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.
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
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.
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.
The third major second-generation Romantic poet is a guy names Lord Byron. If you ever thought that being a Romantic poet meant lonely nights at home pining over lost loves and writing sometimes, then you don't know Byron because he was a ladies man. One of the many women who liked him had an affair with him and called him 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' (it's like mad, bad 'Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole damn town'). When he wasn't being a player, he found the time to write some poetry, like Don Juan and She Walks in Beauty. The names kind of fit right in with what I just described: lots of lovers and into beautiful women.
William Blake created illuminated prints.
There's also William Blake. He's not really an early Romantic or late Romantic, he's just Blake. He's in his own weird category. It's like platypuses; they're mammals, but they lay eggs. He's in his own little area. In addition to writing poetry, he created illuminated prints, which are basically complicated relief etchings. He's strange because not only did he do this - illustrate and write poems - he said that he learned how to do this illustration method from the ghost of his dead brother. You have to take this with a big grain of salt. I guess they left the 'I need help with relief etching techniques' ghost out of The Sixth Sense. I have no idea why! Blake is best known for the book Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the poems that are innocent and poems that are experienced. The Tyger on the experienced side, The Lamb on the innocent side.
There are other Romantic poets we won't study in depth, but you might want to know their names. Men get a lot of attention in this, as they normally do in these time periods of literature. There were significant women writers. There's Charlotte Turner Smith and Mary Robinson; these are people you should have burbling in the back of your head when you think about Romanticism. While our lessons will focus on British authors (this is English literature after all), Americans, like Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman, are often considered Romantics as well - although that will be on the American side, so you can look over there if you feel like it.
To sum things up (we've talked about a lot), English Romantic poetry was a reaction against a bunch of things: war, industrialization and the thought patterns of the Enlightenment that were so focused on science and reason. Romantic poetry was the birth of the sensitive, emotional poet. There were other things that they tended to focus on: they were into celebrating nature, into using accessible language so that the people could understand it and they were into representing the individual artist (the soul, voice and all that). People to remember associated with the movement are William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (they were tight), John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and then William Blake (off on his own, doing weird stuff, also being cool). That's a little overview of romantic poetry for you.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Understand the major themes of Romantic poetry and the time period it developed in
- Identify significant Romantic poets and some of their major works