Within this paper will be an explanation of the ideals of Romantic writers in Early American Literature. We will also look at some aspects of Romanticism that were uniquely understood by the writers and artists in the United States. There will be a brief discussion of “bright” and “dark” Romantic writing and it is there that we will look at the lives, and one poem each, of Henry David Thoreau, a “bright” romantic writer and Edgar Allan Poe, a “dark” romantic writer.
Romanticism began in Germany sometime around 1770.
From there it spread to the rest of Europe including England and then finally to the United States. In the late Eighteenth Century people’s ideas about themselves, their religion, their world and the art and literature in it were evolving rapidly. This was mostly due to a re-examination of priorities and beliefs because of constant new scientific discoveries and an enthusiastic embrace of the uniquely human abilities of storytelling using ones imagination and a kind of rejection of reason and logic.
For the first time since the concepts of religion and rulers began to regulate the spirit and creative energy of humankind people looked more to nature and within to define themselves and their humanity rather than to their Churches or to their Kings. The Romantic period of American Literature is from about 1830 to 1860 and it interestingly overlaps the period which is said to be Victorian (1830 to 1880) in the United States. Romantic writers believe in the natural goodness of man and also that what is special in a particular man should be highly valued.
They indulge heavily in introspection and self-analysis. Some finding their deity within themselves while others found their religion in the beauty of nature. Nature was food for the soul that provided their inspiration and was a resource for their wisdom. Indeed, for some of the Romantic writers nature was their muse; however, others found their inspiration in the dark corners of their human desires. As mentioned above the citizens of the United States were in a unique position to embrace the tenets of Romanticism through a political movement that focused more on the individual.
By shedding the oppressive monarchy of old England they were well on their way to forming what Emerson called “a Nation of men” who were following Jacksonian democracy. “By most historical accounts, (President Andrew) Jackson is seen as largely responsible for effecting this political and cultural transformation of the United States from a republic, governed by an elect few, to a democracy. Jackson persuaded Americans that sovereign power resided in them—that they would control the governing process by deciding questions of constitutionality, law, and representation through the ballot box.
Many writers, philosophers, and activists were also convinced by Jackson’s rhetoric of democracy, believing that more concern for the rights of common individuals would yield a more inclusive political and cultural environment receptive to the ideals of a younger generation of Americans,” (Didion). One can easily see why the material that writers in the United States were putting out fell into line with the musings, literature and poetry of Romantic writers all over the world. By being exposed to the political aspects of the culture here they were in a position where their art reflected the lives of their patrons.
Why, though, were some of the writings about the nature all around us and bright beauty found within it and some of it was about the dark nature of mankind and the sorrow found there? Bright Romantics used a merging of science and nature to allow both to work together. Meanwhile they would put emphasis on the individual’s ability to take themselves out of society to live in nature away from the rat race. A good example of a bright Romantic writer would be Henry David Thoreau. He is famous for having written, among many other works, Walden which is about living simply in nature.
Thoreau was an abolitionist and his essay Civil Disobedience is a piece that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to engage in peaceful civil disobedience to protest unjust governments. He also wrote Nature, a poem we will look at more in depth later in this paper. Henry David Thoreau (born David Henry Thoreau) lived from July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862. He was attending Harvard during Andrew Jackson’s second inauguration. He was a freelance writer who tried but was unsuccessful at becoming a fulltime professional writer.
Having not been quite as successful at his dream of writing as he is posthumously was a bit of a disappointment to Henry. He had grown up the son of a storekeeper and liquor salesman in respectable poverty and had his share of other sorrows as well having seen two of his beloved siblings die. His brother John died of typhus which he got while shaving. His younger sister Sophia died in 1846 at the age of 36 of the same affliction that would claim Henry’s life, tuberculosis. Thoreau loved the outdoors and would rather live of the land than any other way.
He enjoyed waling in the outdoors so much he had said while hunting never did he find his rifle to be too heavy. He held many odd jobs to support himself while traveling and writing but he was very well known in his father’s later business of pencil making. Biographer Robert Sullivan writes that while in the employ of the pencil company “Thoreau studied various graphite hardnesses [sic] and invented a machine that manufactured a finer grind. The centerpiece was a cylinder, in which the finer graphite settled to the bottom for ready collection.
The new invention pushed the company ahead of its rivals,” (142). While his dreams of being a professional writer went mostly unfulfilled he found great joy and contentment as mentioned above in nature. He was well thought of in his life but revered as a writer after his death. In The Life of Henry David Thoreau, Sanborn writes, “Thoreau had various missions in this world, some of which he fulfilled, and passed beyond them; others he did not live long enough to complete, and only approached perfection at remote intervals.
Versifying was one of these latter; though the poetic perception and ideal nature was not only brought to a high point of excellence in his last twenty years, but he exhibited in his youth and early capacity for good writing, which his devotion to the art developed into what may easily pass for perfection in his best passages. ” (51). Dark Romantics wrote about how a person views their world and how their mind has the power to change the world they live in. They have a tendency to reject science for fiction and be very involved in the macabre. They are also very introspective.
Arguably the best Dark Romantic writer was Edgar Allan Poe who lived from 1809 to 1849. Born December 9 to thespians David and Eliza Poe, who would both die two years later in 1811, Edgar was raised by John and Fanny Allan of Richmond Virginia. John and Edgar never got along due to John’s disdain for how he viewed Edgar’s existence. Until John inherited great wealth, which he eventually kept from Edgar, he viewed Edgar as a drain on his hard fought earnings. Poe faced a lot of tragedy at a very early age and lived a life that was filled with challenges, some self-imposed.
He had a lot of unrequited and lost love; therefore, women in some form or another filled pages of his poetry. “Poe believed that the goal of literature was not to mirror reality but instead to pursue Beauty in its highest and widest sense. As Poe put it, ’A poem in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth,’” (27) writes James Hutchinson in his book Poe. For Poe writing was at the very center of his existence. He wrote for some time before becoming celebrated but it did happen while he lived.
Poe did make his living through words though poetry prose and becoming the chief editor at several monthlies as well as writing pieces for magazines. Later Hutchinson notes that “The Raven was an instant success and Poe woke up to find himself famous. ” (165). Though famous he seemed forever tragic. Peter Ackroyd writes of his alcoholism saying that after a particularly strong binge in PA, Poe acknowledges that “the whole experience in Philadelphia became for him a phantasmagoria of suffering, brought on by what he described as ‘mania-a-potu,’ or alcoholic madness.
It is the first indication that he realised [sic] the nature of his true condition. ” (185). Although feverish Poe had left Richmond VA to visit friends in Baltimore MD, days later, he was found unconscious in a tavern in Baltimore. His previous whereabouts were a mystery and Poe died in a hospital on October 7, 1849 at the age of forty, reminiscent of one of the characters in his works. Both men died young and that was all too common in those times. Their lives were quite different.
It is not a surprise that both men lived what they wrote, for Thoreau of the beauty of the outdoors and the nature there was his refuge from life and he died enjoying the Woods at Walden that he enjoyed so much. Although he married the daughter of his paternal Aunt when she was just thirteen, for Poe the love he searched for he never really found. It was maternal in nature and he would never fill that void through drugs and alcohol. The tragedy of his writing was told in his biography.
The following are one poem each by Thoreau and Poe. They are similar in their rhythm and their rhyme scheme; however, their symbolism and mood are very different. Poe’s poem is about a beautiful valley where many people died in battle and they haunt the valley still. Thoreau writes about the beauty of the outdoors and how he longs only to commune with his beloved nature and pass his days in the great outdoors. One does not need to be told who wrote which poem that is obvious by their content.