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We can't talk about British Romanticism without talking about William Wordsworth, the father of the whole she-bang. In fact, the beginning of British Romanticism as a literary movement is usually traced back to Wordsworth's publication of the collection of poems Lyrical Ballads in 1798, which he co-authored with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Why is Wordsworth so important? For one thing, he revolutionized the writing of poetry. Wordsworth was one of the first poets to try to make poetry accessible to the common man, to write in a language that was part of "everyday" speech. Not to mention that a lot of the big Romantic themes—like nature and emotion—first find expression in Wordsworth's poetry.
It's the book that kick-started the Romantic movement in England. In the preface to this collection of poetry, Wordsworth defines poetry as the "spontaneous overflow of emotion….recollected in tranquility." There's lots of emotion, for sure—and lots of trees and flowers.
More flowers, trees, and emotion. In this second collection of poetry, Wordsworth develops the Romantic project of bringing man/woman back to nature, focusing on the individual, and making poetry accessible to all.
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Look at how Wordsworth uses or everyday language in his poem "I wandered lonely as a cloud (Daffodils)"
Nature was by far the biggest theme in Wordsworth's writing. Check out these nature quotations from his poem, "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was William Wordsworth's sidekick. The two were good friends, and they spent a lot of time taking long walks together and talking about poetry. In fact, they were so close that Coleridge contributed some of his own poems to Lyrical Ballads. But poor Coleridge suffered from an inferiority complex—he just didn't think he was as good as his best friend Wordsworth. And, what's more, he suffered from depression.
Not only did this guy develop a lot of the themes and ideas that would become important in British Romanticism, but he also pushed the writing of poetry in new directions. Coleridge wrote a series of poems that came to be known as the "conversation" poems. That's because their language was conversational and informal, which was pretty groundbreaking at the time.
Coleridge's long poem, first included in the Lyrical Ballads, is the spooky story of a sailor's voyage in the Antarctic and other places. In the Antarctic, the Mariner kills an albatross (a bird) and things go way wrong for the ship and it's crew after that.
In this most famous of Coleridge's "conversation" poems, there's lots of nature, emotion, and imagination—it's as Romantic as Romantic poetry gets. In it, poor Coleridge is lamenting the fact that he can't go on a walk with his buddies (which include Wordsworth). But that's okay because he's sitting under a lovely lime-tree bower and he realizes he's just as happy sitting there as would be taking a walk.
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Like his friend Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge found a lot of inspiration in nature. Check out Coleridge writing about nature's inspirational power in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison".
The sublime is a big theme in Romantic poetry. And in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" we see it reflected in the spooky, icy landscape.
Lord Byron chased women (and men), lived extravagantly, was constantly in debt, traveled all over Europe, and died at the tender age of 36 after joining the Greeks in their war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Oh yeah, and in the middle of all that, he wrote one of the most famous Romantic poems: Don Juan.
Byron had a short life, but boy did he live it to the fullest. He's one of the giants of Romanticism, and is as famous for his crazy life as he is for his great poetry. Byron gave us the notion of the "Byronic hero." You know you're good when you have a literary term named after you.
If the name "Don Juan" evokes a whole host of associations—heartthrob, lover, heart-breaker, skirt-chaser—that's largely thanks to Byron's famous poem by the same name. Byron didn't invent Don Juan—there were legends and stories about him way before Byron came along and wrote about him. But Byron made Don Juan world-famous. And the cool thing is, this is a Romantic poem that actually deals with romance. As in, the romance of lovers. Thank you Byron for giving us the great romantic poem of Romanticism.
Byron's other great work tells the story of a young man who travels through foreign lands (similar to what Byron himself did, of course). Childe Harold's Pilgrimage gives us a perfect example of the "Byronic hero": The smart, handsome, moody protagonist who doesn't really respect figures of authority. Sound a little like Byron himself? That's because the poem is semi-autobiographical.
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We have to thank Byron for writing romantic poems that are, actually, about romance. But even when he's writing about a woman, he can't help but talk about nature. See how love is figured in terms of natural imagery in his poem "She Walks in Beauty."
Here's an example of the rowdy "Byronic hero," Childe Harold, from the first canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The quote is the fourth from the top.
Percy Bysshe Shelley belonged to the second, younger generation of Romantic dudes and dudettes, along with Lord Byron. He was really inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, and he held some pretty revolutionary social and political views. He spent a lot of time hopping around Europe with his brilliant wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. But the poor guy died at the age of 30 while sailing off the coast of Italy. How…romantic?
Shelley's most famous as the author of Prometheus Unbound. It's a play that was written to be read, not performed. We, as readers, are supposed to use our imaginations to envision it all. What do you expect when there are characters like "Asia" and "Ocean" in there?
The play is based on the famous Greek myth, which tells the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to bring it to humanity and was punished by being tied to a rock and tortured for, like, forever.
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps, and Shelley wrote this poem in honor of the mountain and the landscape surrounding it in the Chamonix valley in France. He was traveling through the region when he wrote it, and in it Shelley gives us a great description of a "sublime" experience. How can you not experience the sublime when you're surrounded by the Alps?
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The Romantics loved to write odes in praise of nature. Here's Percy Bysshe Shelley praising the wind in "Ode to the West Wind."
We told you the Romantics have a thing for ancient ruins. Check out Percy Bysshe Shelley's reflections on time in his poem "Ozymandias," about the ruins of an ancient Egyptian statue.
William Blake not only wrote poetry; he was also a painter and printmaker, and his poetry is often accompanied by fantastic imagery. He was a pretty unconventional guy for his time: he challenged the social convention of marriage (in the 1700s!), he was a political radical, and he was a big critic of conventional Christianity. His poetry, as we might imagine, is pretty rebellious—not surprising for a Romantic..
Part poetry, part illustration and painting, part aphorisms, it's hard to sum up what, exactly, this book is. That's because it doesn't fit neatly into any category. It's a pretty rebellious text, though (hint: Satan is characterized as a good guy). And of course there's a lot of emphasis on sense and sensuality, that favorite of Romantic themes (and one of Blake's favorites especially).
Now we have graphic novels, but back in the late 1700s, Blake was way ahead of the game when he published his second illustrated book of poetry. Yeah, like graphic poetry. Who knew poetry could be that much fun? In this book, Blake deals with the themes of innocence and experience, among other big Romantic themes: nature, the body, the sublime.
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William Blake was a big believer in the ideals of the French Revolution. And we can see him attacking the terrible conditions of inequality and oppression in Britain in his poem "London."
The sublime anyone? The speaker of William Blake's "The Tyger" certainly feels a whole lot of awe and wonder in considering a tiger. Who wouldn't?
Want to feel bad about yourself? When John Keats died at the age of 25, he had already written some of the most important works not only in British Romanticism, but in all of English literature.
Keats was a tiny, sickly, poor young man, who gave up medicine for poetry (yeah, good trade there, Keats). He didn't let anything hold him back. He's most famous for writing a series of six "odes" which are considered to be among the greatest in English poetry. And he wrote them all in under a year.
In this collection, we'll find all of Keats' poetry, including the famous "odes" like "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." We'll also find all of the big Romantic themes in these poems—from nature to the ancient past to the senses and the sublime. Don't miss out on Keats. He was young, but he sure knew a lot.
So Keats also loved writing letters. He wrote letters to his brothers, his friends, and to Fanny Brawne, the woman that he was in love with. And these letters are so beautiful and well-written that they're like works of art in themselves. They're also just really useful in giving us a sense of the life and times of the Romantic poets: who they hung out with, their writing habits, how they paid their bills (yeah, Romantic poets also had to pay bills, you know, and Keats had a hard time doing that).
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John Keats (like other Romantics) just loved old, excavated stuff. In the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the speaker finds a lot to consider in the the scenes painted on the side of an urn from ancient times.
Keats was pretty obsessed with nature (not surprising given that he's a Romantic). Check out these quotes about nature from his famous poem "Ode to a Nightingale."
For those of us who are into prose, Mary Shelley's our Romantic. After her death, Mary Shelley was remembered as the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley (there's patriarchy at work for you), now she's respected as a brilliant author in her own right. How could she not be, when she had the imagination to come up with Frankenstein and his monster?
Who doesn't know the name Frankenstein? The guy that created that scary creature—part human, part monster. The picture we have in our heads of the monster is very different from what Shelley described, which means you should go ahead and read the book to see what it's all about.
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There's a lot of emotion—one of Romantic literature's big preoccupations—in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Even the monster in her novel is super sappy. Check him out talking about his emotions in these quotes from Frankenstein.
Rebellion is a big theme in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Take a look the monster rebelling against his creator and cursing him in this quotation from the novel (Quote #2).
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