Quick: picture a poet. Who do you see? Is it a moody, sensitive guy, wandering around a moor or a field or a forest? Congratulations! You have just conjured to mind a Romantic poet. Many of the stereotypes that we have about poets and poetry originated in this period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Artists disillusioned with industrialization and urbanization turned to nature for inspiration, valuing emotion over reason and feeling over rationality. They sought the awesome, divine beauty that could only be experienced in the tranquility of nature and only by one willing to be quiet long enough to feel it.
No one can say precisely what started the Romantic era, but its breakthrough in English literature was a 1798 volume of poetry entitled Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth. (Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge actually wrote some of the poetry as well, but more on that later.) Wordsworth's preface to a later edition of Lyrical Ballads essentially became the manifesto of literary English Romanticism. The poems, he promised the reader, were free of "gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers." Their goal, instead, "was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them …in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, … and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature."2
William Wordsworth is a quintessential Romantic poet. He lived not in smoky, crowded London but in the rugged beauty of England's Lake District. His poems were mentally composed during long walks outdoors. He sympathized with the poor and oppressed. He romanticized peasants and children, whom he believed capable of perceiving the divine more purely than those corrupted by city living. From his childhood, he was a remarkably intense figure. And as an adult, he believed above all else that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."3 Put passion together with plain language and meter, Wordsworth decreed, and you've got quality poetry.
Wordsworth warned readers of Lyrical Ballads that they would either love or hate the poetry, and the same seems to have been true of the poet himself. Wordsworth was, by all accounts, humorless and egotistical. He believed that he was a genius and liked to hang out with people who agreed with him on this point. He was so cheap that he charged tourists who visited him for tea. Despite his shortcomings, he was fortunate enough to have close companions like his sister Dorothy and friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge who were willing to sacrifice their own careers in order to advance his. Because of their efforts, and because of Wordsworth's undeniable talent and drive, we have today a beautiful body of work that speaks straight to the soul.