The role of Romantic poetry in modernity: From political foe to influential co-creator

Romantic poets inclined towards writing poetry that used the theme of nature, metaphorically. They also included elements of imagination, mysticism, and mythology to represent their thoughts and ideas. Generally, their works are viewed as a reaction to modernity, the period in which they published their poems. Modernity started from the 16th century, and continues until this present day, and can defined as a period which stepped away from the traditional Christian viewpoints which influenced England during the Medieval period. The six canonical Romantic poets (William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon Byron) wrote from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Each of them had different views, beliefs and ideologies to which they fashioned their lives and writings. One cannot generalize that all six of these canonical poets agree on a central school of thought, however readers can find elements in their work which oppose urbanization, industrialization, imperialism, and capitalism to varying degrees, and focuses more prominently on individualism and naturalism. For the focus of this essay, I will particularly analyse Lord Byron’s second canto from this his epic poem, Don Juan. In doing so, I will highlight the themes and natural elements in Byron’s poetry, which reveal that he had a longing for the old way of life in England, prior to modernism and modernization. 

In Don Juan, individualism stands out immediately because the poem is named after one person (character) specifically. Don Juan is on his own independent journey abroad. He has a few servants who accompany him but they are not his equals in the social and economic senses. In the Middle Ages, England was largely focused on communalism through Christian living and allegiance to King and Country. These beliefs and lifestyles showed up in their poetry and other art forms of the time. As the modern era began, writing began to move away from these themes as modernization began to occur. 

Urbanisation required many individuals to relocate from the countryside to the cities, particularly London. The migration of workers into cities lead to lives of loneliness and lack of accountability to families and churches. City dweller began to depart from the Christian values and norms of the Middle Ages. Industrialisation led the working class to question their purpose in society, as many lost their jobs to machines.  This inner reflection about one’s purpose, and place in society is brought to light in the Romantic’s poetry. This way of thinking, laid a foundation for modern thought about self-awareness and the self’s place in the universe.

Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy write an insightful description about the effect of capitalism on the individual. To quote from their 1984 article, titled Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism:  

“Capitalism calls forth the independent individual to fulfill certain socio-economic functions; but when this individual transforms itself into a full-fledged subjectivity, and begins to explore the internal universe of its particular constellation of feeling, it enters into contradiction with a system based on quantitative calculation and standardization. And when it begins to want to freely exercise its powers of fantasy it comes up against the extreme mechanization and platitude of the world created by capitalist relations. Romanticism represents the revolt of the repressed, manipulated and deformed subjectivity, and of the “magic” of imagination banished from the capitalist world” (Sayre & Lowy: 1984:58).

The Romantic poets experienced these changes within themselves, and observed it in others around them. They were wise enough to write on these topics, which delved into understanding the workings of the inner man. These foundational understandings lead to philosophical thoughts which developed further as the modern era progressed. Early globalisation also impacted these philosophical thoughts about perception, subject, object, self, other and nature – as Westerners travelled to the Orient, they discovered religions and philosophers who held different worldviews and explanations for consciousness. New experiences, broader horizons, and the rise of opium intake (which calms the mind), may have led the Romantic poets to reach deeper levels of thoughts about the meaning of life. 

Don Juan’s encounter with Haidee and Zoe represents an aspect of modernity which pertains to globalization. Through encounters with foreigners the self begins to view itself differently. This train of thought brings up the idea of ‘perception’. Byron uses Don Juan to represent the subject who perceives the object (Haidee, Zoe and the island) through his subjective lens. Likewise, Haidee experiences Don Juan through her own perception of him. This exchange in perception between the subject and object is one which the Romantics have identified and written about, and it has formed a bedrock in modern philosophical thought. Don Juan and Haidee are foreign to each other, each are intrigued by the other, and they learn about each other, and from each other. This interaction between self and other is foundational for understanding one’s own identity, and questioning one’s own beliefs. 

Greek mythology is referred to in the poem, by the mention of the Roman and Greek pagan gods (Neptune, Venus and Jove), and the Greek philosophers (Epicurus and Aristippus). (Canto II 1353,1360, 1649, 1650) Don Juan’s encounters with Haidee and Zoe seems mystical – we do not know if they are real or a figment of his imagination. Don Juan might possibly be in a hallucinogenic state after being shipwrecked and starved. He is in a near-death condition when Haidee finds him. Don Juan possibly used his imagination to create these women who save him from death. It might have been his minds way of creating a survival mechanism. From this viewpoint, it is as if Don Juan imagined Haidee as a god who saved him, and Zoe as her helper (or angel). 

Haidee could then be viewed as Mother Nature who nourishes Don Juan, and has power over him. Though Mother Nature (Haidee) also needs Don Juan for survival, just as much as he needs her. Their relationship is mutually beneficial. Mother Nature needs Don Juan to cultivate her by means of supplying love, care, and attention. 

The sexual encounter between Don Juan and Haidee is described metaphorically, creating a beautiful image in the reader’s mind of the love and relationship shared between the two lovers. 

A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth and love         

And beauty, all concentrating like rays

Into one focus, kindled from above;

Such kisses as belong to early days,

Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,

And the blood’s lava, and the pulse a blaze,         

Each kiss a heart-quake – for a kiss’s strength,

I think, it must be reckoned by its length.

By length I mean duration; theirs endured

Heaven knows how long – no doubt they never reckoned;

And if they had, they could not have secured         

The sum of their sensations to a second:

They had not spoken; but they felt allured,

As if their souls and lips each other beckoned,

Which, being joined, like swarming bees they clung –

Their hearts the flowers from whence the honey sprung.         

They were alone, but not alone as they

Who, shut in chambers, think it loneliness;

The silent ocean, and the starlit bay,

The twilight glow, which momently grew less,

The voiceless sands, and dropping caves, that lay         

Around them, made them to each other press,

As if there were no life beneath the sky

Save theirs, and that their life could never die.

They feared no eyes nor ears on that lone beach,

They felt no terrors from the night; they were         

All in all to each other: though their speech

Was broken words, they thought a language there;

And all the burning tongues the passions teach

Found in one sigh the best interpreter

Of nature’s oracle, first love, – that all         

Which Eve has left her daughters since her fall.” (Canto II 1481- 1512)

This sexual encounter could symbolize the unity between man and nature – the two parts coming together, completing each other to make a functional whole, and becoming one.  Byron chooses to use words that describe nature while describing the love-making. Words such as lava, bees, flower, ocean, sky, clearly integrate nature into the experience of sexual intercourse, which ultimately leads to the reproduction of life on earth. 

Throughout the poem Byron uses nature symbolically. The storm at sea which led to the passengers’ suffering possibly represents nature’s anger at humanity for its creation of imperialism and capitalism. The building of cities (urbanization and industrialization), and subjugation of one nation by another goes against the design of nature, hence nature stirs up a storm to disrupt the passengers’ plans. They are stopped from reaching their destination where they would have exerted their power and dominance over innocent nations for the greed for wealth of power. Don Juan survives because he never allowed himself to lose his humanity while onboard. When the other passengers turned to cannibalism, he did not. He was spared by nature for his restraint in disrupting the natural order of life, thus nature rewarded him with life, and love with Haidee (which represents nature itself). 

By bringing attention to the unnatural and harmful effects of empire-building and modern machinery, the Romantic poets opened a portal of exploration for the self to finds its place and purpose in the universe, while considering the temporality of life, and giving appreciation for sensibility in a world driven by survival and capitalistic greed. As the world moved into a postmodernist era, these questions grew in importance, due to the advancements in technology. 

The digital revolution, much like the industrial revolution, led to job losses for many breadwinners. Life in a postmodern world is filled with chaos – the pace of life is rushed, the pressure to financially take care of one’s family places health risks on individuals, and the competition amongst individuals to make a successful career become harder every day. Without the foundational concept of ‘the self returning to nature’, it is easy to get lost in a world with questionable morals and values. Individualism loses itself within social media. Capitalism grows while poverty increases and the planet loses its natural resources. 

Byron’s union with Haidee is a reminder in the 21st century that the earth needs humans to survive, and humans need the earth to survive. The awe which Don Juan and Haidee shared for each other should never be lost, especially not in a world with escalating technological advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), food shortages, climate changes, and social problems, which harm both the human race and earth. ‘Balance between man and machine’ is a lesson which we can take from the Romantics, who opened both hearts and minds to question the world from different angles, to relate to people in different ways, and to understand one’s self as a priority, for better fulfillment and longevity of life.  

Both the environmental crisis and the humanitarian crisis are at the forefront of global discussions in today’s postmodern society. The Romantic poets had foresight in the early modern era, to warn about the destruction that could come from a capitalistic mindset. Their poems have been a constant reminder of the true essence of life. Though they were never completely in protest of the science and rational thought, they were aware of the dangers of misusing and abusing science and intelligence. This seeming contradiction may not make sense but Romanticism cannot be singularly defined in a particular way– there exists a host of ambiguities within the Romantic movement, between the Romantic poets, and even in the mind of each poet. Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy summarise this complexity quite aptly: 

“But what exactly is Romanticism? An undecipherable enigma, a labyrinth with no exit, the Romantic phenomenon seems to defy scientific analysis, not only because its rich diversity apparently resists all efforts to reduce it to a common denominator, but also and above all because of its extraordinarily contradictory character, because it is a coincidentia oppositorum: at the same time (or alternately) revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, cosmopolitan and nationalist, realist and fanciful, restorationist and utopian, democratic and aristocratic, republican and monarchist, red and white, mystical and sensual… These are contradictions which inhabit not only the Romantic movement as a whole, but often also the life and work of a single author, and sometimes even a single text” (Sayre & Löwy 1984:43).

Byron, himself, caused much confusion about his beliefs. As an aristocratic Whig, who wrote poetry and experimented with his sexuality, he raised many concerns and questions. The intrigue which Byron stirred, paved a way for artists to expand on their creativity, and take risks. 

In conclusion, it can be said that Byron was an influential thinker and leader, whose anti-capitalist and liberal beliefs inspired a host of people to question the transformations taking place in society, and to pursue expression in new and different artistic forms. This wave of artistic poetry expanded through the eras, across the globe, to form a part of modernity which began as a movement against modernity, but ended up being an integral part of modernity itself, in terms of both philosophical thought and artistic expression. Turning inwards for answers, being in closeness to nature, moderating the use of technology, and refraining from unhealthy desires for wealth and power, began with the Romantics and continues to be taught as a wellness approach in our postmodern world. 

Works Cited:

Beckett, J. 2015. Politician or Poet? The 6th Lord Byron in the House of Lords, 1809–13. Parliamentary History 34 (2): 201–217 (Accessed 23 August 2022) 

Makdisi, S. 2003. Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge, United Kingdom. 

Poplawski, P. 2008. English Literature in Context. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom.  

Sayre R. & Löwy, M. 1984.  Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism. New German Critique 32: 42-92 (Accessed 16 August 2022)

Wasserman, E.R. 1964. The English Romantic: The Grounds of Knowledge. Studies in Romanticism 4 (1):17-34 (Accessed 16 August 2022) 

Wu, D. 2010. Romantic Poetry. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Oxford, United Kingdom. 

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