The notion of an artistic movement being birthed by a subjugated people amidst social and political tension is by no means a novel concept.
Nor is the hedonistic use of mind-altering substances in order to catalyse, elevate, or otherwise enhance an artist’s creative modus operandi. While these were by no means the founding principles of the groundbreaking eighteenth century literary movement that would retrospectively be dubbed ‘Romanticism’, the passions of the revolutionary and the drug user both had their respective parts to play.
And yet, like Urban Art movements in Belfast, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s shared aim to depict ‘low and rustic life’ through ‘the language of conversation’ was inextricably shackled to a location, the Lake District – home to Wordsworth’s childhood ventures of exploration, and Coleridge’s short-lived but intensely dysfunctional residency at Greta Hall.
At a time when the industrial revolution was viewed by those in rural communities as a plague that had irredeemably ravaged their homeland, a literary shift towards admiration of nature’s awe-inspiring power was welcomed by many. Despite Wordsworth’s insistence that there was no ‘discordance in the colours’ of their respective styles, he and Coleridge both achieved this loose poetic raison d’être in very different ways.
For Wordsworth, this admiration took the form of great outpourings of feeling, commending the aesthetic qualities of the Lakes. To him the Lake District represented not only a melting pot of childhood memories, but the Lockean source of sensory stimulus needed to paint the ‘blank slate’ of his mind with colours of deep and cathartic self-reflection. Coleridge’s extolling of nature on the other hand, was less picturesque and more Gothic. His poems and fragments contained brooding, Miltonic elements, presenting nature’s incomprehensible power with an equal sense of wonder and fear.
Although now regarded a misnomer by most poetry fans and academics, readers at the time were quick to label poets born in or writing from the Lakes as “Lake Poets”, “Bards of the Lake” or members of the “Lake School” of literary thought. The Edinburgh Review and similar critical publications of the time also seemed to accredit the Coleridge and Wordsworth’s new generic style to its geographical origins.
However, there were huge social and economical factors that informed Coleridge and Wordsworth’s literary efforts. The extent to which these influences were overlooked in favour of their face-value descriptive elements is debatable but palpable. Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, a now recognisably seminal work of Romantic literature, was composed against a backdrop of blind proletarian rage. Luddites were spurning the rise of industrialisation with the same vehement rhetoric with which a Jesuit would speak of hell.
Wordsworth and Coleridge’s glorification of the power and purity of English landscapes served to counter this narrative and the interests of the establishment. Most explicitly, Wordsworth’s pastoral ‘Michael’ depicts a rural family pulled apart by industrialisation, and Coleridge’s dreamlike ‘Kubla Khan’ (which many critics argue is the interpretation of an opium vision) paints a world more of sensuality than sense, with its passionate imagery and unfinished form glorifying the power of unbridled expression. Even their works containing less overt sociopolitical overtones still indirectly spurn the mechanical interruptions of civilisation, through the extent to which they eulogise nature’s power.
In ‘Prelude’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth presents the Lakes as wide-spanning, desolate surroundings that grace his mind with an otherwise unattainable clarity – the key to ontological realisation. While many critics have attributed Wordsworth’s self-confessed powers of perception and meditation as nothing more than byproducts of his own ego, in the context of a man vs machine narrative, they suggest that industrialisation has marred the common man’s ability to truly see and comprehend such sublime beauty.
Coleridge supports this point in ‘Kubla Khan’, with repeated references to “caverns measureless to man”. His most famed work, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ goes one step further, positioning man at the mercy of nature’s unfathomable power. The dark, uncharacterised forces that torture the Mariner and those around him for shooting an albatross, suggest not only that man will pay gravely for interfering with nature’s will, but also that these powers are something he cannot even hope to fathom, let alone combat.
But despite these radical, anti-establishment sentiments, it was Byron, Shelley and Keats – Coleridge and Wordsworth’s successors – who were collectively named the ‘revolutionary Romantics’. The authors of Lyrical Ballads remained “whining and hypochondriacal poets that haunt[ed] the Lakes”.
This first wave of Romanticism appears then, even today, to be incapable of distinguishing itself from its supposed geographical roots. Type ‘Lake District tourist guide’ into any search engine, and it won’t be long before you find mention of the surname Wordsworth. Indeed, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s rise to prominence at the turn of the nineteenth century popularised the Lake District as a haven of artistic craft. But while the Lakes represented Wordsworth’s home for the vast majority of his life, Coleridge’s stay at Greta Hall amounted to less than four years. If we are exploring to what extent art is the product of one’s environment or surroundings then, where the Lake District saw the self-betterment of Wordsworth, it spelled self-destruction for Coleridge. Despite the critical acclaim of his contributions to Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge suffered from intense bouts of depression and crippling doubts about his abilities as a writer.
One Romantic theme permeating both Wordsworth and Coleridge’s writing is that of escapism. Where Wordsworth sought solace from civilisation in the purity of his childhood stomping ground, Coleridge aspired to escape from all sense of established order – industry, wedlock, domesticity – eventually only finding pleasure in the ‘divine[…]repose’ of the opium that would later become his demise. For both poets however, their escapist endeavours achieved nothing more than frustration, pained by the inability of their poetry to find anything other than transience in the metaphysical. This was echoed by their works’ original interpretation and inseparable affixation to physical roots. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, were Coleridge and Wordsworth’s literary contributions to the canon truly products of their environment, or captives?