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Book Report: Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries by Marilyn Butler

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  1. Introduction
  2. The Arts in an age of revolution: 1769-1790
    1. Britain: Questioning the influence of its aristocracy
    2. The emergence of discussion clubs and various societies
    3. Writers and poets and the conservative reaction
  3. Art for the people in the revolutionary decade: Blake, Gillray and Wordsworth
    1. Attempts made to marry art to commerce
    2. James Gillray and his famous caricatures
    3. The poet Wordsworth
  4. The rise of the man of letters: Coleridge
    1. Links between his literature and his historical context
    2. The change in Coleridge's position
  5. Novels for the gentry: Austen and Scott
    1. Openly controversial authors
    2. Moving on to the Scottish author Walter Scott
  6. The cult of the South: The Shelley circle, its creed and influence
    1. The distinctive features of English Literature at the turn of the 19th century
  7. The war of intellectuals: From Wordsworth to Keats
    1. Writers like Byron, Shelley and Peacock
  8. Romantic novel and romantic prose
  9. Conclusion: The question of romanticism in England

Offering a precise and coherent definition of artistic movements has always been a tempting prospect for whoever seeks to make sense out of our historical and cultural background. One has to confess, that it is equally tempting to approach the Romantic period in an attempt to set fixed chronological boundaries and to attribute predefined literary themes and political interests to this extremely rich age in English literature. Indeed the names of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley and Keats are often associated with the Romantic Movement. Greatly influenced by Lord Byron's writing, the romantic poet quickly became associated with the figure of a rebel or ?sensitive individual who rejected worldliness, and even, literally, this vulgar material world for a better? (p 3); one could thus imagine that the Romantic Poet would also be a ?political rebel?. However, Marilyn Butler immediately questions these clear-cut definitions and stereotypes. First, by pointing out to the fact that the use of the term ?romantic? to define these artists is somewhat anachronistic since the writers themselves never really claimed to belong to an organised school or movement just as the definition of romanticism has always evolved throughout history. The author then reminds us that Romantics, whether in Germany, France or Britain, have not always supported revolutions and radicalism as one could have expected, and that romanticism was initially of a rather conservative nature. Realising that to be objective, it is necessary to look at romanticism from its earliest origins in the late 18th Century, Butler refuses to separate the authors from their historical and social context and reminds us that English Literature at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries needs to be considered as ?product and part of social experience?. By placing these poets into their historical context, Butler refuses to provide a universal definition of romanticism thus pointing towards the unique character or specificity of English Romanticism.

[...] In this identity crisis which English Literature was experiencing around the 1820's, Butler sees the sign of a ?transitional? 174) period particularly well illustrated by the contradictions of the liberal and resolutely modern critic, Hazlitt. This age of transition and questioning clearly paved the way for cult of the isolated, introverted literary personality? 174) embodied by writers such as De Quincey or Lamb, who contributed to individualising the writer, thus granting literature with a more modern and expressive dimension. Chapter Conclusion: the question of romanticism in England Butler concludes her study by reminding us that from the intellectual's point of view, 1789-1830 marked a period which England's ancient regime faced radical social change and the threat of revolution? 178). [...]

[...] By placing these poets into their historical context, Butler refuses to provide a universal definition of romanticism thus pointing towards the unique character or specificity of English Romanticism. Chapter The Arts in an Age of Revolution: 1769-1790 Butler begins by stating that is too easy to consider the French Revolution of 1789 as a sudden and unpredictable event. According to her, ?social and economic pressures were building-up from the 1760's, if not earlier? 11) and only erupted in Europe and America a few decades later in reaction to a powerful and often corrupt aristocracy. [...]

[...] Butler concludes this chapter, by explaining that with the younger romantics, glorification of sexual love has become an accepted challenge to orthodoxy over its whole range of influence, cultural, moral and political? 137). Chapter The war of intellectuals: from Wordsworth to Keats We learn in this chapter that the years 1815 to 1819 were marked by political unrest and the fear that violence would rise amongst the masses, which led to the repealing of the habeas Corpus in This period thus saw the development of a working class radical movement inspired by the works of Paine or Volney for example. [...]

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