The Romantic Period and Robert Burns
At the end of the eighteenth century a new literature arose
in England. It was called, Romanticism, and it opposed most of
the ideas held earlier in the century. Romanticism had its roots
in a changed attitude toward mankind.The forerunners
of the Romanticists argued that men are naturally good; society
makes them bad. If the social world could be changed, all men
might be happier. Many reforms were suggested: better treatment
of people in prisons and almshouses; fewer death penalties for
minor crimes; and an increase in charitable institutions.
Romanticism was a powerful reaction against Neoclassicism in
liberation of the imagination and rediscovery of nature. English
romantic writers tended to turn their backs upon cities and
centers of culture for their inspiration, and to seek subjects
and settings for their poems in mountains and valleys, forests,
meadows and brooks. Romanticism made much of freedom and
imagination. Some ideas that came with the romantic movement are
that humble life is best, and another was that people should live
close to nature. Thus the Romantic movement was essentially
anti-progress, if progress meant industrialization. Because of
this concern for nature and the simple folk, authors began to
take an interest in old legends, folk ballads, and rustic
characters. Many writers started to give more play to their
senses and to their imagination. Their pictures of nature became
livelier and more realistic. They loved to describe rural scenes,
graveyards, majestic mountains and roaring waterfalls.
With this Romanticism grew, but it can not be accurately
defined. It was a group of ideas, a web of beliefs. No one
Romantic writer expressed all these ideas, but each believed
enough of them to set him apart from earlier writers. The
Romanticist was emotional and imaginative. He acted through
inspiration and intuition, believed in democracy, humanity, and
the possibility of achieving a better world.
Some of the first great romanticists included, William
Blake. He not only wrote books, but he also illustrated and
printed them. Many of his conservative contemporaries thought he
was insane because his ideas were so unusual. Among those
“insane” ideas was his devotion to freedom and universal love. He
was interested in children and animals.
Another significant author of the Romantic period is Samuel
Taylor Coleridge. No one had put more wonder and mystery into
beautiful melodic verse than he did. His strange,
haunting supernaturalism of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and
‘Christabel’ have universal and irresistible appeal. A friend of
Coleridge’s for many years was William Wordsworth. Together they
wrote a volume of verse, ‘Lyrical Ballads’, which sounded the new
note in poetry. This book really signaled the beginning of
English Romanticism. Coleridge found beauty in the unreal,
Wordsworth found it in the realities of nature. From nature
Wordsworth learned that life may be a continuous development
toward goodness. He believed that if man heeds the lessons of
nature he will grow in character and moral worth.
But before the Romantic movement burst into full expression
there were beginners, or experimenters. Some of them are great
names in English literature, one would be, Robert Burns. He was
born on January 25,1759 in Alloway, Ayshire, in a home like he
described in his poem ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. His father,
William Burness was a Scottish tenant farmer and his mother was
Agnes Brown Burness, Robert was the eldest of seven.
As a young boy he worked long hours on his father’s farm,
which was not successful. But in spite of his poverty he was
extremely well read at the insistence of his father , who
employed a tutor for Robert and younger brother Gilbert. Watching
his father suffer, Robert began to rebel against the social
conventions of his time, and the seeds of his poetry’s satire
were sown. At 15 Robert was the principal worker on the farm and
this prompted him to start writing in an attempt to find “some
kind of counterpoise for his circumstances.” It was at this
tender age he penned his first verse, “My Handsome Nell”, which
was an ode to the other subjects that dominated his life, namely
scotch and women.
When William Burness died in 1784, Robert and his brother
became partners in the farm. He worked hard, wrote poetry and had
several love affairs. His farm was not profitable and Burns was
restless and unhappy, he was more interested in the romantic
nature of poetry than farming. His rebellion against the
Calvinist religion of his community led the parents of Jean
Armour to forbid her marriage to Burns, even though he was
pregnant with his child. Soon after Burns turned to a new
relationship with Mary Campbell, who is featured in his poem