Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets

Willard Spiegelman, Ph.D. Professor, Southern Methodist University

Course Overview

The verse of the English Romantic poets is as daunting in its scope and complexity as it is dazzling in its technique and beautiful in its language. Professor Willard Spiegelman illuminates masterpieces of English literature by poets Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron, as well as women Romantic poets.

His emphasis is on technique, on how a poem accomplishes its objectives, and on “how it means.” To this end, he meticulously dissects the poems, directing you to points of interest that merit close observation.

What Is Romanticism?

A much-abused term, Romanticism has at times been shorthand for “wild,” “irregular,” “gothic,” and “modern.” It has been associated with love of the exotic, revolt against reason, vindication and defense of the individual, liberation of the unconscious, reaction against science, worship of the emotions, return to nature, and so on.

These generalizations are not particularly helpful. Romantic poets never even identified themselves as “Romantic.” But we can describe some common concerns among them:

  • They wrote about Man’s relationship to nature, which, with the universe, they considered active, dynamic entities. There is, though, a counter-desire to escape from nature and to deny Man’s connection to it.
  • There is a concern with society and politics, and an idealistic notion that humanity can transcend its enslaving traditions.
  • The Romantics were conscious of consciousness itself—of the power of the mind as a force for self-glorification and a seed of self-destruction.

The lectures focus on the poems themselves, and they also tell the story of six great poetic souls and the impact of their personae on their age.

These lectures are from The Teaching Company. Courtesy: Chinni Krishnan J B

Standing in the shadow of Shakespeare and Milton, the Romantics would take the epic themes of the masters and try to recast them in their own voice, suited to their own times, to “make it new.”
Wordsworth’s goal in Lyrical Ballads was to trace the “primary laws of our nature” by showing how the imagination colors ordinary experience in a state of excitement, and by using the “real language of men.” The results, in “The Two April Mornings,” “The Fountain, ” and “Nutting” are straightforward and simple, but sometimes these still waters run deep.
In his famous “Lucy” poems, Wordsworth’s title character represents his view of mortality as part of a continuous and proper cycle. But the “still, sad music of humanity,” as he calls it, also rings in the changes of age for one’s very self. In “Tintern Abbey” and the “Intimations Ode,” he asks what may be recovered of what time takes away.
The Prelude is an effort to plumb the depths of a single human psyche, and craft it into a model for a common human collective consciousness. It is also a search for the origins of consciousness. How, Wordsworth asks, does the boy become the man? In the mode of an almost Christian confessional, he searches through memories of joy, guilt, and fear for the answers.
In this second lecture on The Prelude, Dr. Spiegelman shows how Wordsworth locates the building blocks of a mature personality in what he calls “spots of time.” These sublime experiences, usually connected with nature, carry him beyond himself to a love of the world, and from there to love of man. His completed epic on moral education through nature would influence great writers to come.
A brilliant talker, it is appropriate that Coleridge is known for his “conversation poems.” “Conversation” has multiple meanings, referring to informal language, but also to connections; to discourse between individuals and similar relationships between man and nature. In “The Eolian Harp” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge first signals his belief in one common heart, shared by all living things.
Coleridge once wrote “I believe most steadfastly in Original Sin; that from our mother’s wombs our understandings are darkened…our organization is depraved, and our volitions imperfect.” In “Cristabel,” “Kubla Khan,” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he explores these themes of fallibility in man, and the possibilities of redemption.
Although there is no doubt that Coleridge loved Wordsworth, he came to be plagued by the suspicion that his one-time student had surpassed him. Convinced of his own artistic impotence, he would write beautiful and troubling poems about his own fears and uncertainties.


If Blake was the most Christian of the Romantics, why did he toil in obscurity, so far outside the mainstream? Blake’s rebellion was tied up with his Protestantism and his concern for humanity above hierarchy and authority. Yet his ironic satire of English society can easily go unnoticed by virtue of his Songs’ apparent simplicity.
In The Songs of Experience, the veil has truly been torn away, the scales fallen from the eyes. In poems like “The Pretty Rose Tree,” “The Garden of Love,” and “Ah Sunflower,” Blake takes such stable notions as the virtue of sexual fidelity, the value of organized religion, even the very concept of heaven, and complicates them.
Blake famously wrote “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Four Zoas, and other prophetic books, he advances feminism, abolitionism and other refusals against the status quo in a grand, apocalyptic, and visionary voice.
One might expect that the popular Romantic verse of women, such as Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans, celebrated domestic virtues. One might be surprised by the pointed social commentary and wide ranging erudition that these women, writing under difficult circumstances, incorporated in their work.
An aristocrat and a rebel, an egotist who could laugh at himself, a seducer and a loner, Byron captivated all who knew him with the multiplicity of his character. The same variety marks his verse, deceptively difficult, but light and easy in its touch.
This lecture examines the dimensions, characteristics, and the longstanding appeal of the dark, brooding, melancholic, sexually alive, and magnetic creature we call the Byronic hero. As seen in Manfred and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he is not of this world, nor of our species, but curiously above it.
Don Juan is the showcase for Byron’s forté in full-flower: the polysyllabic, improbable, almost gymnastic rhyme. Over the course of this meandering epic, he touches almost every aspect—psychological, emotional, and physical—of human love while making it all look easy.
Of all the poets, Shelley most invokes feelings of dualism. “Ozymandias” punctures the idea of human ambition, but acknowledges the permanence of passion. “To a Skylark” is skeptical that the poet can approach nature in its artistry, but marshals all its lyric force to do just that.
Shelley was a serious intellectual with philosophical interests. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc,” he is able to incorporate inquiries on the transcendence of truth and the nature of the divine into a poetic form.
That Shelley was a radical but not a revolutionary is no small distinction. In Hellas and other poems, Shelley yearns and hopes for progress, but is hard-headed about the limits of political solutions. Mere man, absent “mind-forged manacles,” has the true power to free himself.
Shelley’s own romantic exploits certainly leave him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and caddishness, but his poetry evokes a tremulous, elevated sexuality that transcends mere sensuousness. Never has erotic freedom enjoyed such a compelling poetic argument.
Keats’s rapid ascent from apprenticeship to mastery seems fueled by an almost preternatural awareness of his mortality. His first masterpiece, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” displays one of the hallmarks of his work, an occupation with the inner realms of thought.
Keats was both thirsty for, and wary of fame. Resigned to providence in life as he would be in death, he felt poetic greatness must come naturally or not at all. In “On Fame” and other poems, he suggests that the fretting over the things of this world is eased both by escape from self-consciousness and revelry in it.
Keats is always concerned with the interrelations between sexuality and human imagination. In The Eve of St. Agnes, he employs language that engages every sense to serve the theme of sexual fulfillment. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” reflects the darker, antithetical side of Eros.
In “Ode to A Nightingale” and “To Autumn,” Keats locates the paradoxes of melancholy dwelling with beauty, and of true immortality dwelling within death. This moving lecture concludes with Keats embracing death with heroic equanimity.
Echoes of the English Romantics can be heard in popular music lyrics of the 20th century, including American rock n’ roll, but their real legacy comes in the form of the English-language poets, especially in America, who have profited from them, responded to them, and reacted against them.


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