Authors in the Romantic Era
Do you know what the Romantic Age is in literature? I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with Valentine’s Day. It is actually a movement in arts and literature that became popular at the turn of the 18th century. Romantic literature used dramatic images, a focus on self, and an emphasis on the everyday man. Emotion was much more important in Romantic poetry than reason, and most authors used nature as a metaphor or muse.
William Blake wrote during the late 1700s. He’s perhaps most well-known for his collection of poems entitled Songs of Innocence and their counterpart, Songs of Experience, two works that embody the romantic ideas of their time.
In Songs of Innocence, Blake writes from the perspective of a light-hearted, pleasant piper and shepherd. He talks about God using the metaphor of a lamb, childhood, and divinity. In contrast, Songs of Experience gets down and dirty with the world, writing about the chimney sweeps and describing God as “The Tyger.” Blake’s writing is vivid, and his descriptions are bright and emotional like many romantic writers of his time.
William Wordsworth was another well-known Romantic poet who wrote at the beginning of the 18th century. Let’s take a look at one part of his well-known poem and see why he was considered a romantic at the time:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
What’s the first thing you notice when you read this? If you say, “lots of nature,” you’re right. That was one of Wordsworth’s defining Romantic qualities. He wrote about nature often. Also, check out that first line: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Remember the focus on the individual self in Romantic poetry?
In fact, Wordsworth and another author—Samuel Coleridge—are credited with launching the Romantic Age in English literature with their joint publication, Lyrical Ballads.
Coleridge was even more well known for his long-form poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where we read about an ill-fated ship that kills its good-luck omen, an albatross, and meets a ghastly end. This poem gives us some phrases and ideas we still use today. Have you ever heard the metaphor of someone “wearing an albatross” around his neck? What about the phrase “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink?” That’s an approximation of a line in The Rime. Coleridge used common, everyday language to express profound images and ideas, something Wordsworth and most of the Romantics did as well.
Three other common names from the Romantic period are those of Lord George Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. They all wrote around the late 1700s and early 1800s, they had the style of the romantic age, and they were all, at some point, poets.
Byron, as his name suggests, was actually a lord, and hugely influential in his age. He has been regarded as one of the greatest British poets, most famous for his epic poem, Don Juan, a long work that was considered somewhat shocking in its time. Humorously, even though Byron is now considered to be part of the Romantic Movement, he specifically talked about how much he disliked Wordsworth and Coleridge in one part of Don Juan.
While he may not have been a fan of those two, he was friends with our next poet, Percy Shelley. Shelley was never especially famous during his lifetime, although you may recognize the name of his second wife, Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel Frankenstein. Let’s look at one of Shelley’s well-known poems, “Music, When Soft Voices Die.”
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap’d for the beloved’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
First, we have bountiful nature imagery, but let’s look at the content of this poem. Nature is a metaphor for how memories endure after something—or someone—is gone. It uses vibrant and emotional language; things we’ve learned are hallmarks of the Romantic Age.
You can’t talk about the Romantics without talking about John Keats. Keats was a prolific writer while he was alive, which, sadly, wasn’t very long. He died of tuberculosis at the bright age of 25, but before he did so he made a significant contribution to literature in general, and the Romantic period in specific.
Keats’ poetry is characterized by sensual imagery, most notably in a series of odes. Here’s a part of “Ode to a Nightingale.” Look closely at the themes of nature and emotion, and the focus on Keat’s own individual self:
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows.
Even though Keats works were only in publication for four years before his death, he is considered to be one of the main figures of the Romantic poets.
Before we wrap this up, I want to talk about two authors born way before the Romantics who had an influence on their work: Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Browne.
Chaucer was an English poet and author who lived in the mid-to-late 1300s and is considered one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages. He’s best known for his collection of short poetic stories called the Canterbury Tales.
He has been called the Father of English Literature, partly because he popularized the Middle English vernacular at a time when most of the written word appeared in French and Latin.
The Romantic authors had a remarkable respect for Chaucer. Keats wrote enthusiastically about the poet in his letters, and even paralleled one of Chaucer’s most well-known stories, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with the opening of his own poem Lamia.
Thomas Browne was another English author that influenced the Romantics before the Romantic period. He was alive in the 1600s, and wrote largely about the mystery of God, nature, and man.
Coleridge considered himself to have “rediscovered” Browne’s genius, and wrote a letter where he said “Sir Thomas Browne is among my first favourites, rich in various knowledge, exuberant….contemplative, and imaginative.” As you can see, Coleridge clearly believed Browne had what it took to be considered a Romantic writer, even centuries before the Romantic Age.
I hope this video has given you a little window into the wonderful world of historical authors. Stay tuned on our YouTube page for more like it!