As a follow up to my primer on the GRE Subject Test in Literature, here is a brief introduction to five of the English Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Blake.
I love these writers, and I get kind of funny when friends dismiss them by saying things like, “The Romantic poets wrote about, you know, love and stuff.” By “funny,” I mean—I have so far escaped arrest.
The Romantics are fascinating both because of their poems and because of their investigations into what poetry meant, how it worked, what it revealed about the human mind and its freedom. But I’m also aware that these poets can, on the surface, seem a little strange, trivial even—Wordsworth talking about flowers, Keats sighing all the time, Coleridge with that lesbian vampire stuff. Personally, I continue to find Shelley difficult to deal with.
This tiny guide is meant, therefore, to offer a sort of opening to people curious about the Romantic poets. My method will be to first say something about Wordsworth, treating him, in order words, as the primary poet of the “major” Romantics, and then to show how Keats, Shelley, Blake, and Coleridge defined themselves (sometimes against their will) against him, against both his actual poetry and what they understood his poetic manifesto to be.
Clearly this is a very “kings and dates” approach to very complex set of poets. But it is more than justified in this particular case: these writers knew each other or knew of each other, worried about each other, discussed poetry with each other. Keats, for instance, hung out with Wordsworth, may have got the inspiration for the Nightingale Ode from a conversation with Coleridge, and was uneasy friends with Shelley.
According to the critic Harold Bloom, all Western poets since Wordsworth are Wordworthian poets. Yes, that includes you. Even if you don’t write poetry now, if you were to start, you would write Wordsworth-type poems. Wordsworth is so incredibly significant and original that it is hard to think oneself out of the mindset he bequeathed. We may quote his famous line about poetry, “emotion recollected in tranquility,” without realising how much it asserts, how much it precludes.
The basic argument goes like this: from Homer until Wordsworth, poets generally wrote about something external to themselves, like, say, the Trojan war, the fall of Satan, a graveyard, a woman or man they really liked. After Wordsworth, poetry becomes about the poet’s reflections on his or her own experiences. Whenever you read a modern poem where a poet recounts an event that might, objectively speaking, not been that big a deal, but is shown to be a big deal by the poet’s musings and insights (like The Fish)—that’s the Wordsworthian model.
Clearly one can attack such a huge claim on a variety of fronts, but even if it is only half or a quarter true, Wordsworth still remains a pretty significant writer. Wordsworth’s poetry turns the action of a poem away from an event happening in a real or imaginary world, and into a mental process happening within his own mind. Keats admired and feared this aspect of Wordsworth’s poetry, saying, “Here I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton…. [Milton] did not think into the human heart, as Wordsworth has done.”
This is the opening of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more
The poet’s task, in a poem like this, is to work through sensations and memories, processing experience, and to try to effect some internal satisfaction from the troubled, imperfect position in which he finds himself. The external spark for the poem is less important than the fire it engenders. It is therefore a very democratic poetry, with no need for Bryonic vistas or Miltonic hells. His contemporary, William Hazlitt said of Wordworth’s work, “It is one of the innovations of the time. It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age.”
Yet Wordsworth’s poems do not only concern the human mind. The imagination, when it is working properly, sees a reflection and sign of its own unity in the natural world outside it. If nature is beautiful, and the poet is able to perceive that beauty, then this proves something is healthy in the poet. Wordsworth’s poems frequently describe a moment of vision, of epiphany.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
That nature can provide such rich material for the poet’s mind proves there is a power or light or meaning in nature. If simple events, meagre scenes, and simple characters can spark fertile reflections and insights, then there is something luminous out there in the world, which the correctly functioning human mind can perceive and draw sustenance from. Wordsworth announces: “How exquisitely the individual Mind… to the external World / is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too… / The external World is fitted to the Mind.”
Such an outlook contains several problems, some of which should bother today’s poets, if, as has been claimed, we are all Wordsworthian now. What happens when a poet assumes, as Wordsworth did not, that the relationship between the individual and the world is forever untroubled, that it is merely the task to choose some personally affecting incident or thing and expect great poetic motions to emerge? Perhaps Wordsworth’s greatness comes from his open acknowledgement that such a connection is always in question, and the fatal costs of hoping for a response from the world that may not appear. That response may be unrecognised at the time; it may not come at all, leaving the the self to turn against itself, angry and self-divided, the only vital thing in a seemingly dead, hopeless landscape; it may be nightmarish if nature seems to turn malevolent, if the world begins to seem indifferent to us and our human needs.
This is the rest of the series: