Romanticism so defines the 19th century that it is reflected in almost all examples of British culture from that era. This reaction against the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is in many ways best captured by the poetry the movement produced, stressing intuition over reason, emphasizing the individual and human emotion, and celebrating the pastoral over the urban. The six best known Romantic poets are Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and Percy Shelley.
Lord Byron (1788–1824) defined poetry as “the feeling of a Former world and Future,” explaining that poetry mirrors the universal human juxtaposition of simultaneous hope and fear. In his introduction to the Folio Society's collection, Johnathan Bate says, “Byron’s poetry wonderfully conjures back to life worlds that are lost: the ruins of Greece, the aesthetic glory (and the glory politics) of the Italian Renaissance, the wonders of the Orient, the exotic names of the Old Testament.”
One of Byron’s most famous works that fully embodies this yearning is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; in it, a jaded young man seeks distraction and stimulation by leaving England to travel the world. While not strictly autobiographical, Byron reveals much of himself through the character of Childe Harold, lamenting his wasted early youth and, through the dedication to the child Lady Charlotte, showing his wish to have that innocence restored to him. Due to the self-revelation in the first two cantos of the poem, Byron was hesitant to have it published, but at the urging of friends did so in 1812. It brought him immediate acclaim, and by 1818 he had published the third and fourth cantos.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage also provided the first archetype of the “Byronic Hero,” which came to define many characters in Victorian Gothic literature. Critic Lord Macaulay described this type as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” The Byronic hero can still be found in contemporary literature, a demonstration of Byron’s continued influence in the modern era, and is considered to be the precursor of a commonly observed type of antihero.
John Keats (1795–1821) was a soul who truly “burned too bright for this world,” tragically succumbing to consumption at the age of 25 — it is impossible to imagine the body of work he would have produced had he lived another 50 years. His poems received no critical acclaim in his lifetime, in stark contrast to those of Lord Byron, but following Keats’ death, his popularity grew. By 1900 he was considered one of the greatest poets of all time.
His beguiling verse and enticing couplets like, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” from his famous Ode to a Grecian Urn, continue to stimulate readers to this day. In this particular poem, he addresses the urn, asking questions about its various images — a group of men pursuing a group of women, a youth playing a tune on his pipes for his lover beneath a tree, and a group of villagers leading a cow to sacrifice. Like the urn itself, which survived the centuries of human existence unchanging, so these images are simultaneously free from time yet frozen in time — never will the men catch their quarry; never will the youth kiss his lover, but never will her beauty fade nor their love change. Experience is forfeited for immortality.
The fervor of his meditations on nature, art, love, and mortality propelled Keats to be a leader in the Romantic Movement. In his introduction to the Folio Society’s collection of Keats’ poetry, Andrew Motion, former poet laureate of the United Kingdom, writes, “The courage and cleverness of Keats in developing these ideas is deeply impressive. The capture of them in poems is not much short of miraculous.”
William Blake (1757–1827) was largely unrecognized in his time, like Keats, and was not even considered to be a leading Romantic poet until the 20th century. Although his contemporaries considered him mad for his idiosyncratic opinions, Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity. His work contains many philosophical and mystical undercurrents often characterized by reverence to the Bible but hostility toward the Church of England and to all forms of organized religion.
Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience, an illustrated collection of poems and arguably his defining work, in 1795. In them, Blake explores what he calls “the two contrary states of the human soul” and responds to Milton’s existential states of “Paradise” and “Fall” with his own definitions of consciousness — “Innocence” and “Experience.” These two categories became integral modes of perception in Romanticism; childhood, though not immune to the fallen world, is characterized by shielded innocence rather than original sin, with “experience,” the process by which the world intrudes on childhood, defined by the loss of verve through fear, inhibition, corruption, and most especially by the despotism of church, state, and aristocracy.
In the words of Samuel Coleridge, art is “the mediatress between, and reconciler of nature and man,” and nowhere is that better found than in Romantic poetry, which filters the torrents of ineffable emotion through the human mind and translates them into the vernacular.