romanticism in poetryIntroduction

Romanticism is an aesthetic attitude born out of a late eighteenth century reaction to the Enlightenment, one stressing powerful feelings, originality, the individual response and a return to nature. {1} {2} {3} {4}

To repeat a previous simplification: Classicism, Realism and Romanticism all deal with the outside world, but Realism shows the world as it is, Romanticism as the heart tells us it should be, and Classicism as it would be in some ideal incarnation. Contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or free-wheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism).


Romanticism or the Romantic emphasizes: {5} {6}

1. emotion over reason

laws of physics are inadequate to comprehend the world
art is instinctive more than conceptual knowledge (Croce)
psychiatry (rather than experimental psychology)

'poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' (Wordsworth)

2. sensory experience before intellect

sensibility not a product of cultivation but express man's passionate nature

'truth is beauty' (Keats)
'show rather than tell' prescriptions of poetry courses

3. imagination as a road to transcendental experience and spiritual truth

pantheism: reality is fundamentally one, and the Divine is present in all its manifestations
poet as voyant: Rimbaud, Rilke's Elegies

'poetry is the first and last of all knowledge' (Wordsworth)
'imagination is a shaping or modifying power' (Coleridge)
poets are 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world' (Shelley)
'life copies art' (Wilde)

4. the human personality, in all its inexplicable moods and depths


Gérard de Nerval
César Vallejo

5. genius, hero or exceptional figure

Goethe's Faust
Byronic hero: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermontov's The Demon

6. ethnic, folk and national cultures

culture is not rationally grounded but a product of feelings and traditions previously overlooked
states are natural growths with roots in the common nature of man: Marxism
poetry should draw on folk traditions: examples:

Burns's Poems and Songs
Preface to Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads
Francis Jammes' Clara d'Ellébeuse
Lorca's Romancero gitano

7. the occult, exotic, diseased or satanic

path to truth is through psychosis: depth psychology

Webster's The Duchess of Malfi
Byron's Manfred
Baudelaire's Fleur du Mal
Yeat's A Vision

8. the remote in time and space


Latin pastoral tradition
medieval romances
Shakespeare's Pericles or The Tempest
medievalism in German and English 19th century poetry
Pound's Chinese and Latin 'translations'

9. work of a particular period


European Romanticism: 1780-1840
British Romantic Revival: 1930-50

Romanticism is an enormous subject, {7} and the above can only be a small sample of characteristics and trends.

Romantic Attitudes

The early Romantics strove to understand the world through imagination, not reason, and they distrusted the world set out for them by Church and State. {8} To these hate figures in the later nineteenth century they added commerce and science, creating a split in outlook that pushed Romanticism into extreme positions — Symbolism, Surrealism, Dada, Modernism and Postmodernism. Some antagonism is a feature of most societies — Suffism versus Sharia in Islam, and Daoism versus Legalism in imperial China — but only in western societies have created such elaborate and at times fantastic theories to protect the Romantic position.

Can the world be understood by imagination? Can poetry discover realms of significance beyond the conscious and rational?

Symbolism, Surrealism, Dada, Modernism and Postmodernism are all examined in more detail in this section, but it is worth making some general points.

1. Romanticism has generally and needlessly resorted to theory, where Classicism has simply generalized from experience, saying when cleared of individual entanglements, these sorts of things work. . . Romanticism created or strengthened much of what we take for granted — universal suffrage, individual rights, religious freedom — and its ideas are still feeding through contemporary literature. Romanticism can stand on its record, and equally generalize from its successes.

2. Men do not live by bread alone, and poetry has little to fear from commerce or science. Economics is spectacularly unsuccessful in its predictions, and the newer theories of metaphor, hermeneutics, brain functioning and complexity bridge many of the chasms between the old worlds of art and the sciences.

3. Recent work in brain functioning and metaphor theory, plus older views in religion and depth psychology, suggest that consciousness and perception are indeed susceptible to cultural change. Matters can be overstated — the world's 4,000 languages are all inter-translatable, and no one believes that Hopi Indians have no concept of time — but poetry (and the arts in general) do create new entities, and these entities have existence outside the poem or artwork concerned to the extent that are useful to society.

4. The besetting sin of the theory emanating from Romanticism has been reductionism, the attempts to extract a few simple laws in the manner of science, and explain the many and multiform in these terms. Art is not science, and the narrowing focus of the various post-Romantic movements — Symbolism (rarefied symbols), Imagism (visual), Futurism (anti-history) Surrealism (irrational), Dada (anti-society) — created not strength but only thin and quickly changing fashions.

Romantic Representatives

Poets belonging to the Romantic period include:

William Blake: e.g. The Tyger {9}
William Wordsworth Ode: e.g. Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood {10}
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: e.g. Kubla Khan {11}
George Gordon, Lord Byron: e.g. She walks in beauty, like the night {12}
Percy Bysshe Shelley: e.g. Ode to the West Wind {13}
John Keats's Ode to Melancholy {14}

Among the Victorians:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: e.g. The Lady of Shalott {15}
D.G. Rossetti: e.g. Soul's Beauty {16}
Ernest Dowson: e.g. Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae {17}

Twentieth-century poets:

W. B. Yeats: e.g. The Lake Isle of Innisfree {18}
Edna St. Vincent Millay: e.g. What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why {19}
Dylan Thomas: e.g. Fern Hill {20}
Edwin Muir: e.g. The Horses {21}

References and Resources

1. The Romantic Movement. NNA. Short articles on poets and thinkers, and brief listings.
2. Romanticism. Nicolas Pioch Oct. 2002. Note (English) and quotations (French).
3. Romanticism and romanticism, and the Romantic school. Michael Delahunt. 2004. Artlex entry illustrated with representative paintings.
4. Romanticism. Paul Brians. Mar. 1998. NNA. Extended and helpful article.
5. Romanticism. V.P. Nemoianu. Entry in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press. 1993).
6. Romantic and PostRomantic Poetics. C.B. Lacour. Entry in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press. 1993).
7. Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, The Emergence of Romanticism (O.U.P. 1995). Q
8. Robert F. Gleckner (Ed.), Romanticism: Points of View. (Prentice Hall. 1962), Q
9. William Blake (1757-1827) NNA. Short article with bibliography.
10. William Wordsworth. Biography and good selection of poems.
11. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Brief biography and good selection of poems
12. Byron. Fascinating site, with biography, poems, letters and illustrations.
13. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Anthologized verse online
14. John Keats. Note and a good selection of poems.
15. Lord Alfred Tennyson. Biography, some links and a good selection of poems.
16. The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jerome McGann. . Very full resources.
17. Ernest Dowson. Three poems listed.
18. William Butler Yeats. Excellent collection of the early poems.
19. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Biography and six poems.
20. Dylan Thomas.
21. Edwin Muir. Fourteen poems online.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.