Writers working in the time period from 1785 to 1830 did not think of themselves as “Romantics,” but were seen to belong to a number of distinct movements or schools. For much of the twentieth century scholars singled out five poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Shelley, and Keats—and constructed a unified concept of Romanticism on the basis of their works. Some of the best regarded poets of the time were in fact women, including Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson. Yet educated women were targets of masculine scorn, and the radical feminism of a figure like Mary Wollstonecraft remained exceptional.
The Romantic period was shaped by a multitude of political, social, and economic changes. Many writers of the period were aware of a pervasive intellectual and imaginative climate, which some called “the spirit of the age.” This spirit was linked to both the politics of the French Revolution and religious apocalypticism. The early period of the French Revolution evoked enthusiastic support from English liberals and radicals alike. But support dropped off as the Revolution took an increasingly grim course. The final defeat of the French emperor Napoleon in 1815 ushered in a period of harsh, repressive measures in England. The nation’s growing population was increasingly polarized into two classes of capital and labor, rich and poor. In 1819, an assembly of workers demanding parliamentary reform was attacked by sabre-wielding troops in what became known as the “Peterloo Massacre.” A Reform Bill was passed in 1832, extending the franchise, though most men and all women remained without the vote.
Wordsworth and Coleridge’s sense of the emancipatory opportunities brought in by the new historical moment was expressed in their Lyrical Ballads (1798), which revolutionized the theory and practice of poetry. Wordsworth influentially located the source of a poem not in outer nature but in the psychology and emotions of the individual poet. In.