Discussion of English Romantic poets usually refers to the small handful who wrote in a short period of time around the turn of the nineteenth century. Three poets in particular—Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley—dominate the public's imagination of what a Romantic poet is like. All three were friends and associates, they were gifted and serious about artistry, and all three died relatively young, leaving their poetry to be associated with the compelling blend of youth and doom. Romanticism, in fact, can be seen in almost all poetry, with stylistic strains going back at least to Shakespeare's peer Edmund Spenser (1553-1599), whose allegorical epic The Faerie Queen was to have a profound influence on Keats in the 1800's. It was the generation immediately preceding Keats's, though, that brought Romanticism into its own as a conscious artistic practice. A strong influence on those early Romantics was Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself in 1770, just before his eighteenth birthday, out of despair over the lack of critical reception for his works. Chatterton had a talent for mimicking the penmanship and language of the Middle Ages, and at age fifteen he published a collection of poems attributed to Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century poet he had made up. This nostalgia for the long-ago past became a key element of writing of the time, and is strongly evident in the works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) who is usually considered a quasi-Romantic poet, and of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who started his career writing mediocre poems but became an important part of literary history with historical romance novels. In the last years of the eighteenth century William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began Romanticism as we talk about it today. Both poets were free-thinkers, somewhat radical, ready to change conventional assumptions.
A main influence on them, and on the Romantic movements all over the world and in all different branches of art and philosophy, was the French Revolution. The central force of the Romantic movement was the importance placed on individuality, and the French Revolution was the key moment in world history when the rights of individuals came to be recognized. It marked the shift from a feudal society, where citizens...
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"Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art" is a sonnet, a traditional poetic form characterized by its length of fourteen lines and its use of a set rhyme scheme. Although there are many variations on the sonnet form, most are based on the two major types: the Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet and the Shakespearean, or English, sonnet. In different ways, "Bright Star!" resembles both. While its rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean form— three quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef, followed by a couplet rhyming gg—its thematic division most closely follows the Petrarchan model. In this type of sonnet, the first eight lines, or the octave, generally present some kind of question, doubt, desire, or vision of the ideal. The last six lines, or the sestet, generally answer the question, ease the doubt, satisfy the desire, or fulfill the vision. In Keats's poem, the first eight lines explore the steadfastness of the star, which watches over nature "with eternal lids apart." The speaker longs to be just "as steadfast," yet, like the star, he needs something to watch over. In the sestet, he turns his attention to his love, the object of his eternal vigilance.
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Compare and Contrast
1819: An iron cooking stove was patented by inventor John Conant. It was not a commercial success, however, because most housewives chose to cook food on their fireplaces, as they were accustomed.
Today: Many cooks are impatient with the time it takes to heat food with fire, gas, or electric heat, so they use the microwave oven, using principles they do not understand.
1819: The French Revolution was over: Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo four years earlier, and King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne.
Today: France is ruled by a president. It is one of the largest Western democracies to have elected a socialist leader in modern times (Francois Mitterand, in 1981).
1819: The Savannah was the first steamship to cross an ocean.
Today: Although the airplane has replaced steamship travel as a mode of transportation, luxury cruises are a popular vacation option.
1819: Beethoven, who had been losing his hearing since 1801, was completely deaf.
Today: Music aficionados find some of Beethoven's works composed after he went deaf, including his string quartets, to be among the most beautiful ever written.
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Topics for Further Study
In this poem, the speaker says that the star has qualities—steadfastness, watchfulness, fidelity—that he would like to have himself. Write a poem about an object of your choosing, in which you give that object qualities you admire.
Do you think a star is a powerful way for an author to imagine his relationship with his lover? Point out the strengths and weaknesses of this image.
Keats was criticized during his lifetime for being a "Cockney Poet," by which his detractors meant that he wrote like a lower-class person, a worker rather than a refined poet. Pick specific details about this poem that might have led them to this conclusion, and explain your choices.
John Keats was only 26 when he died. Read about someone who was famous and died young and draw a chart that points out other aspects that their life had in common with Keats's.
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Spoken Arts, Inc., has produced an audiocas-sette entitled Treasury of John Keats (1989).
Anthony Thorlby can be heard on two audio-cassettes entitled Keats and Romanticism (1973) for Everett/Edwards.
Blackstone Audio Books presents John Keats (1993) on two audiocassettes.
Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress, has produced Cheryl Crawford and Greg Morton Reading Poems and Letters of John Keats, May 1952 (1952) on audiotape reel.
The King's Collage has produced an audiocas-sette entitled John Keats' Pursuit of Essence (1972) with Kathryn Ludwig.
Harvard Vocarium Records has produced a 78 r.p.m. record album entitled Poems of John Keats (1941) with Robert Speaight.
Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Project has produced an audiocassette entitled John Keats and the Romantic Agony (1987) from the "Introduction to Modern English and American Literature" series.
Listening Library has produced an audiocassette entitled The Essential Keats (1989), selected and with an introduction by Philip Levine.
Monterey Home Video has produced a video-cassette entitled The Glorious Romantics: A Poetic Return to the Regency (1993).
Encyclopedia Britannica Corporation has produced a videocassette entitled John Keats: His Life and Death (1991), written by Archibald MacLeish and...
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What Do I Read Next?
Both the Modern Library and Penguin Classics have versions available of The Complete Poems of John Keats.
It is almost impossible to talk about Keats's poetry without encountering some discussion of the poet himself, and in particular the controversy between critics who thought he lacked talent and his friends who saw his genius. The debate is played out before readers' eyes in G.M. Matthews' collection of reviews and letters from Keats's time, called Keats: The Critical Heritage (published by Barnes and Noble in 1971).
One of the most influential recent books about Romanticism is by influential critic Northrop Frye, whose short 1968 book A Study of English Romanticism gives an excellent...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barnard, John, John Keats, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Bate, Walter Jackson, John Keats, Boston: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.
Bloom, Harold, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Cornell University Press, 1971.
The Columbia History of British Poetry, edited by Carl Woodring, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Keats, John, The Complete Poems, edited by John Barnard, Penguin, 1988.
Perkins, David, The Quest for Permanence: The Symbolism of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, Harvard University Press, 1959.
Reeves, James, A Short History of...
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