The Romantics believed in making everything beautiful. Everyday themes such as nature, death, poverty and childhood were taken very carefully into consideration and with a simple language were made for the everyman. They also had an appreciation of everything around them and wanted to beautify what they saw and put a sheen on everyday things. The beauty
and use of simple language meant that the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge were for everyone to understand. In Edmund Burke’s essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful, he states ‘the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is astonishment…that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror’, (Burke, section 1, 2017). The poetry of the Romantics was enriched by using the themes of poverty, death and childhood in a way that shocked the reader into some sort of cathartic state. During the period of the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Enlightenment movement, known as a time for reason and rationality, stood in the way of the Romantics who thought that the Enlightenment period was selective and short-sighted. However, the Romantics focused on every aspect of life. Wordsworth wanted to show society’s failings and how there was a need for change. As modernists, the Romantics had a true awareness of living in the now and commenting on social change for the good and bad.
In 1789, the French Revolution made a big impact on the Romantics. The middle classes killed off the aristocracy and saw the feudal system come to an end. This can also be seen in the poem The Female Vagrant, where Wordsworth focuses on vagrancy and the beginnings of industrialisation. The poem starts in the first person and has a rhyme scheme of ABAB, rhyming couplets at the end of each stanza and is written in iambic pentameter. Wordsworth tells the story of the young women’s life from small child to desolate vagrant in the form of a story. It has a breathless quality and encapsulates the imagination of the reader to a subject that was often ignored. The start of the poem shows how idyllic her life was, ‘Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:/ With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p32). These two lines show the beauty in her surroundings and the lightness and simplicity of her life. As commercialism begins to roll in, the woman’s life is shattered when her father does not sell to the new landowner. Wordsworth is illustrating the change in society and encourages the reader to question it and sympathise with a plight that was happening in all parts of the countryside. Using punctuation designed to enrich the reader’s sympathies, we see the woman losing her home, ‘I could not pray:-̶̶-through tears that fell in showers,/ Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! No longer ours!’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p33). This is designed to evoke sympathy in the reader and to understand what was happening to people’s lives. In Patrick Campbell’s Critical Perspectives, he states that the poem:
stresses the ‘sensational’ nature of the subject. For the ballad burns with social indignation both against grasping ‘townee’ landlords out of harmony with their human and natural surroundings, trying to ride roughshod over rural values with ‘proffered gold’ (Campbell, 1991, p107).
The poem then becomes a social commentary on the effects of capitalism marching forth and destroying everything that gets in its path. Wordsworth’s journalistic style in this poem emphasises this effect to catch the reader’s attention and show the true consequences for the people in the countryside. In line 89, Wordsworth refers to the end of the cotton cottage industry, ‘The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p34). This was another example of the poverty that was to come to those who were producing cotton in the ‘old way’ and were pushed out by the factories and mass production. The discourse used from lines 109 to 145 is designed to shock the reader, as the woman experiences, ‘disease, famine, agony and fear,’ (Wordsworth, 2103, p35). The full extent of the horrors experienced by those who were homeless are laid bare and Wordsworth does not want to shy away from them. In line 189, the woman cannot bring herself to beg, saying ‘Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p37). In the final stanza, the woman can tell no more of her story as the sheer weight of her desperation becomes unbearable, ‘Oh! Tell me whither ̶ for no earthly friend/ Have I. ̶ She ceased and weeping turned away,’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p39). Throughout the poem, Wordsworth does not let the reader feel anything other than sympathy for the woman. None of what happens to her is her fault and in this way the challenge of aesthetically enriching the poem by representing poverty is done with great consideration.
Wordsworth stated that the ideas behind his poems were, ‘…to choose incidents and situations from common life and to relate or to describe them throughout…in a selection of language really used by men’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p96-97). This can clearly be seen in the poem Simon Lee. At the end of the 18th Century, the feudal system came to an end. Simon Lee had worked for a wealthy landowner of a country estate, who had since died and left no one remaining thus putting Simon Lee and his wife into extreme poverty. Wordsworth is showing the effect of the end of the feudal system and the poor were now adrift with the new structures in society. The poem has an ABAB rhyme scheme and is made up of 13 stanzas with differing metrical feet in the fourth and eighth line of each stanza. It also has a nursery rhyme style so at the time it was written, would have made it easy for people to read. The poems begins with, ‘In the sweet shore of Cardigan,/ Not far from pleasant Ivor Hall’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p44) and this gives the reader a soft and gentle introduction to the whereabouts of Simon Lee. Wordsworth is setting the scene to entice the reader in before telling the tale of his misfortune. In lines 15 and 16, the reader is told that although Simon Lee has lost an eye through his hunting feats for his lord and master, his cheeks are rosy and he appears happy with his lot. The shorter sentences in stanza’s four and five, ‘He has no son, he has no child/ And he is lean and he is sick’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p45) evokes pity with Simon Lee and his situation. The switch to first person narrator in stanza nine is where we see a call to the reader for their sympathies. The use of ‘O reader!…O gentle reader!’ in lines 73 and 75 is like a cry out to the reader for their understanding. Wordsworth enriches the poem by turning to the reader in this journalistic way and commenting actively on it. This was also a way of experimenting with the challenge of representing poverty. Poverty is something we can all see but generally tend to ignore. In the last three stanzas of the poem, the narrator steps in to help Simon Lee cut down a tree. The language used is gentle and evokes emotion in the way that when he is helped by the much younger man, he cannot express his gratitude enough, ‘The tears into his eyes were brought,/ And thanks and praises seemed to run’. (Wordsworth, 2013, p47). This brings a ‘happy ending’ to the poem but by making a powerful statement. Wordsworth became conscious of the environment and as such poverty became something that was not just political but something he wanted to change. It became a rallying cry for social change. This is a realistic ballad and Wordsworth made it beautiful by capturing the heart of the reader in a way that would have brought hope to the poor.
In the 18th Century, children were commonly regarded as little more than mini-adults or savages. Yet the discovery of ‘the child’ by the Romantics showed how we can learn from children. When attitudes began to change towards children, they were seen as impressionable uninformed beings requiring protection and attention. The Romantics idolised children and believed that the child was the real poet. In Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens, the importance of play in culture and in particularly in poetry are described as, ‘To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.’ (Huizinga, 2016, p119). Huizinga’s philosophy and the idea of becoming the child resonates with the Romantic’s way of thinking and exploring the simplicity of childhood. In the poem We are Seven, Wordsworth represents childhood very simply. With an ABAB rhyme scheme and made up of quatrains save for the last stanza, the poem is very musical and nursery rhyme like which enriches the reader’s awareness of childhood, as it mirrors the child’s thinking. The simple tone of the poem is in stark comparison to the idea of death which is discussed by the man and the child. In line 4, the narrator asks: ‘What should it know of death?’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p49) clearly defining the child as simple and unaware but as the poem continues, it is the child’s simple logic and understanding of an afterlife which is endearing to the reader. The description of the child in the second and third stanzas capture her innocence and bring her to life. In lines 11 and 12, she is described as ‘Her eyes were fair, and very fair,/ ̶ Her beauty made me glad.’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p49). The language used here shows how the child is not overcome by sadness; her eyes are bright and alive and this affects the man talking to her. It is enriched by the pause put in before the second line, showing the narrator considering her face and the innocence he finds there. The conversation that follows between the man and child regarding the whereabouts of her siblings is simple in language and form. The short sentences show this and the questioning by the man is simple and childlike. When the child says that two of her siblings are dead, line 47 is rich in simplistic rhyme befitting the child, ‘Their graves are green, they may be seen.’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p50). The poem shows how the child’s view of death illustrates that death is not really the end. The child is not angry with God for taking her siblings, showing a belief in the afterlife and that she will see them again. Indeed, she states in line 52, ‘Till God released her from her pain,/’ (Wordsworth, 2013, p50). She is almost grateful to God for her sister’s demise and does not blame Him for it. Wordsworth also uses nature in the poem to enrich our experience, setting the scene in a cottage by a church-yard. Children understand nature for what it is so the child is unaffected by living next to a church-yard and playing around the grave stones. This resonates with her beliefs about death and using the countryside setting enriches the reader’s experience. The final stanza is made up of five lines and not four as the preceding stanzas are. The child is convinced and will not concede defeat to the man’s superiority that her siblings are gone. Wordsworth’s use of five lines here is used to demonstrate the tenacity of the child’s belief. This shows us that to go back to an innocent way of thinking can teach us more about life as it is unsullied by the trappings of adulthood.
As modernists, the Romantics had a true awareness of living in the now. Their poems reflected the social change and a need for social justice. The challenges of representing the themes of death, poverty and childhood in poetry are aesthetically enriched by the language, form and underlying message. Wordsworth shows that the new way of thinking was something he could express for everyone. In Simon Lee and The Female Vagrant, Wordsworth highlights the fall-out from commercialism and the end of the feudal system, the way this affected people’s lives and challenges society to stand up and take notice. The style both are written in, reflect the then social climate and enrich the reader’s experience. In We Are Seven, the theme of childhood is portrayed in very simplistic tones to reflect the child in question. Although the poem is nursery rhyme like, the reader becomes aware that the child’s logic, whilst simplistic in nature, is more powerful than the man talking to her, as she is more open minded and does not require a logical explanation as the man does.
Burke, E. (2017). Extracts from A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Handout given on 3rd March 2017 by M. Jesinghausen
Campbell, P. (1991). Wordsworth and Coleridge Lyrical Ballads Critical Perspectives. Hampshire: Macmillan Education Ltd
Huizinga, J. (2016). Homo Ludens- A study of the Play Element in Culture. Ohio: Angelico Press
Wordsworth, W. & Coleridge, S. (2013). Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802. Oxford: Oxford University Press