The best examples of Romanticism
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…
William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’. 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. 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.
William Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. 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.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’. 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.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 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.
Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet on being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’. 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.
John Clare, ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’. 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’.
Percy Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’. 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.
Percy Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’. 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.
John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. 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.
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.