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The Romantic Sonnet

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The Romantic Sonnet

 

 

        The Romantic sonnet holds in its topics the ideals of the time period,

concentrating on emotion, nature, and the expression of "nothing."  The Romantic

era was one that focused on the commonality of humankind and, while using

emotion and nature, the poets and their works shed light on people's universal

natures.  In Charlotte Smith's "Sonnet XII - Written on the Sea Shore," the

speaker of the poem embodies two important aspects of Romantic work in relating

his or her personal feelings and emotions and also in having a focused and

detailed natural setting.  The speaker takes his or her "solitary seat" near the

shore of a stormy sea and reflects upon life and the "wild gloomy scene" that

suits the "mournful temper" of his or her soul (ll.4, 7,8).  While much Romantic

writing dealt with love and the struggles endured due to love, there was also

emphasis placed on isolation, as seen in the emotions of Smith's speaker and

also in the setting on the work.  Nature, in many Romantic sonnets, is in direct

parallel with the emotions being conveyed.  Smith, for example, uses the water

to aid the reader's comprehension of the speaker's state of mind.  Included in

this traditional natural setting is the use of the sea as stormy, deep,

extensive, and dark which ties the speaker in with the setting as the scene

applies to the tone of the poem as well.   Also characteristic of the Romantic

sonnet is the retreat from the neo-classical age and its significant historical

references into a new age where it becomes common to speak of "nothing."  In

William Wordsworth's "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," there is no deeper

meaning to be grasped other than the beauty of the day's dawning.  The speaker's

view of the morning and its "majesty" and the "calm" that comes over the speaker

are central ideas in the poem (ll. 3, 11).  In this sonnet, it is again apparent

how influential and prevalent nature is.

 

        The reflection upon simplicity runs through many works and is seen quite

evidently in William Blake's Songs of Innocence.  In these poems, there is much

mention of children, whose lives, ideally, should be the most simple.  Also

included in this simplicity are the innocence of the children and the simplicity

of the tone, metaphors, and images in the works.  In Blake's "The School Boy,"

the character of the poem is a young boy whose joy in life should be rising on a

summer morning when the birds are singing and when he, in his happiness, can

sing with them.  Here, there is simplicity in the pleasure of the child and also

in the life of the child himself.  The boy's biggest problem in his life is

having to go to school and having to curb his "youthful spring," which Blake

compares to the cutting of a plant's blossoms (l. 20).  In this poem, the

simplicity and the innocence are not only key factors, but they are desired

factors as well.  The speaker notes that these tender plants will not fare well

if they are not cared for in the springtime; in other words, the child will

suffocate and cease to bloom if not left to be innocent and to just be a child.

The innocence and the simplicity must be nurtured.  William Wordsworth's "Three

Years She Grew in Sun and Shower" is an example of a poem using simplicity in

its construction more than in its content.  In this work, a little girl is being

compared to a flower and this simple metaphor shadows the reality of the child's

death.  The imagery in this poem is also simple in many places; the natural

imagery of  clouds, stars, flowers, animals and landscape is, again, contrary to

the temper of the poem.  The simplicity in this poem, like the Blake poem, is

related to the ideal situation of the child.  The images of the flower and the

fawn come in relation to her life after her death and it is here that Nature

feels she will be happiest, most innocent, and most like a child should be.

 

        As the Romantic movement saw the gradual change from a focus on the past

to a focus on the present and the commonality of all humans, it is of perfect

sense that the institution of slavery be reflected upon in some works from the

period.  Among others, William Cowper wrote with great sentiment regarding the

injustice of slavery.  In his "On Slavery (Book II)," Cowper gives his personal

feelings regarding slavery and condition of human nature that could cause such a

wrong.  Like many poets of the time, Cowper felt that the brotherhood of

humanity should run through the hearts and the souls of everyone, and in this

instant, the equality of all humankind should be felt.  Instead, he notes that

"There is no flesh in man's obdurate heart - / It does not feel for man" (l.

8,9).   He also credits the empowerment of the white over the black as an

accident, almost, that resulted primarily from the white man being capable of

this domination.  As Romanticism concentrates largely on matters of the heart

and other emotions, the notion that slavery came from the white man's

opportunity and false reason clearly negates what it is that romantics praised.

England's outlaw of slavery did not come until 1807 and the works, as they got

closer to this date, became more and more vehement  regarding the issue. Ann

Yearsley was another poet who  wrote on the inhumanity of slavery, but she

focused on the slave trade itself.  In her "A Poem on the Inhumanity of the

Slave Trade," Yearsley gives slavery a more personal touch by giving the

audience the character of a slave boy, Luco.  Like Cowper, there is a

concentration on the emotion (or lack thereof) when dealing with slavery.  For

Luco, "Hope fled his soul … he resolved to die" (l. 242, 243).     Yearsley

incorporates another romantic instrument when she presents the audience with

Luco who , like them, has things like parents and hardships and emotions.  In

pointing out that Luco and the reader have much in common, Yearsley places even

more attention on the commonality of all humankind.

 

 

 

 

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