This month The Classics Club asked a very interesting question: what is your favourite “classic” literary period and why?
Now, for someone who has devoted their life to studying literature, that sort of question is a little like asking a marine biologist what their favourite kind of fish is. Or asking a music lover what their favourite Beatles song is. Or asking just about anybody what their favourite episode of Friends is. (Because who doesn’t like Friends?)
Despite the difficulty, eventually most people are forced to admit that they do have a favourite. Or, failing that, something they’re particularly interested in. It’s the same for me. I like to think that I read quite widely, but at the end of the day, there are some periods I just keep returning to again and again.
At the moment, that period seems to be the Romantic period. You know, that era where pale, good-looking poets wandered around in the rain and wrote dramatic verses about birds and daffodils? When being a starving writer became not just fashionable but downright sexy? Byron stomping around Europe writing about Childe Harold fighting in the wars, Wordsworth tramping up and down the Lake Country writing about flowers and clouds. Publishers ranted about them. Men didn’t trust them around their wives. Women wrote them fanatic letters, begging to become their lovers.
And if I haven’t sold you on the wet shirts and fame, how about this? The Romantics were a little like literary rebels. In the years before the Romantics emerged, there was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a period full of dowdy scientists making astonishing breakthroughs in the world of physics, astronomy and biology. What they learnt about the world forms the basis of most of our scientific knowledge to this day.
But it was also the period when the world was introduced to theories like that of the Mechanical Universe. Scientists like Newton had made incredible discoveries, developing our understanding of the world and how it worked. The Industrial Revolution took off, making it easier and cheaper to craft goods. The more humanity learnt about the world and about the human body, the less they looked like some divine creation. As a result many philosophers began to think of the world as a kind of wind-up toy, or a clock. They saw it as completely mechanical, a little bit like an eighteenth-century computer, and humans were like little clocks, or robots, walking around on the surface.
Well, the Romantics didn’t like this idea. They rebelled – quite literally – insisting that the individual was the most important thing. That human beings were wonderfully flawed and unique, and nobody is going to call us clock-like, thank you very much. While the rest of the world was beginning to fall beneath the shadow of the Industrial Revolution, the Romantics insisted on appreciating the wildness and beauty of nature that was untouched by man. It was the triumph of feeling over reason.
You can probably guess why these ideas appeal to me. I’m all for scientific progress, but not at the expense of individualism. Humanity – messy, confusing, and unreasonable as it is – can’t be defined solely by the values of the Enlightenment. And it isn’t just the poetry of the Romantic period that appeals to me. Mary Shelley wrote one of the most haunting novels of all time during this period. Frankenstein is a tale that still resonates today. In it the ideas of the Enlightenment run right into those of the Romantic era, as science and emotion go head-to-head. It makes for a thrilling (and deeply disturbing) read.
As a literature student I’m a fan of many literary eras, and my favourite texts come from all sorts of different time periods. It’s true to say that I probably read more Victorian, postmodern, and classical literature than I do Romantic. But when it comes to the ideas that inspire literary periods, my vote is (and probably always will be) with the Romantics. They constantly take your breath away, whether it’s in tales of Gothic horror that make your hair stand on end or beautiful poems that celebrate the wild beauty of the natural world.