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ClassicsOnline Home » Collection: Great Poets of the Romantic Age
The Tyger…I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud…Ode to the West Wind…The Rime of the Ancient Mariner…Ode to a Nightingale…We’ll go no more a-roving…The Peasant Poet ‘All good poetry,’ wrote Wordsworth, ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ and this was to be one of the hallmarks of the Romantic poets. With a dynamic spirit, these great English poets made a conscious return to nostalgia and spiritual depth. Each chose a different path, but they are united in a love of moods, impressions, scenes, stories, sights and sounds. In this collection of more than forty poems are some of the finest and most memorable works in the English language.
Great Poets of the Romantic Age
Strands of the Romantic sensibility, with its emphasis on
the past, the mysterious nature of existence, and the relationship between the
individual and the natural world, has been in existence long before Blake wrote
his first poems. Eighteenth century musicians such as Haydn and Mozart, and
even seventeenth century painters such as Fragonard, Watteau and Claude
betrayed some of these classic ‘Romantic’ characteristics. It was, however, the
volcanic vigor of the French revolution in 1789 with its emphasis on the
dignity and freedom of every individual, which was to act as the prism through
which the writers in this collection were to express their ideas and feelings.
It is this common sensibility and the time at which they were writing which
bind them into a cohesive group, known as the Romantic poets.
The most fundamental attitude was a love of moods, scenes,
sights and sounds, which the intellect can never hope to understand fully, but
which the poetic imagination aspires to describe. These poets loved the
mysterious, the unknown, the half-seen quality of the landscape. Wordsworth saw
the relationship between Man and Nature as crucial; as the source of ‘soul’,
‘beauty’ and ‘glory’.
The move away from pure rationality led the Romantics to
re-examine the stories and philosophies of the Middle Ages, particularly
medieval romance, which the Enlightenment had dismissed as worthless. The
Romantic generation looked back with respect and nostalgia, finding a
spiritual depth, which they felt to be missing in their own
time. Thus Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, a tale of the supernatural, set in
unfamiliar landscape, and yet primarily concerned with an
individual’s experience of sin, guilt, love and redemption, contains all the
crucial elements of the Romantic framework.
A sense of endless searching whether for the perfect
expression of beauty, of creative genius, or the purest form of love is also
strong in Romantic writing. For Blake, the search was for the perfection of an
innocent past, or for a future in which man could discard his innately evil
tendencies, throw off tyranny, and claim a glorious future. For Keats,
particularly in his ‘Odes’, the search was for a resolution between transience
and permanence. In Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale’s song is eternal and
beautiful, but men, dogged by their own mortality, ‘sit and hear each other
groan’. However, in Ode to a Grecian Urn, the conflict between ‘Life’ which is
finite and ‘Art’ which endures, is more complex. Although the scene on the urn
with its throbbing vitality is permanent, it is frozen, inert. Keats concludes:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
For Shelley, poetry has a responsibility to ‘reform the
world’ through the power of the imagination. Like Keats, he believed that
beauty is an absolute force for good, and that poets were the most able to
create it in the form and content of their work. He deals particularly with
this theme in Ode to the West Wind.
Byron was perhaps the most robust of the Romantic poets, and
the wit, drama and the pace of Don Juan mark him out as a superb storyteller,
satirist and poet. His love poems are some of the most direct and moving in the
Although John Clare is not always included in collections of
Romantic Poetry, we feel that the pure beauty and simplicity of his pastoral
poetry, written very much in the Romantic tradition, demand that he be awarded
a place along with his contemporaries.
William Blake 1757- 1827
Born in London, the son of a hosier, Blake had no formal
education and earned a meager living, not as a poet, but as an engraver. For
Blake, the imagination was man’s sole redeeming feature, and through it he
could transcend the confines of nature and return to the glories of his
William Wordsworth 1770 – 1850
After growing up in the Lake District, Wordsworth was
educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge. He fell in love with Annette Vallon
and fathered a child, but the pair did not marry. In 1799 he returned to the
Lake District to live with his sister, Dorothy. He married in 1802, but the
deaths of two of his children and the tragic drowning of his brother plunged
him into despair, and his poetic powers gradually declined.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772 – 1834
The youngest of fourteen children, Coleridge was the son of
a clergyman who died when Coleridge was only nine. A failed academic and
soldier, Coleridge was physically frail, and his dependence on laudanum
degenerated into an addiction. His poetry greatly influenced Wordsworth and his
selfless support of Wordsworth was at the expense of his own poetic ambitions.
Towards the end of his life, he concentrated on criticism and philosophy.
Lord Byron 1788 – 1824
Although an aristocrat, Byron was born into a chaotic and
poverty-stricken home in Scotland. He took his studies at Cambridge lightly and
then traveled to Spain and Greece. After many love affairs he made a disastrous
marriage to Annabella Milbanke. When they separated in 1816 he left England and
settled in Italy. Having become the darling of the European Romantic movement,
he died fighting with Greek insurgents at Missolonghi in 1824.
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792 – 1822
Although Shelley was born into a wealthy Sussex family, his
sensibility led him to rebel against both Eton and Oxford
and later the English establishment. He went into exile to Italy in 1818 where
he wrote his major poems. Although intensely revolutionary, he was gentle,
selfless and loyal. His passionate search for reconciliation between the head
and the heart produced some of the finest Romantic poetry. He drowned a month
before his thirtieth birthday.
John Keats 1759 – 1821
Keats was often pilloried for his lowly beginnings: his
father was head hostler at a livery stable. However, Keats was able to support
himself with a small legacy from his grandmother, and he made his debut as a
poet in 1817. He died seven years later from tuberculosis, but has left a series
of timeless poems, which remind us, above all, that we are compelled to imagine
more than we can ever fully understand.
John Clare 1793 - 1864
The last of the ‘peasant poets’, John Clare was an
agricultural laborer in Northamptonshire. Although his poems enjoyed some brief
popularity, he struggled throughout his life against poverty and encroaching
madness. He ended his life in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.
Notes by Heather Godwin
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Collection: Great Poets of the Romantic Age