Idealism in Romantic Poetry

Many of today's stereotypes about tortured, visionary poets stem from the Romantic period of literature. At the same time, though, a key aspect of Romanticism is idealism, or the poetic emphasis on the imaginative ideas of beauty and form. The characteristic of idealizing the world spans the various themes common to Romantic poetry.


Romantic poets idealize nature. They express awe of the natural world and the sublime in human connection to nature. This inspiring aspect of the countryside comes out in Romantic poetry. John Keats offers an example in his "Ode to a Nightingale." In the poem, Keats spends several lines describing nature as a "beaker full of the warm South" and an antidote to decay and death. In fact, Romantic poets often painted nature as a source of knowledge and spirituality as well as a refuge. Indeed, a look at the American Romantic-era poet Emily Dickinson shows this idealistic value of nature. One of her most famous poems equates hope as a bird, one that "never stops" and has never asked for anything.


A central theme to Romantic literature is the idealization of the individual. Romantic poets often celebrate the achievements not only of their individual selves, but also of the common man. This emphasis on the individual opposes the idea that the needs of the community dominate people's experiences. Walt Whitman writes an excellent example on the emphasis of individuality in the aptly named "Song of Myself." The American Romanticist goes through several experiences, always highlighting his individual perception of the situation. Percy Bysshe Shelley offers an example of idealizing an individual when he conveys god-like importance to his deceased friend in "Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats."


Romantics explore the ideal that thought and language define the universe. In fact, Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge gives a lot of thought to the imagination. According to Coleridge, the imagination relates to memory in that it "dissolves, diffuses, [and] dissipates, in order to recreate." This suggests that the imagination has the power to completely reformulate memories. Coleridge adds that the finite mind is eternally creating within the infinite, suggesting a continuous search for perfection and ideality. In fact, Coleridge includes the idea of eternal creation in his poem "Tintern Abbey." After returning home after five years, the narrator ponders how his memories served to comfort him, giving "tranquil restoration" and sweet sensations in his heart. The imagination, then, creates an idealized memory of a childhood home.


The Romantic poets are perhaps best known for their emotional intensity. For example, Coleridge idealizes the parent-child bond in "Frost at Midnight." He addresses, "My babe so beautiful!" and declares his heart thrills "with tender gladness" to know the child will wander "like a breeze" in the countryside, a sharp contrast to his own restrictive urban childhood. Keats explores the idealized connection between love and infinity on "Ode on a Grecian Urn," writing about the eternal love of a youth and maiden forever trapped as an image on the urn. Similarly, Lord Byron, one of the best-known Romantic poets and the author of the tortured hero, provides an excellent example of idealism in "Love and War." In this poem, he idealizes the love of country to such an extent that even the death and savagery of war are not only endurable but honorable.

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