The Romantic Road of Poetic History
To be honest, when I first heard of the ‘Romantics’, this poetic ‘movement’, my then working-class instinct to despise all things I considered ‘posh’ or ‘monied’ (or rather monied-sounding), led me to dismiss even the thought of reading such poetry. I imagined a bunch of young men, leading lives of luxury, devoid of any knowledge of ‘hard work’, fortunate to float around ‘living’ poetry due to their elevated positions in the hierarchy of the entrenched ‘British’ social class system.
Nae doot thur Faithers are payin fir thum tae dander aboot ‘freely as clouds’, thought I.
This trait of mine, which, unfortunately, also led me to avoid any book called a ‘classic’ until in my early twenties, was borne of a young life lived in relatively poor conditions in a post-war housing estate riven with unemployment, alcoholism and aggression. One in which my type of ‘Scottishness’ seemed to be at odds with what was deemed good and acceptable in the British or England-centric world as seen on those five TV channels available at that time. There were no Scottish voices on TV that I recognized, my (sub)culture wasn’t celebrated, (no one wore a kilt in my street and the shortbread tin image of Scotland on the TV was a world away from my experiences). The adults around me spoke only of the way in which Scotland was controlled, short-changed and subjugated, nothing about the phrase ‘the romantic movement’ as spoken by some marble-moothed radio four presenter made me want to investigate it.
I further mused, ‘Fucking Romantics, there’s bugger all romantic in the broken drink bottles that cut my leg on the football park or the dog-shite that stops you diving in the goals’ (when actually, as any poet will tell you, there is).
I was afflicted with this trait for some time, rejecting things out of hand before investigating them based on a misplaced anger and a lack of understanding. Fortunately, I grew up and out of this debilitating tendency. Going to University broadens the horizons and for those willing to accept their own previous failings, can lead to much personal growth. Still, I didn’t pick up a poetry book solely concerned with the romantic movement until my mid-thirties. It was within those pages I found the poem that leads to this essay.
Poetry, like many things in life, is a personal thing, one person’s idea of a good poem can differ vastly from the next. That beauty is in the eye of the beholder is certainly true and whilst we can appreciate that someone is important for their role in developing poetry (or music, dance, literature etc.), it doesn’t follow that we will necessarily like their creative offerings. Such is the case with me and the poetry of Keats (aaaah, sacrilege some will cry. Well, to be honest, I don’t really care, he’s just no my cup o tea!). I had often heard the name and my natural curiosity eventually led me to picking up his poetry. Even if I wasn’t too keen on his poetry, I picked up on much learning from looking at his works and personal history, and he led me to the writing of others on that branch of the poetry family tree. I learned that Rabbie Burns was considered part of the romantic movement. I’d always read him in isolation, relating him solely to Scotland and the ‘common people’, without reading of his connection to other poets. It was truly interesting to develop my knowledge, I had begun to piece together the ‘romantic’ puzzle. It was also from learning of Keats that I learned of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In my journey through life, I have become a political person. I have, and do, follow political debate, participate in political activity, and deem it a necessary evil to embroil myself in such endeavours for fear of leaving it to those who would further exploit mine and the lives of others for their own selfish and/or nefarious ends. That is not to ‘big up’ my part, I could and should do a lot more. Politics is the game and only by playing can we hope to influence the outcome. Civil society, of which we are all a part, is hugely important in influencing political outcomes, the strength of a country’s civil society is a good indicator of the democratic nature of that society, the strength of global civil society can act as a counterbalance to the negative tendencies of capitalism and authoritarian entities. Poets, should they wish, can contribute to the enduring relationship between politics and civil society, often providing a link of expression between one to the other. Poetry can speak on behalf of civil society, offer words from the perspective of individuals and groups often marginalized and lost due to those enduring ‘big beasts’ dominating the agenda and the means of communication. Poets are often compelled to contribute, injustice is often the catalyst for poetic works.
For it is not a poet’s job
To ignore their own rage
When injustice doth surround them
they must come of age
This forms part of a work of my own and encapsulates what I truly believe, that a poet contributes, through their work, to that which surrounds them, which, as we all know, includes injustice, pain, horror, darkness etc..
Therefore, when I chanced upon two poems by Shelley, my poetic flame burned bright with both joy and indignation, joy at finding a poet who had written words that express sentiments I hold in such a beautiful way and indignation that the circumstances that no doubt inspired him to put pen to paper still exist in all their gruesome manifestations today. The combustible elements of poetry and politics ensured the flame, which burns ever bright inside, further glowed with this new ‘oxygen’.
The two poems? ‘Sonnet: England in 1819’ and ‘Song to the men of England’.
Why did they set my flame a-blazin? Well, to be sure, it was the ‘voice’ that I heard as I recited them to myself. The strength of their conviction, the feelings they evoked, the cry for the oppressed to throw off the jailer’s chains, and the forceful blast at those individuals and groups responsible for the injustices that Shelley rails against. I found in him a kindred spirit.
From song to the Men of England;
Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat, nay drink your blood
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil
Shelley nails it in these lines, casting the rulers of the day as drones who suck the lifeblood from the ordinary person. The parallels with the establishment elites, pure-bred capitalists, and that long-drawn-out hangover from bygone times – Royal families and their beneficiaries -are easily drawn. His voice echoes through the ages, 200 years later they ring as true now as they did then. His words bring to my mind the continuation of Royalty, funded as they are by the public purse, those inheritors of vast wealth who are promoted by an often sycophantic and fawning media wholly-owned by establishment figures who also benefit from the existing unjust circumstances in Britain and beyond, embroiled as they are in tax-evasion schemes and other such greedy endeavours. Also, the new rich, Branson and his stake in the National Health Service, Fred Goodwin et al and their actions as Royal Bank of Scotland chiefs, and the wealthy individuals backing the recent Brexit vote with their hidden dark-money donations and media manipulations. If the strength of this poem lies in its relevance today, then it is a standing stone of monumental proportions.
In his Sonnet, England in 1819;
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling,
What resonance these words have today, when we see the effects of ten years of an enforced economic Austerity programme that has caused untold damage to the very fabric of society. Who but those who already deny the evidence can claim that the Government and those others responsible have seen, felt or know the pain of the poor and those who have suffered most from this last decade, and who will suffer further for as long as these people cling ‘leechlike’ to power.
Further to this, his words do not miss their target when challenging the individual to act, he pokes and prods, he insults, he demonstrates the way in which acquiescence contributes to the situation.
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm
Shelter food, love’s gentle balm
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear
Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells;
In halls ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye
These words could be a modern-day challenge to those who voted for Brexit and now complain that the way in which the negative impact of the vote has landed on them or indeed to those who voted for the incumbent Government and rail against the consequences of that choice without moving to act to change things. Did those who voted in hope of improved circumstance really believe there would be a focus on their needs, on their well-being? If so then Brexit Britain will be their ‘sepulchre’. Though, I must return to that feeling that Shelley may only be able to prod, poke and chastise the ‘common man’ due to his own fortunate circumstances, he was after all, supported by his rich father throughout most of his life and benefitted from connections in a society virtually inaccessible by the average bloke working in industrial Britain. Would he have accepted and acted upon the advice he proffered if he had been brought up in different, less fortunate circumstances? I wonder.
When I read Robert Burns, I sometimes wonder about the difference in their upbringings and the impact it had on their political poetry. Sometimes I feel as if Burns was too apologetic about demanding a better deal for Scotland. In the poem, ‘Author’s earnest cry and prayer’ he writes;
Stand forth and tell yon Premier youth
The honest, open, naked truth :
Tell him o’ mine an’ Scotland’s drouth,
His servants humble
There seems to be an acceptance that Scotland is to be ruled from afar, that the deal is done and there is to be no changing that fact. Is this a result of his acceptance of power in the hands of the rich, that he did not challenge because he accepted his ‘place’? Whereas Shelley, as a member of that higher social strata, did not fear ‘telling them the way he saw it’.
In ‘Awa’ Whigs, awa’’ Burns writes;
Our sad decay in Church and State
Surpasses my descriving :
The Whigs cam o’er us for a curse
An’ we hae done wi’ thriving
Again, it comes to my mind that his poetry accepts that for Scotland, the fight is over, that it is now to lament its demise and ask for better treatment from distant rulers who are considered negatively.
Even in the visceral ‘Such a parcel of rogues in a Nation’ there seems to me, to be an acceptance that Scotland will make no more effort at self-determination, does Burns incite anyone to change the status-quo as Shelley does, or is he merely railing against those he believes sold Scotland for their own ends.
Fareweel to a’ our Scottish name,
Fareweel to ancient glory;
Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name,
Sae famed in martial glory.
Is it Burns’ upbringing, poor financial situation, the historical events in Scottish history that had seen the country and its people somewhat subjugated after much suffering for the common person, maybe even the Scottish weather, that was responsible for this acceptance, this pessimism even? Shelley on the other hand seems certain and determined in his poetic message. Did his fortunate position, his background, the financial support give him an undue confidence in the ability of the common person to put their lives at risk for a change they might not even envisage as better than the status-quo? Was it because he did not have any true understanding of what it is to be poor? Was Burns more realistic about the situation of the common person due to his history and upbringing, his experiential learning? Or was he unnecessarily pessimistic, could he have written more poetry to inspire radical change from the grassroot level upwards?
I am undecided because I have only a superficial knowledge of both Burns and Shelley (and indeed with regards to the times they lived), I acknowledge the depth of my own knowledge. However, these are the thoughts that come to mind as I contemplate my learning as I travel down the ‘romantic’ road of poetic history. I am inspired to think these thoughts by Shelley, Burns et al. In recent weeks, I have been inspired to write poetry, and I have been inspired to write this essay. The relevance of the romantic movement and the words contained within their poetry sustains throughout the years. It is without doubt, extremely important to encourage others to read their poetry, contemplate their words, and be inspired to contribute their own works to the continuation of poetry if they so wish. Both Shelly and Burns were inspired to write about the state of society, the actions of rulers and politicians alike. Poetry is a way for us to express our politics, or at least our opinions/feelings with regards to the politics of the day (or indeed the past), we can comment on events through our poetry and I for one find it both useful and therapeutic to do so.
Burns, R (1759-1796) The Poetic Works of Robert Burns, Collins, London & Glasgow
Driver, P (1995) Poetry of the Romantics, Penguin Books, London