British Romanticism as a literary movement dates back to the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, although the term “Romanticism” is such a “troublesome concept” (Perry, 1998 p.5) that the researchers continue to provide contradictory findings in regard to Romanticism. This complexity can be explained by the fact that some scholars point at the possibility to create common concepts of this movement, while others oppose this viewpoint, revealing numerous definitions and effects of Romanticism. In general terms, Romanticism is defined as “a movement in art and literature that emphasises inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual” (Pearsal, 1999 p.1242). In this regard, British Romanticism is mainly characterised by the rejection of traditional social stereotypes and by the portrayal of powerful emotions and free will, introducing new concepts of reality based on imagination and nature. This movement emerged as a result of social and political changes that had a great impact on various aspects of British literature. Thus, British Romanticism implements the ideas of individualism and sentimentalism of the past. The aim of this essay is to critically analyse the thematic and stylistic features of William Blake’s poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Mask of Anarchy, investigating in depth the Romantic elements of these poetic works. The earlier criticism of British Romantic poetry points at the fact that the events and characters depicted in Romantic poems are fabricated and preoccupied with an idealist vision that does not reveal reality. However, the recent criticism based on valid historical analyses goes beyond this limited viewpoint by revealing that Romantic poetry reflects profound religious, political and social contexts. According to Everest (1990), Romantic poems are “production of a particular complex of personalities, social events and developments, at a certain place and time” (p.87). Such critics as Wolfson (1997), Butler (1982), Erdman (1954) and Watson (1985) suggest that this is especially true in regard to the poems of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which the poets depict social and political conflicts in nineteenth-century Britain.
Analysis of Blake’s and Shelley’s poems
William Blake was greatly inspired by the concepts of freedom and individuality that began to spread in Britain after the French Revolution. According to David Duff, (1998) “for the Romantic poet, the idea of revolution has a special interest, and a special affinity. For Romanticism seeks to effect in poetry what revolution aspires to achieve in politics: innovation, transformation, defamiliarisation” (p.26). In his poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion Blake reveals his negative attitude to any display of human subjugation and stresses on the emotions of an oppressed individual.
In particular, Blake portrays a female character Oothoon who is sexually abused by Bromion, but who continues to point at her inner chastity in her talks with her lover Theotormon. Through Oothoon the poet rejects the principles of traditional morality that deprives a woman of freedom and allows males to take possession over her. Oothoon is treated as a slave by Bromion and Theotormon, and Blake demonstrates that such treatment is natural for the world, in which these people exist. Oothoon is psychologically destroyed by such male attitude; she reveals her suffering and her longing for liberty when she claims: “Enslav’d, the Daughters of Albion weep; a trembling lamentation / Upon their mountains; in their valleys, sighs toward America. / For the soft soul of America” (Blake, 1988 1-3). The daughters of Albion console Oothoon, but they can not help her, as the patriarchal world destroys any attempts to eliminate inequality and subjugation. In this regard, Blake’s Romanticism is based on an ambiguous vision of reality. Although the poet stresses on the importance of revolution that is able to provide all oppressive groups of people with freedom, he rejects pure reason of a revolutionary. As Erdman (1954) claims, in Visions of the Daughters of Albion Blake “was directing the light of the French Revolution upon the most vulnerable flaw in the British constitution” (p.211). For instance, Blake implements the images of the eagles into his poem; these eagles symbolise a resistance to oppression and violence, thus when Oothoon collides with these eagles, she receives purification and new insight of the world around her. Such a shift from revolutionary ideas to imagination demonstrates Blake as an unusual visionary who believes in the power of imagination. On the other hand, Blake’s eagles are destroyed, as the poem progresses, revealing that the struggle against slavery and social inequality fails to succeed in the world preoccupied with social restrictions and strict religious dogmas. In this regard, the poet utilises traditional symbolic images, such as the images of eagles, to create a new world and a new vision, demonstrating his Romantic ideals.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is usually regarded as a successor of William Blake, because the poet also applies to the ideas of freedom and imagination in his poetry. In The Mask of Anarchy Shelley criticises some political British figures through the visionary images of Hypocrisy, Murder and Fraud. As Shelley (1977) puts it, “I met Murder on the way – / He had a mask like Castlereagh – / Very smooth he looked, yet grim; / Seven bloodhounds followed him” (1-4). The Anarchy as an embodiment of these three vices takes control over the country, claiming that “I am God, And King, And Law” (Shelley, 1977 37). Written in the form of a ballad with allegorical vision, The Mask of Anarchy depicts the destructive ideology of the British Government during Peterloo Massacre in 1819. According to Marilyn Butler (1982), “Poetry in a popular style might be dangerous if it became an ideological weapon in the popular cause” (p.5).
This is just the case with The Mask of Anarchy; however, similar to William Blake, Shelley goes beyond a simple portrayal of radical ideas of freedom and equality. In this poem Shelley creates the utopian vision of a concord between the group of oppressors and the group of oppressed. Susan Wolfson (1997) considers that such a Romantic portrayal of social and political events of the nineteenth century reflects Shelley’s enormous illusion. As Wolfson (1997) puts it, this illusion in The Mask of Anarchy results in “a tension that both sustains the poem’s idealism and exposes the ideological bind of proffering poetry as the thing to be ‘done’ in political crisis” (p.198). In this regard, the images that Shelley utilises implicitly point at the British legal system that is concealed under the principles of justice. Despite the fact that law is aimed at averting cruelty and terror, Shelley demonstrates that in reality it inspires the wish for strike in people. In fact, Shelley’s poem is preoccupied with certain human attitudes and features, such as fanatics and prigs, deceit and pretence. The poet draws a parallel between the tyranny of the modern world and the tyranny of the medieval era. Thus, when he embodies Eldon, Sidmouth and Castlereagh in the presented negative images, he reveals that many people are still obsessed with superstition and cruelty of the Middle ages.
However, the negative images of Hypocrisy, Murder and Fraud are further changed for the images of Hope and Shape. In particular, the image of Hope uncovers the forces that can eliminate anarchy and inequality in Britain, while the image of Shape reveals Shelley’s support for non-violent actions in the struggle for freedom. The Mask of Anarchy proposes a new form of resistance that is based on passivity and words rather than on real actions against suppression and inequality: “Let a vast assembly be, / And… Declare with measured words that ye / Are… free” (Shelley, 1977 295-298). For Shelley, the non-violent struggle is the only appropriate way to eliminate any social tensions. Pointing at the necessity of poor labourers to “rise like lions after slumber” (Shelley, 1977 151), the poet simultaneously restricts their actions. Shelley states that freedom should not be transformed into a tool for struggle and violence, as violent actions may only aggravate the situation. Although the thematic features of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy are similar, the stylistic features of the poems differ. This dissimilarity is explained by the fact that each Romantic poet experimented with literary forms and tools of expression, trying to achieve integrity between a form and a meaning. At the beginning of Visions of the Daughters of Albion William Blake introduces a small poem The Argument that consists of only two stanzas, revealing the laments of the speaker Oothoon and the principal idea of the whole poem: “I loved Theotormon / And I was not ashamed; / I trembled in my virgin fears / And I hid in Leutha’s vale!… / But the terrible thunders tore / My virgin mantle in twain” (Blake 1988 1-8).