The Romantic poets were writers who wrote roughly from the late 18th to early 19th century. These writers championed the concepts of ignoring restraint, being free in emotion, embracing individuality and immersing oneself in nature, and they contributed to large-scale political and cultural shifts through their work. From a technical standpoint, they moved poetry into a more simplistic, symbolic and more free-form style. Their influence is still felt today, not only in literature, but in other areas of the arts, as well.
Common Beliefs and Philosophies
Even though each of these writers had their own distinct qualities, they generally had a few things in common: They typically held the belief that nature and emotion were the places in which one found spiritual truth, a response to the previous Age of Enlightenment. The idea of immersing oneself in the natural or beautiful, or in some cases the natural and frightening as in Blake’s The Tiger, is distinctly Romantic. To them, the mind was the means to transform the passions that people experienced into something artistic and refined.
Most of these writers attributed special innate gifts to children, believing that, as Wordsworth stated, they come from heaven “trailing clouds of glory.” They usually wrote poetry as a way to handle a “spontaneous overflow of feelings,” again a Wordsworthian concept. They typically were also much more interested in promoting the rights of women. As an example, Mary Wollstonecraft, mother to Mary (Goodwin) Shelly — author of the famous novel, Frankenstein — and mother-in-law to Percy Bysshe Shelly, wrote one of the earliest and most celebrated feminist tracts, A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Characteristics of Their Writing
The Romantic poets changed the general way in which people approached the genre. Although they were very conscious of form and meter and cared about carefully crafting their works, many wrote in a style of free verse at times, moving away from the elaborate rhyming patterns of poets who had preceded them in favor of being more spontaneous. The language used became more simplistic and easy for common people to understand, not only because the concept of returning to nature and the basics was so prevalent, but also because the writers rejected the idea that poetry was to be enjoyed only by the elite. Symbolism became more important, because they valued individualism and wanted to let readers gain their own personal meaning and emotional response from the writing.
Major Poets and Their Works
Although there were many poets — including a large number of women — that would fit the Romantic “framework,” the ones people generally consider to be most relevant are the "Big Six": William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Each of these men had a clearly identifiable voice that set them apart from each other, but they all captured the Romantic ideals of individuality, freedom, emotionality and simplicity. Experts largely credit them for propelling Romantic poetry into vogue and moving it from country to country.
William Blake is known for poems like The Tiger and especially for his collected works in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood is a fundamental work, but many of his other poems are quite frequently quoted. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is especially known for The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Lord Byron’s narrative poems are greatly celebrated, including Childe Harold and Don Juan.
John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale are among his most well known works. Keats had a very short life, dying when he was 25. Literary critics often see this as a tremendous tragedy given his early potential. Percy Bysshe Shelley also died quite young, at the age of 30. His most celebrated works include Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind and To a Skylark.
Outside of Britain, writers such as Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Hannah More, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Robinson and Heinrich Heine all embraced the Romantic style. Others who wrote during this time included Elizabeth Barret Browning, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, Thomas Moore and Mary Shelly. Many of these individuals highly regarded each other's talents, appreciating the uniqueness that arose not only from each poet's subjective view of the world, but also the cultural elements found in each of the countries they came from.
Taken in sum, the Romantic poets may be seen as reactionary and humanist, and in many cases, these individuals are connected to elements of revolution and sociocultural change, fueling political demands for freedom through their writing. They forever changed poetry, inventing new forms and redefining what "acceptable" written expression was in a way that made the genre much more accessible for the average person. Nowhere is their influence felt more than in the American poets and writers of the mid-19th century. Many suspect the works of Walt Whitman or the theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson could not exist without their influences. Their mastery of language, along with the widespread appreciation of the images and ideas they conveyed, have made their works standard study in English curricula around the world.