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Romantic Poetry

Updated on December 25, 2010

Probably the most familiar poetic style is Romantic poetry. Romanticism was an exceptionally complex phenomenon, which was manifested in the arts and in philosophy. As a style it dominated poetry from about 1790 to the end of the 19th century. Romanticism takes the view that ultimate truths can be approached only through feeling and intuition and that order and logic are restraints on the imagination. The Romantics felt that true creativity rises from the emotions, which are man's links with God and with the forces of nature.

Much Romantic poetry is devoted to nature as a source of power, morality, or beauty. Romantic poets also valued strong emotions, whether or not they were pleasant. Terror and despair are as common in Romantic poetry as love and exaltation. Through the supernatural and the suggestive the Romantics sought new ways of generating strong emotion. Irregularity, even "wildness," of form was admired, especially when it seemed to indicate spontaneity or strong feeling. Similarly, colorful language, pronounced rhythms, and evocative descriptions were favored.

The dates usually assigned to the Romantic movement in poetry are the years 1790 to 1830. The principal poets associated with the movement in England are William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley; in Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller; in France, Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo; and in Italy, Giacomo Leopardi.

Poetry of the Romantic Movement

The latter portion of the 18th century and the early portion of the 19th century were characterized throughout western Europe by various tendencies commonly summed up in the vague term "revival of romanticism." The following are some of the marks of this era affecting the development of poetry:

  1. There was a new emphasis on the lyrical, subjective, and spiritual elements of poetry, with a disposition to view its imaginative processes as existing not merely for the sake of pleasure, but for the pursuit of truth by means of the higher intuitions of the mind. Important representatives of this aspect of romanticism are Jean Paul Friedrich Richter and his followers in Germany and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England. Wordsworth in his prefaces (1800-1815) to editions of his poetry and Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817) discussed poetry as "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge," and the imagination as a means of apprehending and revealing truth.
  2. There was a disposition to revive and value the popular poetry of the medieval period, as exemplified by Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and the lectures and researches of Johann Gottfried von Herder.
  3. There was a corresponding disposition to discard the formal rules of poetic art which had been taught since the Renaissance and to exalt in their stead individual freedom and novelty of form. Representative documents in this connection are Victor Hugo's preface to Cromwell (1827) and a famous passage in Thomas Babington Macaulay's essay Byron (1831), ridiculing the classicist's conception of correctness in poetry.

The romantic attitude continued, for the most part, to dominate the 19th century, with emphasis on individuality, freedom, variety, and intensity as the qualities most highly valued in poetry, although this was tempered by the return, on the part of certain poets, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Germany and Matthew Arnold in England, for guidance and inspiration to the poetry of the ancients. Extraordinary metrical variety, in contrast with the regularity and conservatism of the neoclassical schools, was characteristic of the whole century. Another characteristic was the preponderance of the lyrical type. Drama was increasingly written in prose, the epic was developed only slightly, and narrative art found its chief expression in the form of prose fiction. Perhaps the most characteristic poetic type of the 19th century was the dramatic monologue, which combined elements of narrative poetry with the subjective expressiveness of the lyric.


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