The Poets who built the modern World

by: Peter Ackroyd

Tortured genius, the importance of the imagination, the power of nature – we owe them all to the Romantics. Their legacy is the subject of a new BBC series


There are other ramifications of this Romantic sensibility, which we may, with a certain necessary inaccuracy, identify from the middle of the 18th century. Those of us who travel to the sea for refreshment, or climb mountains, or wander among hills, are heirs of the Romantic movement. The programmes of David Attenborough testify to the almost spiritual awe with which nature is now invested. The creatures of the earth and sea are often invested with human characteristics too, so that there is an element of pantheism in the depiction of the natural world.

These beliefs and principles flourish in a prevailing atmosphere of individual liberty; a world of rights rather than of duties. We like to believe that we live in a world of individuals rather than of systems. This, too, is part of the Romantic legacy. There is a profound belief in the self as the source of all values. There is the prevailing idea of individual striving. There is a general acceptance of the importance of the imagination and of the unconscious. These, too, are ideals that the Romantics were the first to adumbrate.

The origins of Romanticism are a matter of some debate. The same impulse can be found in Rousseau and in Goethe, in Blake and in Diderot, in Fuseli and in Chatterton. For the sake of the argument, we have established the scene of operations with an account of Rousseau and Diderot before embarking upon a presentation of the great Romantic poets – Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, Clare and Byron. Mary Shelley has been included but it might be asked why no room was made for Sir Walter Scott or the Brontës. The great prose writers can only be left for separate treatment.


See full article by Peter Ackroyd at The Times Online