What do you see as the primary distinctions between the early- and late-Romantic poets? What themes are most important for the early Romantics, and what themes are most important for the late Romantics?  

The second generation of Romantic poets was more pessimistic than the first. Byron, Shelley, and Keats all died young, whereas Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge were optimistic. Wordsworth is considered the most important early Romantic poet in English because he helped to usher in a new kind of poetry—one that explored the subjective experiences and emotions of the poet. As a result, his poetry is focused on the poet himself and his own struggles with nature and life. In this respect he is similar to William Blake in that both poets sought to convey intense emotion through their writing.

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The principal differences between the first generation of Romantics—Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge—and the later generation of Byron, Shelley, and Keats need to be understood in the context of the political events of the period from the 1790s through the 1820s.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge reached adulthood in the early years of the French Revolution. Blake was about 15 years older, but he was affected by the same spirit of the Revolution as the other two. This was a time when, as Wordsworth stated:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
And to be young was very heaven.

The early Romantics were basically optimists, looking forward to a positive future for a humanity that would be liberated from the old constraints and the older, oppressive ways of thinking. Despite the supernatural horrors it depicts and its suffering protagonist, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a hopeful work with a positive message.

In The Prelude, Wordsworth chronicles his maturation and sees unlimited vistas for man, in which one can cross the Alps and feel that one is over the crest without even knowing it—so powerful a being has man become.

The second generation, on the other hand, were largely pessimistic. They came of age during the Napoleonic wars, when France had become a dictatorship threatening and subjugating most of Europe. Not only were the ideals of the Revolution subverted in some sense, but the outcome in 1815, with Napoleon's final defeat, represented a victory for the reactionary forces in both Britain and on the Continent.

Byron, in both Childe Harold and Manfred, expresses a deadened, hopeless feeling in which his protagonists brood darkly and wish for "forgetfulness." Even in his satiric and comical Don Juan, Byron is focusing largely upon the darker side of the human spirit. Though Shelley in his "Ode to the West Wind" asks rhetorically:

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

the general tenor of the poem seems burdened by despair, in which the poet likens himself to the forest in autumn and, though he wishes to be empowered by the West Wind, must ask:

What if my leaves are falling like its own?

Keats, in his most famous poems, laments his isolation and the darkness of the artist's fate:

Already with thee! Tender is the night....
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown,
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

Byron, Shelley, and Keats all died young, unlike Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge. The idea of passing from "this life" early became a Romantic trope of the artist's fate, the tragic fact that would establish his glory and cause his soul, as Shelley described the already deceased Keats, to beacon "from the abode where the eternal are."

Admittedly the optimism-pessimism dichotomy can be overstated, but it is a basic start in understanding how so much changed in poetry in a relatively short period.

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