social and historical context of romantic poetry

Cultural & Social Context for Lyrical Ballads

How can an understanding of the society and culture of late eighteenth century Britain give us an insight into the genesis of Wordsworth’s & Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads?




  • In 1972 in London, unhappy and under financial strain, Wordsworth associated with radicals such as Thomas Paine, John Thelwall and William Godwin, becoming a supporter of the French Revolution. The beginning of the English Romantic Period may be marked with the year 1793 – the year Godwin published his work “Political Justice”. It was an attack on aristocracy, property, religion and even the sacrament of marriage.

How did this shape Wordsworth’s political views? Did he see himself as somewhat of a revolutionary? how is this social revolutionary aspect evident in his poems?

  • Thomas Paine was a voice of English radicalism in the 1790s. In 1792 he published “The Rights of Man”, a republican treatise appealing to members of the politically excluded in English society.

 What “rights” and what “man” does Wordsworth’s poetry focus on?

  • Paine was not a wise choice of friend for Wordsworth – after the beginning of the war, the government cracked down on dissent and Paine was eventually convicted in absentia of seditious libel for “The Rights of Man”, supporting the French Revolution as a “rational” act.

 What was Wordsworth’s opinion of the French Revolution at this time? How did his opinion change by the time he wrote the poems in Lyrical Ballads?

  • In 1794, there was the “Trial of the 12 Reformers” including John Thelwall, as part of a government effort to prosecute editors, nonconformists and radicals who were arguing for Parliamentary reform. They were brought to trial on the charge of high treason, and acquitted amid much excitement.
  • Though Wordsworth remained for the time being a strong supporter of the French Revolution, the poetic side of Wordsworth’s personality began asserting itself, causing the poet to re-examine, between 1793 and 1796, his adherence to Godwin’s rationalistic model of human behaviour, upon which Wordsworth’s republicanism was largely founded.

 How is this evident in LB?

  • In September 1795 Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy settled at Racedown Lodge in Dorset. At Racedown Wordsworth composed “The Borderers”, a tragedy in which he came fully to terms with Godwin’s philosophy, finally rejecting it as an insufficiently rich approach to life for a poet.

 What were Wordsworth’s findings? What exactly was he rejecting and how did his oetry henceforth reflect this?

  • In 1797 Wordsworth moved with Dorothy to Alfoxden House in Somerset. Together with Coleridge and other visitors, they roamed the countryside day and night with a notebook in which to record observations as ideas for future writings. One of these visitors was John Thelwall, a political activist and Republican.

How do Thelwall’s and Godwin’s approaches to social radicalism differ and how is Wordsworth’s preference to one reflected in his poetry?

  • Wordsworth said of Thelwall in his notes to “Anecdote for Fathers” – “He really was a man of extraordinary talent, an affectionate husband, and a good father. Though brought up in the City, he was truly sensible of the beauty of natural objects.” Thelwall had previously been arrested on the orders of a nervous Government as an agitator. His presence at Alfoxden, coupled with reports of the nocturnal wanderings again aroused suspicions and a government spy was dispatched to monitor their movements. 

·         Rydal Mount, home of Wordsworth from 1813 – 1815, was often the scene of gatherings of notable literary figures of the time, one such figure being William Godwin. By this time, Wordsworth had abandoned his earlier radical views and converted to Conservatism.

But in the late eighteenth century, when LB was being composed, how far had WW strayed from such ideas? 

  • Godwin stayed with Wordsworth in April 1816 and they had a quarrel about Wellington’s victory in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. Wordsworth considered it as a victory over “monstrous ambition”, whilst Godwin saw it as a barrier to progress.


II –  ‘1802 Preface’ 


  • The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads 1802 was and enlarged version of the one written by Wordsworth in 1800. It was a revolutionary manifesto about the nature of poetry. It implicitly denies the traditional assumption that there is a hierarchy of poetic genres. The highest genre was ‘epic’ and ‘tragedy’, then ‘comedy’, ‘satire’ and ‘pastoral’ and at the bottom was ‘short lyric’.

Why does WW consider ordinary life to be more relevant than epic tales from the past?

  • “The principal object… was to choose incidents and situations from common life.” Wordsworth wanted to move away from elaborate and classic poetry and believed that the ordinary lives of ordinary people were important enough to have poetry written about them.

Could WW’s project be seen as somehow patronising? And were his poems really read by the “common man” who at the time couldn’t read? Is there something unrealistic and ignorant in WW’s attempts?

  • Wordsworth wanted to “describe [ordinary incidents] in a selection of language really used by men.” Instead of targeting his poems for the upper class, he wrote them for the newly emerging ‘Middle’ class. This meant that he wrote in a simple and unelaborated manner, more in connection with nature.

What did this middle class readership want from poetry? Did they reject or find fault with the old styles or were they just unfmiliar with them?

  • Wordsworth, at the same time, wanted to “throw over [the reader] a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way.”

What examples can be found in WW’s poetry of such a colouring of ordinary incidents? What did such a “colouring” consist in?

  • Wordsworth also stated that he wanted to make “ incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them the primary laws of out nature.”

What were these “primary laws of nature”?

  • Wordsworth thought a primary role of poetry was to keep human beings emotionally alive and morally sensitive – that is, keeping them essentially human – in the modern era of a technological and increasingly urban society.

There was a debate at the time about the term “sensibility” and how it was to be applied, both to poetry as well as to reactions to things witnessed in everyday life; how did WW define “sensibility”?

  • Wordsworth, in his preface, questioned ‘What is a Poet?’ His answer is “a man endues with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind”.

How does WW display such “greater knowledge” in his poetry?

  • Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, i.e. that a poem is only valuable when the poet has thought long and deeply about the subject matter.

What evidence is there that WW has dwelt for some time about the subject matter of his poems?

  • Wordsworth explains that he wrote many poems about nature. As he grew up in the country side, he always paid close attention to details of the physical environment around him (plants, animals, geography, weather). His poems often present an instant when nature speaks to him and he responds by speaking for nature.

This conversation with nature is a recurrent feature of WW’s poetry, how does it effect the reader in a specific instance?

  • Wordsworth attempts to write his poetry so that it has an effect on the reader. “I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure: and, on the other hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them, they would be read with more than common dislike.”
  • Wordsworth thought that poetry, rather than religion, could bring humanity together. He highlighted feelings and emotions rather than events like poets in the pre-Romantic era to change people’s behaviour.

Are there any examples in LB which show poetry working in this way?

  • Wordsworth strongly believed that childhood experiences affected the adult mind, for example he was often solitary as a child and this might explain why he liked to be alone in his adulthood. He also explores the innocence of children or ‘spots of time’ (i.e. memory) from childhood in many of his poems.

Why does WW value childhood esxperiences and childhood perceptions so highly? 



III – Romanticism



1. Romanticism is a general, collective term to describe much of the art and literature produced during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

What are the distinctive features of Romantic Literature which mark it out as different from that which went before?

2. During this period there was a broad shift of emphasis in the arts, away from the structured, intellectual, reasoned approach of the 18th century (which is often called the ‘Age of Reason’, or the ‘Enlightenment’) towards ways of looking at the world which recognized the importance of the emotions and the imagination.

What was the probelm with the intellectual approach? Was reason seen to be somehow flawed or a cul-de-sac? 

3. Romanticism can be seen as a revolution in the arts, alongside the political, social and industrial revolutions of the age: all spheres of human activity were undergoing great change.

How did the changes in literature parallel the changes in society?

4. Wordsworth and Coleridge were among the first British poets to explore the new theories and ideas that were sweeping through Europe

What were these theories and how are they evident in their work? how do these theories chape their poetry and inform its content?

5. Wordsworth’s poems initiated the Romantic era by emphasizing feeling, instinct, and pleasure above formality and mannerism.

What do “formality” and “mannerism” mean as applies to poetry?

6. Their poems display many characteristics of Romanticism, including: a. An emphasis on the emotions (a fashionable word at the beginning of the period was ‘sensibility’. This meant having, or cultivating, a sensitive, emotional and intuitive way of understanding the world)e.g. 

b. Exploring the relationship between nature and human life

c. A stress on the importance of personal experiences and a desire to understand what influences the human mind

d. A belief in the power of the imagination e.g.

e. An interest in mythological, fantastical, gothic and supernatural themes e.g.

f. An emphasis on the sublime (this word was used to describe a spiritual awareness, which could be stimulated by a grand and awesome landscape)e.g. 

g. Social and political idealism

7. Wordsworth believed that poetry should offer access to the emotions contained in memory. 

How is this seen in practice?

How does WW’s poetry achieve this? 

8. He argued that the chief duty of poetry is to provide pleasure through a rhythmic and beautiful expression of feeling 

Does WW’s poetry seem to value the pleasure inherent in language and imagery more so than any kind of didactic roll?

9. According to the theory that poetry resulted from the “spontaneous overflow” of emotions, as Wordsworth wrote in the preface, Wordsworth and Coleridge made it their task to write in the simple language of common people, telling concrete stories of their lives 

Are there any clear exaplmes of where WW or STC favour the concrete over the abstract in the exploration of abstract ideas and values?

10. This explicit emphasis on feeling, simplicity, and the pleasure of beauty over formality changed the course of English poetry, replacing the elaborate classical forms of Pope and Dryden with a new Romantic sensibility 

11. Wordsworth’s most important legacy was launching the Romantic era, and opened the gates for later writers such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in England.



IV – William Wordsworth and Lyrical Ballads 


  • Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems is a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798; it is typically considered to have marked the beginning of the Romantic movement in literature. The immediate effect on critics was modest, but it became and remains a landmark, changing the course of English literature. Most of the poems in the 1798 edition were written by Wordsworth, with Coleridge contributing only four poems to the collection, including one of his most famous works, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“. A second edition was published in 1800, in which Wordsworth added additional poems and a preface on his ideas about poetry. Another edition was published in 1802; Wordsworth added an appendix titled Poetic Diction in which he expanded the ideas set forth in the preface.

 What were the defining features of the collection which marked it out as revolutionary?

  • Wordsworth and Coleridge set out to overturn what they considered the priggish, learned and highly sculpted forms of eighteenth century English poetry and bring poetry within the reach of the average man by writing the verses using normal, everyday language. They place an emphasis on the vitality of the living voice that the poor use to express their reality. Using this language also helps point out the universality of man’s emotions. Even the title of the collection recalls rustic forms of art – the word “lyrical” links the poems with the ancient rustic bards and lends an air of spontaneity, while “ballads” are an oral mode of storytelling used by the common people.

 Were WW’s & STC’s poems really written with the common man in mind as the reader or is the common man simply used as a device much in the way the Agustan poets used the Gods and Heroes of the Greek & Roman world?

  • The Prelude is an autobiographical, “philosophical” poem in blank verse by the English poet William Wordsworth. Wordsworth wrote the first version of the poem when he was 28, and worked over the rest of it for his long life without publishing it. He never gave it a title; he called it the “Poem (title not yet fixed upon) to Coleridge” and in his letters to Dorothy Wordsworth as “the poem on the growth of my own mind.” The poem was unknown to the general public until published three months after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, the final name given to it by his wife Mary.

 What does The Prelude tell us about the period in which WW was wrting the poems for Lyrical Ballads?

  • Nature, in all its forms was important to Wordsworth, but he rarely uses simple descriptions. Instead he concentrates on the ways in which he responds and relates to the world. He uses his poetry to look at the relationship between nature and human life, and to explore the belief that nature can have an impact on our emotional and spiritual lives.

 Was the relationship between nature and man solely one way – i.e. man learning from nature? did man’s affact on nature colour any of WW’s poetry?

  • Wordsworth supported many of the ideals of the French revolution and to do so could be dangerous. To speak or write in support was a criminal offence. In the summer of 1979, while living in Somerset, Wordsworth and Coleridge, his friend and fellow poet, were suspected of being French spies, but a government agent sent to investigate concluded that they were merely a ‘mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen’

 Did WW’s & STC’s playing at spies reflect their ettitude to poetry too, in that their principles were fluid and not held with any conviction?

  • Wordsworth in often considered to be an egocentric poet, his experiences and his development, but this is not quite a fair reflection. He supported social reform and believed in what were popularly known as ‘the rights of man’- the rights to individual freedoms of thought and expression.

 Does the fact that WW wrote the lengthy “Prelude”, his major work, solely on his own journey as a poet and that he wholly recanted his weekly held political views re the rights of man as soon as it was convenient to do so (supporting a reactionary politician in his area) support the accusation that he was both egotistical and a man of little or no conviction?

  • Wordsworth saw imagination as a powerful, active force that works alongside our senses, interpreting the way we view the world and influencing how we react to events.

 Does WW only really value his own imagination as poet or does his poetry leave open the interpreatation to the imaginations of his readers?



V – How Augustan Poetry related to Lyrical Ballads



  • Augustan poetry was a social order whereas the Romantic era was more about a personal order

 How does the “social order” differ from the “personal order”?

  • Augustan poetry imitated the Classical form of poetry concerned with big themes in society, for example, role of kingship whereas, Wordsworth and Coleridge were observing people’s lives and emotions.

 What were the other “big themes” of Agustan Poetry? Was there nothing “big” or grand about WW’s or STC’s themes?

  • As Augustan poetry flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus as emperor of Rome, so the poetry contained many epic, outward morals, virtues and it was very political. Wordsworth and Coleridge focused on everyday happenings. Lyrical Ballads shows us that Wordsworth wrote about human nature rather than Classics, and Coleridge wrote about the supernatural rather than Classics, so neither followed the Augustan morals.

 Why was the poetry which immediately preceded that of the Romantics named after Caesar Augustus, an emperor of Rome? Why were the classics so revered?

  • Augustan poetry stuck to the ideals of myths, which were the common beliefs in this period but Wordsworth and Coleridge brought a new stress on individual creativity and a sense of freedom to innovate and were seen as experimental poets, whose work challenged accepted ideas about what poetry was and how it might be written, and this was because of the French revolution, and how it aimed to remake society based on individuality and human rights. Augustan poets, talked about things as a State, but Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote about individuality.

 Why might the the fact that Agustan poetry looked back to a golden period, modelling their poetry on the poetry and myths of that period, be seen as a probelm in the time of WW?

  • Both Augustan poetry and Lyrical Ballads (romanticism), wrote about pastoral things.
  • For example, Augustan poet William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’

“While Spring shall pour his show’rs, as oft he wont,           

And bathe thy breathing tresses, meekest Eve;       

While Summer loves to sport               

Beneath thy ling’ring light;               

While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves;               

Or Winter, yelling thro’ the troublous air,                          

Affrights thy shrinking train,And rudely rends thy robes;” 

And Wordsworth’s poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’

 Why is Collins’ poem distinctly Augustan when it seems to have so many similarities to that of WW?

  • Poets of the Augustan era never wrote about things personal to them but wrote about grand life, whereas Wordsworth and Coleridge were more self-reflecting in their poetry.

 The fact that WW is a character in some of his poems is perhaps the best evdidence of this. which poems does WW feature in and why does he use this revolutionary device?

  • In Augustan poet, William Collins’ poem ‘Ode to Evening’, he personifies the night “May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear”, and praises it but Wordsworth and Coleridge would not personify or praise a concept like this but state things as they were, and use things to explain human emotion. In Augustan poetry, virtues were addressed as Gods and goddesses, and objects such as planets were personified as Gods, so to them it was acceptable to talk about them as real things.

Despite claiming to eschew the personification of nature, WW does let nature speak for itself in some poems, which is a form of personification. what does WW object to most in nature being personified? 

  • Augustan poetry had a large section of morality at the end of the poems, and when Wordsworth and Coleridge included a moral in one of their poems, it was more subtle and featured throughout the poem.

If the morals in the poems of LB are seen to be obvious and even patronising, can this be seen as a failure in the poet’s project? Perhaps the moral of a poem like The Ancient Mariner might be vague and obscure, can this be said of some of WW’s shorter “social” poems?

  • Augustan poetry, was full of references to court life and artistic life and used wit to satirise other poets and everyday events. An example of this is a Poem of Henry Carey called, ‘Namby Pamby’. Lyrical Ballads, contains poems of a much more composed nature.

WW focused much more on the “common people” in his poems. Is this no more than a stylistic feature or does it tell us something about his reaction to the themes and subjects of the poetry which  went before him?

  •  Augustan poetry over exaggerated imitation of the heroic age of Roman and Greek Classical literature. It became an evocation of Classical ideals. Wordsworth and Coleridge were simpler in their use of language and included a lot of dialogue, so they engaged a reader more easily, and allow them to relate to it.
  •  Wordsworth and Coleridge made observations of the ordinary, such as homeless, and poor and everyday people, rather than following the Augustan observation of well-known, grand and mythical stories of Gods and Goddesses.
  • Wordsworth and Coleridge probably did not follow the style of Augustan writing because, events in society changed people’s views on things, and no longer was the scientific approach of things the main outlook in society, but the reality of humans.

Augustan poetry looked backwards to a golden age, did the poery of the LB look forward? In what way? 



VI – William Blake



  • Summary – (b. Nov. 28, 1757, London–d. Aug. 12, 1827, London) was the first of the great English Romantic poets, as well as a painter and printer and an engraver. Largely self-taught, he began writing poetry when he was twelve and was apprenticed to a London engraver at the age of fourteen. His poetry and visual art are inextricably linked.
  •  About the Romantics. The best known Romantic poets were Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats and their poetry was dependent on various features revolutionary to their time: a reaction against previous literary styles, arguments with eighteenth century and earlier philosophers, the decline in formal Anglican worship and the rise of rebellious religious sects, and the rapid industrialization of Britain and consequent changes in its countryside. Much of the major writing of the period is associated with the term Romantic, takes place between when the French Revolution began and the death of Byron and can be seen as a response to changing political and social conditions in one respect or another.

How is the greater individuality of religious worship reflected in the poetry of the Romantics?

  • Although Blake struggled to make a living from his work during his lifetime his influence and ideas are possibly the strongest of all the Romantic poets. Blake’s radical views and individual artistic style were overlooked during his lifetime but his work is now much admired.

 What were Blake’s radical views and how were they similar to those of WW and STC?

  • Blake lived in or near to London, a city which dominates much of his work, whether as the nightmare ‘London’ of the Songs of Experience, or the London which Blake saw as the ‘New Jerusalem’, the kingdom of God on earth.

 If a city dominates much of Blake’s work, how can he be a Romantic poet, seeing as Romantic poets focus on nature and its glory?

  •  Blake, witnessing his brother’s death, remarked that he saw his brother’s soul “ascend heavenward clapping its hands for joy”, and continued, from that point on, to feel his brother’s inspirational influence over his work.

 Is a particular understanding of or relationship with God distinctive of the Romantic poets?

  • From his early years, Blake experienced visions of angels and ghostly monks; he saw and conversed with the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and various historical figures. These memories never left him and influenced his poetry throughout his life. Therefore explaining the apparitions, angels, devils and spirits which seem to populate his work. This is dissimilar to Wordsworths poerty, howver he does use supernatural ideas but they are not as prevelant as they are in Blakes.
  • Part of the reason for this extraordinary creative energy was that Blake felt compelled to work through his responses to the political upheavals of in Europe and America in this period.

 Were WW and STC similarily affected by the political upheavals happing in the world around them?

  •  Blake was politically both a Radical and a liberal as was Wordsworth.

 How is this radicalism and liberalism reflected in WW’s poetry?

  •  His works, from 1794 onwards, reflect a sense of the paradoxes and complexities of rebellion although Blake remained committed to the principles of equality, to liberty and to justice.

 How did WW and STC deal with the paradoxes and complexities of rebellion or did their poetry simply skirt over them?

  • The poems of William Blake offer a symbolism and also a sense of childlike innocence. This can also be seen in many of William Wordsworth poems.

 Why did childhood, children and childhood innocence feature so strongly in Romantic poetry?

  •  Typical for Blake’s poems were long, flowing lines and violent energy, combined with clarity and moments of lyric tenderness.
  •  Wordsworth’s verdict after Blake’s death reflected many opinions of the time: “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” Blake’s influence grew through Pre-Raphealites and W.B. Yeats especially in Britain. Blake’s interest in legend was revived with the Romantics’ rediscovery of the past, especially the Gothic and medieval styles of writing.


VII – Samuel Taylor Coleridge & the Lyrical Ballads. 


  •  As a young man Coleridge intended to enter the Anglican Church as his family had intended and later sought divine guidance in a Unitarian Chapel, which links with the religious themes in lyrical ballads. 

 But how evident is God in STC’s four poems? and is God’s presence or message in accordance with any church’s teachings?

·                    There was a strong political flavour to his thinking, for example he supported the French Revolution and opposed the war with France, which is evident in the Lyrical Ballads. 

How are STC’s political beleif’s evident in his four poems?

·                    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner tells a moral story, much like the moral nature of many of the lyrical ballads and more of Coleridge’s poems. 

How do the morals in STC’s poems differ from those in WW’s? And how are these morals put foprward to the reader in a different manner? 

·                    The lyrical ballads are traditionally written in a narrative style much like many of Coleridge’s poems. 

·                    Nature is used in the lyrical ballads by both Coleridge and Wordsworth to give deeper meaning to them. Coleridge uses nature in many of his other works, such as Brockley Coomb. 

What “deeper meaning” does nature give to STC’s poems? What does nature represent for STC?

·                    As an ordinary man, Coleridge used everyday language in his poems to appeal to all other ordinary men. This technique is also used in the lyrical ballads. 

Why the the Rime so clearly break with this preference for everyday language?

·                    Linked with Coleridge’s use of nature and everyday language is the use of extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people in his poems which is a main feature used in the lyrical ballads to appeal to ordinary people. 

·                    Coleridge uses humour in his poems, such as A Mathematical Problem, which is a feature of lyrical ballads. 

Is there any evidence of humour in the four poems in the Lyrical BAllads?

·                    Another feature of the lyrical ballads is a simple rhyming scheme using techniques such as rhyming couplets, which are also used by Coleridge in many of his other works. 

·                    A common theme of the lyrical ballads is the difference between the young and the old, which is evident in Coleridge’s poems, including Youth and Age. 

How do the young and the old variously fare in the four poems in this collection? 

·                     Metaphors of nature are used in the lyrical ballads, and also by Coleridge in many of his poems, for instance “Friendship is a sheltering tree” from the poem Youth and Age.



VIII – The Enlightenment. 


The Enlightenment was an eighteenth century movement in European and American philosophy, or the longer period including the Age of Reason.

How was the poetry of WW and STC a reaction against the “age of reason”?

The term can more narrowly refer to the intellectual movement of The Enlightenment, which advocated reason as the primary basis of authority. Developing in France, Britain and Germany, its sphere of influence also included Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain and, in fact, the whole of Europe. The Enlightenment is generally agreed to have ended around the year 1800 and the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15).

Is the fact that LB is written at the end of this period in any way significant?

The Enlightenment, or the age of reason, is often closely linked with the Scientific Revolution, for both movements emphasized reason, science, and rationality. Its leaders believed they could lead their states to progress after a long period of tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny.

The Enlightenement seems to be characterised by a strong faith in and hope for the future. Is Romantic poetry in some way a reactiona gainst this hopeful outlook?

The movement helped create the intellectual framework for the American and French Revolutions, Poland’s Constitution of May 3, 1791, the Latin American independence movement, the Greek national independence movement and the later Balkan independence movements against the Ottoman Empire, and led to the rise of classical liberalism, democracy, and capitalism.

If the Enlightenment inspired the revolutions of the time and the revolutions inspired Romanticism, surely Romanticism cannot be a rejection of Enlightenment values?

The Enlightenment is matched with the high baroque and classical eras in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts.  In the late 18th century a movement known as Romanticism sought to combine the formal rationality of the past, with a greater and more immediate emotional and organic sense of the world.

How can this “immedaite emotional sense of the world” be charactersied and how does it differ from coming to a rational understanding? Does the Romantic understanding of the term “sensibility” help to explain this?

Key ideas that sparked this change were evolution, as postulated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Erasmus Darwin, and Charles Darwin

What was the “problem” with science as far as the Romantics were concerned? and how is the scientific outlook dealt with in the poems in the collection?

With the tumultuous years of 1789-1815, European culture was transformed by revolution, war and disruption. By ending many of the social and cultural props of the previous century, the stage was set for dramatic economic and political change. European philosophy participated in, and drove, many of these changes 18th Century Europe started in the Age of Enlightenment and gradually moved towards Romanticism.

How is this revolution evident in the poetry of the collection?

It is apparent that The Enlightenment had much influence on the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge; the main source of evidence standing in the poetry but also looking at the history of their works. With the Age of Enlightenment beginning in and around 1789, with the collection of their works ‘Lyrical Ballads’ published in 1798, it shows a strong historical link. In addition, the main foothold for the Enlightenment had to be the dissatisfied French, with their Ancien Regime, the old regime in France in which they wished to overthrow, therefore the people of France became the perfect fertile ground on which enlightened thinkers, or ‘philosophes’ could place their ideas, for example the famous Jean-Jaques Rousseau. With France being so geographically close to England, and involved in much trade, it’s apparent that such ideas of the enlightened thinkers, such as rationality and reason would spread to England, which would become the base for some of the more famous works of Wordsworth and Coleredge to fight against. We can see many examples in which Wordsworth and Coleredge reacted against the very popular Enlightenment ideas of their time:The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates the supernatural events experienced by a mariner on a long sea voyage. This shows a reflection of the supernatural, something in which the Enlightenment, or age of reason, attempted to speak out against, showing Wordsworth and Coleredge taking a step against reason. This is also true in We Are Seven, where a man is talking to a young girl; the man representing the ‘age of reason’ almost, and the girl representing tradition, religion and superstition. We can see again the age of reason is fought against where the man is proven to be the fool, and the girl almost to have the upper hand in fighting her case against the age of reason showing tradition and superstition to represent almost the innocence fighting against, whom the man seems to be, evil. There are also many elements of the way the Lyrical Ballads are structured, and the main features of a ‘ballad’ in which Wordsworth also contradicts many of the ideas of the Enlightenment period. They include extra-ordinary events happening in ordinary lives, showing Wordsworth openly speaking out against science and reason encorporating ‘extra-ordinary events’ usually of the religious or mystical sort.

·          They involved simple folkloric authenticity, showing Wordsworth reluctant to delve into the new and complicated theories of reason and science.

·          Many were based on fairy-tales, contradicting the new ‘age of reason’.

·         Many have religious themes, speaking again outright against enlightenment theories which stressed the power of men and thinking free of religion.

·         The ballads were mostly spoken, through ‘oral tradition’, whereas most enlightened thinkers wrote their thoughts in books, which would prove difficult to read for the many illiterate.

·         They were humorous and subversive, as opposed to serious and topical.

·         Wordsworth worked on stories of the past, using historical events and stories and never looked into the future, whereas enlightened thinkers only concentrated on the future.

·         There are also many themes which are brought up in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads which represent the many differences which Wordsworth created between his works and the works of the enlightened thinkers of the time

·         The theme of death, for example in ‘We Are Seven’, represented as not from science or reason, but shows the innocence of a more religious and traditional view.

·         The theme of faith, for example in ‘We Are Seven’, showing that faith ultimately comes out on top as opposed to science and reason.

  • The theme of class difference. Wordsworth still concentrated on a class difference and a clear divide, but the enlightened thinkers believed in merging of society so that class differences disappeared.





Dorothy Wordsworth held a major influence over William’s writing. After reuniting in adulthood and becoming inseparable companions, Wordsworth wrote of her in his famous Tintern Abbey poem; ‘my dear sister…’

Does WW’s potery feel like a dialogue between a brother and sister, or between two people who have always been very close? Is the intimacy of their relationship reflected in the poetry? 

William and Dorothy lived together and spent a happy childhood in the Lake District, and were both influenced in their writing by the nature they witnessed there. For example, in Dorothy’s work ‘The Grasmere Journal’, Dorothy writes of the long walks she and William would take together, as William would write of nature in poems such as ‘Expostulation and Reply’.  Just as Lyrical Ballads was seen to be revolutionary in comparison to the typical poems prior to it, Dorothy’s work appeared just as women’s roles in literature were beginning to be re-examined. Therefore both William and Dorothy contributed to major turning points in literature.

What is the clearest evidnce of the influence of Dorothy on WW’s poery apart from him addressing poems to her?  

‘The Grasmere Journals’ reveal how vital Dorothy was to her brother’s success. William often borrowed from his sister’s journals, for example a great similarity can be found between William’s famous poem ‘I Wandered As Lonely As A Cloud’ and an entry from Dorothy’s journal: ‘…All at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and 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’              

WILLIAM Wordsworth   ‘When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and 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 and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.’      

DOROTHY Wordsworth   

Dorothy would rather focus on her brother’s success than her own, saying “I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author. Give William the Pleasure of it.” She encouraged William to get his work published. 

How do women, especially repressed women, feature in WW’s poetry? Is this evidence of his sister’s influence or an appreciation of her plight? 

William Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsowrth were very close, and travelled to Germany in 1798, just as Lyrical Balads were being published. Coleridge wrote, “Tho we were three persons, it was but one soul”, showing that the unity of all three writers contributed to the success of Lyrical Ballads. 

Is the Lyrical Ballads little more than a wiriting exercise of three close friends and therfore of little relevance to the readership of the time?

With her brother Dorothy occasionally played a curious game – they would lie down next to each other outdoors, pretending to be in their graves. This is a theme that occurs in William’s poem ‘We Are Seven’, where the main focus is the attachment between siblings even in death. Dorothy spent a lot of her youth reading. She read Milton and Shakespeare, Richardson and Fielding, poetry by Goldsmith and Hayley. This contrasts to William, who encouraged the abandonment of books, saying that nature and imagination are the best teachers.

Is there evidence of the advantages of Dorothy’s bookish education in the poems, despite WW’s proclaimed stance? 

Along with reminiscing about their glorious past, Dorothy and William suggest pangs of pain and grief connected to their memories. For Dorothy, these negative sentiments seem fuelled by her declining health, but William seems to be contemplative, hypothetical, and worried that along with the changing landscape his memory will be forgotten or altered.  

What were the brother and sister’s living conditions at the time of the composition of the poems ion the collection? how did they impact on the themes and tone of the poems?

The universal language that was characteristic of women writers at this time is apparent not only in Dorothy’s writing, but also in William’s as well. 

What is the characteristic voice of women in the poetry of the time and how is it evident in her brother’s poetry?

She avoids the greater romantic style perfected by her brother and Coleridge. In her poems there is usually no assertive self and no change in awareness. It instead records a consciousness of nature and her relationship to it. Dorothy and William’s descriptions of Dorothy’s eyes are quite contrasting.

Is her brother’s poetry too egotistical by comparison, or is it just too egotistical looked at on its own? does WW try to efface the poet behind the work or is the poet in centre stage?

Dorothy described her eyes as “busy” and William describes them as “wild.” Busy connotes searching, interest, and awareness; whereas wild tends to connote a more chaotic and uncontrolled demeanour. Dorothy’s portrayal of herself is, in this sense, more positive and William’s much more negative.

Did WW just see the world and the pople in it as he liked, with a kind of Romantic gloss over the more mundane aspects of his rather tedious and mundane life, unlike Byron or even Coleridge, whose lives really did approach the Romatic ideal?


X – The French Revolution and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads 



1. The French Revolution began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. The motto of the Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood’ and it stood for ideas such as social justice, personal freedoms, and the idea that there were unalienable human rights, which defied class, wealth or gender.Wordsworth supported many of the ideals of the French revolution and to do so could be dangerous. To speak or write in support was a criminal offence. In the summer of 1797, while living in Somerset, Wordsworth and Coleridge, were suspected of being French spies, but a government agent sent to investigate concluded that they were merely a ‘mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen’ 

What evidence is there in LB that either poet was in any way a supporter of the ideals of the French Revolution of Fraternite, Liberte, Egalite?

2. Wordsworth and Coleridge were fired by the ideas of the time, which, in terms of literature and art, bought a new stress on individual creativity and a sense of freedom to innovate. The two poets helped to bring about a revolution in poetry, giving it fresh impetus and a new direction. In their day, Wordsworth and Coleridge were seen as experimental poets, whose work challenged accepted ideas about what poetry was and how it might be written. 

What is the most revolutionary aspect of the poetry? and was this aspect shared eaually among the two poets?

3. Wordsworth was an eyewitness to heart stirring scenes, such as the enlisting of volunteers and the proclamation of the republic. He had the good fortune to make friends with one of the true heroes of the revolution, Captain Michel Beaupuy, whose chivalric nature and generous enthusiasm for the new order warmed the young Englishman. Beaupuy was the revolutionary apostle described by Wordsworth.  He found Wordsworth a bewildered foreigner and left him a determined revolutionist; one might almost say a French republican. 

How does WW’s The Prelude describe the impact this time in revolutionary France had upon him and his poetry? What is the evidence of such an impact in LB?

4. From his youth, Wordsworth was infatuated with nature. But in the poetry of the young Wordsworth, nature appears as a wild, uncontrollable force, akin to the forces unleashed by the French Revolution, which he greeted with enthusiasm. Wordsworth soon became disillusioned with revolution in general. He wrote a sonnet in which he attacks Bonaparte, but in effect blames the French people for his rise to power (”Shame on you, feeble-heads, to Slavery prone!”). He soon became a rabid enemy of the French Revolution and an ally of Pitt.

Is there evidence in LB that WW was ever only a half-hearted revolutionary and so no revolutionary at all?

5. A spirit of revolt and indignation against all social iniquities pervaded Wordsworth for years, together with a sympathy, which never left him, for the poorer and humbler members of the community. When he came back to England, he drew near the Jacobins without becoming one of them; but he was a decided reformer. Alienated from his own country when she went to war with France, he heartily hated king, regent and ministry. His letter to the bishop of Llandaff and his poem Guilt and Sorrow (or Incidents on Salisbury Plain) are the best testimonies of his feelings. 

What reforms would the authors of LB most like to see happening in British society?

6.  Lyrical Ballads marked a radical change in the direction of English Literature. It represented a movement away from the overwrought, highly formal and learned verse of the 18th century and in so doing ushered in a new, more democratic poetic era. Written in the language of the common man and addressing the concerns of the common man, Lyrical Ballads was the first – and remains the most – truly revolutionary collection of poetry, paving the way for the great Romantic poets – keats, Byron, Shelley et al. – and proving that, while there was no actual revolution on the ground, England could still be the most revolutionary of places. 

“A revolution in style but a revolution in nothing else” – is this a fair assessment of the LB as well as its impact on the narrow literary world of England?

7. In November of 1791, he returned to France, with the very vague plan of mastering the language preparatory to becoming a traveling tutor. This time, he stayed in France for a full year, and the impact of the visit was enormous. Firstly, he became a passionate supporter of the French Revolution, becoming close friends with Captain Michel Beaupuy (described in glowing terms in Book IX of The Prelude). Secondly, he fell in love with Annette Vallon, the daughter of a surgeon in Orleans.

Where is such passion  evident in his poems? What is passionately sought after or proposed in LB? Is such passion teeming beneath a particularly bland surface of pastoral scenes?

8.  The next couple of years after 1792 were unhappy. Politically, Wordsworth was horribly divided, balancing a desire to be loyal to England with the feeling that, in a sense, his nation was fighting Liberty itself. He spent much of his time in London, and many of his friends were radicals, such as Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and Paine. They were not wise choices for friends: after the beginning of the war, the government cracked down on dissent, and Paine would eventually be convicted in absentia of seditious libel for Part 2 of The Rights of Man, which supported the French Revolution as a “rational” act.

Is there any evidence in LB of the difficult choices which were “tearing WW apart” during this time?

9. In 1793, Wordsworth wrote A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff. This work was shockingly radical (in it the execution of Louis XVI is wholeheartedly supported), but perhaps the most notable thing about it was that it was not published until after Wordsworth’s death. In the mid-1790s Wordsworth spent time with all the wrong people, and was for a time a committed radical himself, but, unlike Coleridge and Southey, he did not publish anything that would come back to haunt him.

Is it true to say that nothing that WW published in his lifetime, especially LB, was in any way politically radical?

10.  In 1804, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. Wordsworth’s disillusionment with the French Revolution has a long and complicated progress (going back even to the Reign of Terror), but this is certainly an important milestone in the poet’s turn to conservatism. A decade earlier, Wordsworth had believed in a Godwinian notion of societal evolution, feeling that a revolution (even a bloody one) was a necessary precursor of something better. Now it seemed that France had exchanged. Now it seemed that France had exchanged one tyrant for another, a tyrant who seemingly wanted to conquer Europe. The French invasion of Switzerland justified Wordsworth’s apprehension.

Which of the poems of LB gives voice to such disillusionmnet?


XI – Ballads/Publishing/Readers


1. Lyrical Ballads was released anonymously on October 4th 1798. Most of England was unaware a Literary Revolution had just taken place.

Did the fact that LB failed to reach a wide readership undermine the collection’s intended populism?

2. Wordworth wrote many poems based on nature and beauty but his most important contribution was that his poetry was for the common people and aimed not at the fading aristocracy.

How does the ballad form enhance the prospects of LB reaching a wider aufdience?

3. Wordworth believed that poetry should be written in a language that is spoken by the ordinary people, as a poet was a “man speaking to men”. He also believed poetry should be written about incidents and situations from everyday life.

Did people at the time, at least those who read poetry, read about, or want to read about, everyday life? Was WW ahead of his time or did he just woefully misundertand popular literature?

4. The word Lyrical links the poems with the ancient rustic bards and lends an air of spontaneity while ballads are an oral mode of storytelling used by the common people.

Would such a mixture of genres strike the reader as strange or had such a belnd been tried before?

5. Wordworth earliest poetry was published in 1793 in the collections An evening walk and Descriptive Sketches. He received a legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert in 1795 so he could pursue writing poetry.


6. Wordworth masterpiece is generally considered to be The Prelude. It was originally called the poem “To Coleridge”.

Did the fact that the Prelude wasn’t published in his lifetime and that the LB was never very successful highlight how out of touch WW really was? 


7. Wordworth did begin to write poetry while he was at school but none was published until 1793.

8. The first publication of Lyrical Ballads was quite tentative. It was slow to emerge from the press. Joseph Cottle printed around 500 copies and issued a few of them on behalf of T.N. Longman.


9. After the copyright was sold to the Arches of London, the remaining sheets were issued with a new title page at the beginning of October 1798.

10. Lyrical Ballads exists in multiple versions. There were two separate issues of the volume (Bristol and London) and two distinct states of the Bristol issue. The first copies of the press included the poem ‘Lewti’ but later this poem was withdrawn as it might reveal Coleridge authorship, which would ruin the anonymity of the volume. ‘Lewti’ was replaced by ‘The Nightingale’

Why was the annonymity of the volume so important?

11. The Bristol Lyrical ballads is an extremely rare book, only 14 copies are known to survive today in collections scattered around the world.

12. The Bristol Lyrical balls with ‘Lewti’ are even rarer. Only 5 copies have been identified.

What were people reading at the time? what was popular? who were the popular writers? what made them popular? what did the general readership want? did LB’s relative failure reflect its quality? was there something wrong with WW’s & STC’s approach? Was their scheme or philosophy in some way flawed or was their poetry ahead of its time and thus was only appreciated later in the nineteenth century?


XII – Mary Shelly & The Supernatural 

Both Mary Shelly and Wordsworth drew inspiration from the environment and places that were ‘picturesque’; this is shown by the use of nature in both of their poems.

Why did WW place such a high value upon the environment? What was its inherent value?

In Frankenstein nature is far more important to Victor’s health and sanity than any other agent in the story, Shelley uses nature as a restorative agent for Victor Frankenstein. While he seems to be overcome with grief by the murders of his friends and family, he repeatedly shuns humanity and seeks nature for health, relaxation and to strengthen his spirits. Even in the early chapters of Frankenstein, Shelley uses natural metaphors to describe Victor’s childhood:

Is the embracing of nature in some way also the shunning of humanity in LB? Is WW as much of  a lover of nature-as he is a misanthrope? 

For Wordsworth, nature plays a comforting role. Like Shelley, Wordsworth sees nature as an eternal and sublime entity. These qualities gave Wordsworth great comfort. As Wordsworth writes:

“I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.”


Is nature’s main role one of comfort or does it have a greater role to play in WW’s philosophy?

In the novel of Frankenstein, there are three main themes: the “curative powers of affection”; “partial or ill-regulated education”; and “the aims and dangers of scientific discovery.” Wordsworth was also against science, and themes in the lyrical ballads included those of a poorer and less educated class like that of the little girl in the poem “we are seven”, in which the reader feels sorry for her and slightly against the boy of higher class who turns to scientific reason to deal with the topic of ‘death’.

What other evidence is there in LB that WW opposes science and reason as answers to the ills of the day? 

Wordsworth and Mary Shelly both believed that the best pieces of their work where those that were written at times of ‘high emotion’ that were caused by major events in their lives. The major events in their lives were very similar, including the death of their mothers both before they were 10 years old and they both lost 2 children.

 What evidence is there of high emotion in LB, either in the writing of the poems or in the incidents described? 

In both of Shelly’s work and the Lyrical Ballads there are many references to the supernatural. In the Lyrical Ballads, it is Coleridge that favours the Supernatural and many of his poems have references however Wordsworth also incorporates it but usually towards the end of the poem like in ‘Goody Blake’ and also ‘We Are Seven’, he saw the supernatural in everyday life, but his poems are mainly about the natural. Coleridge usually bases the poems on the supernatural as can be seen in ‘The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner’ with the spirits and the sea gods. Shelly also uses the supernatural in most of her novels and poetry, with some references in ‘Frankenstein’.

 The inclusion of the supernatural is often seen as a dividing line between the contributions of STC and WW in LB, is this really the case?

Mary Shelley was a ‘dark romanticist, much like Samuel Coleridge and they questioned the likelihood of redemption through a spiritual union of the human consciousness with the supernatural. They were uncertain if man’s knowledge and creativity would cause his salvation or his downfall.

 Is this concept of a “dark romanticist” a useful concept in distinguishing between WW and STC?

In works of dark Romanticism, the writers feature outcasts from society like themselves: Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and his creature. Suffering for offences against God, man and Nature, the hero-villains wander the earth, alone and misunderstood. Their personal torment in a vast universe is emphasized by desolate settings of icebound seas, jagged mountains and bottomless abysses: imagery that would inspire artistic, literary, and musical compositions.

Are there any such characters in WW’s poetry, or are his central characters never on the outside of the poems? 


William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley however were romanticists and asserted their belief in the innate goodness of man and his future promise.

 Is there no darkness whatever in the poetry or conceptions of WW? Is there no sign that hope might be at its last gasp?

One of Coleridge’s most famous supernatural poems was ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. It is a supernatural story, with themes including guilt, punishment and redemption, told in short verses with a strong rhythm and rhyme scheme. Many years later, Coleridge explained that the poems in Lyrical Ballads were meant to show human nature under two influences: the supernatural and the ordinary. He also remembered: ‘that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural.

 Does the Ancient Mariner belong in an altogether different collection of poems?

Gothic fiction was very popular in the 18th century. It was an important genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. As a genre, it was generally believed to have been invented by the English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. The effect of Gothic fiction depends on a pleasing sort of terror.
     Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses. The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself. This relates to the main character of the Mariner in Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, he also uses an archaic style in which is common in gothic literature.

Is the Gothic the most useful concept in distinguishing between the four STC poems and the rest of the poems in the collection all by WW?



XIII – Lord Byron 



Lord Byron is amongst the most famous of the English “Romantic” poets, with contemporise like Percy Shelley, John Keats and William Wordsworth.

Are there any Byronic characters in the LB collection? 


Like Wordsworth, Lord Byron’s poetry was influenced by his environment, though Lord Byron’s environmental influence was mainly from overseas.   


It is considered by some critics that Lord Byron’s overt sexuality (his apparent bisexual and incestuous relationships) had an effect on what he wrote and how he wrote.  

Where is sexuality in LB? Is its apparent absence a criticism of LB’s picture of the human condition?

Though only young at the time (around 190, lord Byron was one of the first to read and critique Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. He did not receive the volume of poetry well.


Was Byron alone in this regard? How did he find LB to be at fault?  


Lord Byron’s first compilation of poems was privately printed- Fugative Pieces– in 1806. His first published poems, Hours of Idleness, came out in 1807.


How does Byron’s poetry, in style and content, differ to that of either WW or STC? Which is it more similar to?


The disillusionment of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic era of France influenced Lord Byron’s poetry – Just as it influenced Wordsworth’s-, as did much from the countries he visited. The influence is in his occasionally dark themed and the “melancholy notes” in his poetry.  


Melancholy seems to be a note absent from WW’s poetry? Is this the case? 


His easy ability to fall in and out of love with men and women meant that many were immortalised in wistful, melancholy poems about love that is not returned.  


Does WW in comparison come across as someone who would have found it very difficult to fall in love? Was his conception of himself a barrier?


During the time he financially supported and aided the Greek Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, the war going on around him in Greece affected his poetry as much (if not more) as the French Revolution and its repercussions. Was Byron more a man of the world, whereas WW and STC were more away with the fairies?


Unlike Wordsworth’s poems, Lord Byron’s poems do not have an even rhythm to them, such as ABAB.  


Does this point to their greater sophistication?


Lord Byron’s poems do not generally contain a didactic message in them, unlike many of Wordsworth’s in Lyrical Ballads  


Would WW’s didactic message have been found so overbearing when it was first read as it is now? Is that why the poetry of Byron and Coleridge is more appealing to a modern audience? And why WW’s explicitly social and didactic poems less popular? 



XIV – John Keats   



John Keats (along with Percy, Shelley and Lord Byron) is referred to as a “second generation” Romantic poet. (Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge make up the so-called “first-generation”) What defines the first generation of Romantic poets as distinct from the second generation?  The second-generation writers tend to be more sceptical and philosophically ironic. They are more dubious, for example, about a Wordsworthian “spirit that rolls through all things” which is the root of his, Wordsworth’s, writing on nature. Is WW’s philosophical take seen as a little naïve and simplistic by his Romantic successors?In Keats’s case, this second-generation scepticism also applies to the poet’s ego. Keats felt that Wordsworth was too “self focused,” too consumed by the quest of the subjective self.  Was the accusation that WW was too self-focused, a criticism of his egotism or of his style? Keats stated he wished to be a “chameleon poet” and to resist the “egotistical sublime” of Wordsworth’s writing. 

Is the presence of WW in his poems somewhat overbearing and suffocating? 

Everything in Wordsworth, everything, is filtered through his personality, his needs, his memories, his feelings. Keats has a different vision of the poet’s character or self: “it is not itself, it has no self, it is everything and nothing. It has no character.” Hence the idea of the ‘chameleon poet’.  Is Wordsworth’s poetry through self-obsession somewhat distasteful to the modern palate? How did his contemporaries take to it? Keats ends up looking at Wordsworth and holding competing and even contradictory notions in his mind at the same time. His earlier views about Wordsworth tend to be negative, his later views positive.  

What were Keats’s various positive and negative views of WW? 

The use of symbolism in Wordsworth’s poems is said to have inspired Keats use of a concrete object as a symbol to organise the poem, a feature which became synonimous with the Keatisian style.   

What use of symbolism is most characteristic of WW’s poetry? 

Whilst Keats admired the inwardness and psychological explorations found in Wordsworth’s but his ultimate source of inspiration was Shakespeare and the classical writer Homer and Virgil with the power and scope of their work. He sought to combine the two styles in his poetry.  Was Keats’s poetry somehow a synthesis of WW’s poetry and the poetry of the Augustans which WW was reacting against?  Keats criticised Coleridge’s inability to accept the uncertainty or doubts, negative capability, in poetry and philosophy that is seen in his own as well as Shakespeare’s work.

Does STC’s poetry really smack of an inability to deal with doubt and uncertainty?   

It had been noted Keats had an ability to literally feel the poetic essence of all things. This was a very Wordsworthian attribute, as Keats surely understood.  He admired much of Wordsworth’s work, but his own love of Elizabethan wordplay gave his poetry an extravagance and sensuality that Wordsworth lacked. 

Was Keats a special one in the same mould as WW? 

Wordsworth is said to have disapproved of this style describing Keats’ ‘ode to Pan’ as ‘pretty paganism’. Keats’ style was an affront to his own of simplicity, in the style of the ‘common’ man. 

Surely WW was an arch pagan, with his pantheism?

Keats opposed the Wordsworth’s philosophical idea of life being a harsh thing that can be redeemed through nature or Christ with his own philosophical notion that life is about ‘soul making’ i.e trying to understand it better.  

So was life for WW a struggle more than anything esle? How is this portrayed in his poetry? And is nature nothing other than a brieft respite?

This also contradicts Wordworth’s ideas about the uselessness of books and teaching.    

On what grounds did WW base his idea that “book learning” was pointless?

Both explore the idea of eternity: Wordsworth through nature and Keats through art, Ode on a Grecian Urn.  For Keats nature is not divine, as it is for Wordsworth, it is a reminder of the beauty of classical world that once was. In this respect Keats, as with most second generation romanticists, is more secular than Wordsworth.     

If WW isn’t secular, what does his religion look like?

As a result you can find evidence in Wordsworth’s poetry of Romantic irony and doubt, but his works are not ultimately sceptical as with Keats as well as Byron and Shelley.

What is such “Romantic Irony” and what evidence is there of it in WW’s or STC’s poetry? 

  1. December 3, 2009 at 12:40 am

    How informative can a blog be??? this is very good reading. thanks for publishing it. Love your blog

  2. November 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Quite some informative text pieces.Thanks for publishing this.

  3. rushan
    November 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    its good!!!

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