Can you help me compare and contrast the Romantic versus Anti-Romantic aspects that can be seen in the following poems, including aspects of  persona?'Horses' by Edwin Muir, 'Hunting Snake' by...

Can you help me compare and contrast the Romantic versus Anti-Romantic aspects that can be seen in the following poems, including aspects of  persona?

'Horses' by Edwin Muir, 'Hunting Snake' by Judith Wright, 'The Woodspurge' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and 'The Cockroach' by Kevin Halligan.

Note that Edwin Muir has two poems, 'The Horses' and 'Horses'.  In this case, the poem is 'Horses'.

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morningvictoria eNotes educator| Certified Educator

These four poems all feature a persona who turns to nature, in this case, four kinds of animals, to interrogate the meaning of life.  This personal urgency to understand life, and the close observation of nature to do so, are typically Romantic traits.  In Rossetti's 'The Woodspurge', for example, we sense the persona's ennui and forlorn openness to nature to receive some sign about how to continue with life.  The initial lines establish a restless, dreary atmosphere, as

The wind flapp'd loose, the wind was still,

Shaken out dead from tree and hill...

Lying down, he stares at the weeds in the grass and his attention is captured by the features of the woodspurge.  By observing the simple "three cups in one" characteristic of the woodspurge, he grasps a fresh understanding of life, albeit on a minor scale.  This comes across in the lines,

From perfect grief there need not be

Wisdom or even memory...

He seems to be realising that there is nothing grand happening here, he is not gaining wisdom or a profound memory, but he is achieving something more subtle, a simple and coolly calming recognition of a fact of nature.

Kevin Halligan's, 'The Cockroach', is similarly Romantic in this sense. He closely observes the banal behaviour of a cockroach, only to realise at the end of the meditation that "I thought I recognised myself".  By studying nature, he gains an insight into himself.  After observing the 'Hunting Snake' in Judith Wright's poem, the persona and her companions are able to take "a deeper breath of day" which echoes the effects in Rossetti's and Halligan's poems.  Muir's 'Horses', by contrast, enters a grander state of mind as he watches the horses ploughing the field.  Rather than recognising his part in the simplicity of nature, the view of the horses allows him to enter another world, another kind of consciousness.  To him, they seem

              ...terrible, so wild and strange,
Like magic power on the stony grange.

This attitude is arguably closer to traditional Romanticism as the poet here uses nature to access a more sublime and aggrandising sensation within himself.

However, three of the poems here show aspects of Anti-Romanticism such as a refusal to idealise and an avoidance of grand conceptions of the self.  Judith Wright's poem especially seems to advocate a more grounded and carefree attiude to life.  The walkers in her poem are stopped by the sight of "the great black snake".  She pauses to observe the creature minutely, commenting on the way the "sun glazed his curves of diamond scale", but she refuses to be overly impressed by him and the poem finishes as the walkers shrug their shoulders and simply continue with the walk without ascending into any grandiose meditations.  They "looked at each other, and went on."  This is especially interesting as the snake is possibly a direct reference to the tempting serpent of Genesis.  The persona refuses to be tempted by the serpent's promise of knowledge and instead takes a basic satisfaction in the ordinary activity of enjoying the "garden" and the walk.  Similarly, the choice of such ordinary and small-scale features of nature in 'The Woodspurge' and 'The Cockroach' is indicative of an Anti-Romantic approach.  The poets seem to have deliberately focused on minor aspects of nature to debunk the idea that our existence here is in any way majestic or heightened.