What are some characteristics of Romantic poetry?

Some characteristics of Romantic poetry are an emphasis on the individual, a celebration of emotion, and an interest in the natural world.

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Romantic poetry is distinct from other types of poetry for many reasons, mainly because of its emphasis on the self, exploration of the natural world, and celebration of intense emotions.

Romantic poets were interested in the minds of everyday individuals, and we can often find lyricism (the expression of emotion)...

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Romantic poetry is distinct from other types of poetry for many reasons, mainly because of its emphasis on the self, exploration of the natural world, and celebration of intense emotions.

Romantic poets were interested in the minds of everyday individuals, and we can often find lyricism (the expression of emotion) in Romantic poems, since these poets explored intense human feelings. Romantic poets also wrote for everyday audiences, so they used simple language that was easy for people to understand. This marked a departure from previous poetry movements like Neoclassicism, in which poets used literary elements like allusions to reference events or figures from history and mythology.

Romantic poets were also interested in the natural world. Romantic poems usually celebrate the beauty of natural elements like clouds, flowers, and bodies of water. These poems also sometimes celebrate memories and the happiness that personal memories can bring to an individual.

For example, we can see these characteristics of Romantic poetry in poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," for instance, features a speaker who is by himself and encounters a field of daffodils that make him think of the stars. After the experience, he often thinks back to the daffodils and is filled with joy. Here, we have a distinctly Romantic poem, because it emphasizes solitude, nature, memory, and emotions.

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Romantic poetry became popular in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Poetry of the Romantic period typically demonstrated the following qualities:

An appreciation of nature: In Romantic poetry, nature is sometimes depicted as calming and joyful, such as in William Wordsworth's "The Daffodils," and sometimes as dark and mystical, as in John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale." Nevertheless, people engage with nature in ways that define and shape their character and conflicts.

Introspection / focus on emotions: A wide range of emotions are explored in Romantic poetry as speakers reflect on various challenges. The speaker of "My Heart Leaps Up" by Wordsworth finds incredible joy when beholding a "rainbow in the sky." The speaker of "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe grieves the loss of his beloved, who "lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me." The emotional landscape of Romantic poetry is varied, demonstrating the wide range of the human experience.

Attention to the supernatural or gothic: Romantic poets didn't shy away from exploring themes of the supernatural. Poe's poetry leaned toward gothic themes, portraying dark settings and mysterious conflicts. This is evident in "The Raven," which is set on a dreary December evening around midnight and features a bird who taunts the speaker by repeating only one word: "Nevermore."

Celebration of creativity: Romantic literature followed the period of the Enlightenment, which celebrated reason and logic. Instead of embracing logic, Romanticism turned its focus toward possibility and imagination. Thus, William Blake's poem "The Tyger" uses extended metaphors to examine the relationship between God, evil, and humanity; furthermore, the poem raises more questions than it answers. Keats's poem "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be" examines the possibility of dying young and before one has the opportunity to fulfill their creative potential.

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Characteristics of the Romantic period include:

  • a return to (or respect for) nature
  • idealization of women and children
  • an interest in the past (especially medieval)
  • championing personal freedom
  • melancholy
  • the supernatural and the occult
  • imagination and emotion

There are variations on these characteristics, and some reviewers will include more or fewer. This is what I have used in the classroom.

The respect for nature (or a return to nature) was driven by the Romantics distress over seeing the environment spoiled and polluted by factories and mining in England's Industrial Revolution. Personal freedom was something most Romantics supported, especially the American and French Revolutions. Melancholy, or sadness, is also often seen in the poetry of the Romantics. Changes to the world around them (nature) and the plight of the less fortunate would have been some causes for melancholy.

Those less fortunate were the poor, and women and children, who had no rights and were often victimized. These were the people who worked for pennies in the many factories springing up as a part of industry. They were forced to work long hours. And poverty was such that losing a job was the difference between life and death. Even if a woman was pregnant, to stop working was not an option. In coal mining, exploitation was rampant. Children, because of their small size, would climb into hard to reach spaces. The loss of a hand or foot—or life—was not unusual among the children—however, working any number of years would many times lead to death caused by breathing coal dust.

An interest in the past (especially the Middle Ages) hearkened back to a time when honor guided the lives of Arthur's knights (as Romantics saw it)—when chivalry and love were infused in Arthurian tales (such as those collected and translated by Sir Thomas Mallory).

Interest in the supernatural and the occult, as well as the use of imagination or presence of emotion, are closely linked. "Supernatural" referred to anything above or beyond the norm in this world. Supernatural things today often include ghosts, poltergeists and aliens. During that time, God was considered to be supernatural, as well as ghosts, witches, spirits, etc.

The imagination was also often a major element in poems of the Romantic writers.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an epic poem that includes a majority of the characteristics of Romantic writing. For example...

At length did cross an Albatross (62)

This refers to the bird the mariner (sailor) kills. This is a violent act against nature, for which the mariner will be punished. Coleridge also goes to great lengths to describe the beauty and majesty of nature on the mariner's journey. All of this shows a respect for nature.

"Life-in-Death" is a supernatural character in the story. She is the "mate" of Death; she saves the mariner from death when the other sailors die:

The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,

Who thicks man's blood with cold. (190-191)

Other-worldly creatures and the description of the living things under the water are a few examples of imagination in the poem.

The Wedding Guest, to whom the mariner tells his tale, experiences melancholy:

He went like one that hath been stunned,

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn. (619-622)

Knowledge brought him sadness.

These elements are not present in every poem, but generally, many are included in Romantic poetry.

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