How might one change a romantic poem to a poem in the modern era?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Romantic poets valued imagination which leads to spiritual truths and put it at the core of their work. Emotions are valued more than reason and logic, and nature is a place of respite from the pressures of the man-made world which was everywhere. A pastoral life is presented as life of simplicity, in contrast to a bustling and materialistic world. Symbolism, often in the form of allegory, is nearly always presented—and repeated—in Romantic poetry. Finally, poetry of this era was focused on individualism and bold-acting heroes. 

Modern poetry is more difficult to categorize, as it ranges from a more formal and structured format to something completely formless in conventional terms. In general, though, modern poetry is much more symbolic and full of imagery; nature, if it is references at all, is generally used symbolically. Modern poetry is not always rhymed and is sometimes written from the perspective of an anonymous speaker or in a stream-of-consciousness style.

Both types of poetry were written in language understandable to their readers.

Romanticism was the primary literary movement of the nineteenth century, and William Wordsworth is one of the first and most important Romantic poets. Consider "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud":

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

This poem is clearly a statement about the ability of nature, a simple field of daffodils dancing in the wind, to lift the speaker's spirits—even as he thinks of the scene much later. That’s it.

To make this poem modern, consider doing some of the following:

  • Eliminate the rhyme, or at least make it a less obvious.
  • Decide on something the daffodils might symbolize other than nature. Perhaps they represent an emotion such as love, beauty, or strength; perhaps they are symbols of something such as a season of life or a group of some kind. You might even connect them to another memory or experience. (De-emphasize nature.)
  • Use the symbol of the daffodils to teach some kind of a moral lesson. (In other words, they do not just exist to make you smile.)
  • Depending on how much freedom you have to change the Romantic poem, change the speaker altogether, or at least change the tone of the poem. Instead of delight, for example, perhaps there is fear or tension connected with the dancing flowers.

The imagery in this work is useful to a modern poem, as is the stanza form, if you choose to keep it. A modern version of this poem might look the same or at least similar, but it should sound different. Rather than keep the idyllic reflection of simple nature, turn the image of the daffodils into something more symbolic, and keep the language understandable. These general ideas should work for any poem.