A Remarkable Irony in Romantic Poetry

ByronThe most surprising aspect to Romantic poetry is to see how surprisingly few poems from this era truly deal with love. It may seem anathema at first – to the uninitiated mind, the word ‘Romantic’ conjures up Hollywood-inspired pictures of roses and chocolate boxes – but in fact, the major poems of the era from the late eighteenth century up to about the 1840’s is more about the solitary individual and his feelings than about his relationship with anyone else, except an often personified Nature.

The term was originally used in the context of chivalric poetry. This term, too, does not refer to knightly or gentlemanly behaviour, but to knights in their horse-riding capacity (Fr cheval = horse). ‘Romantic’ originally meant ‘in the Roman manner’ and referred to the ‘Romance’ languages, French, Spanish and Italian, which developed out of the rough Latin of the Roman imperial soldiers and the tribes that they have conquered. As Latin was reserved for more ‘serious’ material, the vernacular was used for ballads, lyrics, fables and other ‘lighter’ and more ‘entertaining’ material, sweeter on the ear than the gravitas of Latin. Although literature in the vernacular often included love stories – as opposed to serious historical and theoretical matters in Latin – ‘Romantic’ material should not be taken to refer automatically to love, but to the ‘smaller’ world of the private individual and his relationship with the world.

This is a very broad definition, almost akin to describing all philosophy from Socrates to Levinas as ‘existentialist, even though if pushed to its radical extremes, all human thought could be said to possess an ‘existentialist’ dimension. Ever since its emergence in the eighteenth century however, Romanticism has proven notoriously difficult to define. In a letter to his brother Wilhelm, written in 1793, Friedrich Schlegel famously said that he could not offer an explanation of the word ‘romantic’ as ‘it would be 125 sheets long’.[1] Given that Romanticism spans the visual arts, music as well as literature and runs the gamut from poets like Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelly and their followers to Rimbaud via and the Sturm und Drang tradition in Germany, it is rather difficult to demarcate. According to Isaiah Berlin, Romanticism embodied ‘a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals’.[2]


It may be easy for the sceptic to point to a poem like Wordsworth’s ‘She Dwelt Along Untrodden Ways’ from his ‘Lucy’ series, (publish in 1800 along with lyrical ballads by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and say that is obviously about love:


She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:


A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

–Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.


She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!


Such an overhasty interpretation is unlikely to do justice to what the poet is really saying. This three-verse poem is less a declaration of love than a lament for a lost love, and a musing upon the effect of the loss upon the speaker. In contrast to the direct address (apostrophe) so common in the Renaissance sonnet (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare, see later post), the speaker is talking about his private feelings, and the effect of the loss on his life. What is more, with references ‘spring’, ‘violets’ ‘moss’ and ‘star’, it is clear that Nature plays an important role in the poem, and that the ‘untrodden ways’ are rural, not urban.

If Romantic poetry share a broad characteristic, it is a rediscovered desire to throw off all human constructed constraints and to unite with Nature. Among the most famous lyrical poems of the era are odes (Greek ᾠδή or ōde, a lyrical stanza classically consisting of three parts, the strophe, the antistrophe and the epode) to aspects of Nature such as ‘To A Nightingale’ (Keats, 1819), ‘To The West Wind’ (1819)  and ‘To A Skylark’, (1820, Shelly). The English odes, unlike their Greek counterparts which are defined by their technical characteristics, tend to be dedicatory in nature, and are usually on the topic, object or theme that inspired the poem. ‘To a Nightingale’ is one of Keats’ ‘Five Great Odes’ of 1819, the others being ‘Ode to A Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Ode to Psyche’. All of these poems share a strong element of the speaker’s sense of mortality and a desire to join the immortal domain of nature. The second generation of Great Romantics (the first were Coleridge and Wordsworth) were at any rate far less mortal than either their poems or the subjects immortalized in them: Keats died at 25, Shelly at 29 and Byron at 36, forever lending them the aura of the ‘wild young men’ of literature and inaugurating the cult of dying young and ‘leaving behind a beautiful corpse’ (a notion which would be reborn in 1950’s Hollywood).

Romanticism is further characterized by strong element of soteriology. Rather like their conventional Christian counterparts, the Romantics tended to embrace a kind of soteriology. Soteriology – from the Greek soter meaning ‘salvation’ – can take many forms, but be it religious, psychoanalytical, philosophical or economical, such narratives usually begin with a grand claim that humanity (or in some cases, only part of it, as the obvious case of Marxism suggests) has become estranged or alienated from something of fundamental importance and then proceed to describe the remedy by which this estrangement is to be overcome. For the Romantics, humanity has become alienated from an original harmonious integrated existence with ‘Nature’, through a process of mechanization, bureaucratic politics, and the expansion of commerce and the universalization of middle-class ideals. For them, unlike their cynical postmodern readers today, the problem was soluble: Nature and Beauty was there to rediscover and heal our souls. Again, Isaiah Berlin puts it explicitly: ‘[Romanticism is] an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life’.[3] The Romantics were characterized by a profound faith in the resources of humanity: they believed that there was a fount of natural inspiration that had not yet been tapped, and even more important, it basically required a leap of the heart and an opening of the eyes. Figures like Tieck’s William Lovell, Byron’s Manfred, Stendahl’s Julian Sorel or Shelly’s Prometheus, tended to be socially transgressive aesthetes, outsiders and adventurers. Life was rich beyond what society could offer. As Michael Gillespie puts it: ‘A life led in harmony with nature is a life led in contradiction to convention’. But unlike the outsider of Camus’ eponymous book, there is something distinctly joyous and positive about romantic outsidership: the poets, artists and novelists embodied the best of their societies. The Romantics might have been cynical about society, but they were full-blooded enjoyers of life. It was commonly understood that if the poet embodied ‘the spirit of humanity’ itself, it was not a status to which everyone could aspire: the Great Romantics were special, and their respective circles took a kind of ‘mock-shock’ pride in their wildness and pursuit of beauty. Lady Caroline Lamb famously regarded Byron as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. And unlike Camus’ hero, the anguish experience by the Romantics tend to be over distant, but very human objects of desire: lost love (love is usually dangerous or lost), or immortality in some or other form, and is generally not existential in nature. Romantic man is simply joyfully solitary: he loves humanity, but prefers to go it alone.

The thinker that expressed the Zeitgeist of the age was without a doubt Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the ‘solitary walker’ and prophet of freedom. Wandering through the woods of St Germain in the mid-eighteenth century, Rousseau made a miraculous discovery. It was nothing less than his self. This self was not simply a logical self, as was the case with Descartes’ ego, but a universal moral self: natural, accessible, and fundamentally good and at peace with the world. The self that Rousseau discovered was the self, the self shared by all of humanity over and above contingent features like race, gender, religion, nation and class. (Contrary to popular belief however, this great proclaimer of universal humanity did neither practice nor preach much practical political equality – do not expect a feminist avant la lettere). But he expressed a spirit that was to reverberate in much of Romantic poetry, most famously in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, most recognizable as the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Note however again, the absence of love as a theme in this High Romantic text:


An die Freude

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium,

Wir betreten feuertrunken

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.


Deine Zauber binden wieder,

Was der Mode Schwert geteilt;

Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder,

Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.



Seid umschlungen, Millionen!

Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!

Brüder—überm Sternenzelt

Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.


Joy, thou beauteous godly lighting,

Daughter of Elysium,

Fire drunken we are ent’ring

Heavenly, thy holy home!


Thy enchantments bind together,

What did custom’s sword divide

Beggars are a prince’s brother,

Where thy gentle wings abide.



Be embrac’d, ye millions yonder!

Take this kiss throughout the world!

Brothers—o’er the stars unfurl’d

Must reside a loving father.


The reworking of 1803, more commonly recognized, is particularly telling with respect to the ideal of universal intimacy. The last three lines before the chorus was re-written as: ‘Was die Mode streng geteilt/Alle Menschen werden Brüder/Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt’ (What did custom stern divide/Every man becomes a brother/Where thy gentle wings abide).

For all their subversion, the Romantics remained committed to a truth behind appearance, and sought access to it through emotion, rather than reason. The much-touted universal self upon which they prided themselves, is the universal subject to which the postmodernists two centuries later would devote their energy towards deconstructing. The Romantics may well be described as charming Platonists of the heart. That is to say, they continued to believe in a ‘truer’ world than the one they inhabited. Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers, their contemporaries, also thought to throw off the shackles of authority, they tried to do so through the glory of feeling and the senses, rather than the cold cage of reason. Keats famously captured the contrast between philosophy and poetry in his ‘Lamia’ of 1820:


Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.


The notion that the intense feelings of the subject conveys an important truth was rejected by later writers. Nietzsche dismissed it completely. ‘But a profound thought can nevertheless be very distant from the truth, as for example every metaphysical thought is; if one deducts from the profound feeling the element of thought that is mixed up within it, what remains is the strong feeling and this has nothing to do with knowledge as such, just as strong belief demonstrates only its strength, not the truth of what is believed (Human, All Too-Human I:15).




[1] Beiser, Friedrich. ‘The Early Politics and Aesthetics of Friedrich Schlegel’ in Enlightenment, Revolution and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought 1790-1800. (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press 1992), p.410, n. 67.

[2] Berlin, Isaiah. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy. (London: John Murray), 1990, p.92.


[3] Berlin, Isaiah. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy. (London: John Murray), 1990, p.92.



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