Series presented by Peter Ackroyd about a group of visionary writers. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the Romantics embraced nature in search of sublime experience.
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I'm going to take you on a journey into the human imagination...
..back to a time
when the values and ideas and dreams of the modern world were born.
200 years ago, monarchy was falling to the power of people's revolutions.
Industry and commerce were becoming the driving forces of existence
and advances in science
were changing the way life itself was understood.
Artists all over the world were inspired
by these times of dramatic change.
In Britain, a group of poets and novelists pioneered
an alternative way of living and of looking at the world.
Among them were William Wordsworth,
and William Blake.
The enduring power of their writing haunts us to this day,
and inspires us still with visions of nature.
This is the story of man's escape
from the shackles of commerce and industry to the freedom of nature.
At a time when the world was becoming increasingly mechanised,
the Romantics sought an intense relationship with the natural world.
In so doing, they would revolutionise
our perception of life itself.
In the 18th century, Britain was being devoured
by the voracious demands of urbanisation.
Towns were turning into cities.
This was the age of industry and of manufacture.
The pulse of life was becoming less human.
The rhythms of nature and the body were being overtaken
by an imposed system of synchronised time.
Public clocks were dictating
the daily lives and activities of people.
The cities were engulfing everything, like huge machines of trade, industry and living.
They were forcing order and discipline
into the lives of their inhabitants.
The home, the school and the workplace were run
according to clock time
and in obedience to strict rules of human conduct.
In the midst of this great new metropolis lived a small boy
who dreamed of a very different world.
One day, in July 1765, he walked from Soho in London
to the fields of Peckham Rye, just beyond the city.
Lying on the grass, staring up at the light filtering through the trees,
he experienced a vision.
He saw the trees filled with angelic beings,
their bright wings bespangling every bough, like stars.
'To see a world in a grain of sand
'And a heaven in a wild flower
'Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
'And eternity in an hour.'
The boy's name was William Blake.
Throughout his life, he never forgot his childhood vision.
He always believed that it was a glimpse of an eternal world,
far from the horrors of the city.
The Romantics believed that spontaneous childhood visions
were the source of adult inspiration.
A child allowed to play and dream would become an imaginative adult.
But childhood itself was being destroyed by the Industrial Age.
A new workforce was emerging.
Boys of between four and seven were sold into labour by their parents
and sent to clean the city's chimneys.
Many suffocated and most became deformed.
William Blake was touched by the wretched lives of these children.
He began to write simple rhymes
that expressed the yearning for their redemption.
'As Tom was a-sleeping.
'he had such a sight!
'That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack
'Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
'Then come by an angel, who had a bright key,
'He opened the coffins, set them all free.'
'Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
'And wash in a river and shine in the sun.'
Blake's short rhymes about children
became a collection of illuminated poems, entitled Songs of Innocence.
They were inspired by the childhood years he spent
with his young brother, Robert.
'Sound the flute, now with mute, birth delight, day and night.'
'Little boy, full of joy,
'Little girl, sweet and small.
'Cock does crow...'
'The moon like flower In heaven's high bower,
'With silent delight Sits and smiles...'
'Little boy, full of joy,
'Little girl, sweet and small
'Cock does crow,so do you...'
'Then every man, of every clime, That prays in his distress,
'Prays to the human form divine, Love, mercy, pity, peace.'
But in February 1787, Blake's own innocence was shattered
when Robert was struck by an illness.
In the upstairs room of their house at 28 Poland Street,
Blake sat with him for two weeks,
hardly sleeping, watching his brother's health decline.
At the last, solemn moment of Robert's life,
Blake saw his spirit rise from his body and ascend through the ceiling.
Blake recollected that the spirit had been clapping its hands for joy.
It was one of many visions of infinity that Blake would have throughout his life.
Robert had joined the angels
and the spirits of the chimney sweeps in a joyful eternity.
But Blake himself would be obliged to find joy in the human world.
After Robert's death,
Blake moved over the river to the leafy outskirts of London.
He lived in Hercules Road in Lambeth,
a place where he tried to build himself a new life
free from the corruption of the city.
But one morning, he looked from his window and was horrified.
It was a sight that intensely angered Blake.
He demanded that the boy be set free instantly.
It seemed intolerable to him
that any child, any man, should be subjected to such miseries.
The image was at odds with everything Blake believed
about the spiritual purity of childhood.
His anger entered his poetry.
He began to write a bleak companion to his Songs of Innocence,
Songs of Experience.
In these poems, there would be no redemption for the children.
'The weeping child could not be heard,
'The weeping parents wept in vain,
'They'd strip'd him to his little shirt
'And bound him in an iron chain,
'And burned him in a holy place, Where many had been burned before,
'The weeping parents wept in vain,
'Are such things done on Albion's shore?'
Blake feared for the future lives of England's children.
His was one of the first voices raised
to warn against the destructive potential
of the Industrial Revolution.
'It turns that which is soul and life
'into a mill, a machine.'
Blake foresaw a world where people would be engaged in endless toil,
their lives disfigured by the laws of the factory
and the industrial system.
He imagined seeing the world through THEIR eyes.
'They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
'And they inclosed my infinite brain into a narrow circle.
'One command, one joy, one desire,
'One curse, one weight, one measure,
'One king, one god, one law.'
Just a short walk from Blake's house in Lambeth, by the Thames,
where now stands an office building, stood Albion Mill.
It was the first factory in London,
designed to produce some 6,000 bushels of flour each week.
For Blake, the repetitive production lines of these huge new mills
cast human identity into uniform moulds,
Spirituality and imagination were denied or forgotten.
Blake referred to Satan as "the miller of eternity".
In one of his poems,
Satan's father congratulates his son on his evil creations.
'Oh, Satan, my youngest-born,
'to mortals, thy mills seem everything.'
Blake expressed his fury
in words that have become the most familiar lines of English poetry.
'And did those feet in ancient time
'walk upon England's
'And was the holy Lamb of God
'On England's pleasant pastures seen?'
William Blake's most famous lines are now sung as Jerusalem,
an unofficial national anthem.
But they were written as a poem of radical protest
against the corruption of industry and commerce,
a manifesto for the Romantic poet horrified by the darkness descending upon England.
'And did the countenance divine
'Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
'And was Jerusalem builded here
'among these dark, satanic mills?'
One evening in March 1791, Albion Mill caught fire.
Blake would have seen the flames rising above the city,
and he might have rejoiced with the millers
who celebrated on Blackfriars Bridge.
The factory was destroyed
and remained a blackened and empty shell
until its demolition in 1809.
Blake passed it every time he walked into the city,
a symbol of hope in an increasingly mechanised world.
Anyone who has ever yearned for a simple life,
free from the constraints of modern society,
owes a debt to William Blake.
The work of William Blake was not well known
to the other Romantic poets,
but one of them reacted to the Industrial Revolution in the same way.
He escaped the city, in order to preserve the innocence of his child.
One day, in the autumn of 1796,
a young poet called Samuel Taylor Coleridge was rushing home
from Birmingham to Bristol.
He had received unexpected news of the premature birth of his son
and he wrote a poem about his feelings of anticipation.
His instinctive emotions could be those of any modern father.
'Ah me! before the Eternal Sire I brought
'Th' unquiet silence of confused thought
'And shapeless feelings. My o'erwhelmed heart
'Trembled, and vacant tears stream'd down my face.'
This emotional response of a father to the birth of his child
might seem unexceptional today,
but, for the time, these were radical sentiments.
On becoming a parent, Coleridge's life completely changed.
He gave up his job as a travelling preacher and moved away from the city
to begin a rustic scheme of life here in the Quantock Hills.
In doing so, he was to redefine the notion of parenthood,
and return the child to nature.
'I am anxious that my children should be bred up from the earliest infancy
'in the simplicity of peasants.
'Their food, drink and habits
The time Coleridge spent here in Somerset
was the happiest in his life.
As a child, he was sent away to school in London
and detested the experience.
He wanted his son to be schooled by nature.
One frosty night in 1798, he wrote to his son
in celebration of the new, Romantic vision of childhood.
'I was reared
'in the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim.
'But thou, my babe!
'shalt wander like a breeze
'By lakes and sandy shores,
'Beneath the crags of ancient mountains.
'So shall thou see and hear
'the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language.'
For the Romantic poets, childhood was inseparable from nature.
that our earliest lives are the source of our humanity.
One friend of Coleridge had experienced nature
from his earliest years.
He grew up in the Lake District,
and was profoundly influenced by the power of its landscape.
On a clear night in the early 1780s,
a young boy was returning home from school
along the shores of Ullswater.
A moment of madness or inspiration prompted him to steal a boat and row out onto the lake.
This experience would define the course of his life.
The young boy was called William Wordsworth.
Years later, the memory of this childhood experience
was an inspiration for one of his greatest poems.
'I dipped my oar into the silent lake,
'and as I rose upon the stroke,
'my boat went heaving through the water
'like a swan.
'When, from behind that craggy steep,
'a huge cliff
'as if with voluntary power instinct
'upreared its head.'
RED-THROATED DIVERS CALL
The Lake District was the place where Wordsworth always felt most at home.
But it was also the place where his childhood happiness had been shattered.
His mother died when he was only seven,
and his beloved sister Dorothy had been sent away
to live with relatives.
And then, when Wordsworth was 13,
his father lost his way on the Lakeland Fells
and was forced to spend the night there, exposed to the elements.
When he came home, he fell ill, and died a few days later.
As the young Wordsworth sat alone in the boat on Ullswater,
he too was at the mercy of nature.
'I struck and struck again...
'..Growing still in stature
'the huge cliff rose up
'Between me and the stars,
'And still, with measured motion, Like a living thing, strode after me.
'With trembling hands, I turned...
'..And through the silent water Stole my way back
'To the cavern of the willow tree.'
Wordsworth's terror had a profound impact on his imagination.
For him, this strange experience literally brought nature to life.
'Huge and mighty forms That do not live like living men,
'Moved slowly through my mind by day,
'And were the trouble of my dreams.'
In the absence of parents,
Wordsworth was being educated by the natural forces all around him.
At the age of 20, he travelled to the Alps.
This was not a journey to a specific place.
This expedition had quite a different goal.
Instead, Wordsworth was searching for an emotion.
His youthful imagination craved solitude, danger,
an overwhelming experience.
By the standards of his time,
his was a strange and even incomprehensible journey.
Wordsworth travelled across some of the most perilous terrain in the world.
One slip might have brought destruction.
But he felt alive.
One night, he found himself
in exactly the same conditions that had killed his father.
But, for Wordsworth, the experience of being trapped in the mountains in the dark
was also one of awe - and pleasure.
'The cry of unknown birds,
'The mountains more by darkness visible
'And their own size, than any outward light.'
RED-THROATED DIVER CALLS
'The breathless wilderness of clouds, the clock'
'That told, with unintelligible voice,
'The widely parted hours, the noise of streams
'And sometimes rustling motions nigh at hand
'Which did not leave us free from personal fear.'
The further he travelled through the Alps,
the closer he came to the source of his inspiration.
Throughout the journey, he wrote letters to his sister.
'my spirits have been kept
'in a perpetual hurry of delight
'by the almost uninterrupted
'succession of beautiful objects which have passed before my eyes.
'The immeasurable height of woods decaying,
'never to be decayed.
'The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
'and everywhere along the hollow rent,
'winds, thwarting winds
'bewildered and forlorn.
'The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky.'
Wordsworth was beginning to recognise
that the natural world was something more than a retreat
from private pain and disappointment.
It was the power at the heart of his imagination,
the Romantic imagination.
It could render him small and insignificant,
yet it could also connect him with eternity.
'I held unconscious intercourse with beauty old as creation.'
When Wordsworth returned to England,
he was reunited with his sister Dorothy.
They were rarely ever separated again.
In 1798, they went on a walking tour of the Wye Valley.
There, they visited Tintern Abbey.
For Wordsworth, the abbey was a reminder of a more harmonious,
It was a place of spirits,
of exultant experience
and of inspiration.
The abbey, consumed by nature, was a powerful Romantic metaphor.
Nature was ultimately greater than man.
The ruined building in its beautiful setting
was an image both of serenity and of desolation.
The Romantics were half in love with ruins.
They were the symbols of ancient time - forgotten and decayed -
that cast their shadows over the new, mechanical world
of the Industrial Revolution.
For Wordsworth, this was a moment out of time.
It allowed him to look back upon the course of his life
and grasp the evolution of his relationship with nature.
'The sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion,
' The tall rock, the mountain and the deep, gloomy wood,
'Their colours and their forms
'To me were then an appetite - a feeling and a love.'
His response was central to the Romantic view of the world
that endures to this day.
'I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour
'Of thoughtless youth,
'but hearing oftentimes
'The still, sad music of humanity...'
Wordsworth experienced something
with which many of us can now identify
in our modern pilgrimages to nature.
'I have felt
'A presence that disturbs me with the joy
'Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
'Of something far more deeply interfused,
'Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns...'
The Romantics were the first to express
a yearning for the sublime in nature.
We have been searching for the same sublime ever since.
The way we relish a sunset is a LEARNED experience,
one we learned from the Romantics.
The feeling that Wordsworth expresses
is beyond rational understanding.
It is a feeling of the sublime,
of all the grandeur and divinity in the natural world.
It is a state of being that transcends the mundane and mechanical world in which we live.
For the Romantics, it represented the longing to be free.
But the sublime was more than just the beauty of a sunset,
it was about awe and terror.
The natural world was a dangerous place -
without convention, society or God.
The sublime is man lost in the immensity of nature.
The key to the sublime was the ability to lose yourself,
the experience of having no horizons, no sense of confinement.
On a summer's day at the turn of the 19th century,
a young boy named John Clare set out from the Northamptonshire village of Helpstone
to walk to the end of the world.
Clare was the son of an agricultural labourer.
He was in love with the freedom that the natural world afforded him,
so he set off, determined to experience everything the world had to offer.
'To the world's end I thought I'd go,
'And o'er the brink just peep a-down
'To see the mighty depths below...'
He was missing
for a day and an evening.
His parents were afraid that he had been killed.
The whole village began the search for him.
But the boy was oblivious,
as if entranced by his own dreams of freedom.
'I paused to wonder where I'd got,
'Thought I'd got beyond the sand.
'Seemed to rise another way,
'The very world's end seemed near.
'So, back I turn for very fear,
'With eager haste, and wonderstruck,
'pursued as by a dreaded spell...
Clare grew up to be a poet.
This village and the countryside around it were his inspiration.
He lived here and, from the age of 13,
worked in the Bluebell Inn next door.
'It was a good place.
'They treated me more like a son than a servant.
'I believe I may say that this place
'was the nursery for my rhymes.'
You can imagine what it was like in John Clare's days, though, can't you?
Clare wrote poems here about the things he knew best -
and the beauty of the open countryside.
'The landscape stretching view
'That opens wide with dribbling brooks
'and rivers wide aflood.
'And hills and vales and darksome lou'ring woods,
'With grains of varied hues and grasses pied.
'All these with hundreds more far off and near approach my sight,
'And please to such excess
'That language fails the pleasure to express.'
But the countryside he knew and loved was about to be transformed.
In the latter half of the 18th and in the early 19th century,
a series of Enclosure Acts was passed by Parliament
in order to maximise the profit derived from the earth.
The common land was fenced off for agricultural use.
The English countryside was being exploited
for the sake of ever-expanding commerce.
In 1809, a Parliamentary Act was passed
enclosing all the lands of John Clare's immediate neighbourhood.
As the fields were enclosed,
William Blake's prophetic vision of the industrial revolution
had reached the natural world itself,
creating barriers to freedom that still exist.
John Clare could no longer wander to the ends of the earth.
He found himself confined
in the very place that he had once felt most free...
..and it sent him spiralling into madness.
'Cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane,
'With its hollow trees like pulpits
'I shall never see again.
'Inclosure, like a Bounaparte let not a thing remain
'It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill,
'And hung the moles for traitors - Though the brook is running still,
'It runs a naked brook
'cold and chill...'
John Clare spent the last 24 years of his life
enclosed within the walls of a lunatic asylum.
His doctor noted that his insanity was preceded by "years addicted to poetical prosing".
He was a true, if neglected, Romantic.
His poetry describes an England
where the freedom of nature had been curtailed
by the forces of profit and progress.
With the Enclosure Acts,
freedom, and the ability to experience the true power of nature
seemed to have been all but eliminated.
Then, on the 12th of April 1815,
Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew apart.
This was the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history.
Beauty and wrath combined.
With the eruption, a million and a half tons of dust were ejected
into the upper atmosphere.
The vegetation on nearby islands perished
and 92,000 people would die as a direct consequence.
Tambora's volcanic cloud lowered global temperatures
by as much as three degrees centigrade.
A year after the eruption,
the temperature in the Northern hHemisphere plummeted during the summer months.
1816 was known as "the year without a summer."
One young poet saw the darkness as the bringer of apocalypse.
'I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
'The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
'Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
'Rayless, and pathless,
'and the icy earth
'Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air,
'Morn came and went - and came, and brought no day,
'And men forgot their passions in the dread
'Of this their desolation...
'..The world was void, The populous and the powerful -
'was a lump,
'Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless -
'A lump of death - a chaos of hard clay.'
'The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
'And nothing stirred within their silent depths...'
With the explosion of Tambora, it was as if nature had retaliated
against all those who had tried to tame, predict or influence it.
The Industrial Revolution,
and the remorseless advance of science and technology that accompanied it,
were brought into question.
The "year without a summer" was to change the course of art
and of science.
The fear of darkness, the fear of nature going awry,
aroused a new generation of young Romantic poets.
Their work presented awful visions of the natural world
and would condemn those who believed that they could control nature.
This new generation of Romantics would meet
at the home of Lord Byron, the Villa Diodati
on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva.
These poets were rebelling against the earlier generation of Romantics,
who seemed to have become conservative and reactionary.
Byron even referred to Wordsworth as "Turdsworth",
and called his poetry "puerile and namby-pamby".
'I must think less wildly.
'I have thought Too long
'and darkly till my brain became
'A whirling gulf of fantasy and flame...'
During that dark summer at the Villa Diodati,
the thunderstorms were the only source of natural light.
The guests rarely left the house.
This would be the setting for the creation of one of the most original novels in the English language.
Among Byron's guests was a young woman named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin,
lover of his friend, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
This 18-year-old was the daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft
and the philosopher William Godwin.
Throughout her life, she had been surrounded by intellectuals
and radical ideas.
'Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley
'to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener.
'They talked of the principles of life,
'and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered.
'Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated.
'Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured...
'and endured with vital warmth.'
When Mary went to bed that night, she could not sleep.
As a young girl, she had heard tales of experiments with electricity.
It was a force that had always enchanted her.
She had a nightmarish vision.
'I saw - with shut eyes
'but acute mental vision -
'I saw the pale student
'of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.
'I saw the hideous phantasm of a man...stretched out
'and then - on the working of some powerful engine -
'show signs of life.'
The result of Mary's dream was the greatest of all horror stories
written in English, Frankenstein.
This fable of a young Genovese student
obsessed with the principles of occult science and the making of new life
is a great hymn to the Romantic ideal.
'With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony,
'I collected the instruments of life around me,
'that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.
'By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light,
'I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open.
'It breathed hard...
'..and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.'
The creature, spurned by the world, roams the vast Mer De Glace
in the Vale of Chamonix -
just like his Romantic forebearers.
There he confronts his maker.
'Hateful day when I received life.
'The cursed creator!
'Why did you form a monster
'so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?
'God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring after His own image,
'but my form is a filthy type of yours,
'more horrid even from the very resemblance.
'Satan had his companions, fellow devils to admire and encourage him,
'but I am solitary and abhorred.'
Frankenstein is a prophecy that science might be misused
by those who wish to alter or tamper with nature.
The novel's frightful horror
is the dark reflection of the Romantic sublime.
Its message was simple yet powerful -
respect and revere nature, for it has the power to destroy you. Science alone is not enough.
It is a warning many people are repeating to this day.
Everyone who seeks peace by a river,
upon a mountain or upon a beach is heir to the Romantics,
a beneficiary of their visionary imagination.
Anyone who looks upon nature and thinks about man's place within it
owes a profound debt to the Romantics.
For when they looked at nature, they were also looking into their souls.
Man himself contained all the terrors and secrets of the sublime.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Peter Ackroyd summons the ghosts of the Romantics to tell the story of man's escape from the shackles of industry and commerce to the freedom of nature.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold of Britain during the late 18th Century, the Romantics embraced nature in search of sublime experience. But this was much more than just a walk in the country; it was a groundbreaking endeavour to understand what it means to be human. They forged poetry of radical protest against a dark world that was descending upon Britain.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a prophecy that science might be used to corrupt nature, a warning people are still preaching to this day. The words of the Romantics are brought to life by Dudley Sutton, David Threlfall and Cara Horgan.