Romantic Poets

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Identify two themes that “ LONDON” by William Blake and “ OZYMANDIAS” by Percy Bysshe Shelley have in common. Then discuss how your chosen themes reflect the Romantic Period.

The poem "London" by William Blake focuses on the ruinous effects of war and man's habit of desecrating churches. The poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley reflects the pessimism, themes of transience and irrationality that typify Romantic literature. The two poems share themes of despotism, injustice and decay which reflect the anti-establishment ideals of the Romantic Age.

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First, both of these poems deal with the injustices perpetrated by kings. Blake's description of how "the hapless soldier's sigh / Runs in blood down palace walls" is a commentary on the endless wars engaged in not just by Britain's George III of his time, but by the European monarchs in general. Similarly, in Shelley's poem, the "sneer of cold command" on the lips of Ozymandias shows that this "king of kings" was the same as all the rest: despotic and warlike.

The second theme both Blake and Shelley express is that of the transience of earthly works. In Blake's description, London appears as a decayed city, with its "blackening" churches and its population who seem to wander the "chartered" streets without hope. Shelley's Ozymandias is a king whose once mighty civilization has been wiped away. There is an apocalyptic warning in each of these poems that however great man thinks his works are, all will pass away.

Both of these themes typify the thinking prevalent among artists and intellectuals of the Romantic period. Romanticism was, in many ways, a reaction against what was perceived as the self-satisfied optimism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. There is a deep strain of pessimism and irrationality in the Romantic mindset, expressed not only by Shelley and Blake, but by their contemporaries Byron and Keats and by European poets of the period in general, such as Heine, Leopardi and Pushkin. The passing away of man's greatness is a frequent subject. And the injustice and dictatorial nature of kings and other leaders is often pointed out by the same writers. In spite of the pessimistic thinking of the nineteenth century, the egalitarian ideals developed in European and American thought in the previous century were extended and reinforced during the Romantic period. Both Blake and Shelley were liberals who believed in democracy, and were against autocratic governments and the monarchies of Europe. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the political leaders of Europe tried to turn back the clock and restore conservative leadership to Europe. Most of the intellectual elite, including poets, were against this reactionary movement.

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