How William Blake, Percy Shelley and Anna Barbauld Expressed Anger in Their Own Poetry
The (r)age of British Romanticism depended upon its pursuers being receptive to the passion and politics of the larger political and cultural fabric they were part of. It was an age where people felt or gave way to feeling. The politically charged tremors of the French Revolution abroad, reverberated throughout the cobblestone-paved streets of England and England received France’s angry passions and tried to situate it in relation to justice; in relation to the creative self—the Holy Grail of the Romantic self.
In addition to this, there was the revolution against art, against Augustan satire transpiring in England. Thus, revolution and reform constituted the mosaic that was British Romanticism and people found themselves having to deal with personal anger, popular outrage, and mob violence; all part of the rhetoric of inflammation (Strauffer 67). Anger thus became the flame at which many Romantic poets kindled their torches (Strauffer 68).
In addressing and plotting the emotion of anger, the Romanticists cancelled the culture of cancellation and provided a conduit for themselves and the people to negotiate and validate the pace, place, and meaning of this inflammation they felt or did not feel. Each author took to chart the emotion of anger differently— some, not at all, the same way the readers who read them interpreted it either by supporting it or repressing it, depending on how they read its causes and consequences. In so doing, Romantic writing turned anger of revolution into a weapon of retaliation (Strauffer 174).
While there may be many justifications for anger, psychological and otherwise, none can deny its being a painful emotion used as a means to cope with feelings like terror, shock, and confusion—all valid responses to revolution. Since anger preludes action, in containing this emotion the Romantic writers helped purge the sense of helplessness and fear foisted on England’s folk who could not but watch revolution and reform unfold; much like how I intend on grappling with our own ‘Easter Attacks’ this April, the ‘cruelest month’ as prophesied in the ‘Waste Land’ by T.S. Eliot, by way of this paper. In reading the articulation of Romantic anger by Percy Shelley, Anna Barbauld, and William Blake, one can observe how each author scapegoated the anger in civil society and in art, to dole out a confession be it aesthetic, moral, or political, not of pacifism, but of transgression.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s anger was every bit as political as he was. Much like the apocalyptic dawn the French Revolution promised, Shelley’s poetry too had in it a self-consuming rage that would burn itself up to hopeful imaginings of a new tomorrow (Strauffer 111). His Romantic anger was like a Phoenix; taking down everything and everyone around him in flames, only to rise from the ashes in the end like hope. Still, his anger was resolute and left in its wake a revolution mighty like the very ‘West Wind’ he writes about; “…from whose unseen presence the leaves dead are driven” (line 2). His anger, expressed explicitly was a siren call blowing “Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth,” (line 10) lying “…cold and low, / Each like a corpse within its grave…” (lines 7-8). In censuring, Shelley also attempts to renovate and reinvigorate the masses enslaved under a Monarch whose clannish and abominable policy of ‘protect our hides and to hell with the people’ cost many lives. In the poem an ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley unmasks evils “All overgrown with azure moss and flowers / So sweet, the sense faints picturing them,” (line 35-36) through the violent transition of the seasons.
While this form of anger plays God and floods the world, it always ends with the promise of hope, which in this case is the coming peace of a symbolic spring; the advent of a new millennium. Though it began a “Spirit fierce” from whom “Black rain, and fire and hail [will] burst…” (line 28), it all but turned to ash, “Scatter[ed], as from an unextinguished hearth” (line 66) “Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” (line 64). This was Shelley’s vision: to use rage to bring about a transformation whose end unlike its beginning was more toned down and harmonious. The same Romantic anger can be seen yet again in his famous sonnet, “England in 1819,” beginning with a torrent of Swiftian[footnoteRef:2] abuse; “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King, / Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow / Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring” (lines 1-3) (Strauffer 120). Unlike his ‘Ode to the West Wind’ where he progresses towards a redemption following the exorcism of the evil in society, here he leaves but the rhyming couplet to do so; “Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day” (lines 13-14).
His rage, uncontrollable, transmutes the structure of the Sonnet itself resembling in a way, the strain of the Monarch and its corrupt institutions on the people. His rage is headed towards a nosedive and the Shelleyan trope of hope at the end of the poem doesn’t really register as pulsating rage overpowers the weak resuscitation of hope. One may ask, with so many vices to unmask whether there remains room for a bright future, questioning still the workability of revolution itself. [2: Jonathan Swift was famed for his trademark multiple-adjective filled sentences. E.g. in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, he speaks of his friends as “importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing companions” (Stauffer 132). ]
Romantic rage does not always present itself in maddening, quickening, pulsating form. Sometimes it remains subsumed within the moral dialogue the poem intimates. Such was the anger Anna Letitia Barbauld plotted as evident in her poem, ‘The Caterpillar’. Anna’s poem calls for the reader to reflect rather than act on spectatorial sensibility as churned by emotion (Den Otter 210). Rather than taking to incite, she mulls over what angers her so what follows is a subtle critique of the indices of power, pertinent to revolution especially at a time when the rights of the individual were being fought for. Hence, the moral dilemma she weaves is not revolutionary in nature, but representative of revolution that calls for the formation of a fellowship, making her humanitarian concerns akin to a rally, but more comprehensive than a call to arms. Barbauld’s speaker, a victor, a privileged proprietor sees the caterpillar—the underprivileged prowler, as a pest to be destroyed (Den Otter 215).
Barbauld shows how the privileged expand their wealth at the expense of the poor by having the survivors “curled round their finger[s]” (line 9) with their “stretched out neck[s], / Bending…in airy vacancy” (lines 10-11). “To ask protection” (line 13) then, is but folly. The lack of apathy for the “sworn perdition” (line 14) of the pests is a shrewd judgment of nineteenth century British sensibility that viewed each man as a cottage industry to be spent till deemed unprofitable, all for the sake of upholding England’s zeal. The Romantic anger in the poem remains at a simmer, conducting itself morally but in so doing juxtaposing itself with the capricious moral values of the nineteenth-century middle-class. The audacity of the speaker to make her generosity the crux of the poem than her warrant for slaughter not only questions the virtue of this so-called ‘virtuous intention’, but also brands the survivor as a defeated enemy, forever at the mercy of the victor. Anger’s sting in ‘The Caterpillar’ is slow to spread, but like venom it is twice as poisonous.
William Blake’s anger on the other hand had a prophetic quality to it. In ‘A Poison Tree’, Blake plots the progression of his personal anger, elevating it to an unnatural status by inducing it with wrath’s energies. He transfigures and revolutionizes his anger by “Watering it…/ with [his] tears, / …sunn[ing] it with smiles / And …soft deceitful wiles” (Blake). Despite its vengeful quality, Blake artfully plots the articulation of personal anger which, unlike Barbauld’s and Shelley’s, is catabatic. What is interesting to note is how Shelley’s and Barbauld’s Romantic anger bank on people’s receptivity to society’s injustices to precipitate an anger which was not their own, but which came well within the ambit of their concern periphrastically, to propel a vertical growth of anger that would bring us closer to the world we desire.
While Blake on the other hand, depended on people’s receptivity to anger and anger’s power of being a self-originating agent of change, to precipitate a vengeful, circular form of personal anger. In ‘Holy Thursday’ however, Blake’s anger assumes a public nature becoming a reality check devoid of Romantic fancy; a requiem for a revolution. The emergent dog-eat-dog world “In this rich and fruitful land” (Blake) has left “So many children poor” (Blake) and the anger that registers is not hopeful like Shelley’s or patient enough to be reflective like Barbauld’s, nor is it revolutionary. It is but “bleak and bare” and “filled with thorns.” The anger “Is in eternal winter [t]here” (Blake). The emotional dynamics of personal and public anger in these two songs of experience shed light on the correlation Blake believed existed, between anger and revolution unlike the dialectical relationship he fashioned between innocence and experience.
At a time when social and political upheaval consumed society, the Romanticists encouraged feeling the full impact of: the French Revolution followed by the long war with Napoleonic France; the processes of industrial capitalism; the unrest for rights and reforms; the struggle to abolish slavery—so that they can bring under their domain phenomena, entities, and ordinary people previously considered unwelcome. Thus the age of Romanticism allowed for sentiment to dictate verse and laid emphasis on emotion, imagination, and individual feeling. This allowed anger, palpable or not, to arise as a valid reaction of value to the revolutions taking place.
This Romantic articulation of anger not only became a conduit for its time, but also became the conduit leading from the nineteenth-century’s anger of revolution to our own. If that is the case, British Romanticism simply put, is characterized by how the society then responded to anger steering its narratives. Does that mean that we, as people are keen on wrath? Revolutions after all, while inciting anger, are borne out of anger; such revolutions go on to move the world forward. Does that make anger the playground poetry, polis, and other things come to play at? If anger were to be this instrumental, will we forever foster, and always be, a culture of transgression never to practice pacifism?
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