The Industrial Revolution as an Antithesis to Romantic Poetry

The Industrial Revolution had the most significant effect on Romantic poetry because it served as a direct antithesis to the poet’s subject matter during that time. The Industrial Revolution directly correlated with the horrible living conditions, wages for lower than what was required to have a decent living, and the extortion of children through unfair labor that followed the industrialization and urbanization of Great Britain. Industrialism led to the destruction of rural areas around the country as factories expanded and a higher influx of goods was demanded for production. In short, there was a major destruction of nature. Abuse of children, urbanization, and the destruction of nature led to many poets like John Keats, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Percy Shelley to make criticisms about the Revolution and call people to remember times before industrialism and urbanization swept across Great Britain.

During the Industrial Revolution, child labor was common. Labor laws allowed their employers to pay them wages much lower than that of adults. Often time’s children began working at the age of four. They would work long hours and sometimes die from exhaustion. Many times, orphans and abandoned children would be sold to workhouses. Blake criticizes this part of society in two poems, titled The Chimney Sweeper. Both focused on the abuse children had to suffer as chimneysweepers. This job was child specific, because only children were small enough to fit down the chimney. The first version of this poem speaks from Songs of Innocence, and explores how the narrator’s father sold him to be a chimneysweeper when he was very young. This poem emphasizes the innocence of the children by comparing them to lambs, which are rescued by an angel and set free into green meadows. Blake’s second version of this poem, from Songs of Experience, shows how the child-like innocence is gone. The poem now has a cynical view of the world and there is a theme of isolation from society. The narrator almost criticizes the innocent version of the poem; and casts blame on society and religion. For Romantic poets, the child was heavily influential and symbolic throughout this time. The picture of innocence and beauty, children were arguably taken advantage of the most during the Industrial Revolution. In his poetry, Blake often “…engages questions about death in his portrayal of children, but his poetry is characterized by a deep social concern for the suffering of the child” (Carlson). Blake criticized and questioned how a progress-driven society could perpetrate the abuse and extortion of children.

During the Industrial Revolution, urbanization was leading to change in many people’s jobs and living conditions. With the invention of the factory, cities and populations were growing at an exponential rate. There was a mass influx of people moving into the cities to find jobs because individual craftsmanship was being killed by mass production in the factories. This population growth resulted with the bulk of the city’s population being on the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder. There was a need for workers to fill the job positions in the factories; and these jobs underpaid its workers. This resulted in more people than there was housing. People were crammed into dirty, small homes in the middle of a filthy city full of pollution. Because of the Industrial Revolution, people were no longer living in nature, but in urban cesspools. In his poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth writes about how he remembers time spent in nature and the pleasure he got from it. The city he’s in makes him nostalgic, and calls up happier times. As he sits spending time “…in lonely rooms, and mid the din of towns and cities…” he recalls the deep joy and feelings of sublime he got from being in nature (Wordsworth).

In response to the urbanization and industrialism occurring in Great Britain, many poets published works influenced by and in direct criticism of the Industrial Revolution. Shelley himself said poets are influenced by the historical and social context of their time. This is clearly seen in some of Blake’s, Shelley’s, and Keats’ poetry. Many of their poems focus on the true beauty and simplicity of nature. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind speaks against the brutality of urbanization. The wind, a symbol of nature and its changing seasons, brings life wherever it goes. The revolution, with its poor standard of living, abuse of children, and destruction of nature, brings death wherever it goes. Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale shows the speaker’s envy of the bird’s happiness. The simple beauty of nature brings the greatest joy. True beauty lies in the simplicity, as opposed to the cramped, ever changing pace of urbanization. In Blake’s The Chimney Sweeper, the poem is from Songs of Innocence, and there is an emphasis on the child-like happiness that comes from nature. The children are saved from the arduous work as chimneysweepers by an angel, who takes them to a beautiful green meadow. This shows nature as being the only escape from the unavoidable death that the Industrial Revolution brings. Like Blake, Keats’ poems “…express admiration for the natural world and portray nature as a means of escaping the troubles of modern life” (Carroll).

The Industrial Revolution was important to Great Britain’s history and even our own. Without it we would not have progressed forward as a culture. There were many pros that came with the urbanization of Great Britain. This included technological advancements, population growth, and cultural and social shifts. But there were also cons; such as, high mortality rates for factory workers, inhumane treatment of children, poor living conditions for those at the lowest level of society, and the drawing away form nature, simplicity, and the sublime due to the focus on urbanization. The pursuit of social and economic progress for many people was not worth the suffering of the many. These poems “…made reference to the power of nature and described rural people and settings as a way to find harmony in the chaos of social disruption brought on by industrialization” (Jones). They published beautiful critiques on urbanization and verses to recall people back to the simplicity they found in nature.

Carlson, Katherine L. “childhood.” In Maunder, Andrew, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Romanticism. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Bloom’s Literature. Facts on File, Inc. Web. 27 Oct. 2014

Carroll, Siobahn. “Nature in the poetry of John Keats.” McClinton-Temple, Jennifer, ed. Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom’s Literature. Facts on File, Inc. Web 27 Oct. 2014

Jones, John H. “Industrialism.” In Maunder, Andrew, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Romanticism. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Bloom’s Literature. Facts on File, Inc. Web. 26 Oct. 2014

Loutherbourg, Philip James de. Coalbrookedale by Night. 1801. Oil on canvas. Science Museum, London.

Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Alley.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2A: The Romantics and their Contemporaries.

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