British Romantic Poetry

Hugh Roberts, Associate Professor, English, University of California, Irvine

This curriculum guide explores some ways into thinking about themes and developments in British Romantic Poetry through images. I use images in teaching Romantic poetry both as a way of giving students alternative cognitive routes into the conceptual arguments I’m making and to help them visualize the worlds—both historical and geographical—in which the poetry they’re reading was written and set. This guide is not organized to follow the actual sequence of a particular course, but to provide instructors with some starting points for deploying images related to major themes and writers in the period.

1. The French Revolution

No historical event in our period is so important for understanding the emergence of Romanticism and the ideas which animated it. These images help to convey both the original liberatory promise of the Revolution and the descent into brutal violence and regicide that spurred a generation to question the ideals of Enlightenment rationality which they had thought the Revolution embodied. A revolutionary playing card with a figure of a sans-culottes replacing the traditional (royalist) face cards shows the profound sweep of the Revolution’s cultural changes. The “Bal de la Bastille” shows the Parisian crowds dancing atop the ruins of the Bastille one year after its fall signaled the start of the Revolution. A Gillray caricature of 1793 shows the horror that swept Europe in the wake of the September Massacres. 

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2. Napoleon

Napoleon is the “world historical figure” who bestrides our period like a colossus, both as hero and as bogeyman. He is a useful figure for thinking about Romantic conceptions of genius and the power (and danger) of the individual will. He is also a figure whose artistic representations capture both the emerging artistic language of Romanticism (as in David’s famous portrait of the crossing of the alps) and the persistence of neoclassical imagery and aesthetics through the Romantic period. The English war, first with Revolutionary France and then with Napoleon’s Imperial France, is a constant backdrop to the poetry of our period. That war also produces other “Great Men” such as Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

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3. Regency England

In this section I have gathered some images which convey some sense of ordinary life in our period. Fashions, architecture, furniture: These all help students conjure up some sense of the material culture of the world in which our authors moved and wrote.

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4. The Gothic

The taste for “Gothic” art, design, and literature precedes the emergence of Romanticism but is also one of the hallmarks of the Romantic period. From Coleridge’s “Christabel” to Byron’s "Manfred" to Shelley’s "The Cenci," it profoundly marks British Romantic Poetry. This period overlap from the mid-eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century makes the Gothic particularly useful for thinking about the continuities and discontinuities from the age of the Enlightenment into the Romantic era. How does the “unreason” of the Gothic function in an age of Reason and how does that change in an era that is calling into question the value of Enlightenment rationality?

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5. Romanticism in Art

In this group of images we offer students a chance to explore the emergence of Romanticism in the visual arts. We begin with Joseph Wright’s "Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump," in which the scientist is at once the hero of rationality, bringing the light of reason into darkness, and a Gothic villain, torturing a helpless animal whose fate wrings tears from the young girl, wiser than the adults around her. Works by J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, and Eugene Delacroix allow students to explore the Europe-wide spread of Romantic ideas to which they will find ready analogues in the poetry they’re reading: Compare Turner’s Venice with Shelley’s in “Julian and Maddalo”; Wordsworth on top of Mt. Snowdon in his "Prelude" with Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist; Delacroix’s Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missalonghi with Byron’s “The Isles of Greece.” Above all, we see the common fascination with nature’s sublime power and the promise of a spiritual reward in a proper appreciation of nature.

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6. Neoclassicism

As with the Gothic, it is important to consider the aesthetic continuities with the past as well as the innovations of the period. That “Romantic Art” embraces such apparent extremes as, say, Delacroix and Ingres can help students understand some of the profound aesthetic differences among British Romantic writers. When Wordsworth famously dismissed Keats’s “Hymn to Pan” as a “pretty piece of paganism,” or when Byron lashed out at the “Lakers” for undervaluing Pope and Dryden we see the same tensions at play.

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7. Orientalism

Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria spurred a Europe-wide fascination with the Near East. Mingling with the Romantic obsession with the “primitive” (and other states that free us from the trammels of over-rational “civilization”) this fostered the creation of an imaginary world of dark-eyed beauties and “savage” but proud men. From Byron’s youthful romances to his crowning achievement, Don Juan, from Southey’s "The Curse of Kehama," through Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Shelley’s "Hellas," Keats’s "Endymion," Felicia Hemans’s "The Siege of Valencia," and beyond, we see this construction of an imagined “Other” which allows a critical or satirical distance from Western cultural values, while, unfortunately, often perpetuating reductive stereotypes of the “Oriental” world.

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8. Slavery

The fight against the slave trade was one of the signature liberal causes in late eighteenth century England. The massive conservative reaction against all kinds of “radical” initiatives caused by England’s war with Revolutionary France set that cause back years longer than would otherwise have been the case. Exploring late eighteenth century and Romantic responses to slavery and the slave trade is a useful way, again, to think through continuities and discontinuities between Romantic period literature and its precursors (especially the late eighteenth century literature of Sensibility).

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9. Victorian Reinventions

Victorian artists frequently drew on the works of Romantic poets for inspiration. Just as it is interesting to think about Romanticism’s historical continuities with the past, it can be useful to think about what it bequeaths to those who came after. It is also often revealing for students to think about how a visual artist translates a poet’s language into an image: what visual information does the poet actually give? Where does the artist follow the poet to the letter and where not? What interpretation of the poem is the artist working with in creating his or her image?

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10. Blake

In this and the remaining sections I gather together images specifically relating to the “Big Six” of major British Romantic poets. Blake was a great artist as well as a great poet, and students should be shown a representative selection of his artwork. I have chosen a small selection here which allows students to understand how startlingly different each individual, hand-colored version of any one of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience was from any other. It also includes some of the great color prints of 1795 which allow students to see Blake working through the ideas he explores in his poetry in a purely visual medium.

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11. Wordsworth

Here we find images illustrating aspects of Wordsworth’s life (a portrait, his house at Rydal Mount, the interior of his beloved Dove Cottage) as well as images relating to his poetry: Edward Lear’s charming illustrations of the Lake District where so much of Wordsworth’s poetry was written and set; images from Turner’s Simplon Pass sketchbook; Tintern Abbey and the Wye River; and Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain.

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12. Coleridge

In this group we have some portraits of the poet; an illustration of a linden or “lime tree” which helps students picture Coleridge’s famous “bower”; some modern interpretations of the “eolian harp” which is such a crucial metaphor in Coleridge’s writing; the first page of an MS version of Coleridge’s “Dejection”; an image of Kubla Khan; and some of Gustave Dore’s great illustrations of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” 

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13. Byron

Byron is the only British Romantic poet whose reputation and influence was truly pan-European in the early nineteenth century. The numerous illustrations of his work by Delacroix help to convey that. More than that, though, the tempestuous drama of these images, their sublime landscapes and Orientalist costumes and settings help students understand Byron’s centrality to so much of what defined the Romantic era to those living in it. 

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14. Shelley

In addition to some Shelley portraits, this section includes images which help students visualize some important scenes and figures in Shelley’s poems. Above all, we have the portrait of Beatrice Cenci (attributed to Guido Reni), which Shelley described as a major influence on his play about her. Turner’s paintings of Venice can be usefully compared to Shelley’s descriptions in “Julian and Maddalo” and elsewhere. The image of the tomb of “Ozymandias” (Ramesses II) helps students think about the relationship of Shelley’s famous sonnet to the Orientalist images which were flooding into Europe at this time. The maenad figures in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (and elsewhere). Scenes of Chamounix and the Mer de Glace glacier help to place Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” in the context of Romantic tourism and the quest for sublime landscapes.

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15. Keats

It is always fruitful to approach Keats through images, as it helps students focus on the richly sensuous nature of his poetry. The many, many Victorian illustrations of his poems get a varied representation here. In addition, there are artistic approaches to subjects, like the myth of Cupid and Psyche by artists who are contemporary to Keats, which help frame his turn to classical mythology as part of a broader neoclassical impulse within Romantic art. Finally, we have some portraits, Keats’s death mask, and some images of Hampstead Heath, which help students to think about the kind of “suburban” experience of “nature” which characterizes much of Keats’s poetry (and which is the focus of many of the early attacks on Keats).

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