April 1802, which inspired his I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud). Her other surviving journals include accounts of her trip to Germany in 1798–99 as well as visits to Scotland (1803) and Switzerland (1820). None of her writings was published in her lifetime.


Other poets of the early Romantic period

In his own lifetime, Blake’s poetry was scarcely known. Sir Walter Scott, by contrast, was thought of as a major poet for his vigorous and evocative verse narratives The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Marmion (1808). Other verse writers were also highly esteemed. The Elegiac Sonnets (1784) of Charlotte Smith and the Fourteen Sonnets (1789) of William Lisle Bowles were received with enthusiasm by Coleridge. Thomas Campbell is now chiefly remembered for his patriotic lyrics such as Ye Mariners of England and The Battle of Hohenlinden (1807) and for the critical preface to his Specimens of the British Poets (1819); Samuel Rogers was known for his brilliant table talk (published 1856, after his death, as Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers), as well as for his exquisite but exiguous poetry. Another admired poet of the day was Thomas Moore, whose Irish Melodies began to appear in 1808. His highly coloured narrative Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (1817) and his satirical poetry were also immensely popular. Charlotte Smith was not the only significant woman poet in this period. Helen Maria Williams’s Poems (1786), Ann Batten Cristall’s Poetical Sketches (1795), Mary Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon (1796), and Mary Tighe’s Psyche (1805) all contain notable work.

Robert Southey was closely associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge and was looked upon as a prominent member, with them, of the “Lake school” of poetry. His originality is best seen in his ballads and his nine “English Eclogues,” three of which were first published in the 1799 volume of his Poems with a prologue explaining that these verse sketches of contemporary life bore “no resemblance to any poems in our language.” His “Oriental” narrative poems Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810) were successful in their own time, but his fame is based on his prose work—the Life of Nelson (1813), the History of the Peninsular War (1823–32), and his classic formulation of the children’s tale The Three Bears.

George Crabbe wrote poetry of another kind: his sensibility, his values, much of his diction, and his heroic couplet verse form belong to the 18th century. He differs from the earlier Augustans, however, in his subject matter, concentrating on realistic, unsentimental accounts of the life of the poor and the middle classes. He shows considerable narrative gifts in his collections of verse tales (in which he anticipates many short-story techniques) and great powers of description. His antipastoral The Village appeared in 1783. After a long silence, he returned to poetry with The Parish Register (1807), The Borough (1810), Tales in Verse (1812), and Tales of the Hall (1819), which gained him great popularity in the early 19th century.


William Lisle Bowles

born , September 24, 1762, Kings Sutton, Northamptonshire, England
died April 7, 1850, Salisbury, Wiltshire

English poet, critic, and clergyman, noted principally for his Fourteen Sonnets (1789), which expresses with simple sincerity the thoughts and feelings inspired in a mind of delicate sensibility by the contemplation of natural scenes.

Bowles was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was a pupil of Thomas Warton, and became an Anglican priest in 1792. His Fourteen Sonnets was enthusiastically received by the early Romantic poets, whose theory and practice it foreshadowed, and the work particularly influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By 1794 the collection had been enlarged to 27 sonnets and 13 other poems. Bowles also published verse on political and religious topics: The Missionary (1813) is an attack on Spanish rule in South America. Days Departed; or, Banwell Hill (1828) is an eloquently reflective prospect poem (a subgenre of topographical poetry that considers a particular landscape as viewed from an elevated perspective).

As a critic, Bowles is remembered for his assertion that natural objects and basic passions are intrinsically more poetic than are artificial products or mannered feelings. This attitude may have influenced Bowles’s annotated 1806 edition of the works of Alexander Pope, in which, under a mask of judicial impartiality, Bowles attacked the great poet’s moral character and poetic principles. So began the pamphlet war known as the “Pope-Bowles controversy,” in which Pope’s chief defenders were Thomas Campbell and Lord Byron; Byron’s characterization of Bowles as “the maudlin prince of mournful sonneteers” is perhaps the only memorable remnant of this seven-year-long (1819–26) public argument.



Thomas Campbell

born July 27, 1777, Glasgow, Scot.
died June 15, 1844, Boulogne, France

Scottish poet, remembered chiefly for his sentimental and martial lyrics; he was also one of the initiators of a plan to found what became the University of London.

Campbell went to Mull, an island of the Inner Hebrides, as a tutor in 1795 and two years later settled in Edinburgh to study law. In 1799 he wrote The Pleasures of Hope, a traditional 18th-century survey in heroic couplets of human affairs. It went through four editions within a year.

He also produced several stirring patriotic war songs—“Ye Mariners of England,” “The Soldier’s Dream,” “Hohenlinden,” and, in 1801, “The Battle of the Baltic.” With others he launched a movement in 1825 to found the University of London, for students excluded from Oxford or Cambridge by religious tests or lack of funds.



Samuel Rogers

born July 30, 1763, Stoke Newington, near London
died Dec. 18, 1855, London

English poet, best remembered as a witty conversationalist and as a friend of greater poets.

Rogers attained eminence with the publication of his popular discursive poem The Pleasures of Memory (1792). On his father’s death (1793) he inherited a banking firm, and for the next half century he maintained an influential position as a leading figure in London society and as a generous host to brilliant company. His acquisition of paintings and objets d’art made his home a centre for anyone ambitious to be thought a man of taste. The amusing, though often unkind, conversations held at his breakfast and dinner parties were recorded by Alexander Dyce and published as Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856; edited by Morchard Bishop, 1952). In spite of his sharp tongue, he performed many kind offices for his friends. He aided Richard Sheridan in his dying days and helped to secure a pension for Henry Cary, translator of Dante. He secured a position for William Wordsworth as distributor of stamps for Westmorland. He also continued to write poetry, including an epic, The Voyage of Columbus (1810); a collection of verse tales, Italy (1822–28); and a miscellaneous collection titled Poems (1834). In his own lifetime, his poetry was widely admired. On Wordsworth’s death, in 1850, Rogers was offered the laureateship, which he refused.



Thomas Moore

born May 28, 1779, Dublin, Ire.
died Feb. 25, 1852, Wiltshire, Eng.

Irish poet, satirist, composer, and political propagandist. He was a close friend of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The son of a Roman Catholic wine merchant, Moore graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1799 and then studied law in London. His major poetic work, Irish Melodies (1807–34), earned him an income of £500 annually for a quarter of a century. It contained such titles as The Last Rose of Summer and Oft in the Stilly Night. The Melodies, a group of 130 poems set to the music of Moore and of Sir John Stevenson and performed for London’s aristocracy, aroused sympathy and support for the Irish nationalists, among whom Moore was a popular hero.

Lalla Rookh (1817), a narrative poem set (on Byron’s advice) in an atmosphere of Oriental splendour, gave Moore a reputation among his contemporaries rivaling that of Byron and Sir Walter Scott. It was perhaps the most translated poem of its time, and it earned what was till then the highest price paid by an English publisher for a poem (£3,000). Moore’s many satirical works, such as The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), portray the politics and manners of the Regency period.

In 1824 Moore became a participant in one of the most celebrated episodes of the Romantic period. He was the recipient of Byron’s memoirs, but he and the publisher John Murray burned them, presumably to protect Byron. Moore later brought out the Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830), in which he included a life of the poet. Moore’s lifelong espousal of the Catholic cause led him to produce such brilliant works as his parody of agrarian insurgency, The Memoirs of Captain Rock (1824), and his courageous biography of the revolutionary leader of the 1798 rebellion, The Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1831).



Helen Maria Williams


born 1762, London
died Dec. 15, 1827, Paris

English poet, novelist, and social critic best known for her support of such radical causes as abolitionism and the French Revolution.

The daughter of an army officer, she was privately educated at Berwick-on-Tweed. After she went to London in 1781 to publish her poem Edwin and Eltruda, she made a wide literary acquaintance, which included Dr. Samuel Johnson and Robert Burns as well as such prominent radicals as Joseph Priestley and William Godwin. In the 1780s she achieved some success with her poetry; her collected poems (1786) had a subscription of some 1,500 names.

The first important expression of Williams’s interests in social reform came with her Poem on the Slave Bill (1788), and her opposition to slavery was clear in her novel Julia (1790), which also indicated her support for the French Revolution. She spent the summer of 1790 in Revolutionary France, returned again in late 1791, and settled there in late 1792. Her sympathy for the Revolution is recorded in volumes of Letters published from 1790 to 1796. She was particularly attracted to the moderate Girondins and allowed her Paris salon to serve as a meeting place for them as well as for British radicals; among the attendees were the English-American political pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Arrested with other British citizens in October 1793, Williams was soon released but had to leave Paris the following year, eventually going to Switzerland in June to escape Jacobin persecution.

On her travels Williams was accompanied by another English expatriate, John Hurford Stone. She wrote about her time in Switzerland in Tour in Switzerland (1798), which also includes some of her verse. Her hatred for Robespierre did not destroy her faith in the original principles of the Revolution, and after his fall (July 1794) she returned to Paris.

Williams’s enthusiasm for political change in France lost her most of her literary friends in England. Because of her disenchantment with the Directory, she initially admired Napoleon Bonaparte, but she later condemned him as a tyrant and finally welcomed his fall in her Narrative of the Events (1815). In the meantime she satirized rank and privilege in Perourou (1801) and reiterated her republican principles in an edition of the forged correspondence of Louis XVI (1803). In 1817 she took out letters of naturalization in France but spent most of the remaining decade of her life in Amsterdam. Her Poems on Various Subjects appeared in 1823.



Mary Robinson

Portrait of Mary Robinson by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781

Mary Robinson (née Darby) (27 November 1757 – 26 December 1800) was an English poet and novelist. During her lifetime she is known as 'the English Sappho'. She was also known for her role as Perdita (heroine of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) in 1779 and as the first public mistress of George IV.


Private life: childhood, marriage, and the theater
Mary Darby was born in Bristol, England to John Darby, a sea captain, and Hester Seys. According to her memoirs, Mary gives her birth in 1758 but the year 1757 seems more likely according to recently published research (see appendix to Byrne, 2005). Her father deserted her mother when Mary was still a child, and Mrs Darby supported herself and the five children born of the marriage by starting a school for young girls (where Mary taught by her 14th birthday). However, during one of his brief returns to the family, Captain Darby had the school closed (which he was entitled to do by English law). Mary, who at one point attended a school run by the social reformer Hannah More, came to the attention of actor David Garrick.

Mary's mother encouraged her to accept the proposal of an articled clerk, Thomas Robinson, who claimed to have an inheritance. After the early marriage, Mary discovered that Thomas Robinson did not have an inheritance. Subsequently, she supported their family. After her husband squandered their money, the couple fled to Wales (where Mary's only living daughter was born in November). The family lived under house-arrest after Thomas Robinson was imprisoned for debt. During this time, Mary Robinson found a patron in Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire who sponsored the publication of Robinson's first volume of poems, Captivity.

After her husband obtained his release from prison, Robinson decided to return to the theater. She launched her acting career and took to the stage, playing Juliet, at Drury Lane Theatre in December 1776. Robinson was best known for her facility with the 'breeches parts', her performances as Viola in Twelfth Night and Rosalind in As You Like It won her extensive praise. But she gained popularity with playing in Florizel and Perdita, an adaptation of Shakespeare, with the role of Perdita (heroine of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) in 1779. It was during this performance that she attracted the notice of the young Prince of Wales, later King George IV of Great Britain and Ireland, who offered her twenty thousand pounds to become his mistress. With her new social prominence, Robinson became a trend-setter in London, introducing a loose, flowing muslin style of gown based upon Grecian statuary that became known as the Perdita. He ended the affair in 1781, refusing to pay the promised sum. "Perdita" Robinson was left to support herself through an annuity promised by the Crown (but rarely paid), in return for some letters written by the Prince, and through her writings.


Subsequent career
After seeing her as Perdita, and declaring himself enraptured with her, the Prince of Wales offered Mary Robinson twenty thousand pounds to become his mistress. However, he soon tired of her and abandoned her after a year, refusing to pay the money. Her reputation was destroyed by the affair, and she could no longer find work as an actress. Eventually, the Crown agreed to pay Robinson five thousand pounds, in return for the Prince's love letters to her. Some time later she was able to negotiate a small annuity (five hundred pounds) from the Crown, but this was rarely paid.

Mary Robinson, who now lived separately from her philandering husband, went on to have several love affairs, most notably with Banastre Tarleton, a soldier who had recently distinguished himself fighting in the American War of Independence. Their relationship survived for the next 15 years, through Tarleton's rise in military rank and his concomitant political successes, through Mary's own various illnesses, through financial vicissitudes and the efforts of Tarleton's own family to end the relationship. However, in the end, Tarleton married Susan Bertie, an heiress and an illegitimate daughter of the young 4th Duke of Ancaster, and niece of his sisters Lady Willoughby de Eresby and Lady Cholmondeley.

In 1783, at the age of 26, Robinson suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralyzed. Biographer Paula Byrne speculates that a streptococcal infection resulting from a miscarriage led to a severe rheumatic fever that left her disabled for the rest of her life. From the late 1780s, Mary Robinson became distinguished for her poetry and was called "the English Sappho." In addition to poems, she wrote six novels, two plays, a feminist treatise, and an autobiographical manuscript that was incomplete at the time of her death. Like her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, she championed the rights of women and was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. She died in late 1800 in poverty at the age of 42, having survived several years of ill health, and was survived by her daughter, who was also a published novelist.

After years of scholarly neglect, Robinson's literary afterlife continues apace. In addition to regaining cultural notability because of scholars who study her writing, she again attained a degree of celebrity in recent years when several biographies of her appeared, including one by Paula Byrne that became a top-ten bestseller after being selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.



Robert Southey


born Aug. 12, 1774, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Eng.
died March 21, 1843, Keswick, Cumberland

English poet and writer of miscellaneous prose who is chiefly remembered for his association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, both of whom were leaders of the early Romantic movement.

The son of a linen draper, Southey spent much of his childhood at Bath in the care of his aunt, Elizabeth Tyler. Educated at Westminster School and Balliol College, Oxford, Southey expressed his ardent sympathy for the French Revolution in the long poem Joan of Arc (published 1796). He first met Coleridge, who shared his views, in 1794, and together they wrote a verse drama, The Fall of Robespierre (1794). After leaving Oxford without a degree, Southey planned to carry out Coleridge’s project for a pantisocracy, or utopian agricultural community, to be located on the banks of the Susquehanna River, in the United States. But his interest in pantisocracy faded, causing a temporary breach with Coleridge.

In 1795 he secretly married Edith Fricker, whose sister, Sara, Coleridge was soon to marry. That same year he went to Portugal with his uncle, who was the British chaplain in Lisbon. While in Portugal he wrote the letters published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), studied the literature of those two countries, and learned to “thank God [he was] an Englishman.” So began the change from revolutionary to Tory.

In 1797 he began to receive an annuity of £160 that was paid to him for nine years by an old Westminster school friend, Charles Wynn, and in 1797–99 he published a second volume of his Poems. In these years he composed many of his best short poems and ballads and became a regular contributor to newspapers and reviews. Southey also did translations, edited the works of Thomas Chatterton, completed the epic Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), and worked on the epic poem Madoc (1805).

In 1803 the Southeys visited the Coleridges, then living at Greta Hall, Keswick. The Southeys remained at Greta Hall for life, partly so that Sara and Edith could be together. Southey’s friendship with Wordsworth, then at nearby Grasmere, dates from this time. The Southeys had seven children of their own, and, after Coleridge left his family for Malta, the whole household was economically dependent on Southey. He was forced to produce unremittingly—poetry, criticism, history, biography, journalism, translations, and editions of earlier writers. During 1809–38 he wrote, for the Tory Quarterly Review, 95 political articles, for each of which he received £100. Of most interest today are those articles urging the state provision of “social services.” He also worked on a projected history of Portugal that he was destined never to finish; only his History of Brazil, 3 vol. (1810–19), was published. His edition (1817) of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Le Morte Darthur played an important part in generating renewed interest in the Middle Ages during the 19th century.

In 1813 Southey was appointed poet laureate through the influence of Sir Walter Scott. But the unauthorized publication (1817) of Wat Tyler, an early verse drama reflecting his youthful political opinions, enabled his enemies to remind the public of his youthful republicanism. About this time he became involved in a literary imbroglio with Lord Byron. Byron had already attacked Southey in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) and had dedicated to him (1819) the first cantos of Don Juan, a satire on hypocrisy. In his introduction to A Vision of Judgement (1821), Southey continued the quarrel by denouncing Byron as belonging to a “Satanic school” of poetry, and Byron replied by producing a masterful parody of Southey’s own poem under the title The Vision of Judgment (1822). The historian Thomas Macaulay unleashed a similarly devastating riposte to Southey’s Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829), a major statement of 19th-century political medievalism. Southey’s last years were clouded by his wife’s insanity, by family quarrels resulting from his second marriage after her death (1837), and by his own failing mental and physical health.

Except for a few lyrics, ballads, and comic-grotesque poems—such as “My days among the Dead are past,” “After Blenheim,” and “The Inchcape Rock”—Southey’s poetry is little read today, though his “English Eclogues” (1799) anticipate Alfred Tennyson’s “English Idyls” as lucid, relaxed, and observant verse accounts of contemporary life. His prose style, however, has been long regarded as masterly in its ease and clarity. These qualities are best seen in his Life of Nelson (1813), still a classic; in the Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820); in the lively Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, the observations of a fictitious Spaniard (1807); and in the anonymously published The Doctor, 7 vol. (1834–47), a rambling miscellany packed with comment, quotations, and anecdotes (including the well-known children’s classic “The Story of the Three Bears”). His less successful epic poems are verse romances having a mythological or legendary subject matter set in the past and in distant places. In his prose works and in his voluminous correspondence, which gives a detailed picture of his literary surroundings and friends, Southey’s effortless mastery of prose is clearly evident, a fact attested to by such eminent contemporaries as William Hazlitt and Scott and even by such an enemy as Byron.



George Crabbe

born Dec. 24, 1754, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Eng.
died Feb. 3, 1832, Trowbridge, Wiltshire

English writer of poems and verse tales memorable for their realistic details of everyday life.

Crabbe grew up in the then-impoverished seacoast village of Aldeburgh, where his father was collector of salt duties, and he was apprenticed to a surgeon at 14. Hating his mean surroundings and unsuccessful occupation, he abandoned both in 1780 and went to London. In 1781 he wrote a desperate letter of appeal to Edmund Burke, who read Crabbe’s writings and persuaded James Dodsley to publish one of his didactic, descriptive poems, The Library (1781). Burke also used his influence to have Crabbe accepted for ordination, and in 1782 he became chaplain to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle.

In 1783 Crabbe demonstrated his full powers as a poet with The Village. Written in part as a protest against Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770), which Crabbe thought too sentimental and idyllic, the poem was his attempt to portray realistically the misery and degradation of rural poverty. Crabbe made good use in The Village of his detailed observation of life in the bleak countryside from which he himself came. The Village was popular but was followed by an unworthy successor, The Newspaper (1785), and after that Crabbe published nothing for the next 22 years. Apparently happily married (1783) and the father of a family, he no longer felt impelled to write poetry.

In 1807, however, spurred by the increasing expenses associated with his sons’ education, Crabbe began to publish again. He reprinted his poems, together with a new work, “The Parish Register,” in which he made use of the register of births, deaths, and marriages to create a compassionate depiction of the life of a rural community. Other verse tales followed, including The Borough (1810), Tales in Verse (1812), and Tales of the Hall (1819).

Crabbe is often called the last of the Augustan poets because he followed John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson in using the heroic couplet, which he came to handle with great skill. Like the Romantics, who esteemed his work, he was a rebel against the realms of genteel fancy that poets of his day were forced to inhabit, and he pleaded for the poet’s right to describe the commonplace realities and miseries of human life. Another Aldeburgh resident, Benjamin Britten, based his opera Peter Grimes (1945) on one of Crabbe’s grim verse tales in The Borough.



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