The literary era we now call the English Romantic Period was short, only the 40 years or so between 1789 and 1832; yet many of the loveliest poems and innovative fictions in our treasury of great literature were written during this time.
For indeed, who can forget, once they read them, so many great moments in works from this era: the solemn ecstasy of Wordsworth praising a field of daffodils, the supernatural thrills of the ghost ship that appears when Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross, the wit and sardonic charm of Byron’s version of the adventures of Don Juan, the spiritual yearning of Shelley gazing at the sublime Mont Blanc, the transcendent longings of Keats as he is swept away by the beauty of a Grecian vase or a nightingale’s song?
Fiction readers too can find their sublimities in this era among novels as different as Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic romantic fantasies, Mary Shelly’s philosophical Gothic novel Frankenstein, Walter Scott’s sweeping historical dramas in both verse and prose, and Jane Austen’s irresistible combination of true love and witty social critique in some of the most famous novels of all time.
Jane Austen’s works in particular have become known as Regency novels because they are set during the particular years known as the Regency. These years from 1811-1820, during which The Prince Regent George, Prince of Wales, ruled England in his incapacitated father’s stead, coincide with the English Romantic period.
English Romantic works are varied, yet several overarching themes and artistic preoccupations appear in almost all. What, then, is English Romantic Literature about?
First, overwhelmingly, English Romantic literature is about Nature.
English Romantics wrote many words about the places where they experienced the power, peace, or sublimity that Nature can bring.
Second, it’s about People, particularly Common People and their folkways.
Narratives featuring common people, speaking in their own language abound.
Third, English Romantic literature is about Freedom and Revolution.
As young writers, many English Romantics were swept with enthusiasm for the French Revolution and its promise of liberty for common people, before the Reign of Terror destroyed their hopes.
Beyond the French struggle, Romantic writers called for revolution of all kinds: to increase the rights of women, to do away with slavery, to elevate and succor common working people, to reconsider religious orthodoxies, and rebuild governmental institutions.
Fourth, Romantic writers sought to invent and practice new ways of writing poetry and fiction, to elevate the creative ability of the poet’s Imagination to create and transmute Nature into organically beautiful works.
English Romantic writers fought to resist the over-mechanized, cold, sterile view of life and mind they believed was promulgated by the Enlightenment thinkers of the previous century. As we have seen, Romantic writers revived much older styles downplayed by 18th century writers, such as ballads, lyric poems, sonnets, and romantic adventure tales akin to medieval tales of chivalry.
Fifth, English Romantic literature is about wrestling with the human condition—with impermanence, sorrow, and mortality.
Keenly aware of the struggles of human life, English Romantics pursued passionately their hopes for transcendence through Beauty, Nature, Intellect, and Spiritual Awareness.
If you would like to dive directly into some of the most beautiful poems and prose ever written, you can click this link to proceed directly to our Timeline and Reading List of 19th Century English Romantic and Regency Literature, where you will find recommendations for readings from most of the great authors of this era. You can also go there to learn much more about individual English Romantic authors and their works.
But if you want to gain more perspective and background on 19th Century English Romantic writing before you start reading some, click “Continue Reading” to see more of this post.
Either way, I hope you will continue to explore the great English literature of the early 19th century!
First: Romantic Literature is About Nature
I have long thought that literature by the English Romantics is among the most beautiful written in the English language; this body of literature was probably my first serious literary love. Poets of this era turned to intensely personal experiences with Nature to develop their beliefs about life and to elevate and assuage their struggles. The resulting works contain line after line of beautiful natural description for readers to revel in, even before starting to think about deeper meanings.
For example, we can stand with Wordsworth out into English lake country at the moment he comes upon “a host” of lovely daffodils:
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.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
–from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
We can experience an unbearably lovely English Autumn with Keats:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
–from “To Autumn” by Keats
We can even tread a thrilling imaginary Naturescape alongside Coleridge in his mysterious visionary poem “Kubla Khan”:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail. . . .
–from “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge
Notice that these passages are not beautiful for their scenery alone, but for the melodious words in which they are described. Romantic poets were very attentive to the metrics and form of their works, seeking to create transcendent beauty through both word and idea.
Nature: Entwined with People’s Moral and Spiritual Being
Romantic poets focused on more than just describing beautiful Naturescapes. They looked to Nature as a possible source of moral and spiritual truth and wellness. And further, they asked, why does immersion in nature help provide transcendence and a sense of connection with divinity?
Wordsworth was probably the most straightforward advocate for Nature’s role in developing our moral selves, as he wrote in the poem “The Tables Turned”:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man;
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Not only is Nature our moral teacher, Wordsworth ponders; it is also a reminder of our divine origins, a truth apprehended more easily in childhood:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
–from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
For more on Wordsworth’s views on people’s relationship to Nature, see this post: Can Nature Renew Us?
Wordsworth’s friend and onetime writing partner Coleridge makes a similar point in “This Lime-Tree-Bower My Prison”:
. . . Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty!
–from “This Lime-Tree-Bower My Prison”
Shelley also pondered Nature with awe, seeing it as a phenomenon of transcendence and beauty.
In his poem “To A Skylark,” he hails the singing bird for its other-worldly “profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” pleading with the skylark to teach Shelley how he creates such art:
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
–from “To a Skylark”
In this and in other poems such as “Mont Blanc,” where Shelley stands in awe of a sublime mountain scene that seems beyond his comprehension, he is less certain than Wordsworth that he can wrest wisdom and transcendence from Nature.
Not the less, however, does Shelley, and also other writers from this era, keep turning to Nature as a source of strength, transcendence, and renewal. Not surprisingly, Romantic poets deplored the industrial revolution and ongoing flight of the population to cities, predicting it would alienate people from Nature, which these poets viewed as the true source of strength and happiness for the human race.
Second: Romantic Era Writing is About People, especially Common Folk
As noted above, English Romantic writers sought to elevate the common people, to draw attention to their unique value and particular struggles.
Wordsworth featured many common people in his works, explaining this choice in his preface to the landmark poetry collection Lyrical Ballads of 1798:
“Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language. . ..”
Wordsworth believed the common people lived closer to nature and in situations that inspired basic and universal human emotions. Less social sophistication made their expression more authentic.
Thus, Wordsworth’s poems often feature people such as the humble leech gatherer in the poem “Resolution and Independence,” which lauds the gatherer for maintaining his independence by doing the nasty job of gathering leeches to sell for medical procedures.
Wordsworth’s long ballad “Michael” tells of a simple shepherd and his wife who watch their one beloved son leave their isolated rural life to find work in the city. The ballad describes Michael’s dignified grief when their son falls prey to a dissolute lifestyle contrary to the beliefs and principles they taught him. The poem celebrates the nobility of rural life and values.
William Blake’s work often called attention to the plight of the working poor. His twin “Chimney Sweeper” poems, for instance, found in Songs of Innocence and Experience, are poignant poems that paint the sad lives of the little children forced to slave to keep the city’s chimneys clean.
In Scotland, the interest in common folk became profound in this era. Scott featured many picturesque characters in his novels drawn from the folk of his native Scotland. Even before Scott, “The Bard of Ayrshire,” the incomparable Robert Burns, wrote many lively poems about common people using their particular dialect. His poem “For a’ That and a’ That” is the ultimate theme song for the common person, asserting that what makes a person “king” is not riches, fancy clothes, and fine living, but strong character:
What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin-gray, an’ a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
–from “For A’ That and A’ That’
Ballads and Romances: A Revival
Writers, historians, and antiquarians of the Romantic Era developed a major interest in collecting medieval and other folk ballads, most as they were still sung and preserved among the common folk of different regions. Ballads handed down in oral form were truly the “poetry of the people.”
Thomas Percy published an early and influential ballad collection in 1765, before the Romantic era began. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry remained hugely popular even throughout the Romantic era. The Thomas Layton Foundation notes that this work:
went through four editions during Percy’s lifetime and more than fifty editions have been published since. It has been described as a book that “changed the course English literature.” (2) Its publication initiated a new interest in early British literary forms. In particular it was a powerful influence on Romantic literature in both Britain and Europe, inspiring Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, the brothers Grimm, Walter Scott, and later William Morris and the Victorian Romantics.
Robert Burns was one such “influencee.” According to Wikipedia (text as of March 2022), “Burns worked for the final seven years of his life on projects to preserve traditional Scottish songs for the future. In all, Burns had a hand in preserving over 300 songs for posterity, the most famous being ‘Auld Lang Syne.’”
Like his countryman Robert Burns, Walter Scott also collected many ballads of his native Scotland, even while he preserved and re-told Scottish history in his dramatic and sweeping historical novels like Waverley, Old Mortality, and Rob Roy.
Romance with Things Medieval
While 18th century Enlightenment writers had turned to Greek and Latin classics for models and inspiration, Romantic writers plunged into a romance with all things medieval. They were inspired by medieval romances, tales of knightly quests and battles with dragons and monsters.
As a result, the whole Romantic Era may have received its name from the Medieval Romance form, at least according to the Norton Anthology of English Literature introduction to this era: “the Romantic is . . . the sole period that is named after a literary form, the romance” (Deirdre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger, 9th ed. Vol. D. xxiv).
Romantic poets showed a fondness for settings and icons of Medieval romances, including a renewed interest in their supernatural aspects.
Keats, for instance, structures his eerie poem about the illusions of love, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” as a truncated knightly quest gone wrong. The intricate Eve of St Agnes also tells a tale of young love. This time, the knight escapes, Romeo-like, with his lady, though the poem implies their happiness can’t last, as the tale’s setting amidst death and decadence implies. For the rhyme scheme of this luscious poem, Keats uses Spenserian stanza, imitating a 16th century writer who himself imitated medieval language to give his work an antique sensibility.
Walter Scott gave many a nod to Medieval times in his works, including his famous and popular poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel and the novel Ivanhoe. Coleridge’s unfinished work Christabel takes place in a Medieval castle.
When Byron wrote the poem that first made him famous, the semi-autobiographical Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he fashioned himself into a knight on a quest by claiming the title “Childe,” the title given to young squires upon the verge of pledging to knighthood—another bow to the fascination with things medieval in this era.
Along with things Medieval, writers of the Romantic era incorporated supernatural elements into their works, as might have been done in the old Romances.
Coleridge’s superb poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the best examples of supernatural-based tales from the era. See the Romantic and Regency Era Timeline and Reading List for more on this poem.
Prose fiction also jumped into the supernatural and Gothic trend in this era. The Castle of Otranto, written in the 18th century, probably gets credit for the first modern Gothic novel. But Romantic writers took up this genre with enthusiasm. Anne Radcliffe’s works were popular Gothic novels; in fact, Jane Austen makes some gentle fun of The Mysteries of Udolpho and its over-enthusiastic readers in her comic novel Northanger Abbey. Another runaway Gothic hit was Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, a lurid tale of sin and darkness of all sorts. Many critics labelled it unsafe, even immoral, reading.
A cut well above the works of Radcliffe and Lewis was a novel that has become omnipresent in our current culture: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This work goes well beyond Gothic horror and takes up many serious philosophical issues about what elements truly form the psyche of a person, and what are our responsibilities toward nature, despite the human urge to dominate it.
Third: English Romantic Literature is About Freedom and Revolution
Romantic writers called for revolution of all kinds: to increase the rights of women, to do away with slavery, to elevate and succor common working people, to reconsider religious orthodoxies, and to destroy or rebuild hidebound governmental institutions. During this era, many important prose works challenged the status quo of most social institutions.
According to Britannica.com, William Godwin’s “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), was to reject conventional government by demonstrating the corrupting evil and tyranny inherent in its power of manipulation. He proposed in its place small self-subsisting communities.”
Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin’s wife and Mary Shelley’s mother, wrote the important work Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Thomas Paine, the writer of the pamphlet “Common Sense” that had helped to catalyze American sentiment in favor of the American Revolution, later wrote The Rights of Man in support of the goals of the French Revolution; it attacked monarchical government and traditional social institutions.
Romantic Poets and Revolution
To different degrees, Romantic poets were in sympathy with these movements; at the least, they all questioned received wisdom and societal beliefs in favor of looking with fresh eyes at all cultural assumptions. As young writers, many English Romantics were swept with enthusiasm for the French Revolution and its promise of liberty for common people, before the Reign of Terror destroyed their hopes.
As young men, many Romantic poets plunged enthusiastically into life-altering revolutionary projects. Wordsworth went to France after the fall of the Bastille out of enthusiasm for their liberation struggle, though he was forced to retreat to England later, and eventually became disillusioned by the Reign of Terror. Coleridge and a friend planned to establish a Utopian socialist community in America, for which purpose he married a young woman who was willing to join the project. The project never happened, and Coleridge later separated from her.
Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism,” which argued that religious faith was not provable. Byron’s commitment to liberty was most life-altering. He met his death after joining the Greek army to help them fight for independence from Turkey.
In the end, William Blake’s work might have been the most subversive of all, though not so well known in his own time. His massive “prophetic” work analyzed the psychological, spiritual, and governmental woes of his entire civilization, albeit in symbolic form. He urged his readers to completely re-define their assumptions about good, evil, God, sex, and faith, putting him squarely into the camp of Romantic writers who sought to sweep away old orthodoxies and understand human truths at a fundamental level.
Fourth, Romantic Writers Explored New More Personal Modes of Writing
Romantic writers sought to invent and practice new ways of writing poetry and fiction, to elevate the creative ability of the poet’s Imagination to create and transmute Nature into organically beautiful works.
Britannica.com observes that “the great writers of the period did not call themselves Romantics. Not until August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s Vienna lectures of 1808–09 was a clear distinction established between the ‘organic,’ ‘plastic’ qualities of Romantic art and the ‘mechanical’ character of Classicism.”
Thus, where Enlightenment poets strove to articulate human universals, often in abstract language and elaborate metaphors and figures, Romantic poets prized simpler, more common language and the expression of individual emotions and experiences.
Where Enlightenment poets prized the heroic couplet, the epic, and imitations of the more serious classical authors, Romantic poets elevated the lyric, including the Ode, the sonnet, and the ballad. These poetic forms were traditionally suited to expressing individual emotions and experiences, as opposed to more formal types of poetry that conveyed large, epic narratives or public, philosophic messages.
As Britannica.com observes, Blake’s views on poetry fit these trends:
“Blake’s marginal comment on Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses expresses the position with characteristic vehemence: ‘To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is alone the Distinction of Merit.’ The poet was seen as an individual distinguished from his fellows by the intensity of his perceptions, taking as his basic subject matter the workings of his own mind. Poetry was regarded as conveying its own truth; sincerity was the criterion by which it was to be judged.”
According to Poets.org, “Lyric poetry refers to a short poem, often with songlike qualities, that expresses the speaker’s personal emotions and feelings. Historically intended to be sung and accompany musical instrumentation, lyric now describes a broad category of non-narrative poetry, including elegies, odes, and sonnets.”
Given their preference for personally expressive poetry, it’s not surprising that Coleridge praised Charlotte Smith’s revival of the sonnet form because her poems showed how the simple yet intricate sonnet could embody and communicate strong and personal emotion.
An Ode is a type of lyric that is more formal. Poetryfoundation.org explains: An Ode is “a formal, often ceremonious lyric poem that addresses and often celebrates a person, place, thing, or idea. Its stanza forms vary.” Both Keats and Shelley wrote many famous Odes. Check out their entries on the Timeline/Reading List to learn more about these.
Fancy, Imagination, and Poets as Prophets
The new poetic aesthetic was defined most vigorously in Wordsworth’s famous “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads of 1798. This is the work where Wordsworth asserted that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Not just any emotional person could produce poetry, however. Wordsworth wrote that poetry is created by “a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” (According to the customs of that day, “man” would have been a universal term that included women as well, so Wordsworth was not excluding female poets here.)
Coleridge further developed Wordsworth’s ideas on the visionary role played by the poet’s imagination in creating true poetry. In his later work Biographia Literaria, he discusses the difference between Fancy and Imagination, which he defined as different faculties of mind used in creating poems.
Fancy, he argues, is merely the ability to apprehend sense impressions, remember them, and rearrange them into different patterns. Enlightenment era poetry, he implied, relied merely on Fancy for its creation. Imagination is a higher faculty that transmutes the elements that the Mind receives from nature into something new and organic, just as a plant absorbs elements from the earth and atmosphere to grow into a different being. Romantic poetry, according to Coleridge, aims at this higher type of creation, where the poet’s mind receives and transmutes impressions from nature into something higher and more beautiful.
Coleridge used the metaphor of the Eeolian (or Aeolian) harp in his poem of the same name to depict this process. An Aeolian harp, or wind harp, is an instrument tuned and strung but placed on a windowsill or in a garden, its only sound produced when the wind blows through it. Coleridge imagines the poet’s mind to be an Eeolian harp, played upon by the vibrations of nature but producing a tune, or poem full of ideas, quite unique according to how his or her mind is “tuned.” (Listen to this recording of a real Aeolian harp that was built on the Irish coast.)
Blake is a good example of a poet whose aim as a writer was not mimetic but prophetic. He did not aim to imitate or reproduce reality, but to perceive the forces that ran through it and moved it, and to render those forces through his words and visual creations—to transmute the truths in the world through the special tuning and temper of his mind.
Most Romantic poets would probably have agreed with Shelley’s claim that poets provide uniquely sharp vision for all aspects of human life. Thus, he asserted in “A Defense of Poetry”: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” because poets provide a vision for how human life can be improved; often, these ideas later become enshrined in the culture.
Fiction in the Romantic and Regency Age
In keeping with its poets’ explorations of new ways of writing poetry, the English Romantic era also saw the development of new kinds of fiction.
As mentioned above, the Gothic novel came into its own during this era. In addition, two towering writers were developing new kinds of novels.
Walter Scott invented a fiction genre that the Victorians were to love: historical fiction. In this era, reading fiction was not seen as quite respectable. At best, reading novels seemed a frivolous waste of time. At worst, novels featured semi-explicit romances, material not fit for family reading. Scott solved these problems at a stroke by combining actual historical events and a meticulous recording of Scots dialects with an exciting tale of adventure, all morally told. Readers could gain historical information but also enjoy a sweeping tale of adventure, along with a little chaste romance on the side.
Jane Austen also invented a genre: domestic realism. Her work does have progenitors, particularly Fanny Burney’s work. But Austen’s witty and minute depiction of the troubles of middle-class women and their particular social circle was a type of novel that Walter Scott, along with others, recognized as something quite new.
In some ways, Austen’s work looks back to 18th century novels in its comic mode and in its quest for good sense and universal moral truths. But it also looks forward in fictional inventiveness. Like the Romantic poets, Austen was interested in individual perception and subjective perspectives. Her invention of indirect discourse, the technique of telling a tale in third person while remaining within the perspective of one of the characters, enabled her to delve into different minds and psychologies, as well as keep readers in the dark to spring surprises on them later.
Like the poets of this era, Austen is a rebel, albeit a subtle one. After all, she was a woman writing novels, something still not considered quite respectable, which is why she published her first works anonymously.
Fifth, English Romantic literature is about wrestling with the human condition
Keenly aware of the struggles of human life, of life’s impermanence and sorrow, English Romantics pursued passionately their hopes for transcendence through Beauty, Nature, Intellect, and Spiritual Awareness.
Thus, in his “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley pleads with the West Wind to lift him above the sorrows of life:
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
–from “Ode to the West Wind”
In her sonnet “To Night,” Charlotte Smith, contemplating the ocean at night in a sad mood, does not find exactly comfort, but at least some sense of peace and calm from having the tone of her sorrows meet the solemn gloom of the scene. The seeming sympathy of Nature gives her a distant hope that Heaven may hear of her struggles:
Though no repose on that dark breast I find,
I still enjoy thee—cheerless as thou art;
For in thy quiet gloom the exhausted heart
Is calm, though wretched; hopeless, yet resign’d.
While to the winds and waves its sorrows given,
May reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven!
–from “To Night”
Keats, Sorrow, and Transcendence
No one was more aware of the sorrows of life than John Keats, who lost his parents and beloved grandmother when a youth, struggled with money and an unsympathetic guardian, and later lost his brother to tuberculosis. He himself was to die of TB at age 25, just a year after writing his most treasured poems.
His six famous Odes, all written in 1819, all show Keats pondering how Beauty, both natural and aesthetic, might lift a suffering soul above sorrows, at least temporarily. Some of these odes follow an “excursion and return” pattern, where he journeys upward from trouble through some beautiful phenomenon. In the end, he returns to reality, although not so bereft as before.
Thus, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats speaks to this bird who is pouring out its song at twilight:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards. . ..
–from “Ode: To A Nightingale”
Toward the end of the poem, he is jolted back from his journey of wonder when he uses the word “forlorn.” Here, nature offers but temporary escape.:
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
–from “Ode: To A Nightingale”
In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats ponders the ability of beautiful human-made art to elevate people from sorrow as they contemplate it:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Of course, Keats knew–few humans better—that out in the world where real humans live, truth and beauty are seldom the same. Truth is just as often sad or ugly as it is beautiful. However, within the realm of a perfect artistic creation, and sometimes within Nature, where there is only Beauty, Beauty really is Truth. In this poem and in many of his other works, Keats is proposing that as long as people give their minds wholly to contemplating Beauty, they obtain reprieve from the ugliness and messiness of real life.
To us in our time, the English Romantic writers offered this boon. To contemplate the beauty of their works is to be elevated, however temporarily, from fret and trouble. Will it work for you? Try reading some of the great works from the English Romantic Timeline and Reading List to find out.
Coleridge. Peter Vandyke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Daffodils. Sara-lou. Unsplash.com.
Skylark. Neil Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.
William Blake. engraving by W. C. Edwards printed 1830, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Walter Scott painting. Scottish National Gallery / Public Domain.
Shelley. Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.
Songs of Innocence Title Page. William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.