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The Romantic Period (1785-1830). The following short lecture on the romantic period serves as an introduction to the subject, but also involves the ideas and philosophy that can be associated with David Lurie, the main protagonist of J. M. Coertzee’s Disgrace .

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the romantic period 1785 1830

The Romantic Period (1785-1830)

The following short lecture on the romantic period serves as an introduction to the subject, but also involves the ideas and philosophy that can be associated with David Lurie, the main protagonist of J. M. Coertzee’s Disgrace.

Six poets were singled out as the embodiment of the Romantic period (1785-1830):

William Wordsworth,

Lord Byron,

Samuel Taylor Colleridge,

John Keats,

Percy Bysshe Shelley

William Blake.

As you have probably noticed, the poets are all male poets. You may have heard of them before, but have you heard of these poets who were active in the same period?

Anna Barbauld

Charlotte Smith

Mary Robinson

These three women poets were well known at the time that the other male poets were writing and Wordsworth and Colleridge were almost unknown – they learned there craft or parts of their craft from the three women.

However, in Coetzee’s Disgrace, it is only the male poets who are referred or alluded to.

The period was dominated by a number of historical events.

The French Revolution (1785) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Urbanisation and enclosure

Industrialisation and invention

the french revolution
The French revolution

As the French Revolution turned violent, the idea of a peaceful development of society so that property would be equally distributed began to lose its supporters.

The executions in France under Robespierre (the September Massacres of the nobility, the execution of the King and Queen and the Reign of Terror where thousands were guillotined) and the invasion of other countries brought France and England into a war.

Wordsworth refers to the events in The Prelude (first published 1850)

become Oppressors in their turn,

Frenchman had changed a war of self-defence

For one of Conquest, losing sight of all

Which they had struggled for….

Napoleon, the champion of the French revolution had become a despot and the spirit of the revolution was lost.

urbanisation and enclosure
Urbanisation and Enclosure
  • The largely agricultural society of England changed to a manufacturing society and power-driven machinery replaced labour by hand.

The movement from agriculture to manufacturing meant that urbanisation took place and the mill towns’ populations exploded.

Typical cottage: Mill town:


This movement of people from agricultural areas to towns was aided by a process of enclosure. The checkerboard of fields enclosed by hedges or stone walls that are evident in many parts of England are the result of this.
More efficient methods of agriculture meant that communally worked farms were converted to privately owned farms and a landless class emerged who moved into the towns.

industrial revolution and invention
Industrial revolution and invention
  • Steam power replaced wind power and the power to run the manufacturing industries was produced by water.

Steam train: Watt’s Steam Engine:

The economic philosophy of laissez-faire, or the “let alone” theory in economics meant that the economy would be left to run itself and the government should not interfere.
The consequences of this economic philosophy were many:

Inadequate wages

Long hours of work, harsh discipline and bad working conditions

The large-scale unemployment of women and children (the family worked together as a unit before).

Gendered working roles came into play at this time – and poor houses put children to work.

Petitions, protest meetings, hunger riots. (the workers had no vote and it was illegal to form unions).

Oppressive measures by the ruling class.

The introduction of new machinery led to more unemployment and attempts to destroy the machinery.

A Spinning Jenny:

The House of Lords passed a bill (1812) that sentenced anyone who destroyed weaving machinery to a death penalty.

As the poor suffered, the landed classes and industrialists prospered and the British Empire expanded.

influences of the romantic poets
Influences of the romantic poets
  • The distress of the working class and everyday life
  • The move from agriculture and nature to the overfilled towns and industrialization.
  • The “romantic” idea of the French Revolution

These influences led to what was called ”The Spirit of the Age”

the spirit of the age
The Spirit of the age
  • A sense that there was a new intellectual climate.
  • A release of energy that was captured by experimentation and creative power and accompanied by a spirit of political and social revolution.
  • The French Revolution had given rise to a time of promise and revolution; this was expressed in the poetry of the time.
  • Traditions and customs were discarded and new ideas and renewal were the future.
Before the Romantic period, poetry was considered to be an imitation of life or a “mirror held up to nature.”


Wordsworth, for example, saw poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” thus reversing the previous ideas.

Wordsworth located the source of a poem inside the individual instead of the outer world – in the inner feelings, emotion or the imaginative vision of the author.
There is an insistence on the role of instinct, intuition and the feelings of the heart over the logical thoughts located in the head.

This change is a deliberate revolt against the 18th century scientific worldview and the dominant poetic tradition of the time.

the main subject of the romantic poets
The main subject of the Romantic poets:
  • Everyday life and the usage of plain language.
  • The humble person, the outcast, convicts, female and male vagrants, idiot boys, peasants, village barbers, peddlars and mothers (similar subjects were on the periphery of poetry before).
  • The focus on imagination
Only Lord Byron among the romantics stayed loyal to the poets’ decorum and the aristocratic ways of old:

’Peddlars,’ and ‘Boats,’ and ‘Wagons’! Oh! Ye shades

Of Pope and Drydon, are we come to this?

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and John Dryden (1631-1700) belonged to the older poetic tradition.

lord byron and david durie
Lord Byron and David Durie

When you have read Disgrace you will be aware that there are many references to Lord Byron (1788-1824) , in fact Durie is in the process of writing an opera about Byron.

What is the influence of Lord Byron on English literature and even further afield?

Aspects of Lord Byron's poetry influenced not only writers like Goethe, Balzac, Stendahl, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Melville, but also painters and composers (for example, Beethoven).

Lord Byron and his influence also extends to Emily and Charlotte Brontê.

Emily Bronte's character Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte's Rochester in Jane Eyre have been described as "Byronic heroes."What characteristics does a Byronic hero have?
In The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.2 (7th Edition) the Byronic hero is described:

[H]e is an alien, mysterious, and gloomy spirit, superior in his passions and powers to the common run of humanity, whom he regards with disdain. He harbors the torturing memory of an enormous, nameless guilt that drives him toward an inevitable doom. He is in his isolation absolutely self-reliant, pursuing his own ends according to his self-generated moral code against any opposition, human or supernatural. And he exerts an attraction on other characters that is the more compelling because it involves their terror at his obliviousness to ordinary human concerns and values. This figure, infusing the archrebel in a nonpolitical form with a strong erotic interest; was imitated in life as well as in art and helped shape the intellectual and the cultural history of the later nineteenth century (552).

Can you see any connections to David Lurie in the description of a byronic hero?

I am sure you can.

The information in this slide show is adapted from:

The Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th ed., vol. 2), “The Romantic Period 1785-1830” (1-14) (552).