Romantic Poetry Context

Image © The Wordsworth Trust

Broad Romantics – Dated between 1789 and 1848

Preceding – Augustan Age (1700-1750) was about wit, classical, well-educated: Alexander Pope, Age of Sensibility (1750-1798) was about emotion: Samuel Johnson

Jean Jacques Rousseau – “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Believed that children are born naturally good and puts emphasis on creativity and the imagination which sought children out as said philosophers and closer to God. He challenged traditional moral and religious teaching, claiming “man is naturally good, loving justice and order”. He also argued that the ills of man would be cured with a return to nature.

Denis Diderot – Was a philosopher around the same time as Rousseau who believed future should be built on reason. He wrote the first Encyclopædia, mapping human development without God.

Puritan Beliefs – Original sin. Puritans believed the opposite to Rousseau believing children to be born sinful and needing to be saved through moral instruction.

American Revolution (1776) – Saw a young nation throwing off the British colonial yoke

Declaration of US Independence (1776) – It was the beginning of modern democracy, exhilarated young radicals of Britain

French Revolution (1789-1799) – An end to tyranny and conventions. It instilled a sense of urgency to sort out problems in London. ‘One man’s liberty is another man’s tyranny’. It was a period of far reaching social and political upheaval in France and was partially carried forward by Napoleon during the expansion of the French Empire.

Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) – It was the transition to new manufacturing processes. Pioneers congratulated themselves on increases in output.

The Pastoral – Creates a feeling of nostalgia for an idealised way of life, especially for poets working in an urban setting.

The Sublime – “Our imagination loves to be filled with an object or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity”, the very lack of an ordered whole evokes a productive and pleasant terror. Obscurity, vastness, and irregularity gave the individual a sublime sense of his own limited capacity, hence his own mortality, and at the same time a vicarious frisson of delight.

Eastern Europe/Greece – Richer poetic language meant subject matter and settings could manifest. It did away with 1st generation Romantic poets. Classical allusions to mythology were a way to explore morality. The Greeks seemed to have a distinct appreciation of aesthetics, democracy, and art with an open culture for debate and open discussion – something the Romantics admired.

The Gothic – Gothic novels put emphasis on the strange and uncanny. It attracted much criticism at the end of the 18th century – even as novels were very popular among an increasing number of readers. It is now seen as enabling access into the dark, repressed parts of the human psyche, celebrating the inexplicable in an age of reason and scientific discovery.

Romantic figure – The true Romantic was not an over-sensitive dreamer, but a heroic figure facing head on the painful realities of his time – a figure of genius

The Enlightenment – It affected most of the West during the 17th and 18th century. It was a movement which sought to emancipate mankind, regardless of political frontiers. Advances in science, philosophy, and politics: Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke. Romanticism is a critique of the Enlightenment

Carpe Diem – ‘Seize the day’ was a favourite mantra

Locke on Childhood (1693) – He suggested that good habits should be instilled in children that would last a lifetime. The best way to do this he said, was through reason. Not too many toys and he gave sensible advice on clothing and food for children.

Rousseau on Childhood (1762) – He wrote ‘Emile’. He had a problem with Locke obsessing over the future adult rather than the current child. He wanted them to learn from nature not teachers. Primacy of feeling, innocence of childhood, childhood is a distinct and precious period of life

The imagination – For Coleridge: “The fancy is associative, ‘a mode of memory’ which simply draws thoughts and ideas from storage…the role of imagination as actively informing reality, filling his world ‘with himself’, in effect a subjective reality’”. For Wordsworth: “imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way”

Pantheism – Religious and philosophical beliefs. God is in nature and should not be considered separate as you cannot separate a creator from their creation.

The Lake School – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Southing

The Cockney School – Keats, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt

The Satanic School – Shelley, Byron (believed to be atheists)


William Blake (1757-1827)

Imagination – Blake believed it was the force that made great art

Songs of Innocence (1789) – A collection of 19 poems. Shows people in pastoral harmony, virginity, but there are hints as to how there is underlying danger to such a vulnerable state

Songs of Experience (1794) – Aimed to highlight the negative effects of the Church which he thought of as repressive, poems were darker. His progression to experience is logical as ‘innocence’ and ‘experience’ are co-related states. Experience is NOT suggesting a more realistic view.

French Revolution – Heralded the revolution and was employed by an engraver associated with other radicals such as William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft

Industrial Revolution – Blake argues that until increases in production are linked to more equitable distribution, England will always be a land of barren winter

London in the 18th/19th century – Major commercial centre, a lot of disease and poverty where people lived in overcrowded slums. Prostitution (estimated 50,000 prostitutes in London in the 19th century)

Blake’s response to poverty – Blake had philanthropic responses to poverty as the French Revolution began place attention on the condition of the poor from social reformers

Patriarchy – e.g. In ‘The Sick Rose’ with the female rose and phallic worm. Men oversaw the country with women in much lower positions. To rise against it, men seen not as pure?

Holy Thursday – Ceremony held on Ascension Day, orphans in charity schools would be dressed smartly and paraded to St Paul’s under the control of their beadles to sing their thanks.

Charity Schools – Publically funded institutions, established to care for and educate the thousands of orphaned or abandoned children in London


William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The Pastoral – He had lived in the Lake District as a child and thought of it as home. When he came home from The French Revolution, he explicitly saw the contrast between major revolting cities (which at first, he thought inspiring) and the countryside. The amount of suffering caused him to realise that the peace in the country is how people should live to not be corrupted.

The Lyrical Ballads (1798) – Written by Coleridge and Wordsworth, developing each other’s thinking and inspiring poetry. The poems often dwelt on nature and the pastoral. They aimed to enlighten the common man and saw themselves as prophets ‘speak of what is important to men’, use ‘real language of men’

The French Revolution – He was originally inspired by what it stood for but travelled to France. He wanted to be amongst the people so wet on a walking tour even though he could’ve afforded transport. Was horrified at the suffering he saw in around 1792-93. His radical philosophy was thus developed.

Love – Whilst in France, he fell deeply in love with a French woman and had a baby with her (illegitimate). When the revolution went out of control, Wordsworth was forced to leave France alone. His revolutionary faith had been shaken.

Dorothy Wordsworth – His sister and lifelong companion. They went on many walking tours together in England and abroad. She wrote diaries known as the ‘Grasmere Journals’.

‘The Child is Father of the Man’ – an epigraph from another poem called ‘My Heart Leaps Up’ suggesting that adults should learn from children


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1835)

Radical – Coleridge lectured on radicalism. He planned to found a socialist utopia in America, but his dreams of a coming golden age of democracy, justice and enlightenment were dashed by terror in France

The Lyrical Ballads (1798) – Published with Wordsworth, often seen as the Romantic Movement’s true inception. It was published anonymously – a move that contradicted its intensely personal and subjective contents but they felt the Romantic ideal should go ahead without individual ownership. Coleridge eventually attributes ideas and shooting the Albatross to Wordsworth.

Father was a vicar – His father John Coleridge was a well-respected vicar of the parish which could have influenced Coleridge’s choice of words in ‘The Ancient Mariner’

Slave Trade Act (1807) – Slave trade in the colonies was abolished, a move towards a typical Romantic concern that every man is equal.

Captain James Cook – Sailed twice around the world, perhaps influencing Coleridge to explore the medium of the sea. Could also link to the connection of cultures and people or the period of exploration.

Christianity – It has been suggested the albatross represents values such as ethics and salvation – also linking to religion and Christianity. The main worship of Anglicans is prayer and preaching.


Lord Byron

Early life – Until the age of 10, Byron and his mother lived in poor lodgings. In 1798, he inherited the barony becoming Lord Byron, which is when he moved to Newstead Abbey, tutored privately, and sent to Harrow alongside other aristocrats, where he learnt ancient Greek.

Rebellion – In 1805, Byron led a rebellion against a school master who he felt was socially beneath him

Cambridge – He attended Trinity College, Cambridge where he accumulated debts of approximately £225,000 today

Hedonism – Byron was extravagant in all things and drank a great deal. Often described as the most flamboyant of the major Romantics. Both celebrated and castigated for his aristocratic excesses, huge debts, and numerous love affairs – rumour of sexual liaison with his half-sister!

Hours of Idleness (1807) – He self-published this 3rd collection of poems which received scathing reviews: ‘our desire [is that] he do forthwith abandon poetry’. Byron was mortified and drank 3 bottles of Claret, contemplating suicide.

English Bards and Scotch Reviewers – His satirical work which created distance between himself and the literary establishment. It even took aim at Wordsworth (Byron didn’t seem to admire his contemporaries)

Dismissive of Keats – Described Keats’ poetry as ‘mental masturbation’ and disagreed he should’ve taken to poetry

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1814) – Was composed in 1808 at Newstead Abbey, his ancestral home, when Byron was 20 years old.

The skull – Gardener found a skull whilst digging in the gardens and since the house had once been a monastery, it was most likely a monk’s. Byron had the skull made into a wine cup – perhaps slightly ironic or deemed to illustrate the hypocrisy which the Church is so often criticised for

Carnival in Italy – ‘So We’ll Go no more A Roving’ was written after Byron and some friends attended a large carnival in Italy where they drank and partied. Did he feel deep regret or simply a hangover?

21st Century Feminism – To a modern reader, Byron’s prowling pursuit of women would be deemed unacceptably possessive. Sword/sheath imagery explore male sexual prowess and implies that women are conquests for the men, nameless objects of male lust.

Homosexuality – Byron is said to have had relations with both men and women

Marriage to Annabella Millbanke – They had a daughter (Ada Lovelace) together but eventually signed a deed of separation. Byron left England and never saw his wife or daughter again.

Greek Politics – In in 1821, the Greek War of Independence broke out, followed by a wave of European sympathy from those more swayed by their classical education and the noble legacy of Pericles, Sophocles, and Socrates. In London, a Greek Committee was formed, represented by Byron. He contributed a large sum of his money and arrived in Greece in the autumn of 1823, narrowly avoiding a Turkish fleet. He was courageous but no military commander but he brought fame, sympathy, and support to the Greek cause.

Death – Byron met his end at Messalonghi with a fever. Doctors wanted to bleed him: he refused, but they wore him down and eventually he agreed, the action probably contributing to his falling in a coma and dying on the 19th April.


Percy Bysshe Shelley

William Godwin – Mary’s Shelley’s father wrote radical political writing ‘William Godwin’s Political Justice’ (1693) which was against marriage, stating “Marriage is law, and the worst of all laws”, it is a “positive law” to “restrain our vices” but we should be free to form relationships “regulated by the dictates of reason and duty”, not the Church and state

Harriet’s suicide – Percy eloped with Mary in 1814, leaving his pregnant wife Harriet and his daughter. She became an outcast and gave birth. Then she became pregnant again with her lover’s baby and was so depressed, she drowned herself in Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake in 1818 – “may you enjoy the happiness which you have deprived me of” (her suicide note)

Mary Shelley’s edits – ‘cold earth slept below’ was written in 1816 (a month after Harriet’s death), but was headed by Mary as being written in 1815. Most likely she was trying to prevent people knowing the poem was about Harriet when she published Percy’s work.

Preface to Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824) – Written by Mary Shelley “His life was spent in the contemplation of Nature in acts of kindness and affection…He could interpret the varied phenomena of heaven and earth filled him with deep emotion. Ill health and continual pain preyed upon his powers”

Death of his children – Premature girl died a few weeks after birth, Clara died 1818, William died 1819. It created distance between him and Mary “My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone, and left me in this dreary world alone?”

Marital tension – Percy didn’t like how Mary often retreated to the past, he wanted her to talk to him and listen to his ideas and poems. She blamed him (and herself) for Clara’s death and did her best to then avoid him.

Prometheus Unbound (1820) – Shelley’s publication. ‘Ode to the West Wind’ uses myth, like many in the collection. In the collection, he sketched the wold of freedom he dreamed of, readers fascinated by Shelley’s glowing descriptions, enlightenment.

Democracy – In 1819, democracy was not making progress in Europe. Shelley craved to enlighten his readers “Scatter…my words among mankind! / Be through my lips to unawakened earth / The trumpet of a prophecy!”

Peterloo Massacre (1819) – Troops attacked a gathering of 60,000 Manchester civilians meeting to hear speeches advocating parliamentary reform, he wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, arguably the most vicious satirical poem ever written. Themes of political change, revolution, and role of the poet.

Dante’s Purgatorio – ‘The Question’ is a loose adaptation of Canto 28 of this piece of writing. By doing this, it gave Shelley more poetic notability. He also used a form, used by Dante, the Terza Rima in ‘Ode to the West Wind’

Reception – Shelley was always very concerned about the reception his poetry would receive. He was convinced it could enact change but felt deeply unable to spread it.

‘The Necessity of Atheism’ (1811) – Percy Shelley wrote this paper whilst at Oxford and it resulted in him being removed from the university. It was a deliberately provocative pamphlet given that in those days most dons were churchmen.


John Keats

The Great Odes – Keats wrote 6 great odes in the summer and autumn of 1819: Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, Ode on Indolence, To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ was first published in a journal ‘Annals of the Fine Arts’ and in Keats final publication ‘Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems’ in 1820. Some believe them to form a thematic whole if arranged in sequence, representing a new type of short lyrical poem, developing psychological thinking. He used the odal hymn.

A nightingale – The small bird had long been a symbol associated with poetic and artistic inspiration. John Milton had praised its “liquid notes that close the eye of Day” in a sonnet in 1645. Andrew Marvell observed how “Her matchless songs does meditate”

Negative Capability – A concept set out by Keats to explain how the mind cannot comprehend some that is too vast. This is the point of ambiguity – an overwhelming feeling. It is the ability to set aside truth to experience the subjective feeling of mystery.

Keats’ life – He lived in semi-rural Hampstead in 1819, when the weather was fine. He was in love with his neighbour Fanny Brawne. His housemate Charles Brown recalled a day where a nightingale had built a nest near the house and Keats sat under a plum tree for several hours composing whilst he listened to the song.

The Cockney School – Keats’ poetry was mocked in ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’ as he was from a humbler background. Byron denoted him for this. His family were not poor, his father was an ostler and then managed a livery stable.

Death – Father, mother died before he was 15 (TB). He suffered from anxiety as he worked in medicine and was surrounded by death and suffering e.g. he had to hold down patient during surgery. This helps us to appreciate the depth of feeling in his imagery. His brother died of TB, Keats’ tried to save him. Other brother moved to US.

Keats’ illness – Keats died in 1821 from TB and suffered from the years where he wrote most his poetry. He spent it in isolation, watching Fanny in the garden from a window. He contemplates death in his odes especially


Emily Bronte

The prisoner. The fragment. / The Visionary – ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’ is part of a larger Gondal poem, revised by Emily for publication in 1846

Death – Her brother, and sisters all died young and Mary died in 1848. When she wrote ‘To a Wreath of Snow’, her sister Anne had been taken very ill.

Background – She had a wide-ranging, liberal, and academic education as well as being instructed in domestic order by their aunt. She was inspired by the Romantic poets (Byron, Wordsworth) as well as Shakespeare. She was attracted to the dramatic in her tales of betrayal, revenge, and death. From all her reading, she was able to gain a tender lyricism.

Gondal – She and her siblings invented imaginary worlds, drawing maps, and writing stories. Her specific world made with Anne was called Gondal, where many of her poems are set or novels influenced by. Some of the characters: Julian M, A. G. Rochelle, A. G. Almeda. Gondal was a breakaway island in the Pacific which probably dates from 1833 when she was around 14. 67/200 of her poems are unquestionably of Gondal origin. The aim of the world was imaginative space.

Almeda – She is a princess: brave, power but also tyrannical and selfish. She became Queen of Gondal and brought all men to her feet. All that loved her would be subject to tragedy – linking death to love. Hints at darker aspects and deep desires within Bronte’s poetry.

Publication – Her writing was extremely private but eventually she gave in to having some of them published in Poems collaboratively with Charlotte and Anne also. They edited out any references to the Gondal origins. It received 3 good reviews yet only sold 2 copies. Emily wasn’t disappointed however and had already started work on a novel which she was determined to sell – Wuthering Heights. ‘Last Lines’ is the last poem in the anthology and is unfinished, it reworked about 30 lines of an earlier poem. Anna also composed a Gondal poem on the same day suggesting the conflict in the poem is a civil war in Gondal.

Irish Famine (preceding 1846) – Killed ¼ of the population.


Ella x


7 thoughts on “Romantic Poetry Context

  1. person123 says:

    Are you going to post all the romantic poetry in the syllabus before the exam
    P.S Love all the content, really helpful when it comes to revision.


  2. Aimee Wright says:

    Hi! your revision content is really good, so helpful!
    i was just wondering because, I am doing a literature degree soon and i am going to make a blog for people who do literature, enjoy reading and doing reviews and analysis etc. i was just wondering if you could give me some pointers on how to become as successful as this blog is? i really want everyone to be helped / be able to access it ! i have a blog already for stories etc. but i would really like some pointers on how to get people to watch and read my blogs etc?
    Thanks so much !! aimee


    • year12englishblog says:

      Hi, we’re glad you like the blog! To be completely honest, we’re not entirely sure ourselves how it became as popular as it did, but our advice would be to make sure you add tags to your posts, and to try and use popular search terms in your post titles (for example, most of our posts include the name of the text or poem that the post is about, and a descriptor which people are likely to search for, such as ‘Revision Notes’ or ‘Context’). It might also be worth asking your teachers to tell fellow students about your blog. Hope that helps, good luck!


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