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The Greatest Romantic Poems

recommended by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World
by Gillen D'Arcy Wood


Freud said he owed them everything and even people who have never read a poem in their lives speak their language today. Gillen D'Arcy Wood, Professor of Environmental Humanities and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, explains who the Romantic poets were and recommends five of the greatest Romantic poems.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World
by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

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Before we start talking about the best Romantic poems and poets you’re recommending, what makes a great poem in general?

Think of a poem as a verbal work of art. It draws us in and shapes our thinking like a painting. A ‘great’ poem is one that leaves us different — with a keener sense of ourselves and the world around us. I mean this quite literally. I tell my students about a Modigliani exhibition I once saw in New York City — he of the exquisite long-faced portraits. When I staggered, exhilarated, out of the gallery, the Manhattan crowds were no longer faceless. I could see the bone structure and beauty in every face. That’s what great art does.

When we talk about the Romantic poets or Romanticism, what exactly does that mean? Were the Romantic poets good at taking their girlfriends out for candlelit dinners or surprising them with red roses?

The difference between ‘romantic’ with a small ‘r’ and ‘Romantic’ with a capital ‘R’ is very important. We all indulge a guilty pleasure in the first, but ‘Romantic,’ in poetry terms, means modern. It signals the moment in the early 1800s when poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron began to experiment with writing in a more accessible, conversational way, and to introduce taboo topics to the reading public: everything from the life of poor, illiterate people, to revolutionary politics, to sex. But psychology was their abiding fascination.

Freud admitted he learned everything he knew from the Romantics. These great Romantic poets looked inward, and traced the workings of their minds, memories, desires, and motivations in incredibly moving and courageous ways. Of course, they were pilloried for it by the press of the day, but they’ve had the last laugh. Even if you’ve never read any Romantic poems in your life, you speak their language. They created an entire vocabulary for modern living and being.

Like what?

Shelley believed that “the everlasting universe of things/flows through the mind.” That’s the Romantic poetry revolution right there. For these poets, we are all endowed with amazing mental powers to create new worlds for ourselves, not only in our minds and fantasies, but in the world ‘out there,’ to change society. It’s a new philosophy of the world, with personal human development and growth at its centre. Sure, these ideas have been banalized in our popular selfie culture. All the more reason to go back to the original ‘me’ generation, the Romantic poets, any of whose poems is worth more than a million witty Facebook posts.

So tell me about your first choice of Romantic poem.

Yes, my first pick is Wordsworth’s 1802 poem ‘Resolution and Independence’. I’ve taught Romantic poetry to American undergraduates for more than twenty years and this fascinates my students because the action is all in the young Wordsworth’s mind and emotions. At this time in his life, Wordsworth didn’t have a job or much purpose, and most of his poems are about roaming the countryside and meeting odd people.

The poem begins with Wordsworth in an exultant mood on a beautiful spring day on the moor. Then, as if he’s committed the sin of being too happy, he experiences a kind of panic attack: “fears and fancies thick upon me came.” How can a person be happy one moment then depressed the next, for no apparent reason? That’s exactly the kind of emotional question that fascinated the Romantics.

“How can a person be happy one moment then depressed the next, for no apparent reason?”

Wordsworth then runs into a lonely figure on the moor. He is an old, very poor man, who ekes out a living gathering leeches to sell to medical men. Not a great profession and, what’s worse, there are fewer leeches on the moor than before. But despite all this, the leech-gatherer is undaunted, even serene. Weirdly, Wordsworth has what we might call an out-of-body experience while conversing with this old man. He receives a ‘strong admonishment’ from the Universe, to find strength in adversity as the leech-gatherer has. A strange, amazing, and utterly Wordsworthian poem.

Famous lines to quote at your next dinner party:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.

OK, so explain those lines of Romantic poetry.

This is from the early, anxious part of the story, where Wordsworth is dwelling on the unhappy fates of his poetic predecessors Burns and Chatterton, who both died young and miserable. He’s wondering if the happiness he’s feeling will inevitably give way to doom. It’s the kind of irrational fear you or I could have: he just expresses it better.

So next up you’ve got the poet Coleridge but, interestingly, not one of his most famous Romantic poems.

Yes, my second choice is Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’. That might seem controversial to those who have fond memories of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘Kubla Khan’. Both are great Romantic poems, but I chose ‘Frost at Midnight’, first, because I simply love it, and because it is so radically modern as a poetical self-portrait.

Also, the poem is in close conversation with Wordsworth, with whom Coleridge was in a total mind-meld in their formative years. As in ‘Resolution and Independence’, nothing actually happens. I ask my students to imagine filming these poems. For ‘Frost at Midnight’, we would require only a single shot: a young father sitting up late by the fire, with his little baby boy sleeping beside him. That’s it.

But what’s happening in Coleridge’s mind would fill a novel of Proustian dimensions. A flicker of blue flame in the fire reminds him of when he was a lonely, wretched schoolboy in London, watching the fire in the classroom and hoping for a visitor from home. He then remembers himself, as that earlier schoolboy self, remembering his childhood, and the reader is taken further back in the poet’s past, to one happy day of the Fair in his hometown.

For the Romantic poets, it’s all about childhood. The child is father of the man, said Wordsworth, a statement with which we would all automatically agree today, but which in 1800 was just poppycock. The poem ends with Coleridge’s own anxious hopes that his little baby, Hartley, will have a happier life being brought up in the wild countryside of the Lake District, a student of nature. Sadly, Hartley’s life turned out as miserable as his father’s, which adds some poignancy for us to the buoyant conclusion.

Nothing beats Coleridge’s opening lines for Romantic mood-setting:

The frost performs its secret ministry

Unhelped by any wind.

That’s another important aspect of a Romantic poem, isn’t it, talking about nature? Did people not write about nature before?

‘Nature’ and ‘power’ are words that continually come up when we talk about the Romantics. The Romantic poets looked for power in themselves — the power of imagination, the power to write — and also in the world. The majesty and dynamism of the natural world — be it the sea, a storm over a mountain, or here the invisible action of frost — fascinated the Romantics as images of a power with which they might connect.

Poets had extolled natural beauty before, but the stakes were higher for the Romantic poets, who were writing in the midst of a massive demographic shift from the country to the city at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Cities were alienating to them, while England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ seemed to be slipping away — so their poems have a kind of weird nostalgia about them, an elegiac desperation. They were the first environmentalists.

Now we’re onto William Blake. What can you tell me about this Romantic poet?

Well, even the radical young artist-types in London thought he was barking mad. He certainly took the Romantic poet turn inward to extremes, creating a quasi-Biblical inner landscape of the mind through his art and poems. Most people know Blake through his little sing-song poems like ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. But his longer works, which fill volumes, are worth tackling. Unlike Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poems — so consciously accessible in style — these longer Romantic poems can be hard to read.

But Visions of the Daughters of Albion is a mind-blowing exception. Straight away the heroine, Oothoon, is raped. What’s worse, Oothoon’s true love, Theotormon, takes no pity on her, but instead ties her and her rapist, Bromion, back-to-back in a cave. The rest of the poem consists of Bromion mocking her while Oothoon pleads with Theotormon not to reject her because she has been sexually violated. As Theotormon ignores her, “conversing with shadows dire” in his own tortured mind, Oothoon’s speeches become ever more desperate and ambitious. She inveighs against the ideology of female purity, against marriage, against jealousy. In her final appeal to Theortormon, she offers to act as a procuress for him, and to watch him fornicate with other women in the spirit of free love. All of this was written at the time when Jane Austen was a teenager and first dreaming up her unforgettable heroines, who barely show so much as an ankle. Forget Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’d like Elizabeth Bennett to show up in a Blake poem.

Next time you’re tempted to feel jealous on someone’s account, remember this image from Blake:

Such is self-love that envies all! a creeping skeleton

With lamplike eyes watching around the frozen marriage bed.

What does that mean?

Blake was a visual genius, as well as a great Romantic poet, and this is like a scene from a horror movie. Blake’s philosophy was: “if you love someone, set them free.” That is, to quote Sting who is himself, I’ve heard, a great fan of Blake, as were The Doors. Jealousy, possessiveness, emotional cruelty: all spring from “self-love” according to Blake, which is like “a creeping skeleton.”

Some have suggested that the “lamplike eyes” are a code for syphilis, which would make jealousy, marriage, prostitution, venereal disease, etc. all part of one great cancerous sore eating at society and personal happiness. Blake can be bleak. But it’s great fun in class to argue whether he was right: if we want true political freedom, a new society, we have to begin with our personal relationships. Is that true? Blake makes his readers face up to the hard questions of modern life, and to very private fears.

Let’s hear about Shelley now.

Shelley was arguably the most ambitious of all the Romantic poets. Certainly, he saw the mission of Romantic poetry in the grandest terms. Poets, he proclaimed, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” by which he meant they write the script for the future (which is essentially what I argued earlier, proving that everything we think and say is touched by the Romantics.). His ‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written after an afternoon’s walk along the river Arno, in Florence, where he watched a tempestuous wind shake the autumn leaves from the trees, and allowed his imagination full flight. As if equipped with a mental GoPro camera and an Iron Man flight suit, Shelley takes us spinning through the atmosphere into the storm clouds, then, in an instant, out over the crystalline blue waters of the Mediterranean, then onto the Atlantic, plunging underwater to ‘the sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear/the sapless foliage of the ocean.’

“Shelley set me free, which was, of course, his intention.”

These superpowers are given, Shelley tells us, to the poet, whose words are like the dead leaves spinning in the air by the Arno, ready to be buried and reborn as a prophecy for mankind, of a future freed from tyranny. The third stanza of this poem, where Shelley describes the sea, is personally very special to me. I read it for the first time in an English class as a teenager growing up in Adelaide, Australia, about as far from Florence and the Mediterranean as you can be. But Shelley’s lines, many of which I barely understood, or could even visualise, set off a bomb in my brain: “Is he really allowed to write like this? If so, then anything is possible.” Shelley set me free, which was, of course, his intention. I always bring this story up with my students when they complain that Romantic poetry, or any other great literature, are not relevant to them. Where are we as human beings if only what is relevant is important, and relevance is defined as only what we already know? Count me out. Shelley was fascinated by everything, especially the world we could not yet see . . .

These are the lines that were like an electrical shock to me:

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay.

One thing that strikes me: could we accuse the Romantics poets of taking themselves a bit too seriously?

Oh, absolutely. And for that we have the most wonderful antidote, named Lord Byron. He called Wordsworth, ‘Turdsworth,’ and accused Keats of wanking his imagination. His funniest take-down of Romantic poetry navel-gazing is in his magnificent epic comedy, Don Juan. The young hero has the hots for a beautiful married woman but mistakes his horniness for existential confusion: “’Twas strange,” jokes Byron, “that one so young should thus concern/His brain about the action of the sky./ If you think ’twas Philosophy that this did,/I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.”

For Byron, all our precious institutions, marriage, the church, higher learning, etc. are simply screens for sexual drives or what he calls, more poetically, “the controlless core of human hearts.” So, still a Romantic in the end.

“With Chaucer and Cervantes, Byron makes the podium for greatest comic writer of all time.”

I’ve kept this list to the best shorter Romantic poems, but Don Juan deserves special mention. This raunchy, philosophical masterpiece is not taught in schools for the simple, dumb reason it’s so digressively long. They have ‘most underrated’ categories in football, don’t they? Well, Don Juan is the most underread of the great poems. With Chaucer and Cervantes, Byron makes the podium for greatest comic writer of all time. Please do your bit for civilization — and your own personal happiness index — and take Don Juan to the beach this summer. Just be prepared for some stares in your direction when you catch yourself pounding your hand on the sand with laughter.

I love your last choice, The Eve of St. Agnes. That’s really one that for me — I read at school as a teenager — and has hovered in the back of my mind ever since.

Ah yes, Keats. The young Romantic poet upstart who, like Shelley, did not survive his twenties. It’s enough to make you weep to think that Shelley had a volume of Keats’s latest volume of poems in his shirt pocket the day he drowned off the coast of Italy, desolating Mary Shelley. Unlike the other Romantics, who were either grammar-school boys or aristocrats, Keats came essentially from nothing. At fourteen, he left school and apprenticed to an apothecary. But his mind was a sponge for poetry—Spenser and Shakespeare in particular—his ambition was relentless, and his talent simply prodigious. By twenty-four he was dying, so his poetic output is extraordinarily compressed.

“Unlike the other Romantics, who were either grammar-school boys or aristocrats, Keats came essentially from nothing.”

1819 was Keats’s annus mirabilus, in which he wrote his famous Odes: to the Grecian Urn, the Nightingale, etc. But he also wrote the sumptuous ‘Eve of St. Agnes’, which I introduce to my students as ‘the most beautiful poem in the English language.’ Even the ones sleeping off a hangover tend to perk up at that. English literature instructors rarely promise to show off the sheer beauty of the great poems anymore, which is a shame.

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Now, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ truly is a romance, small ‘r’, with a plot closely resembling Romeo and Juliet. The St. Agnes part is crucial: harking bark to medieval times, Keats picks up on a superstition that young virgins who follow certain abstemious rituals on the eve of St. Agnes’s day will dream of their future husband. Such is the plan of our heroine, Madeline, who is in love with Porphyro, scion of a rival house. But Porhpyro’s plans are different. His heart “on fire” for Madeline, he breaks into the castle to snatch Madeline both from her family but also from the icy grip of St. Agnes’s spell.

“ I introduce this to my students as ‘the most beautiful poem in the English language.’ Even those sleeping off a hangover tend to perk up at that”

Without exactly asking, he makes love to the dreaming Madeline, who wakes to find him in her arms. She is shocked and afraid, but he reassures her, and they escape from the castle together. Now, even this brief plot summary shows how explosive this poem is in terms of today’s gender politics. Is Porphyro a date rapist, or Madeline’s true dream lover? The problem for the rape argument is that Keats believes very strongly in his hero and “the holiness of the heart’s affections” (as he once put it in a letter), and he has set the trap for the reader accordingly. To denounce Porphyro is to embrace St. Agnes and her mind-minions of chastity. And who wants that? ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ is a very sexy poem, too hot for some to handle.

In this most erotic of Romantic poems, even a description of supper sounds like sex:

Candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

Manna and dates, in argosy, transferr’d

From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,

From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

What book would you recommend for readers interested in having these poems collected in a single volume?

The Dover Thrift edition of English Romantic poetry has a good selection of shorter Romantic poems, but does not include Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion or, of course, Byron’s Don Juan. For these I would recommend the Oxford World’s Classics editions of these two poets, which are excellent.

Now, your recent book, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. How does a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 connect to the British Romantic poets?

Well, it was a dark and stormy night… when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. 1816 is the most legendary year of the Romantic poetry era. Mary and Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, were holidaying that summer by Lake Geneva. Terrific storms and rain kept them indoors, so they entertained each other with ghost stories. The rest is history, as they say.

But I realized that no-one had properly explored why the weather was so bad that incredible year. So I set out to write a book about it. It turns out that Tambora’s eruption in the tropics affected the climate worldwide—that the experience of our young Romantic poets was part of a great global extreme weather event lasting three years. So Tambora tells the global story behind the Year Without a Summer, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and Percy Shelley and Byron wrote some of their greatest Romantic poetry. What lessons can we draw from the quintessential Romantic year of 1816? First, that climate change is very nasty; and second, wet weather can be inspiring.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

July 18, 2016

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Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Gillen D'Arcy Wood is Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he has taught Romantic poetry for the past two decades. His most recent book is Tambora: the Eruption that Changed the World.

Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Gillen D'Arcy Wood is Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he has taught Romantic poetry for the past two decades. His most recent book is Tambora: the Eruption that Changed the World.