Romanticism and Revolution

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

As the Enlightenment reached its height (and as the bourgeoisie began to solidify their power as the new European ruling class), the realist novel began to solidify its status as the dominant literary genre in Western Europe. At the same time, poetry (a much older form than the novel) remained relatively traditional, with most of the leading poets pursuing neoclassical forms that emulated the styles of earlier centuries, going back to the classical period in Greece and Rome. Indeed, this movement toward neoclassicism was widespread and included a great deal of production in painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as poetry and drama. The realist novel looked forward to the future and sought the unprecedented, while neoclassicism looked to the ancient past. Paradoxically, both of these strategies were central elements of Enlightenment thought. The concurrent rise of the realist novel and of neoclassicism in so many other art forms was thus a marker of the complexities and contradictions of the Enlightenment itself.

Little wonder, then, that the artistic phenomenon known as Romanticism—which arose in opposition to both realism and neoclassicism but was in many itself also a reflection of Enlightenment thinking—is also complex and contradictory. Romanticism can roughly be dated as occurring between 1770 and 1848. The Romantics, in general, felt that the logical orientation of the realist novel and the adherence to formal rules of neoclassicism both ran contrary to individual artistic creativity. Meanwhile, Romanticism was also felt in European philosophy, challenging the emphasis on rationality in a philosophical tradition that looked back to the work of Aristotle. Politically, Romanticism was something of a demand for the actual enactment of the democratic and individualist rhetoric of the Enlightenment, energized by the revolutions in America and France, as well as popular wars of independence in Poland, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere.

Basic Characteristics of Romanticism

The political emphasis of Romanticism can be seen in the air of joyous liberation that informs much Romantic work. On the other hand, an air of torment is common in Romantic works as well, which is indicative of the contradictory nature of Romanticism. In this sense, it is worth noting that, intellectually and artistically, Romanticism was strongest in Germany and England, while the political event that seemed best to embody the Romantic spirit was the French Revolution, which occurred in a country where Romanticism itself was relatively weak.

Emotionally, Romanticism expressed an extreme assertion of the self and the value of individual experience and creativity. In this sense, the movement, while often positioning itself in opposition to the Enlightenment, was ideologically very much aligned with the individualist orientation of Enlightenment thinking. Similarly, while the Romantics were typically skeptical of organized religion, they approached the secular natural world with a religious-like intensity. Thus, prominent critic M. H. Abrams famously argued that Romantic poetry tends to be driven by a “secularization of inherited theological ideas and ways of thinking” (12).

 This tendency has also been referred to as “the secularization of the sublime,” in reference to the emphasis on the notion of the sublime in Romantic aesthetics, as derived from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued that the impact of art on individuals has two different components:

  • The beautiful aspect of art is calming and soothing and makes us feel at peace.
  • The sublime aspect of art inspires awe and can be disturbing, making us feel uncomfortable or even terrified.

For the Romantics, art should combine these two characteristics, and that is the effect they sought to achieve in their work.

Nature itself provides the key examples of both the beautiful and the sublime. Thus, the beauty of certain natural setting is evoked by Romantic art and poetry in an attempt to project an air of tranquility:

At the same time, certain natural phenomena, such as storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes provide reminders that nature can be powerful and threatening, evoking the experience of the sublime.

The stylistic keynote of Romanticism is emotional intensity and sincerity, with an emphasis on the individual creative imagination. Romantic writers also tended to value straightforward, ordinary language, eschewing the ornamentation of much 18th-century poetry. But they also insisted that this language should be endowed with individual passion, as opposed to the relatively objective, almost journalist style of the realist novel. Meanwhile, the subject matter of Romantic poetry often involves descriptions of nature, but the emphasis is on emotional responses to nature on the part of an imagined persona that stands in for the poet. The Romantic poet was typically envisioned as a unique genius who could perceive things that ordinary people couldn’t and who could feel things in a way that ordinary people couldn’t, but who could express these perceptions and feelings in ways that could convey them to ordinary people.

Historical Background

In Britain, the origins of Romanticism as an influential movement can be located especially precisely, in the publication of Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) in 1798. On the other hand, in retrospect, it is clear that the art and poetry of William Blake (1757–1827) should be considered as an earlier example of British Romanticism, even though it was not clear, upon the publication of volumes such as Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789), that they were the beginnings of a movement. Meanwhile, German Romanticism got off to an earlier start than did English Romanticism, emerging full-blown in literary form as early as the hugely influential German novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who would go on to be the most important literary figure of German Romanticism and who is now probably best remembered for his two-part tragic play Faust (1808 and 1832).

Following in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a new generation of English poets injected youthful energies into the Romantic movement, including such figures as George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (better known simply as Lord Byron, 1788–1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), and John Keats (1795–1821). That all of these poets died young added a certain tragic charm to their work, especially for young fans, but the literary reputations of all of these Romantic poets have had considerable longevity, and they remain important today. Byron, for example, is still well known for the creation of a dark, brooding, aloof sort of hero who has come to be known as a “Byronic hero,” a type still often seen today, even in such pop cultural examples as Wolverine in the X-Men series of works.

One could, though, make a very good argument that, of all the Romantic writers, the one who continues to exert the greatest influence on twenty-first-century culture might very well be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), who was married to Percy Shelley from 1816 until his death. Indeed, it was Mary Shelley’s work in editing and promoting her husband’s work that did a great deal to preserve his legacy. But Mary Shelley has an important legacy of her own, thanks to the enduring popularity of her 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Indeed, we will end our course with a reading of Ahmed Saadawi’s Iraqi novel Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), one of many modern works that carries on the legacy of the original Frankenstein, though these modern works also owe a great deal to the substantial influence of James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation Frankenstein, which has perhaps been more important as a source for our contemporary perception of the Frankenstein narrative than has Shelley’s original novel itself.

Some Example Romantic Poems

Before looking at some examples of Romantic poetry, it is worth considering some of the ways in which reading a poem is different from reading prose. Perhaps the most important single convention of reading poetry might be described as the convention of “significance,” that is, the assumption that every aspect of a poem is there for a reason and makes a significant contribution to the overall impact of the poem. Among these individual aspects are special technical characteristics that distinguish a poem as poetry. Knowing these characteristics can help us read them:

  • Diction and vocabulary: the kind of language used by the poet.
  • Meter and rhythm: the pace and pattern of the poem as it moves through time.
  • Rhyme: creating special effects by rhyming the words at the ends of lines.
  • Alliteration: using beginning sounds that are similar in words that are near each other.
  • Assonance: using similar vowel sounds in words that are near each other.

Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

With these characteristics in mind, let’s look at what is probably the most famous poem by William Wordsworth. This poem involves a short walk into the countryside around Dove Cottage, the remote home to which Wordsworth retreated in 1799, partly because his earlier enthusiasm for the French Revolution was becoming more and more unpopular in England. Wordsworth saw Dove Cottage as a place where he could contemplate nature and write in peace—and use the natural countryside of the surrounding Lake District as inspiration. Among other things, Dove Cottage was key to Wordsworth’s development of his own poetic persona (a voice or perspective adopted by an author to express a particular point of view through his or her writing). This persona often expressed internal conflict over whether it was irresponsible to be living a pleasant life in the country when there were so many important issues challenging England as a whole. Dove Cottage is now a museum.

Here is the most famous poem directly inspired by the scenes of nature that surrounded the cottage.

“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,

Ten thousand 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.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Let’s look at the first stanza in detail, first noting that this is a “lyric” poem, that is, a short poem focusing on a single idea or feeling. This lyric poem is spoken by an “I,” eventually identified in the poem as a poet (Wordsworth’s persona). The diction of the poem is simple and direct, with a straightforward meter of four iambic feet per line, where an iambic foot is a sequence of two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. (Shakespeare wrote his verse primarily in iambic pentameter, that us, in lines of five iambic feet each, giving the lines a somewhat more elevated tone than in Wordsworth’s poem.)

A quick look at the first two lines illustrates this metrical form, which allows the speaker to assume a rather informal, to-the-point style (“x” indicates an unstressed syllable, “/” a stressed one):

x   /        x       /   x   / x     /

I wandered lonely as a cloud

  x         /      x     /      x       /       x     /

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

The poem also has a very simple rhyme scheme in each six-line stanza, illustrated below:

I wandered lonely as a cloud                          a

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,         b

When all at once I saw a crowd,                     a

A host, of golden daffodils;                            b

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,                  c

Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.              c

Note how the ending couplet allows the stanza to end on a strong note. This ababcc rhyme scheme is one of the most common and important in European poetry.

Now let’s look at a line-by-line reading of this stanza

I wandered lonely as a cloud

  • Establishes that the speaker is a lone individual, with no other people around.
  • The simile “lonely as a cloud” establishes that the diction is poetic, but relatively simple.
  • Comparing the speaker to a cloud in the first line suggests that the poem is about connections between the human speaker and nature.

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

  • Reinforces the sense that the speaker is out in nature by mentioning that the cloud is floating over vales and hills.
  • Using the word “vales” (instead of something more ordinary, like “fields”) helps to create a poetic tone, suggesting that the speaker is being inspired by this scene of nature.
  • Using the poetic “o’er” (instead of “over” has a similar effect).

When all at once I saw a crowd,

  • Creates a moment of surprise in the text, because we previously had thought the speaker to be in a remote country setting, with no people around.
  • Placing the word “crowd” at the end of the line increases its dramatic effect and helps to lead into the next line, which we now want to read to try to find out how this crowd suddenly appeared.

A host, of golden daffodils;

  • The line begins with the word “host,” which is another word for “crowd,” though it suggests a very large crowd, increasing our surprise.
  • The line proceeds to reveal that the “crowd” is not made up of people, but of flowers, in particular the beautiful but quite common and ordinary daffodil, one of the first flowers to bloom evey spring.
  • Setting up an expectation at the end of one line, and then going in a surprise direction in the next line creates more drama as the reader moves through the poem. (It’s a very common poetic technique.)

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

  • Now we are back to our original understanding of the situation, with no twists or surprises.
  • After the surprises and twists of the previous two lines, this line essentially gives us a chance to rest, returning us to the tranquility of a scene in rural countryside, away from people.
  • This line of rest, in fact, helps to emphasize how peaceful the scene is.

Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

  • This vision of the flowers dancing is an example of a poetic technique known as “personification,” in which human emotions or activities are attributed to plants, animals, or inanimate objects.
  • Personification is a way of implying a link between humans and nature.
  • That the action here is a dance suggests an element of joy in the scene, suggesting that the speaker’s experience of the scene is far more emotionally powerful than mere restfulness

Shelley, “Ozymandias”

If Wordsworth is typically seen as the thoughtfully introspective witness to nature and to his own life, Percy Shelley is seen as a more passionate version of the Romantic poet, and in two ways. First, especially in the nineteenth century, was typically seen as a preternaturally sensitive soul who could experience and feel things more deeply than others and then convey these feelings in his poetry. Meanwhile, in the twentieth century, his political side has come to be emphasized, the side that was deeply interested in radical politics and in reforming society. Indeed, perhaps the most widely quoted statement by Shelley is his declaration in his essay “A Defence of Poetry” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. That is, he believed that, because of their special sensitivity and insights, poets had a duty to provide political leadership, as well as aesthetic. Meanwhile, political statements crept into much of his poetry, including poems such as “Ozymandias” (1818), that might not at first seem openly political. “Ozymandias,” incidentally, was the Greek name of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. This poem was inspired by the fragment of a statue of Ramses, dating from about 1250 BC and moved from Egypt to the British Museum in London in 1817. Its very presence in London is a reminder of the colonial might of Britain at the time. Meanwhile, the fact that Ramses II, once the ruler of his own empire, now exists only as a broken statue held in the foreign capital of an occupying power serves as a reminder that the British Empire, too, might some day fall.


I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This poem seems to be a fairly straightforward warning against human pride and arrogance. It is, however, not as simple as it seems. For one thing, the poem does not simply mock the pride of the once-great Ozymandias, but also shows a certain admiration for his former glory. This doubleness then reflects the way we might read this poem as a commentary on the British Empire of Shelley’s day. It also might be influenced by contemporary bourgeois visions of history, which—with Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789) as the founding work—sought to depict Rome as a great empire that had fallen, plunging Europe into darkness and backwardness, which was then repelled with the coming of modern Europe (and especially modern England). Such visions helped to justify the sometime brutal operations of modern capitalism, but also sounded a note of alarm that Britain’s growing empire might also fall some day.


Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. W. W. Norton and Company, 1971.