The Romantics (Episode 2: Nature): a visually beautiful film that ignores the dark side of the Romanticist legacy

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 2: Nature)” (2005)

While searching for a Czech documentary “Zdroj” (“The Source”) on Youtube and not finding it there – it probably hasn’t been uploaded yet – I came across this very interesting BBC TV documentary which is part of a series on the Romantic literary movement in late 18th / early 19th century Britain written and narrated by Peter Ackroyd. This second instalment focusses on the importance of nature as a source of inspiration to the leading British writers in the Romantic movement at the time: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Clare and, some time later, Mary Shelley. All these writers are portrayed by actors quoting their works, appearing as ghosts in modern-day Britain and commenting on the environment they see around them through the poetry of their respective poets: this is intended to bring the poetry alive to a modern audience and also makes it social and political criticism as it was intended to be. The documentary presses its point that the British Romanticists were the social and cultural critics of their day and expressed their often forceful opinions about the issues of their day in a literary mode aimed at rousing the social conscience of the educated classes and ruling elites, in a period when literacy was not widespread or well-developed even among monied and propertied people.

In style and appearance, the film revels in widescreen shots of the British countryside and beyond where required by the subject matter, visiting mountains with their dramatic vistas and mist-shrouded lakes from which an arm clothed in gold fabric might emerge to catch a king’s sword. Ackroyd makes frequent appearances but his portly physique and slight speech impediment don’t detract at all from the proceedings and merely add a slightly eccentric flavour to the film’s proceedings: I wouldn’t have minded if he had visited all the places in the film and declaimed all the poets’ works himself. A documentary such as this, marrying literature to its physical and spiritual sources of inspiration, perhaps needs an idiosyncratic presenter who can turn out to be as timeless as the works s/he champions.

The film firmly establishes the social, political and cultural context of the Romanticist movement: Britain at the beginning of the 19th century is fast becoming industrialised with the routines of the increasing majority of the population becoming more governed by the demands of machines, clocks especially, and by the new values that industry and urbanisation bring: order, discipline, conformity and their strict enforcement by new human masters not allied to religion. The lives of children in particular were under severe control by industry – child labour in those days was common – and certain occupations such as chimney-sweeping were the exclusive preserve of child workers. The Romanticists’ revolt against the city and factory and the values these brought to British life can be seen in both their poetry and the lives they led: both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth moved to the country to live and William Blake himself constantly railed against the abuse of children as workers and the consequences such work had on their health in works like “Jerusalem”. Sometimes the Romanticists’ work had quite dire results for the poets themselves: while they were never dragged off to jail and tortured there by thuggish police or their early 19th century equivalents, a couple of them did skate perilously close to personal danger, John Clare suffering a mental breakdown after seeing the countryside of his childhood fenced off and enclosed by government authorities so that he was unable to ramble through the open space at leisure (though it’s quite possible that his incarceration in a mental asylum was done as much to shut him up as it was for his mental well-being) and William Wordsworth risking his life when he lingered too long in his beloved Lake District area and had to spend the night exposed to near-freezing conditions similar to what his father experienced and died from years earlier when Wordsworth had been a child.

The film concludes with mention of the 1815 Mount Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia which spewed so much volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere that climates around the Earth were affected for a whole year afterwards and temperatures dropped several degrees. The summer of 1816 was cold and often dark (though sunrises and sunsets must have been brilliant in their reds and oranges) and this helped to inspire the birth of Gothic literature, exemplified by Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”, itself a highly Romanticist work in its plea for all humans to be treated equally, fairly and with compassion, no matter what their origins or background may be. The novel also contains a warning within against the misuse of science and for scientists to take responsibility for their work and the results that ensue. Fittingly the part of the documentary that deals with “Frankenstein” contain archived BBC footage of machines at work and scenes of exploding bombs that might have come straight out of an Adam Curtis documentary.

While the film has much to commend it as a historical document, it ignores the negative influences that the Romanticist reverence for nature might have had for British society and culture. It disregards the possibility that the land enclosures which angered Clare so much and helped bring on his mental collapse were carried out by the government in part to preserve the natural environment for the benefit of the aristocracy and its pleasures as a result of that class’s nostalgia for a pre-industrial Britain, its distaste for industry and its values, and its worry that the lower orders might bring that industry (and with it, democracy and egalitarian values) to rural areas and despoil them. There is no suggestion in the film that the Romanticist poets felt much solidarity with members of the working class other than children whom the poets idealised as angelic innocents and one could draw the conclusion, wrongly perhaps or not, that Blake and others like him were as remote from the Great Unwashed as the ruling classes were and that the poets’ life-styles were still dependent on having servants cook and clean for them.

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