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Romantic Poetry and Related Terms: Romanticism, New Romanticism, Neo-Romanticism, Post-Romanticism, Late Romanticism

by Michael R. Burch

Related pages: Romanticism Then and Now, Romanticism Defined, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Romantic Poets, American Sapphos

What is English romantic poetry, exactly, and why is the word Romantic sometimes capitalized? Socrates advised us to define our terms before entering into a discourse, so here goes . . .

If there is an overused and misunderstood term in English poetry today, it is probably "romantic" in its various incarnations. (For the author's musings about the very, very early [i.e., caveman] origins of Romanticism, please click here.) While romantic poetry can, of course, be about romance, in its most general sense, romantic poetry can be about virtually anything and the term pertains more to the style, attitude and worldview of the poet than to any specific theme. The term Romantic is most often capitalized when the Romantic movement/school (and perhaps religion) is being discussed, although there is no absolute rule in regard to capitalization. Here are some stabs at definitions of "romantic poetry":

The uses of "Romantic poetry" vary, but the most common definition is probably something like "a movement in poetry seeking formal freedom, individualism and increased emotional effect, which utilizes ancient and folk sources." Romanticism's first important members were Robert Burns, Goethe and James MacPherson; it then came to full bloom in English Poetry with the work of the "Big Six": William Blake, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and John Keats. The birth of English Romanticism is often dated to the publication in 1798 of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. However, Blake had been publishing since the early 1780s, although he was less well-known in the early days and gained fame later. The Romantic movement emphasised the creative expression of the individual and the need to find and formulate new forms of expression. The Romantics, with the partial exception of Byron, rejected the poetic ideals of the eighteenth century, and each of them returned to Milton for inspiration, though each drew something different from Milton. They also put a good deal of stress on their own originality. However, as has already been noted, many of their themes and attitudes had already begun to appear earlier in the century. ― from Wikipedia, with slight revisions by the essayist

The best way to get the "flavor" of Romantic poetry is to read the best poems of its early exemplars. Here's a poem that is intensely moving in the Romantic tradition:

"Music When Soft Voices Die (To —)" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

"Romanticism" was an artistic and intellectual movement in the history of ideas that originated in late 18th century Western Europe. It stressed strong emotion—which now might include trepidation, awe and horror as aesthetic experiences—the individual imagination as a critical authority—which permitted freedom within or even from classical notions of form in art—and overturning of previous social conventions, particularly the position of the aristocracy. There was a strong element of historical and natural inevitability in its ideas, stressing the importance of "nature" in art and language. Romanticism is also noted for its elevation of the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individuals and artists. It followed the Enlightenment period and was in part inspired by a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms from the previous period, as well as seeing itself as the fulfillment of the promise of that age.Wikipedia

So in one sense, Romanticism was a freeing of the poet to write on "forbidden" themes (including free love and other heresies). As the existence of an all-powerful God was doubted or denied, it was perhaps "natural" for nature (or something) to fill the vacuum created when God suddenly vanished from the landscape of increasingly agnostic and atheistic poets. Nature played a great part in the poetry of William Wordsworth, who was perhaps the most influential of the "big six," in terms of his influence on other poets. Here's an example of his work:

"My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold" by William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Wordsworth's "natural piety" may allude to the pantheistic idea, held by the mystics of many religions, that God is "all in all" and is to be found everywhere in nature, and/or in all living beings. Of course this would seem to preclude the need for "salvation" and religious dogma. As the Romantics cast a dim eye at Orthodoxy, they would each, to some degree, have to come up with a "replacement" system. Blake seemed to believe in the divinity of man and to prefer rebellious angels to the sexless angels of Orthodoxy. Byron seemed to be a non-believer haunted, at least at times, by his childhood Calvinism. Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a tract on the necessity of atheism. Keats rejected Christianity, which he seemed to replace with "many speculations." Coleridge rejected, at least, the Trinity and became a Unitarian minister. He wrote of God being "diffused through all," which makes him sound aligned to some degree with his friend Wordsworth and the mystics. Was Romanticism, to some degree, a religion?

The main movement in post-war 1940s poetry was the New Romantic group that included Dylan Thomas, George Barker, W. S. Graham, Kathleen Raine, Henry Treece and J. F. Hendry. These writers saw themselves as in revolt against the classicism of the New Country poets [politically active, left-leaning poets led by W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis and Louis MacNeice]. They [the New Romantics] turned to such models as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud and Hart Crane and the word play of James Joyce. Thomas, in particular, helped Anglo-Welsh poetry to emerge as a recognisable force.Wikipedia

Dylan Thomas is by far the best-known poet of the New Romantics mentioned above. Here's one of his best-known poems:

"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But it is important to note that the best-known of the "left-leaning" poets mentioned above, W. H. Auden, also wrote romantic poems of a high order. Here's one of them:

"Lullaby" by W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm:
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstacy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost.
All the dreaded cards foretell.
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought.
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Hart Crane stands out as the best of the American Romantic poets. One of his best-known poems appears below. You can read more of his work by clicking his hyperlinked name. In my opinion his poem "Voyages" is the best love poem in the English language, and number two isn't even close.

To Brooklyn Bridge by Hart Crane

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Although she is less well-known that some of the other poets whose poems appear on this page, Louise Bogan was another American poet fully capable of writing in the great Romantic tradition. You can read more of her work by clicking her hyperlinked name.

"Song For The Last Act" by Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden.  There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence.  In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift.  The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

The term "neo-romanticism" is synonymous with post-Romanticism or late Romanticism. It is a long-lived movement in the arts and literature. It is considered to be a reaction to naturalism. The naturalist in art stresses external observation, whereas the neo-romanticist adds feeling and internal observation. These artists tend to draw their inspiration from artists of the age of high romanticism, and from the sense of place they perceive in historic rural landscapes; and in this they react in general to the 'ugly' modern world of machines, new cities, and profit. Characteristic themes include longing for perfect love, utopian landscapes, nature reclaiming ruins, romantic death, and history-in-landscape. Neo-romanticism is often accused by critics of being too insular, too interested in figurative painting and beauty, too fond of intuition, too distrustful of ideological & theoretical ways of comprehending art, and too in love with the past and the idealised / spiritual / haunted landscape. A more persuasive criticism is that neo-romanticism lacks an adequate conception of evil in the modern world. Neo-romanticism tended to shed somewhat the emphasis of Romanticism on 'the hero' and romantic nationalism. This was particularly so in the decades after both of the world wars. Wikipedia

While I agree that there is a vein of poetry which contains the attributes described above, I'm not sure that I buy the term "neo-romantic." At some point it seems that we start splitting hairs. In any case, the "spiritual/ haunted landscape" can produce poems well worth reading. Here's one by a late 20th-/early 21st-century poet, Kevin N. Roberts, who wrote in the Romantic tradition. I don't consider him a "neo-romantic" poet, but simply a Romantic poet. We might call him a New Romantic to distinguish him from the early Romantic poets.

Rondel by Kevin N. Roberts

Our time has passed on swift and careless feet,
With sighs and smiles and songs both sad and sweet.
Our perfect hours have grown and gone so fast,
And these are things we never can repeat.
Though we might plead and pray that it would last,
Our time has passed.

Like shreds of mist entangled in a tree,
Like surf and sea foam on a foaming sea,
Like all good things we know can never last,
Too soon we'll see the end of you and me.
Despite the days and realms that we amassed,
Our time has passed.

You can read more of his work by clicking his hyperlinked name above. Below you will find romantic poems by other contemporary poets, including one of mine. If you care to read more of their work, you can click their hyperlinked names. In closing, I will say that in my opinion, romantic poetry has always been with us, and the "flavors" have simply changed over time. The real "sea change" in English poetry began with Milton and his rebellious Satan. Then the Tsunami came and the floodgates opened when Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats (the Big Six) started to assail the ivory citadels of Orthodoxy. They either sang the glories of human love, or at least denied the need to be "saved" from their human nature, which made them divine, semi-divine or at the very least, interesting in their own right. Perhaps Romanticism was, primarily, the evolution of Milton's Satan into a human rebel intent on looking the "gods" in the eye, or, like Prometheus, stealing their fire and their thunder.

by Mary Rae

Youth and love unite beneath the power
of velvet skin and dark, half-sleeping eyes.
Spring seems to last forever to the flower
that feels the rush of chlorophyll's green rise.
Time is not—cannot be of the essence
when second hands are slow, standing still,
while all around the sun is streaming gold.
The thought of end, of beauty's obsolescence,
seems unreasonable and cannot hold
as long as love is dressed in daffodil.

Youth never sees itself or has a reason
to know that it has no infinity.
It turns, like spring, a sweet, unknowing season,
never doubting its divinity.
But as in fall trees look down on their leaves
that once had been too much a part to see,
powerless to reconstitute the whole;
so age sees fallen beauties and it grieves
the unclothing of the lonely soul
that, now in rags, goes begging tree to tree.

Isolde's Song by Michael R. Burch

Through our long years of dreaming to be one
we grew toward an enigmatic light
that gently warmed our tendrils. Was it sun?
We had no eyes to tell; we loved despite
the lack of all sensationall but one:
we felt the night's deep chill, the air so bright
at dawn we quivered limply, overcome.

To touch was all we knew, and how to bask.
We knew to touch; we grew to touch; we felt
spring's urgency, midsummer's heat, fall's lash,
wild winter's ice and thaw and fervent melt.
We felt returning light and could not ask
its meaning, or if something was withheld
more glorious. To touch seemed life's great task.

At last the petal of me learned: unfold.
And you were there, surrounding me. We touched.
The curious golden pollens! Ah, we touched,
and learned to cling and, finally, to hold.

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