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Of all the English poets that comprise the Romantic period, George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), John Keats (1795-1821), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) stand as the quintessential masters of Romantic poetry. Their contributions to the aesthetics of versification, from which emerged “a concept of the poetic imagination that acted as a single unifying force within all creative acts. . . (and) defined the doctrine of Romanticism” (Holmes 108), are highly representative of the Romantic period as evidenced by Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” Keats’ major odes (“Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to Melancholy”) and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
At first, the term Romanticism referred to the characteristics of romances written in the Neo-Classical style which emphasized a strict adherence to form and function without what some call “flowery” language or literary extravagance. But in the 18th century, Romanticism came to designate a new kind of exotic landscape lorded over by the outcast wanderer, always heroic but cursed and often on some desperate quest in search of self-identity and discovery. The penultimate example of Romantic poetry’s commitment to these ideals occurs in William Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), where he declares that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Lowes 246). In contrast, the poetry of the Victorian era, written during the reign of Queen Victoria, centered on contemporary social problems and did away with the poetical attitudes of self-indulgence to focus on human culture and the social structures that resulted from the Industrial Revolution.
On the afternoon of June 11, 1814, at the home of Lady Sitwell, George Gordon, Lord Byron, upon seeing his cousin Lady Anne Wilmot Horton in “a mourning dress of spangled black” (Leung 312), was so moved that by the next day he had written “She Walks in Beauty,” first published in Hebrew Melodies in 1815.
In this magnificent poem, Byron utilizes numerous metaphors to describe the beauty of his cousin, a rather “prim and pretty” girl celebrated in two of his most entrancing lines–“She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” In essence, Byron is comparing her with the beauties of the natural world, for her loveliness is “cloudless” like the dark and starry night and her “aspect” or physicality is imbued with “all that’s best of dark and bright” which symbolizes her dual nature as a woman of varying Romantic temperaments . Yet Byron’s main focus is on her head and face, where “the nameless grace. . . waves in every raven tress”, being her black hair (a symbol of darkness) and the light softens her face amid “thoughts serenely sweet. . . ” (a symbol of brightness). But the most telling aspect of “She Walks in Beauty” concerns the idealized woman’s soul which is “at peace with all below” and her heart which is “innocent,” a trait very important to Byron which he equates as a necessary component for true love and adoration during the Romantic period in England.
The great symbolic voice of the true Romantic poet can best be heard in John Keats’ romantic odes. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats relates that his “heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk” (1st stanza, lines 1-2), which shows that Keats longs for happiness and wishes to be free like the nightingale, a symbol of great importance to the Romantic poets, for it represents freedom of expression and flights of fancy into the sublime. Thus, this image conjures up the idea that the poet has drunk poison (hemlock) which illustrates his deep longings for a spirit free of pain and misery, a reflection of the often poverty-stricken lives led by a good number of Romantic poets.
The lines “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare” (2nd stanza, 15-16) in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” also displays images of want and unhappiness. The poet, while gazing at the Grecian urn covered with mythological motifs, sees within the “leaf-fringed legend” (1st stanza, line 5) shapes of “deities or mortals” (line 6) which reflects the poet’s yearning to retain his youth, much like Byron or Percy Shelley who wished to be immortal and ageless.
In “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats truly explores the realms of unhappiness and bitterness with the lines “Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl/A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries/For shade to shade will come too drowsily/And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” (1st stanza, lines 7-10). These forlorn images, a symbol of the poet’s melancholy, can also be applied to other Romantic poets, for they too suffered from the “anguish of the soul” which reflects their poetic ideals and their strivings for youth and happiness amid the turmoil of human existence. As Catherine Poole notes, Keats “seems to dominate these odes with his longing to escape from the world of human suffering to (a) superior domain in his own imagination” (Keats’ Odes, Internet).
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” considered as the quintessential masterpiece of English Romantic poetry, the symbolic themes of mystery and the supernatural play a very crucial role in the poem’s overall effect which John Hill Spencer sees as Coleridge’s “attempt to understand the mystery surrounding the human soul in a universe moved by forces and powers. . . immanent and transcendent” (157). “Rime” was first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a collection of poetry written and published jointly by Coleridge and his good friend, fellow Romantic poet William Wordsworth; yet the text of the poem generally in use today appeared in Sibylline Leaves in 1817. The narrative in “Rime” is based on many sources and some of the ideas expressed were inspired by other pieces of Gothic/Romantic verse read by Coleridge.
A number of symbolic metaphors used in “Rime” reflect the ideals and imaginations of nearly all the Romantic poets, such as the mysteries of life and death, the realms of spirit and the subconscious mind and especially the depth of the poet’s own psychological understanding of the world, expressed through great conviction, beauty and the transcendence of reality.
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections 1804-1834. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
Leung, Mathew. (Preface). The Poetry of Byron. New York: Macmillan, 1881.
Lowes, J. Livingston. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Romantic Imagination. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1927.
Poole, Catherine. Keats’ Odes: An Introduction. April 22, 1999. Internet. Retrieved May 30, 2003. http://www.dundee.ac.uk/english/keats.htm.
Spencer, John Hill. A Coleridge Companion. London: Macmillan, 1983.
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