By Dr Oliver Tearle
English Romanticism tends to be dominated by a few names: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. Here, we’ve tried to strike a balance and offer ten of the very best Romantic poems from English literature, which ensures that these canonical figures are well-represented, while also broadening that canon to include some important but slightly less famous voices. We hope you like this short introduction to Romanticism told through ten classic Romantic poems…
1. William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die …
This simple nine-line poem describes how the poet is filled with joy when he sees a rainbow, and how he hopes he will always keep that sense of enchantment with the natural world. Wordsworth observes a rainbow in the sky and is filled with joy at the sight of a rainbow: a joy that was there when the poet was very young, is still there now he has attained adulthood, and – he trusts – will be with him until the end of his days. If he loses this thrilling sense of wonder, what would be the point of living? In summary, this is the essence of ‘My heart leaps up’.
The poem contains Wordsworth’s famous declaration, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, highlighting how important childhood experience was to the Romantics in helping to shape the human beings they became in adult life. ‘My heart leaps up’ is a small slice of Romanticism which says more about that movement than many longer poems do.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
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 …
Often known simply as ‘The Daffodils’ or ‘Wordsworth’s daffodils poem’, this is also one of the most famous poems of English Romanticism, and sees Wordsworth (1770-1850) celebrating the ‘host of golden daffodils’ he saw while out walking. The poem was actually a collaboration between Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy (whose notes helped to inspire it), and Wordsworth’s wife, Mary.
On 15 April 1802, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were walking around Glencoyne Bay in Ullswater when they came upon a ‘long belt’ of daffodils, as Dorothy put it memorably in her journal. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote of the encounter with the daffodils, ‘we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing.’
The influence of this passage from Dorothy’s journal can be seen in Wordsworth’s poem, which he did not write until at least two years after this, in 1804
3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’.
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully …
So begins this great meditative poem. Wordsworth’s great collaborator on the 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads was Coleridge. Written in 1798, the same year that Coleridge’s landmark volume of poems, Lyrical Ballads (co-authored with Wordsworth), appeared, ‘Frost at Midnight’ is a night-time meditation on childhood and raising children, offered in a conversational manner and focusing on several key themes of Romantic poetry: the formative importance of childhood and the way it shapes who we become, and the role nature can play in our lives.
4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.’
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS …
Written in 1797-8, this is Coleridge’s most famous poem – it first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship appears to have been invented in this poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably William Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s (Wordsworth got the idea of the albatross-killing from a 1726 book, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke).
The poem is one of the great narrative poems in English, with the old mariner recounting his story, with its hardships and tragedy, to a wedding guest. Variously interpreted as being about guilt over the Transatlantic slave trade, about Coleridge’s own loneliness, and about spiritual salvation, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains a challenging poem whose ultimate meaning is elusive.
5. Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet on being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’.
Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below …
English Romanticism wasn’t entirely dominated by men, although it’s true that names like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and so on tend to dominate the lists. But as Dorothy Wordsworth’s role in inspiring ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ demonstrates, Romanticism wasn’t quite an all-male affair.
This poem by Charlotte Turner Smith, a pioneer of Romanticism in England who was born before Wordsworth or Coleridge, is that rarest of things: a Gothic sonnet. This needn’t surprise when we bear in mind that the sonnet’s author, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was associated with English Romanticism and was also a key figure in the revival of the English sonnet.
6. John Clare, ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’.
Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up,
Frit by the cowboy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry—let us stoop
And seek its nest—the brook we need not dread,
’Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
So it sings harmless o’er its pebbly bed …
John Clare (1793-1864) has been called the greatest nature poet in the English language (by, for instance, his biographer Jonathan Bate), and yet his life – particularly his madness and time inside an asylum later in his life – tends to overshadow his poetry.
Like Charlotte Turner Smith, Clare is still a rather overlooked figure in English Romanticism and nature poetry, but he’s been called England’s greatest nature poet and the best poet to have written about birds. ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, although not Clare’s best-known poem, shows his wonderful sensitivity to vowel sounds, as he explores the patterns found within nature by focusing on the nest of the bird, which is described as ‘poet-like’.
7. Percy Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’.
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves …
The Romantics were greatly interested in a quality that Edmund Burke called ‘the Sublime’: that peculiar mixture of awe and terror we feel when confronted with great forces of nature. Percy Shelley’s poem about Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, is a classic example of Romantic poetry about the Sublime – an ode to nature as a powerful and beautiful force.
Shelley composed ‘Mont Blanc’ during the summer of 1816, and it was first published in Mary Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (1817), which – beating Frankenstein by a year – was actually Mary’s first book.
Immediately in the first two lines of ‘Mont Blanc’, Shelley foregrounds the key thrust of the poem: the relationship between the natural world and the human imagination. The ‘everlasting universe of things’, which recalls Wordsworth’s talk of the ‘immortality’ of the earth in his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ (which we’ve analysed here); Shelley notes that this ‘universe of things’ flows through the (mortal) mind. These external influences are variously light and dark, vivid and obscure.
8. Percy Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art …
Shelley completed this, one of his most famous poems, in June 1820. The inspiration for the poem was an evening walk Shelley took with his wife, Mary, in Livorno, in north-west Italy. Mary later described the circumstances that gave rise to the poem: ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’ The opening line of the poem gave Noel Coward the title for his play Blithe Spirit.
Shelley asks the bird to teach him just half the happiness the bird must know, in order to produce such beautiful music. If the skylark granted the poet his wish, he – Shelley – would start singing such delirious, harmonious music that the world would listen to him, much as he is listening, enraptured, to the skylark right now. We have analysed this poem here.
9. John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease …
From its opening simile likening the poet’s mental state to the effects of drinking hemlock, to the poem’s later references to ‘a draught of vintage’ and ‘a beaker full of the warm South’, Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of the most drink-sodden poems produced by the entire Romantic period.
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is about the poet’s experience of listening to the beautiful song of the nightingale. Keats has become intoxicated by the nightingale’s heartbreakingly beautiful song, and he feels as though he’d drunk the numbing poison hemlock or the similarly numbing (though less deadly) drug, opium. He is forgetting everything: it’s as though he’s heading to Lethe (‘Lethe-wards’, as in ‘towards Lethe’), the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology.
The contrast between mortality and immortality, between the real world and the enchanted world the nightingale’s song seems to open a window onto (like one of those magic casements Keats refers to), is a key one for the poem.We have analysed this poem here.
10. Lord Byron, ‘Darkness’.
This poem was inspired by a curious incident: the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which drastically altered the weather conditions across the world and led to 1816 being branded ‘the Year without a Summer’. The same event also led to Byron’s trip to Lake Geneva and his ghost-story writing competition, which produced Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein. For Byron, the extermination of the sun seemed like a dream, yet it was ‘no dream’ but a strange and almost sublimely terrifying reality. Another example of the Romantic concept of the Sublime, brought to us by one of English Romanticism’s best-known figures. It begins:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day …
If you’re looking for a good anthology of Romanticism, we recommend The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry (Penguin Classics). Discover more classic poetry with these uplifting spring poems, these hot summer poems, these poems for autumn and fall, and these snowy winter poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.