April 14


Were the Romantic poets romantic?


This post is an interlude in my short introduction to five of the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, and Keats.

There are good reasons to consider the Romantic poets “romantic” people, poets who cared a lot about romantic love and longing, and not just Jane Campion’s film, Bright Star, about Keats and Fanny Brawne, which the New York Times called, “perfectly chaste and insanely sexy. It struck one reader as strange, in my comments to an earlier post, that I didn’t consider Bryon a central Romantic, when clearly one of his slower weekends was probably more romantic than most of our lives.

Wordsworth, after all, wrote:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

And Shelley eloped with Mary Godwin,  Keats wrote myths of love in Endymion and Lamia, and Blake said that the apocalypse “will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.”

On the other hand, the term “Romantic” was not meant at the time to describe a particular fascination with romantic love. It was intended as a contrast with an older vision of poetry and art, the “Classical.”

WJ Bate offers this definition of the “classical” view: “art is an imitation of nature.” In the classical view, art’s job is to reproduce, in its ideal form, what is out there in the world. The artist’s own psyche is of less interest than his or her efforts to produce cleanly and clearly the facets of the external world.

The Romantic, in contrast, is concerned with the emotions, the imagination, the process by which the mind forms its own reality. The poet, then, is not a editor, re-ordering the pre-existing world into a clarified form, but a creator, a human God, whose individual imagination creates the world afresh, and whose intuitions survey what lies beyond it.

Now, this is just the scholarly description. It might or might not be useful. But it does, I think, throw light on a peculiar feature of many of the most famous poems of the English Romantics: the speaker or protagonist spends most or all of the poem alone.

In poems like “Autumn,” “Intimations of Immortality,” “The Ancient Mariner,” and “Ode to the Western Wind,” we do not meet very sociable people. When one’s poetry is meant to explore the functioning of the imagination, one’s focus necessarily turns inward. When one wishes to merge with a supernatural force beyond the physical world, one cannot spare too much thought on girlfriends. When outside relationships disturb this solitude, either they ruin it, or it ruins them.


Blake’s poetry is a little tricky to put into these boxes. Blake used a constellation of dramatic personae and mythological characters to dramatise the conflicts within the human self, the conflicting forces that he believed keep us all in bondage to nature, natural reason, and death.

But Lord Byron’s romantic poetry may suggest that he was not wholly a Romantic. He remained too interested in other people.

Next: Shelley.



Bright Star, Classical versus Romantic, Coleridge, fanny brawne, John Keats, literature, Lord Byron, mary godwin, Romantic poets on love, The Lucy Poems

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  • Peregrine says:

    Mr. Wallace: Are U saying that these poets could feel a stirring in their loins but were not interested in doing anything about it? Except for Lord Byron.

  • Peregrine says:

    These poets seem to be writing about courtly love, the unattainable and idealized romantic love. They preferred to write about it instead of wooing a suitable maiden. Contrast their pallid verses with Ernest Dowson and his “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.” He didn’t write about urns, daffodils, autumn. His subject was love, real romantic love. I realize that U are writing about certain poets during a particular time and not real romance as Dowson did. Why don’t U write a scholarly paper on real romantic poets? About real romance and not the distant and courtly type.

  • Hi Peregrine,

    I think these poets just wrote about other things. Courtly love was no longer a social or poetic convention in the 19th century, and these were pretty bourgeois people (apart from Byron). They do seem, compared to some of the poets that preceded or followed them (like Dowson), a little prim. It was surprising for me to learn, for instance, how much their contemporaries were bothered by ideas that challenged, even lightly, Christian doctrine, and how much Coleridge attempted to adhere to Christian orthodoxy in his own work.

    I don’t know much about Dowson–or the other “decadents”–that will have to be a much later post.

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