Firstly, I must define Romanticism (with a capital R) to those who aren’t familiar with the movement. The Romantic era spans from 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) to 1832 (although some have argued that it ended in 1850). It is a movement which emphasised the emotion, subjectivity and individualism of a person – essentially, it is the opposite of Classicism. Whereas Classicism works through ideas rationally, Romanticism is instead a “disorder in the imagination” (Ferdinand Brunetiere). Romantic poetry, therefore, is an embodiment of these ideals; it centres on the imagination and emotion of the individual; it suggests intuition should guide you rather than rationality; and there is a clear emphasis placed on Nature.
There are hundreds of Romantic poets out there, and the only reason I was introduced to some of them was because of university. I took a module that studied literature from the 19th century, Romanticism included. The book I analysed is useful to those who are new to Romantic poetry – it covers the main poets, giving you their most known or celebrated work. It’s a Dover Thrift Edition called English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology and is edited by Stanley Appelbaum.
Lord Byron’s ‘Darkness’:
If you don’t follow me on any social media, you wouldn’t know that Lord Byron is my all-time favourite poet. He has an enigmatic personality which translates beautifully onto his poems. My favourite is ‘Darkness’.
It opens with a paradox, suggesting the narrative is a dream ‘which was not all a dream’. The narrator begins to imagine an post-apocalyptic world through the use of prophetic language; they detail how people have started to burn possessions in order to fend off the Darkness. Yet when men surround these fires, they see each other’s faces for the first time in a long time, causing them so much sorrow they either weep, smile or descend into madness.
When animal meat begins to run out, the men turn on each other – they become scavengers, cannibals, and even animals themselves. Survival becomes everyone’s main goal; even loyal pets turn on their loving owners. Eventually, everyone, except two men, perish from the famine. Similar to previous events, the two men see either other in the light of the fire. The starving and disintegrating visages of their faces frighten each other to death, thus ending the human race. With no humans, the earth becomes a “lifeless […] lump of death – a chaos of hard clay”. Everything is quiet. There is no movement because the “Darkness had no need of aid from them – She was the Universe”.
I love this poem for it’s dark and chaotic feel. Byron composed this in 1816, and was said to have been influenced by the prediction of the sun burning itself out, thus destroying the world. It’s a reflection of the world Byron was living in, and the anxieties that modernism and science brought with it. This is why it’s so fascinating to me – I can understand the chaos and mass hysteria of this year through something as simple as a poem.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Song to the Men of England’:
Shelley is another remarkable Romantic poet. His best qualities lie with his political poetry. He is a socialist, or what we would call an early Marxist, and his poetry is really powerful when translating this. The best examples being either ‘Song to the Men of England’ or ‘The Masque of Anarchy’.
The narrator speaks directly to the people of England, urging them to speak out about their state of oppression. The people of England are doing the real, hard work for this country, yet people are sponging off them in order to survive. However, no recognition is given to the men of England. The underlining question of the poem is: ‘does this system work? Are people gaining what they deserve? Or just what they can benefit from?’ Shelley’s socialist views are extremely prominent in this poem; the narrator suggests people should ‘sow [their own] seed’, ‘find [their own] wealth, ‘weave [their own] robes’ and ‘forge [their own] arms’, otherwise they ‘trace [their] grave, and build [their] tomb’. These final lines either suggest the men of England are essentially digging their own graves, or that revolution is inevitable.
If you’re going to read any poem by Shelley, make sure it’s this one. Today, this poem and it’s Marxist undertone still relates to current affairs (depending where you lie politically). In a way, it shows Shelley was way ahead of his time. It’s apparent through the radical tone that Shelley is urging, and I guess you could say daring, his countrymen to act more French; they were capable of starting a revolution to speak out against their oppression, so why should Englishmen sit back and accept it?
William Wordsworth’s ‘Expostulation and Reply’ & ‘The Tables Turned’:
Although two separate poems, ‘Expostulation and Reply’ and ‘The Tables Turned’ are a continuation of each other. From the name of the former poem, it’s clear these both have a conversational tone to them. In fact, it is a conversation between Wordsworth and his friend, Matthew. In ‘E&R’, Matthew is oblivious to the powers of nature, and believes Wordsworth is wasting his time by being so occupied by it. Instead, Wordsworth should be dedicating his time to reading books and acquiring knowledge this way. However, Wordsworth claims one can learn a great deal from Nature. There is a deeper, more soul-searching lesson to be learnt that isn’t available through books.
In the continuation, ‘TTT’, Wordsworth turns everything around on his friend. He begins by telling Matthew to stop spending his time reading books; he’ll eventually become fat from sitting still for so long. Instead, Matthew should venture out into Nature and behold all the wonders and lessons it has to offer – he claims ‘come forth into the light of things, and let Nature be your teacher’. Wordsworth concludes the poem by passionately stating that we should reject traditional science and art, and simply come into Nature to learn with “a heart that watches and receives’.
To me these poems embody Wordsworth values. He truly believed Nature was the best teacher – you only have to read the opening to ‘The Prelude’ to know this. His appreciation for Nature is endearing to read, and I think it shines through these poems in particular.
William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’:
Blake isn’t the most straightforward poet. He composed two volumes of poems, Songs of Innocence and Song of Experience, that have poems which follow on from each other. They usually have the same title, so it’s easy enough to follow. To fully understand and appreciate these poems, you must first read the SoI one before the SoE. My favourite poem is ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from his later volume.
To put it into context, the SoI poem is narrated by a chimney sweeper who details his life before giving us the backstory of another chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre. The latter boy recently had a dream involving chimney sweepers laying in coffins (supposedly having died from the harsh conditions of the job), as well as other unworldly stuff like angels. Fortunately, it was just a dream and Tom wakes up to carry on with his mundane and monotonous life as a sweeper, like they’re supposed to do.
The Songs of Experience poem is narrated by an unknown man, who comes across a child chimney sweeper blackened by soot, and who is lying alone in the pure, white snow. The child tells him that his parents are praying at the nearby church and have left him to wait in the cold. He also reveals that his parents have forced him into his sweeping, thus illuminating how early 19th century children were doomed to a life of dangerous work because money was tight.
I love these poems because it’s evident Blake is against this manual labour of children. He supports the idea that children should be wholly innocence before anything else, and by forcing children into work only corrupts their souls, hence the stark contrast between the blackened, dirty boy and the pure, white snow. This is a running theme throughout the two volumes, the first poem detailing the child’s innocence and the second poem detailing their corruption (hence the names of volumes).
If you were to ask me who my favourite Romantic poets are, or what my favourite Romantic poems were, my mind would instantly reach for one of these. Each writer and poem are unique in their own way, all embodying the weight of the Romantic Movement in a different light. I’d definitely recommend checking out these poems if you’re new to this period!
Thanks for reading, Lauren Xx
6 thoughts on “Favourite Romantic Poems:”
Your enthusiasm is both endearing as well as inspiring for me to begin my own thorough adventure with literature. It’s brilliant
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I love u David !!!!