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Introduction to Romantic Poetry: Overview of Authors and Works

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  • 0:10 Romantic Poetry
  • 0:56 Themes
  • 5:38 Major Romantic Poets and Works
  • 10:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Like the French Revolution that helped inspire it, the Romantic poetry movement signaled massive, controversial changes with ramifications that are still being felt today. Watch this video lesson for an introduction to Romantic poetry, including descriptions of the major authors and significant works.

Romantic Poetry

I'm just feeling some artful, sad emotions here. Feeling some sappy love poetry coming on. It's actually a little bit of a misconception about romantic poetry that it was all sappy and about love and stuff. They were kind of tortured souls, and they wrote stuff like Dejection: An Ode and Ode on Melancholy. I guess I shouldn't have thrown the tissues away just yet, but in this video, you'll learn that the Romantics were not just about that. They had a lot more going on than just touchy-feely, lovesick stuff.

Themes

So, themes of Romantic poetry - we're going to start by setting the scene for the birth of Romantic poetry. It was the late 18th century. The French Revolution had begun in 1789. England, at this time, was at war with everybody, including itself. It was suppressing dissent, and things weren't going that great.

By the end of the 18th century, industrialization was responsible for life as we know it - the ability to make a bunch of stuff quickly. 'Made in China' is kind of the culmination of industrialization. That was getting going by the end of the century, and it was making huge changes in people's lives, understandably. The Age of Enlightenment, which had come before and led to this in a lot of ways, had its emphasis on science, reason and being intellectual - thinking things through - that had held sway for a while.

For young writers at the time and when things were changing so much, the world just stopped making sense. It was too unfamiliar. The city was rising in this way that was unpleasant to them. The Romantics were really looking to do things differently.

The first thing they wanted to do was to use regular language. This was a direct response to some of the poetry that had been written before. English poetry had been super formal. They wanted to write with words that regular people would know. They didn't want big band music - they wanted rock and roll. That's kind of the Romantic sentiment. You can see how this can be related to the French Revolution - 'for the people, by the people' and all that stuff. And then poetry you could actually understand.

They also wanted to focus on emotions and feelings more than anything else. This can be seen as a response to the cold science and industrialization thing that was sweeping the country. Enlightenment writers, again, were focused on science, fact and reason. The Romantics really wanted to focus on how people felt. So, it's like singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette types rather than corporate manufactured boy band stuff. I'm looking at you One Direction!

Like any good revolutionaries, the Romantics had a real love of nature. Celebrating nature was really central to a lot of their most significant works. Again, it's a reaction to the Enlightenment, because the natural world had been dissected and clinically examined by scientists. The Romantics wanted to get back to just appreciating it and seeing it in its whole. 'Relax bro, be cool' - that kind of sentiment towards nature.

Works by Romantics were also designed to represent the individual artist. The reader should feel like there's a voice behind the poem and that it's directly addressing you. This all comes back to the idea that we're not a monolith anymore. We're not a government that's a king and everyone else is a subject. We're entering a world in which individuality and individual voices can be heard. Again, this was spurred on by the French Revolution idea.

How different is Romantic poetry than what came before it? I will give you an example. I'm going to show you some Alexander Pope, who is super popular. He was a prominent English poet from immediately before the Romantics. This is some of his poetry:

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill

Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,

But, of the two, less dang'rous is th'Offence,

To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense'

And that was from a poem called An Essay on Criticism, which already blows your mind. And this was one of his greatest hits; people loved this thing. Just to contrast that, we're going to show you some William Wordsworth, who was a Romantic poet.

'I have a boy of five years old;

His face is fair and fresh to see;

His limbs are cast in beauty's mould,

And dearly he loves me.'

That's from a little poem called Anecdote for Fathers. You can see, the Romantic poem is way easier to understand, and it has normal human emotion in it. It has words like a regular person addressing the reader. It's more like something Wordsworth would put on Facebook rather than what Pope would write to put in the Journal of Stuffy Intellectualism (which I would totally subscribe to - I don't know about you).

Major Romantic Poets and Works

So who were these guys? I mentioned William Wordsworth, but who are the rest of this cast of clowns that we're talking about? You've probably heard of some of them.

Romantic poet William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth two

Like I said, Wordsworth. We've got Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who is a buddy of Wordsworth). They started hanging out in 1795. They're kind of like the Starsky and Hutch of Romantic poetry. They wrote this book together called Lyrical Ballads - they each contributed stuff. It was published in 1798, and it's considered the birth of Romantic poetry. This is really the thing that kicks it all off.

You probably know Coleridge's most famous contribution to the book, which is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It's awesome. That's where we get the phrase 'Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.' That's from that poem, so it's awesome. It also has zombie sailors and big albatrosses. We talk about that in another lesson. I'll let you judge for yourself. It's pretty cool. Coleridge is also known for Kubla Khan, which is a poem he composed while under the influence of opium (which was a major character trait or flaw - depending on how you see these things).

Wordsworth was way more straight-laced than Coleridge. It actually caused a lot of problems with them. He wrote a poem that makes it seem like he's on opium, but he's not: 'Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour. 13 July 1798.' He was just long-winded; he wasn't high. The poem is also just shortened to just plain Tintern Abbey. If you want to remember it, that's what you should remember. He also wrote a few other famous things, like The Solitary Reaper. It's not a horror movie but a poem about a solitary Highland lass reaping wheat. Another thing you can reap besides human souls.

A little while after Wordsworth and Coleridge, there's a second generation of Romantic poets. This includes John Keats, who was ridiculed by critics all his life, and he died when he was 25 of tuberculosis. He had a short and tragic life. He was insanely prolific; he wrote a ton of stuff, some of which are now considered super iconic Romantic poetry, and we love it: Ode on a Grecian Urn, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer and Ode on Melancholy. He had a lot of greatest hits. That always makes me feel inferior, so I better get cracking at some Romantic poems before my next birthday. I've revealed my age!

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the husband of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.
Percy Bysshe

Then, we have Percy Bysshe Shelley; he's another one of these second generation Romantic dudes. He's best known for 1818's Ozymandias and also for leaving a trail of women who killed themselves after he didn't love them. He's also the husband of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. Yeah, that Frankenstein.

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