What Characterizes Romantic Poetry?
In the 18th century, writers and artists began to push against the ideals of earlier years. The end of the French Revolution helped bring about a new way of thinking that rejected scientific reasoning and blind obedience to societal expectations. Writers tackled topics that had been viewed as too common and embraced styles that critics previously saw as too casual. Examination of this period of literary history can help you better understand the complicated evolution of poetry.
Romantic writers are often portrayed as isolated, introspective individuals. Writers from this period focused on self-expression and uniqueness instead of adhering to social guidelines. You can see this focus on the individual in William Wordsworth's poems "Tintern Abbey" and "Prelude," as the speaker discusses the development of his own mind. This genre in which the speaker describes the cultivation of the self's psychological state is called "Bildungsgeschichte" or "Bildungsroman." Commonly thought of as a coming-of-age stories, this genre shows an individual's growth into an adult and realization of his full potential. These stories embody the notion of celebrating the individual, as the Romantic writers loved to do. Romantic writers believed the individual was capable of greatness and goodness and so considered self-knowledge a necessary part of producing poetry.
One way for individuals to access the divine was to commune with nature, away from the oppressive trappings of industrialized society. Writers believed immersion in the everyday beauty of nature could produce the most powerful, relatable works. In poems like "Autumn," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writers explored the role of nature as humanity's connection to the divine. Nature helped writers experience and express their desired liberation from the rules of the ever-expanding cities. Corruption waited in the city, but freedom and creative genius could be found in nature.
The preceding period, the Age of Enlightenment, had perpetuated the importance of reason and scientific thought. Romantic writers found these dogmas stifling, and desired instead to allow emotion to guide them. The Romantic writers' emphasis on emotion ties into their elevation of the individual, as emotion was celebrated as a personal and universal experience. A good example of this is Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats" in which Shelley thoroughly describes his grief at the loss of his friend. Shelley allows emotion to govern this poem, not rational reason, and even the seasons and time itself become involved in the speaker's mourning process.
One huge stylistic break from earlier poetry is the rejection of affected language in favor of colloquial diction. Wordsworth describes this stylistic preference in the preface for his "Lyrical Ballads." The desire to elevate the speech of the common man signifies the Romantic writers' belief in the beauty of the everyday. This style also aligns with the poetic themes of Romantic writers. More and more subjects were deemed acceptable topics for poems, and the Romantic writers' style reflected this shift.
- The Norton Anthology of Western Literature; Sarah Lawall
- Norton Anthology.com: The Romantic Period
- The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism; Vincent B. Leitch
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