Romantic poetry




Romantic poetry


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Romantic poetry


Enlightenment       Era                                      Romantic Era

1689-1789                                                           1789-1830

REASON                                                             EMOTION (and feeling)

Order, symmetry, balance                                      Nature, imagination

Optimistic confidence in progress                            Pessimistic nostalgia

(Organized French gardens)                                   (Wild English gardens)


Romanticism rose out of the optimism of human progress and the ability to reason and focus on individuality of the Enlightenment.  The excesses of the industrial revolution had begun to pollute the landscape with the poison of progress and mechanical and human impact on the environment started to move people back toward a nostalgic desire to return to rustic and agrarian life with a deeper connection to the natural world. It is in this context that the Romantic poets climbed the stage.


The Enlightenment was a time of optimism in the Western world. French philosophes looked at homo sapiens, which emphasizes the wise and intelligent quality of humans in this classification, and they celebrated Mans’ ability to think critically and rationally, to work through things logically in order to make the world a better place. As a result, the Western world was becoming increasingly mechanized and urbanized, spearheaded by innovations of the Scientific Revolution. This led to huge economic growth within Europe and ultimately in the so-called New World as well. John Locke, the most famous and influential Enlightenment philosopher in England, laid the bedrock for the U.S. government and constitution. The founding fathers of America looked to Locke’s theories in order to form their new government. 


The Romantic poetic movement was a reaction to this methodical and highly logical approach to understanding and celebrating humanity. In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge published a collection of poems titled “Lyrical Ballads”, which was essentially the manifesto of the Romantics. This work inaugurated the Romantic Era. Wordsworth and Coleridge see more than reason as being a fundamental aspect of humanity. They deem imagination and the capacity for human emotion as a quintessential part of being human. They celebrate the artist’s ability to see through the vehicle of nature and recover the emotional capacity of human beings as the most important element of humanity, something which goes being the rational faculty so important to the Enlightenment. To the Romantics, emotional communion is at least as important as logical thought, and they believe that one’s ability to recover emotion defines a person as much as the power to reason.


Indeed, for Romantics, it is this emotional capacity that connects humans to one another. Many of the Romantics use nature to explore the emotional realms, and convey emotionally charged experiences, always intending to gain access to human beings capacity to feel emotion. This leads Romantics to nostalgically value the simple, rustic, countryside life, which had begun to vanish under the smoggy shadow of rising industry.


The Romantics urged their readership to connect back with nature, and become in tune with the cycles of nature and break from the industrial clock, which was taking over and dictating a new accelerated pace for urban society and enslaving factory workers and city dwellers. These ideas come to have a huge impact on the transcendentalists in the U.S. in the same way that the Enlightenment impacted the founding fathers.


The work was later prefaced with a very critical and negative response, when a second edition was printed (because the collection sold so well). In Wordsworth's essay, he adds a preface to his “Lyrical Ballads" which was written for the second editions of his and Coleridge's collection of Romantic poems. Wordsworth lays out his poetic project and explains his decision in taking poetry in a new direction. He outlines what he sees as the problems of the poetry of the Enlightenment era and brings the art in a new direction, which was significantly more accessible and popular than that of the previous generation. He explains his purpose of their poetry:

  1. To write about incidents and situations from everyday, common, rustic life, celebrating ordinary people and events.
  2. To relate and describe his poems in language used by common men, in an effort to make his poetry accessible, while retaining the literary merit and sophistication present in the prior poetic traditions. This is poetry for the people, not just for the intellectuals.
  3. To color his poems with imagination, where ordinary things are shown in artistic and extraordinary ways. Usual aspects or angles on the ordinary are explored at length by the two poets.
  4. To truly represent the primary laws of our nature (a reference to Locke’s essay) and reflect the intellectual and contemporary movements, as well as making a new statement about human motivations, faculties and modes of thinking.
  5. To focus on rustic, in order to depicts people who have a more authentic quality to their lives. The claim is that the country folk aren’t wrapped up with the industrial clock, but are rather ruled by the seasonal clock, and thus they aren’t caught up in the urban rat race. He further claims that people in the country are able to better feel and appreciate their emotions, because the manners of rural life germinate from fundamental feelings, due to a work and lifestyle, which creates a certain type of virtue that causes one to know oneself and be more in touch with the essential emotional experiences of living.
  6. To gain connection with nature through rustic experiences, for the struggles of life in the countryside are naturally more connected to nature, the permanent beauty in nature, which allows one to fully realize oneself as a human being.
  7. To understand that there is something essential about rural language that keeps the countryfolk purer, because in the country people communicate about physical objects and natural realities “from which the best part of the language derives”.
  8. To convey that the rural folk express their emotions in a simple, straightforward, unelaborated and authentic fashion, due to an honest lifestyle and their lower rank in society. This general sameness amongst those living in the countryside depreciates the competition and vanity that is running rampant in the cities.
  9. To claim that life and language in the country arises out of regular feelings therefore being more permanently and philosophically stimulating.

In the end, Wordsworth SLAMS those poets of the Enlightenment, and whose poetry reflects the very ideals, which he is sharply criticizing. In essence, Wordsworth condemns these poets from writing super elitist poems that are inaccessible and unsympathetic to the general populace; therefore, naming them intellectually self-indulgent. Wordsworth saw these overly complicated, highly rhetorical and contrived poems as a manifestation of elitist narcissism, where the poets are writing poems for each other, trying to impress each other but neglecting and disenfranchising the broader readership in their egocentric attempts to outdo themselves. He promises, instead, to do the opposite in his poetry.


Romantic poems: "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802" by Wordsworth, John Keats' "When I Have Fears" and "Ozymandias" by Percy Shelley. Wordsworth describes the serenity of nature still present in the city, John Keats existential crisis and anxieties over an untimely death as explored in his poem and Shelley's comment on the prideful fall of men, and the absurdity of Man's hubris in the face of the forces of nature.


William Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much with Us" and discussed his poetic purpose in the piece. Wordsworth expresses his believe that a relationship with the natural world is quintessential for one's wellness and musically delivers a moving piece where he concludes it is better to be a Pagan (Latin root meaning farmer) still able to see the divine in nature than a slave to industry.


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Romantic poetry