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These notes are designed to introduce you to the main tenets of Romanticism, here divided into four groups: politics, religion, society and aesthetics. The following are summarised: Gagging Acts; Treason Trials; Gordon Riots; National Debt; Whigs and Tories; Republicanism; French Revolution; Dissenting Academies; Unitarianism; Enthusiasm; Abolitionism and Slavery; Agrarianism and Enclosure; Corresponding Societies; The Bluestockings; Imagination; Sublime; Beautiful; Picturesque.


1. Gagging Acts

Series of legislations beginning in the 1790s and ending with the Six Acts of 1819. In 1795 and 1817 habeas corpus was suspended, enabling suspected radicals to be imprisoned without trial. The Acts were really designed, however, to prosecute printed materials and public meetings and they became increasingly repressive as the scale and intensity of reform activity increased. The Treasonable Practices Act (1795) made outspoken criticism of the government into an offence. A similar measure passed in 1817 created even more stringent penalties on those uttering treasonable or seditious words. The corresponding legislation in the Six Acts of 1819 stiffened these penalties yet again and added a 4d tax on periodical publications, the favoured way of disseminating radical opinions. In 1819, magistrates were also given fresh powers of summary conviction, the power to search private as well as public houses, and the authorisation to transport publishers convicted more than once of seditious libel. The government tried to control public meetings in 1795, 1812 and 1817 by restricting the numbers who could attend and by licensing meeting places and itinerant preachers. The Seditious Meetings Act (1819) was the first in British law to define who was entitled to attend a political meeting. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, used to control seditious assemblies, exercised far-reaching restrictions on the growth of Trade Unions.

2. Treason Trials

Proceedings in 1794 against Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall for alleged treason. They marked both the most dramatic victory of the radical cause and the start of its retrogression, as well as a seminal point in British legal history. Fearing domestic revolution, the government arrested Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society, and Daniel Adams, secretary of the Society for Constitutional Information, on May 12, 1794. With the suspension of habeas corpus, the prisoners were detained in the Tower of London before Hardy was brought before the Old Baily on October 25 1794. The jury found him, like Tooke and Thelwall, whose trials followed, not guilty. The legal argument of the prosecution centred on the construction of treason as ‘imagining the king’s death,’ which the successful defence turned back on the prosecution (they too must have imagined the king’s death to know those they were prosecuting had imagined the king’s death, so it had to be decided that no-one had imagined the king’s death).

3. Gordon Riots

June 2-10, 1780, and the most serious riots during the century, causing more damage of property in London than Paris suffered during the French Revolution. Their origins lay in the Scottish protest against Roman Catholicism in 1778-9, led by the volatile Lord George Gordon, the elected leader of the Protestant Association. His Puritan rhetoric and radical politico-economic programme attracted support from many dissenters, and when Parliament refused to repeal the pro-Catholic legislation in England, London rioters attacked Catholic chapels, property owners, and well-known sympathisers with Catholicism. It was the Gordon Riots, as much as the French Revolution, that caused intellectuals to begin to doubt the ‘achievements’ of the Enlightenment, as well as a conservative reaction which would fuel resistance to the French Revolution.

4. National Debt

A political obsession during this period, since the Seven Years War had sent it spiralling from less than £80 million in 1757 to £240 million in 1783. During wartime, public borrowing from the better off was the main source of revenue, but by the 1780s, it became clear this was an unreliable resource. After the resumption of the Napoleonic wars in 1803, matters became worse still, causing the radical writer William Cobbett to bring the issue to the centre of popular debate.

5. Whigs and Tories

During our period, the main political parties were the Whigs and Tories, and the distinctions between the two are complex and tend to blur (much as Blair’s New Labour merges with the Conservatives). Whiggism was generally left of centre, and grew out of an opposition to George III in the 1760s. As a politics, it supported religious dissent, approved of the French Revolution (even though it was horrified by its later excesses) and instituted parliamentary reform, being at the forefront of the abolition of the slave trade. They opposed the wars fought up until 1815, except regarding the cause of the Spanish, which they supported as a people struggling to be free; Latin Americans, Greeks and Poles would later be approved for the same reason. After 1811, the Whigs supported the toleration of Unitarians and also defended the civil rights of radicals against government repression (the gagging Acts). Their attempts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts was finally successful in 1828. The Tories, by contrast, supported a more traditional structure of social and political power, and rested principally on the idea of social hierarchy and the defence of the constitution. They resisted radical reform during the 1800s and even opposed modest attempts to purge the electoral system of abuses as well as Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. However, during the 1820s, the Tories split into orthodox and liberal Tories, so that Wordsworth and Coleridge came to be associated with the latter despite the fact they had been associated with radicalism in their youth.

6. The French Revolution

The French Revolution marked a transition between the ancien regime to the modern era in France. It was the dawn of new age based on justice and equality. It was caused in part by the chaotic state of government finances and growing bourgeoisie discontent with the feudal system. The intellectual basis for the Revolution was forged within the Enlightenment philosophy of Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and Rousseau who provided an impetus for the revolution through attacks on the Church and Crown. The Storming of Bastille symbolised the popular overthrow of the ancien regime. The Bastille was a medieval fortress used by the monarchy as a prison, and was thus a hated symbol of the despotic Bourbon dynasty. On July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob seized the prison and freed several inmates. An interim governing body was created called the National Assembly, who then drafted a constitution to replace to absolute monarchy of Louis XVI. The principles of this revolutionary government codified were in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and reflected the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence, supporting the rights of the individual to liberty, property and free speech and advocating a republican government. In 1792 the National Convention was formed to create a new constitution – their legislature abolished the monarchy and warranted the execution of the King for treason. Within the convention, two main factions emerged: Girondists – who held a moderate point of view; and Jacobins – slightly more radical. At the time, France was involved in military conflicts with other nations in addition to tumult within its borders. In an attempt to present a unified republic both to the people of France and to potential foreign invaders, the Convention instituted the Committee of Public Safety empowered to act as an emergency dictatorship. The inception of the committee marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Reign of Terror, during which thousands of people suspected of counter-revolutionary activity were arrested, tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal and executed by a guillotine or mass drownings. Maximillian Robespierre, a Jacobin, gradually rose to power within the controversial and powerful committee, eventually overthrowing the competing factions. By 1794, politically moderate Convention members asserted that military successes abroad reduced the need for drastic measures within France and in an effort to avoid a backlash from the populace, Robespierre’e enemies banded together to remove him from power – he was arrested, tried, and on July 28, 1794, guillotined. The French Revolution exerted a profound influence on European art and thought. Much Romantic poetry expresses the hope associated with the early stages of the revolution, as well as the sense of horror and betrayal aroused by the Reign of Terror. The main political treatises espousing different views on the Revolution are: Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (voices opposition to the Revolution); and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (which defend revolutionary tenets). Inspired by the political climate in France, English Romantic poets exalted the worth of the individual, incorporating into their works such themes as universal freedom and equality. When the Committee of Public Safety was established as a war dictatorship, many observers believed that the ideal of popular government had been abandoned and Wordsworth and Coleridge registered disappointment and anger that the goals of the French Revolution had not been fulfilled.


1. Dissenting Academies

Excluded from grammar schools and the two universities, Dissenters developed in their own ‘academies’ an educational system that exploited their want of charter and encouraged vigorous, independent-minded scholarship. Fundamental to the Academies is their independence from the Church, their instituting Principals being some of the most progressive intellects of the period, for example, John Jennings (Kibworth), Phillip Doddridge (Northampton), James Burgh (Stoke Newington) and most importantly, perhaps, Joseph Priestley (Warrington). Academies such as those at Hackney and Hoxton became rather extreme in their Rational Dissent, lending some support to Unitarian ‘heresies.’ In less controversial areas, their syllabuses were at once extensive and comprehensive, including French, Italian, history, political theory, geography, shorthand (compulsory in order to write sermons), a version of English Literature and notably, the new experimental sciences. While Oxbridge remained training colleges for priests, the Academies supported new disciplines and their graduates often proceeded to universities in Scotland or Holland where innovative knowledge could be further developed.

2. Unitarianism

A key denomination of Dissent and a theology that rejects the divinity of Christ. Early in the eighteenth century, Samuel Clarke published a scriptural analysis that brought him to the so-called Arian position, which held that Christ, while divine, was created of a lesser divinity than God the Father. Attractive to rationally and scripturally inclined thinkers, this view was taken up by Dissenters, some of whom controversially began to insist on a fully human Christ. Barbauld’s friend, Joseph Priestley was pivotal in these debates, defending the new faith in many polemical works on the subject.

3. Enthusiasm

A word that signified religious and political fanaticism, frequently applied to Methodists, radicals and millenarians, but also reworked and secularised by the Romantic poets to mean the sublime inward inspiration necessary for ‘true’ poetry. Enthusiasm was thought to connote an overheating of the brain which caused spiritual insight or madness (and some thought the two were the same). Women and children were thought particularly susceptible to its lure because of their emotional sensibility and undeveloped rationality. Wordsworth and Coleridge, while ambivalent regarding its political and religious associations, embraced its inspirational, imaginative and illuminative capacities.


1. Abolitionism

The term covers both the abolition of the slave trade, achieved by an Act of Parliament in 1807; and the subsequent agitation against slavery itself which culminated in the emancipation of slaves in 1833-8. The movement won unprecedented support, and it became ‘fashionable’ to write anti-slavery verse of the kind Coleridge and Barbauld wrote. That feminism had its antecedents in abolitionism is clear enough in the work of the many Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Associations which sprang up in Britain in the 1820s. The centrality of women’s roles in the movement is most evident in the early boycott campaigns, with their special appeal to the consciences of women as consumers (‘shoppers’) and household organisers. The idea of the white woman’s mission to the slave was also enforced by the link between abolitionism and the powerful Evangelical missionary movement to which so many women abolitionists belonged.

2. Agrarianism and Enclosure

Agrarianism, or the ethos of ‘back to the land’ was a defining characteristic of popular radicalism. Some agrarians, like Thomas Spence, called for the abolition of private property, while others desired a restored peasantry. Common to all was a belief in the viability of small-scale agricultural enterprise, and the right of universal equal access to the land. Agrarianism derived from an awareness of how inequalities in landholding, which enclosure was extending, reinforced all other inequalities. Enclosure had converted the commons and the strip-based open-field system into compact, enclosed holdings to increase efficiency. Originating in the late medieval period, the process witnessed a surge between 1793 and 1815 and was achieved only at the cost of massive social dislocation. The economic gains were exaggerated, and benefited only larger farmers and more so, landlords whose rentals increased with the growth in farm productivity. Clare’s poetry conveys the simultaneous sense of impassioned hostility and futility that followed in enclosure’s wake for the rural poor.

3. Corresponding Societies

A term used along with ‘radical societies’ to denote some forty parliamentary reform organisations formed in London and provincial cities in the 1790s which sought to correspond with other national and international groups on the model of American Revolutionary societies. Modest joining fees enabled artisanal membership and their notional appeal to unlimited membership made them forerunners of democratic politics. The best known was probably the London Corresponding Society, founded by Thomas Hardy in 1792, which at its peak in 1795 numbered 3000-5000 members. Around 1500 of these were activists which met in taverns to debate and circulate reading. They also called large open-air meetings to petition for reform. While the politics between Societies differed from moderate to extreme radicalism, most believed that social and economic inequalities derived from an unjust political system which fostered grinding taxation and poverty, and should be remedied by parliamentary reform.

4. The Bluestockings

An informal group of intellectual, artistic and sociable women which met in London at the homes of hostesses during the second half of the eighteenth century and flourished between 1770 and 1785. The bluestockings established the claim of polite women to the sociable idea of conversation and pursued an active commitment to female accomplishment and middle-class forms of philanthropy. The group tended to foster an ideal of sociability derived from a Whig sense of manners, sensibility and taste rooted in humanism. Yet its investment in feminine virtue and Anglicanism led it to condemn the marriage of one of its members to a younger man, and of another to an Italian Catholic, and it soon came under fire by radical critics. ‘Bluestocking’ thus became a term of misogynist abuse throughout the nineteenth century.


1. Imagination

In his Letters, Keats replied to Benjamin Bailey’s doubts about the authenticity of imagination by affirming that ‘The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.’ As described by Milton in Paradise Lost, Adam’s dream is of Eve, and the truth he discovers is the ‘real’ counterpart to the form he had imagined. This coincidence of human and divine creative powers supports Keats’ view that ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not.’ Keats’ view was emblematic of an imagination no longer confined, as was common in earlier thinking, to the representation of ideas and images drawn from experience. It is therefore a productive, rather than reproductive faculty, being a knowledge more profound than that available to reason. Residing at a level too deep to be scrutinised by the conscious mind, the imagination is nevertheless identified as the ultimate source of both nature and the self. The Romantic sense of imagination establishes literature as a privileged index to the imagination and therefore as a source of secular salvation. It was idealised as an organic, individualistic and creative power although some poets scandalously believed these elements could also be found in opium (De Quincey) or were in reality, superficial and fragile (Byron).

2. Sublime

Discussions of the sublime held a prominent place in literature on aesthetics in this period and was defined in opposition to the beautiful. As Burke argues in his influential A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), the sublime is provoked by great and terrible objects, while a sense of the beautiful is aroused by small and pleasing ones. The first arouses our admiration, the second our love; the one forces, the other flatters, us into compliance, a distinction sharpened by the association of the sublime with men and the beautiful with women. An experience of the sublime characteristically begins with the interposition of an overwhelming force, which shatters equanimity and produces of feeling of blockage. As this power takes hold of mind and emotions, inertia becomes transport: we are hurried on as if ‘by an irresistible force.’ As the experience recedes, it leaves behind a newly invigorated sense of identity and, frequently, admiration for the blocking power. The Romantic sublime has its source in and is revelatory of the individual’s own powers, meaning that great size and grandeur are not always necessary conditions for sublimity. In Wordsworth’s the ‘The Ruined Cottage,’ for example, the Pedlar reflects on a time when ‘the least of things / seemed infinite.’ The Romantic sublime is therefore a moment of vision which, by providing an intuition of the absolute grounds of existence, claims to close the gap between subject and object. It is also identified with emotion, spontaneity and the imagination and therefore is sometimes associated with enthusiasm.

3. Picturesque

An eighteenth-century theory of landscape which had particular application in the fields of bucolic literature, pastoral poetry and landscape painting. Situated between the historicising landscapes of the seventeenth century and the sublime landscapes of the Romantic period, the picturesque stresses variety in landscape, revealed through an interest in irregularity, ruggedness, rusticity, intricacy and singularity. These qualities (outlined by William Gilpin) were thought to stimulate the imagination, not naturally, but by being reproduced by the artist in a pleasing composition. One technical aid to the discovery of the picturesque was found in the Claude glass, a tinted convex mirror which was designed to render the scene like a picture. Gilpin argued that it transformed nature into ‘the brilliant landscape of a dream.’