The Industrial Revolution is regarded as one of the most significant historical events to initiate the Romantic movement of the 18th Century. In the literary and historical sense of the word Romanticism, it serves a purpose to label certain writers and thinkers of the later 18th and early 19th Century, who, however, did not at that time used that term to define themselves or their work. The Romantics, did not adhere to the modernised industrial practises in the fields of manufacturing, agriculture and transportation immersed in the 18th Century in Europe and in the New World across the pond. In other words, the Industrial Revolution did not conform to the romantic spirit of that time. The literary movement favoured things such as ‘emotion over reason’ and was against materialism in general. It emphasised romantic emblems such as the individual, the subjective, the imaginative, the visionary and most eminently, the transcendental. The common people were forced to endure devastating living conditions, excessively low wages and child labour following the industrialisation and urbanisation of Great Britain. Simply put, the drastic socio-economical shifts enhanced the feeling of frustration and perhaps repulsion that the poets felt towards what the new world had to offer. In this essay, we are going to analyse the numerous aspects of the cultural and societal changes in Great Britain during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Further, we are going to investigate what the romantic movement wished to convey in regard to these profound social shifts, as well as the writings of its representative poet, such as William Blake.
The most apparent effect of the Industrial Revolution is that it generated a new wave of overcoming the centuries-long economic oppression by the British aristocracy. The low and middle classes could somehow become more financially independent as opposed to what they’ve known before the time of industrialisation. Whilst the average man could benefit from the new working opportunities, and thrive economically, the working conditions which the population had to accept, were inhumane and demeaning towards the individual. Though the earnings generally increased, people could not afford to live off from what they brought in. With the innovative steam-powered factories, resulting new job opportunities, cities of the British Isles were expanding at an exponential rate. The industrialisation would setback the craftsmanship of the 18th Century Britain, and indirectly impose on its citizens to move from the rural countryside to the cities. There was a strong demand for cheap labour in the factories which as a consequence, resulted an overwhelming influx of people settling in the city. Conditions in which the lower class had to labour were to our modern understanding disgraceful, if not deadly. Child labour was perceived as a normality as well as cruelly letting a child die of exhaustion.
The concept of child exploitation was contextualised in William Blake’s two parts poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. His collection of composed poems, 'Songs of Innocence' and ‘Songs of Experience’, is a reflection of the devastating conditions within cheap labour workers and the abuse of children in time of urbanisation.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the Romanticism period is broadly recognised as a shift from the guiding principles of the Enlightenment – as the foundation of all knowledge – towards the importance of emotional sensitivity, individual subjectivity and nature as the trigger component of human interconnection. The upsurge of mechanisation is viewed as an abomination of the sublime experience, which for Edmund Burke form the ‘leading passions’ of one’s ‘self-preservation’, meaning that the concept of the sublime in regard to thoughtful reflection, is fundamental for personal development. Romantic poets, as well as artists and intellectuals, judge the modern industrialisation as unnatural and deteriorating for human beings. The idea of the sublime was first and foremost a tool of reconnection to nature. The individual was to be in awe of nature by the writer’s thorough portray of nature’s overwhelmingly picturesque imageries and therefore enhancing the feeling of acknowledgment towards nature.
The psychological and physical exploitation due to the capitalistic establishment and the working structure which it permits, is brutal in the eyes of the followers of the romantic movement. The poet and politician Lord Byron, expressed in his speech to the House of Lords in 1812, the economic endeavours which the mechanisation has created amongst the working class, as ‘circumstances of the most unparalleled distress’. Byron also states the emotional exploitation of the working class: “The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community”(Byron, p. 205).
In Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, the first poem begins with the child sweeper’s reflecting on his mother’s death, however, the narration of the poem focuses on the comparison between Tom’s phantasm of angel-like sweepers, as they run ‘down a green plain, leaping, laughing’ as opposed to reality of his life, where ‘in soot’, they sleep ‘locked up in coffins of black’. The second poem, a more mature narration points out who benefits from the exploitation as the children are sold to child labour. Blake, in his writings, suggests that childhood is a state of pure innocence – therefore goodness – as it symbolises childhood with hopes and virtue, despite the fear and the danger of corruption.
The poet considered the Songs of Innocence collection to be mostly idyllic poems, written either from a child’s perspective or about children, although they underline other aspects such as incorporate evil, death, inequalities and unjustified suffering. As an antithesis to the above mentioned collection, the Songs of Experience serve as a representation of a state, whereby the soul is defined by experience. In addition to this, this collection contains poems where the adulthood is being emphasised by a darker, unsettling tone, and where the soul is terrified and no longer pure as a result of poverty as well as political and institutional repression.