A Brief Guide to Romanticism[1]
"In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the heart of man."
--William Wordsworth, "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"
Romanticism was arguably the largest artistic movement of the late 1700s. Its influence was felt across continents and through every artistic discipline into the mid-nineteenth century, and many of its values and beliefs can still be seen in contemporary poetry.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact start of the Romantic movement, as its beginnings can be traced to many events of the time: a surge of interest in folklore in the mid- to late-eighteenth century with the work of the brothers Grimm, reactions against neoclassicism and the Augustan poets in England, and political events and uprisings that fostered nationalistic pride.
Romantic poets cultivated individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural. Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics. German romantic poets included Fredrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and British poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon Lord Byron, and John Keats propelled the English Romantic movement. Victor Hugo was a noted French Romantic poet as well, and romanticism crossed the Atlantic through the work of American poets like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe. The Romantic era produced many of the stereotypes of poets and poetry that exist to this day (i.e., the poet as a highly tortured and melancholy visionary).
Romantic ideals never specifically died out in poetry, but were largely absorbed into the precepts of many other movements. Traces of romanticism lived on in French symbolism and surrealism and in the work of prominent poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke.

William Blake

Blake was a nonconformist who associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day, such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. In defiance of 18th-century neoclassical conventions, he privileged imagination over reason in the creation of both his poetry and images, asserting that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. He declared in one poem, "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's." He expressed his opposition to the English monarchy, and to 18th-century political and social tyranny in general In the prose work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), he satirized oppressive authority in church and state.
He taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Italian, so that he could read classical works in their original language. In Felpham he experienced profound spiritual insights that prepared him for his mature work. They have neither traditional plot, characters, rhyme, nor meter. They envision a new and higher kind of innocence, the human spirit triumphant over reason.
Blake believed that his poetry could be read and understood by common people, but he was determined not to sacrifice his vision in order to become popular. In 1808 he exhibited some of his watercolors at the RoyalAcademy, and in May of 1809 he exhibited his works at his brother James's house. Some of those who saw the exhibit praised Blake's artistry, but others thought the paintings "hideous" and more than a few called him insane.

“The Sick Rose” by William Blake (1794)

1O Rose, thou art sick!

2The invisible worm

3That flies in the night,

4In the howling storm,

5Has found out thy bed

6Of crimson joy:

7And his dark secret love

8Does thy life destroy.

William Wordsworth

While the poems (from Lyrical Ballads) themselves are some of the most influential in Western literature, it is the preface to the second edition that remains one of the most important testaments to a poet's views on both his craft and his place in the world. In the preface Wordsworth writes on the need for "common speech" within poems and argues against the hierarchy of the period which valued epic poetry above the lyric.

Wordsworth's most famous work, The Prelude (1850), is considered by many to be the crowning achievement of English romanticism. The poem, revised numerous times, chronicles the spiritual life of the poet and marks the birth of a new genre of poetry.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon”William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; 5
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn; 10
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
"She was a Phantom of delight" W. Wordsworth
SHE was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleam'd upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment's ornament:
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; / 5
Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay. / 10
I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin liberty;
A countenance in which did meet / 15
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food,
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles. / 20
And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller between life and death:
The reason firm, the temperate will, / 25
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly plann'd
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of an angel light. / 30

John Keats

In July 1820, he published his third and best volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. The three title poems, dealing with mythical and legendary themes of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, are rich in imagery and phrasing. The volume also contains the unfinished "Hyperion," and three poems considered among the finest in the English language, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale."

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” ("the beautiful lady without pity")
by John Keats
A ballad
Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, 5
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.
I see a lilly on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew; 10
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light, 15
And her eyes were wild.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery's song. 20
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
She found me roots of relish sweet, 25
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep, 30
And there I shut her wild sad eyes--
So kissed to sleep.
And there we slumbered on the moss,
And there I dreamed, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed 35
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried--"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!" 40
I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.
And this is why I sojourn here 45
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

“An Ode to Psyche” by Keats

When Keats wrote this poem, he was thinking about the soul and theorized that the soul developed, became individualized, through suffering (letter, April 21, 1819). It is characteristic of Keats's thought that he saw the development of the soul (a positive experience) tied inextricably to suffering (a negative experience). The conflicted nature of life and the effort to unite opposites run through his poetry.

The Myth of Psyche

In Greek myth, Psyche was a princess whom Cupid, the son of Venus, fell in love with. Fearing his mother's jealousy of her beauty, he visited her only at night, in total darkness. In one version of the myth she was overcome by curiosity and in another she was frightened by a rumor that her lover was a snake; in any event, to discover who and what he was, she looked at him one night after he had fallen asleep. When oil dripping from her lamp awoke him, he fled. Psyche searched for him, enduring much suffering. As a reward for her devotion and the hardships she had undergone, she was made immortal and reunited with Cupid.


“An Ode to Psyche” by Keats

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers1, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even unto thine own soft-conched ear2:
Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see3
The winged Psyche with awaken'd eyes?
I wander'd in a forest thoughtlessly4,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp'ring roof 5
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied6:
'Mid hush'd cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian7,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions8 too;
Their lips touch'd not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean9 love:
The winged boy10 I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove11?
His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe's sapphire-region'd star12,
Or Vesper13, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none13a,
Nor altar heap'd with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer14teeming;
No shrine, no globe, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet15 dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond16 believing lyte,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retir'd
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans17,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouth'd prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane18
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts19, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster'd trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs20, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads21 shall be lull'd to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e'er could feign22,
Who breeding glowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought23 can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night24,
To let the warm Love in!25

1. 'tuneless numbers' are verses; this is Keat's self-deprecating reference to his own work.
2. A conch is a shell; in other words, Psyche's ear resembles a shell.
3. Note the similarity between this line and the final line of 'Ode to a Nightingale' - 'Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?
4. The speaker is wandering 'thoughtlessly', or without a care in the world.
5. Read the introduction to the ode above; Keats had originally written 'whispering fan' but his publishers altered it to 'whisp'ring roof', which destroys Keats's rhyme-scheme.
6. 'scarce espied' means difficult to see; the speaker glimpses, but can't really make out, the brook ahead
7. Read the introduction to the ode above; Keats's publishers inserted 'Tyrian' which means a purple or crimson dye because they could not define his original word 'syrian'.
8. 'pinions' is Keats's term for angel wings
9. 'aurorean' is another term for roseate
10. the 'winged boy' is Cupid
11. Psyche was not traditionally portrayed as a dove. However, Keats had read and admired Mary Tighe's 1805 work Psyche, which described the goddess as a 'spotless dove'.
12. 'sapphire-region'd star' is the moon, of which Artemis / Phoebe was the goddess
13. 'Vesper' is Hesperus, the evening star
13a. 'though temple thou hast none': remember Keats's letter to his brother about this ode, quoted above - 'You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius the Platonist who lived after their Agustan age, and consequently the Goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervour - and perhaps never thought of in the old religion - I am more orthodox that [for than] to let a hethen Goddess be so neglected.'
14. 'chain-swung censer' is a vessel in which incense is burnt at temples
15. This beautiful phrase - 'pale-mouth'd prophet dreaming' - recurs in the last line of the following stanza as well. Consider the juxtaposition - a prophet is typically passionate and righteous, seeking to sway others to his beliefs. But this prophet is 'pale-mouth'd' and 'dreaming' - he is in a trance.
16. 'fond' is merely another word for devoted
17. 'lucent fans' means shining wings; Psyche was sometimes portrayed with butterfly wings
18. 'fane' means temple; the speaker will be a priest to Psyche and build a temple to her in his mind
19. The speaker's thoughts branch out like the limbs of a tree.
20. 'zephyrs' are light breezes
21. 'dryads' are wood-nymphs
22. 'Fancy e'er could feign' means 'Fance could ever invent'
23. What are these shadowy thoughts? Perhaps thoughts which emerge unexpectedly or thoughts which cannot be fully understood or explained.
24. a 'casement' is a window
25. As explained in the introduction above, this final line was altered by Keats from 'To let warm Love glide in' to 'To let the warm Love in'. Biographers / critics believe the last two lines directly reference Keats's physical proximity to Fanny Brawne. She lived next door to the poet and their respective windows quite literally opened up to one another; they shared a common garden. (This interpretation was also discussed above: Ode to Psyche's language can also be linked to Keats's love letters to Fanny Brawne. He wrote of building an altar to her; he declared love to be his religion and Fanny 'its only tenet'; etc Was Fanny the embodiment of Psyche?)

Ode on a Grecian Urn
by John Keats
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? what maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Percy Bysshe Shelley