When it comes to Romance and Romantic poetry, I’m a bit of an Aestheticist. And so were they for that matter; Percy Shelley and John Keats were basically proto-Aestheticists, the Gothic revival was mostly for the aesthetic, and then of course there’s George “the template for countless Sad Vampire Protagonists” Gordon, Lord Byron who–
Oh, you’re looking for romance. Well, they aren’t mutually exclusive.
Little-“r” romance and capital-“R” Romance don’t really have much to do with each other at first glance, but they aren’t incompatible. The Romantics– and by that I mean the British Romantics, I know there were Romantic periods in other countries’ literary canons but that’s for another day– put great importance in big, complicated emotions like horror and awe and wonder. Poems like “Tintern Abbey” and “Ode to the West Wind” are typical of the reverence and contemplation upon the natural world that was emblematic of the era. Many of the Romantics were also Classicists, influenced by the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. …Mostly by way of Ovid, but The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is suitably Homeric, and Prometheus Unbound was based on plays by Aeschylus. There was also a touch of mysticism and personal mythology, particularly with William Blake. We’re not going into Blake. This time.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the Romantics, was the writer who defined poetry as “the best words in their best order”. John Keating, as portrayed by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, was the one who said that poetry was invented to woo women. As long as there is literature, in whatever form it decides to take (the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to philosophers, historians, a songwriter, and Winston Churchill), there will be people writing love poetry, no matter what the era is. We can use these poems to examine Romantisism through a romantic lens and see how it compares to the more traditional love poetry that people are used to, because as much as I love Shakespeare, he does not hold the monopoly on love poetry. To quote a contemporary poet, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs”.
After all, what’s more Romantic than tying the carcass of a dead bird around your neck to symbolize the burden of your greatest mistake while you watch all your friends die?
Starting off strong with my favorite of the Romantics and a sonnet at that. Though not the familiar Shakespeare sonnet but the more Italian Petrarchan sonnet. This type of sonnet sets up a problem in the first eight lines, and then attempts to resolve it in the final six, or at the very least present a solution. The problem in this is a classic one for love poetry, “I am not beautiful/handsome enough to deserve your love”. There’s a reference to courtly love– the literary convention of love from afar, typified in Medieval romances between Knights and their Ladies– in lines 5 and 6, and another to pastoral poetry– poetry written using rural imagery like Christopher Marlowe’s famous “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love”– in lines 7 and 8. The courtly love trope comes from a place of honor and duty, it’s passion without the physical. Not that opinions had really changed at that point, but given his circle of friends (lookin’ at you George “I had so much sex in Venice I almost died of exhaustion” Gordon, Lord Byron) that wasn’t always the case. And while Marlowe’s intent with the pastoral imagery is to evoke a calm and romantic atmosphere, the Romantics viewed nature as a towering, inescapable, and yet simultaneously inconceivable creation.
It’s not difficult to imagine the thought process behind Wordsworth’s poetry as he published a whole book on poetic theory. Remember writers, if you want people to interpret your work the way you intended, publish your theory. Wordsworth wrote Lyrical Ballads in collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and their idea of how a poem is created is that it comes from a moment of great emotion, followed by intentional contemplation. It’s not hard to imagine the great emotion in this poem– Wordsworth passes a woman working in a field, singing a Scottish work song, and despite the fact that he can’t understand Erse, he has this moment of inspiration. The poem also follows the common trope of “Love at First Sight”, as seen in the majority Disney Princess films (6 out of 11!)– because the overwhelming emotion that is typical of Romantic era poetry is applied to a woman as opposed to a rock formation, it can be interpreted as romantic as well as Romantic.
Easily the cooler of the two Shelleys, Mary Shelley is best known as the inventor of Science Fiction with her classic and iconic book Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus. The poem shares the same sentiment of many star-crossed lovers, but particularly a parallel could be drawn to Shakespeare’s Juliet (and West Side Story‘s Maria), begging the night to come quickly so that she can be with her love. Shelley was familiar with Greek myth by way of Ovid, and it shows up in this poem too, referencing the story of Cupid (son of Aphrodite) and Psyche, the mortal he fell in love with. There is some literature that suggests that Mary strongly identified with Psyche– the lover that is locked away in a mansion and can only visit her love by the dark of night. Needless to say, Percy and Mary did not have the greatest marriage. That being said, when the calcified heart that refused to burn at Percy’s cremation finally found its way back to Mary, she kept it with her in her desk, wrapped in one of his poems. You wish you could be as Gothic.
Robert Burns is probably the least-Romantic of the Romantic poets, but he’s included in the Romantic Era Norton Anthology, so I’m guessing he counts. This is Burns’ third most famous poem, after “Auld Lang Syne” and “To a Mouse” (which is the one with “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft agley”), and actually a pretty standard love poem. Burns is quite different from the rest of the poets on this list– for one, he’s very Scottish. He’s considered the national poet of Scotland, and the last line of this poem is reminiscent of the only Scottish pop song most people know. Don’t worry, it comes around again. He’s also a lot earlier than most of the others. Wordsworth and Coleridge looked up to him, and even went to visit his grave. But most notably, he wrote in a colloquial Scottish dialect, which is actually pretty Romantic. If the goal of Romanticism is to capture emotion into language, then wouldn’t it make sense to capture it in the language of the poet, regardless of diction? There are Romantics who would have disagreed with me (chief among them, Samuel Taylor Coleridge), but Burns’ rejection of the high literature, very English, syntax and diction that would make up the rest of the Romantic era is what gives his works a very distinct style next to his contemporaries.
George “my daughter literally invented programming” Gordon, Lord Byron lead a pretty astonishing life, even compared to other Romantics. This poem is also probably the greatest love poem of the Romantic era, which kind of makes sense. Byron was not one to abstain from anything, much less a passionate emotion. “She Walks In Beauty” is full or romantic and Romantic passion, and it’s a good counterpoint to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (aka “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)– while Will is comparing his “fair youth” to lightness and the day time, Byron is definitely talking about a woman (the Fair Youth was a guy, guys) and instead compares her to the night. Will had his own Dark Mistress, but he never wrote about her like Byron, instead opting for poems like Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). The poem is dark, dramatic, brooding, and passionate– in short, it’s the exact kind of love poem you’d expect from George “I went to Greece to fight a revolution and died of malaria and infection” Gordon, Lord Byron.
What are your favorite love poems? Who are your favorite Romantics? Let me know in the comments! Also like if you can, and subscribe so you don’t miss any new posts.