The Romantic Period

Period Background

The Pre-romantic movement in art and literature started without a clear sense of direction. It was mainly the abandonment of the beliefs of the Enlightenment. Industrial progress had been the cause of terrible pollution, violent revolution, and repressive governmental censorship. Poets turned their hopes toward the future.
A new way of life a life had taken root in Great Britain. The farmers had left their lands to become the new "serfs" of the factories, working for mere survival wages. As the redcoat armies grew, the government became more strict with the public and press, imprisoning any who chose to question the government's policies in writing.
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The failure of the American Revolution in bringing real freedom to the people of the colonies and the failure of the wars in Europe to rid the nations of self-serving monarchies convinced Romantics that liberty would not be achieved in their times, but maybe achieved for their children. Great Britain's navy won wars, but the victories mainly served the aristocratic class.
The entire Romantic movement can be broken into three phases: Pre-romantic looked for an alternative for the Enlightenment because science and reason were failing to make life better. Early Romantics saw their initial hopes for a new world order destroyed and became disillusioned with the hopelessness of their times.
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Their writing reflects more disappointment than the anger that marks the poets who follow them. Later Romantics were cynics, attacking the repression of their times and looking, with hope, to the future, for a time when freedom would be more than a dream.

Robert Burns

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Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott are credited with preserving the Scottish dialect, Burns in poetry and Scott in novels. Burns had strong talents in the formation of musical verse and could capture the sounds of his people. Though he could write in standard English, he sacrificed greater fame for cultural loyalty.
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On the surface, "To a Mouse" seems to express sympathy for mice because they're always the victims, always the prey. However, Burns shows that the victim may be mice or men; and the men who are crushed by fate, unlike the mice who build new homes, must suffer from the memory.
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"To a Louse" comments on the parasite that crawls upon Miss Jenny's bonnet during church services. Burns's seemingly comical "slice of life" portrait may have a deeper social commentary. When Burns says the louse should be crawling on a beggar boy, he may be revealing his opposition to inequality in the world.
"Afton Water" is a pleasant pastoral of little consequence. It has all of the tranquil elements that one would expect from the genre. Its value, perhaps, may be found in the fact that it is written in standard English, departing from the dialect that Burns generally uses. It stands as proof that Burns "chose" to write in his native tongue.
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Though not as popular as the New Year's Eve theme "Auld Lang Syne," "John Anderson, My Jo" features many of the same nostalgic qualities. It is presumed that the speaker is a woman, though various interpretations have been made for the old, retired couple in question.

William Blake

William Blake was better known as an artist than a poet during his life. Most of his poetry was done on illustrated printing plates. Considered eccentric to the point of insanity, Blake was an obsessive student of religion, studying beliefs that spanned the globe. Blake's mystic and self-allusive style pointed the way to William Butler Yeats and the Modern Period poetry.
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"The Lamb" is from The Book of Innocence which examines a series of situations and subjects through the eyes of a child. In "The Lamb," the poet asks the rhetorical question "who made thee" which is intended to express the idea that the creator of the lamb must have the gentle and innocent qualities found in the creation.
"The Tiger" is from The Book of Experience which examines a series of situations and subjects through the eyes of an adult. As a response to "The Lamb," "The Tiger" adds another compelling question: how could the same wisdom that created the innocence of the lamb have created the violent fire of the tiger?
"The Human Abstract" is based on one of Blake's favorite topics, the need to reshape society through the reconstruction of governing laws. In this poem society is shown to function in cycles, usually ending in corruption and oppression. The conclusion shows that man's law comes not from the gods, but from within man's own brain.
There isn't much depth to "Infant Sorrow." It is intended to indicate the pain of birth and the harshness of the world. Blake shows that the pain continues after the birth of the child and, rather than move forward to follow in a father's footsteps, the child seeks the temporary security of the mother.
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"The Poison Tree" is purely allegorical. It deals with repressed anger which grows inside of a man and becomes a living thing, a tree. Watered by tears, the tree grows large and produces fruit, which is symbolic of an action or deed. An enemy eats the fruit and is destroyed. Thus, the fruit of internalized anger will result in death"

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was probably the most respected poet of the Romantic era. His experiences were forged in the lake district of northern England and the streets of revolutionary France. A master of blank verse, Wordsworth wrote in a natural style and simple language that were imitated by many other poets, but never duplicated.
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"Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" is one of Wordsworth's best examples of tranquil blank verse. Returning five years later to a place he loved, the Wye River near the abbey, the poet wished to recreate a memorable experience and share it with his beloved sister who cherished nature nearly as much as he.
"My Heart Leaps Up" expands the concept developed in the poem "The Tables Turned," when Wordsworth writes "we murder to dissect." The poet states that he still delights in seeing a rainbow; and if there comes a time in life when he loses that childish impulse, he would rather be dead. Clearly, he values the innocence of nature.
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"The World Is Too Much with Us" tells of what man has done to the natural environment which provides us with what we need in life. In a tone of genuine sorrow, Wordsworth states that he would rather be a pagan, an ancient and uncivilized worshiper of nature, than a corrupt Christian who has no love for his own home.
"It Is a Beauteous Evening" provides a bit or irony as Wordsworth recalls an incident involving his daughter. When they hear thunder over the water, he's impressed, but she is not. The poet learns that he, as an adult, needs to be reminded of his god; while she, as a child, knows that her god is always with her.
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"The Solitary Reaper" tells of a magic moment. Wordsworth is traveling when he hears a woman singing as she is reaping alone in a field. He is captivated by the beauty and sorrow of the Celtic song. Although he cannot understand the words, he still finds the tune emotionally moving and memorable.

Samuel Coleridge

Samuel Coleridge was a close friend to William Wordsworth. Although they co-produced Lyrical Ballads, their paths were very different. Coleridge's elaborate rhyme patterns featured aspects of the inner mind, visions and dreams. Much of his work was based on drug-induced experiences, but the actual verses were the products of a lucid and organized mind.
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"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" from Lyrical Ballads may be Coleridge's best work. The frame story, done in ballad verses, involves a madman who captivates a wedding guest, forcing him to hear a tale of fantasy and horror. The Mariner's curse is that he must travel the earth, telling his tale to those who might bring harm to nature.
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"Kubla Kahn" is an incomplete poem that is designed in two parts. The first section tells of an interrupted vision related to the stories of the great Kahn's palaces. The second part deals with the beliefs that man could control his visions, manipulate his subconscious mind, he could create the best palaces but would be rendered insane.

Lord Byron (George Gordon)

Lord Byron was a heroic figure to the people of his generation, mainly because of his adventurous life. While not always artistic, his poerty was lively and entertaining. Byron spend many years abroad and wrote his most famous works in Europe. He died shortly after he joined the Greeks in their war for independence.
"She Walks in Beauty" is not a typical Bryon poem. The subject in the verses is Bryon's cousin by marrage, a recent widow who attends a social gathering dressed in traditional black. The poet admires the subtle dignity and refined grace that she seems to show, suggestive of an inner spirit to match the outer presence.
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"We'll No More Go A-Roving" is not of great value to the world of poetry, but it does offer insights into Byron's personality. He believed that life should be lived to the fullest. The lines "the sword outwears its sheath,/And the soul wears out the breast" state that the human spirit glows on after the body begins to fail.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was written in installments whiile Bryon traveled through Europe and the Middle East after leaving the university. It made him English chief literary figure upon his return. Childe Harold is Byron's innocent alter ego, and through his eyes the poet examines the worlds of past and present.
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Don Juan was written while Byron was living in Italy (some believe in forced exile). The poem is at least eighty percent digression, telling the poet's philosophy and providing very humorous, satiric insights. Byron's Don Juan is an innocent who is chased by aggesssive woman, some of whom he can't escape to "save" himself.

Percy Shelley

Percy Shelley, like his friend Lord Byron, came from a family with wealth and influence. Because of the political nature of his work and the bad press he received over his romantic involvements, he chose to live abroad. His work is intellectually challenging, while his subjects cover a wide variety of literary interests.
"Ozymandias" is a very popular sonnet which most readers are inclined to believe is based on the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses. However, considering the time period and the poet's dislike of dictators, Shelley may have making predictions about the Emperor Napoleon, whose power was soon to crumble.
"Ode to the West Wind" praises the destructive power of the winter to disrupt the remains of nature's death so a new generation can be born. Shelley asks the wind to spread his ideas like seeds to take root in a future time, for "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
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"To a Skylark" praises the songs of nature for their perfect beauty. But Shelley says that man's "sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought" and thus are better since they have meaning. He asks the skylark to teach him to sing with the beauty of nature's voice, so all the world will listen to his songs.
"To --" is a short, beautiful sentiment saying that music and scents live on in the memory long after the cause of them has gone. So, too, the thoughts of a loved one remain in the memory, long after the departed one has moved on. "Love itself shall slumber on."
"A Dirge" is almost Wordsworthian in its sorrow for what man has done to his natural environment. Shelley claims the elements of nature express sorrow for what man has done and "Wail, for the world's wrong."

John Keats

Of all the major Romantic poets, John Keats was probably the least political. Keats's family was subject to consumption (tuberculosis), so he knew of the probability of an early death; and much of his verse dwells on the theme. However, before he died at age twenty-six, he had produced a remarkable body of poetry after his obsessive work of four years.
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" expresses Keats's appreciation for a poet and a teacher. A teacher suggested thathe Keats read a new version of Homer's classics, and Keats was transported back in time to the Trojan War through the power of the verse--due to the mastery of Chapman's translation.
"Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art" admires the power of a blazing star in the heavens, alone and able to look upon all of creation. Though the star will never feel pain and is seemingly immortal, the poet doesn't indicate that he would trade his human warmth and mortality for the star's isolation.
"When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be" is a sonnet that goes right to the source of Keats's most immediate concern: his impending death. He says that beyond pain, never knowing love, and loss of fame for the poetry that he knows he could produce, his greatest fear is that his songs may go unwritten and unheard.
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"Ode to a Nightingale" is one of Keats's saddest autobiographical works. He tells of the pain that he suffers to be able to continue his work. He refuses medication so he may remain clear-headed. He battles the nightingale's songs of gentle sleep in the forest, so tempting to the dying poet who craves relief and rest.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" recalls a similar topic in "Bright Star." The poet wonders if it is better to be frozen in a world of art than to be subject to pain, age, and death. The poet concludes with a line that has confounded scholars for years: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
"To Autumn" is an ode that praises the sights and smells of the "richest" season of the year. Autumn is a time of harvest, a time that is directly connected with the "golden years." He says spring has great songs but autumn has its songs too, meaning don't wish for spring when we can appreciate autumn.