Romantic and Victorian Poetry

How poets like Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson embodied the ideals of their time

Augustan neoclassicism
Embracing uncertainty and mystery
Propriety, respectability, and duty
Sleeping Beauty
Between 1830 and 1865
Emily Dickinson


The term “romanticism” describes a literary movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that emerged in several respects as a reaction against Augustan neoclassicism. While the Augustans had prioritized decorum and formal rules, romantic poets centered imagination and individualism in their work, seeking to capture authentic human experiences and emotion.

A common focus of romantic poetry is man’s experience of the natural world. For example, the poet William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” describes the beauty of a field of daffodils and the emotional impact that this experience has on the speaker, who thereafter thinks on daffodils as a form of private consolation:

*For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.*


The emphasis here on individual and solitary experience in nature and its role in steering the imagination, is typical of much romantic poetry.

Romantic Epic

Romantic poets, like generations of poets before them, shared an interest in the epic form.

William Wordsworth reimagined the epic in his long autobiographical poem, *The Prelude*, published posthumously in 1850. Spanning 14 books and over 8,000 lines in blank verse, the poem focuses not on heroic actions or historical events but on the poet’s inner journey from boyhood to manhood.


Moments of grandeur and drama are triggered not by actions but by introspective encounters with nature, shaping the poet’s consciousness and emotional, artistic, and moral development. For example, Book VI recounts a walking tour of the Alps, in which Wordsworth is overcome by the landscape:

*The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse*

Romanticism and Rural Classes

Romantic poetry often turned its gaze to the lower classes, as showcased in the seminal collaborative work of Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, *Lyrical Ballads*, published in 1798.

*Lyrical Ballads* sought to capture the everyday life, emotions and experiences of rural communities, emphasizing their dignity, humanity, and connection with nature. These poems also serve as a critique of emerging industrialism, which posed an increasing threat to traditional ways of life.

Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper” portrays a young woman singing while working alone in a field, the beauty and depth of her song transcending the mundanity of her labor. Similarly, Coleridge’s “The Foster-Mother’s Tale” narrates the impact of kindness and love offered to an orphaned child within the rural social fabric.


Throughout, Wordsworth and Colerage use intentionally plain and accessible language, rejecting the ornate and elaborate phrasing often found in earlier poetry and allowing the poets to connect more intimately with their subjects and readers.

Negative Capability

“Negative Capability” is a concept often considered central to romanticism, coined by the poet John Keats in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas of 1817. In this letter, Keats described Negative Capability as the ability of a writer or artist to embrace uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without seeking resolution or definitive answers.


According to Keats, a great poet possesses this quality, which enables them to explore complex and ambiguous emotions, ideas, or situations without attempting to rationalize or simplify them.

Negative Capability allows the poet to remain open to the richness and complexity of human experience, rather than imposing rigid structures or explanations on their subject matter, rejecting the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, logic, and definitive knowledge.

Keats’ and Shelley’s concept of History

Writing later than Wordsworth and Coleridge, poets John Keats (1795-1821) and Percy Shelley (1792-1822) were deeply intrigued by history and decaying civilizations. Their works emphasized the enduring power of nature, in contrast to the transitory nature of human lives and achievements.

In Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), he examines stories depicted on an ancient artifact, contemplating human transience and art’s immortality. The urn symbolizes a long-lost civilization, yet its artistic beauty remains, captivating the poet and providing insights into human experiences across centuries.


Similarly, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818) describes a traveler encountering a ruined statue in the desert, once a monument to a mighty ruler. Despite the inscription’s boastful claim:

*My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!*

The desolate landscape and fragmented statue highlight the impermanence of human achievements and civilizations’ inevitable decline, as even the greatest kings and empires fall to time’s ravages.

Romantic Gothic and its use of the Ballad Form

Romantic poets’ fondness for the “ballad” form – an oral tradition originating in northern europe – aligned with their interest in what is known as the “gothic”, a literary genre characterized by elements of horror, macabre, and the supernatural, often with a gloomy medieval setting – for example a ruined castle.

One notable example is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) – a ballad that tells the tale of a cursed sailor who suffers a cursed life after killing an albatross.


The poem adopts an artificially archaic and stripped back style, unsettling in its beating rhythm and supernatural themes:

*About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.*

This refers to St. Elmo’s fire, a phenomenon where glowing plasma appears on the tips of pointed objects during a thunderstorm, often seen on ships’ masts, and considered an omen of doom.

Romantic Poetry in Germany

British Romantic poets were significantly influenced by German literature, especially the “Sturm und Drang” movement – a phrase translating to “storm and stress,” for its focus on emotional intensity and turmoil.

Notable writers in this movement included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who, like Coleridge, also employed the ballad form and supernatural themes in works such as “Der Erlkönig” (1782), in which a father and son are pursued through a forest by a terrifying mythical king.

Similarly Heinrich Heine’s ballad “Die Lorelei,” tells the story of a mythical siren who leads sailors to their doom with her captivating song.

Lord Byron’s dramatic poem, *Manfred* (1817), follows a similar tale to Goethe’s play, *Faust*. Both feature a proud and tormented protagonist who forms a pact with supernatural forces to gain power, grappling with isolation and remorse, showcases an exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche common to the Romantic movement as a whole.


Transition from Romantic to Victorian Ideals

During the nineteenth century, poetry shifted from romanticism to embrace Victorian values, such as propriety, respectability, and duty, whilst also providing commentary on the rapidly transforming world due to industrialization and science.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), exemplifies this shift with his poem “Ulysses,” which explores themes of duty, perseverance, self-improvement, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works, such as her sonnet sequence *Sonnets from the Portuguese,* (1850) delve into the interplay between love, faith, and individual roles in society, and reflect Victorian notions of inner virtue.


This morally didactic quality is also seen in the dramatic monologues of Elizabeth Barett’s husband, Robert Browning, such as “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover,” which provide psychological insights into his characters and expose darker aspects of human nature. These poems serve as cautionary tales, warning readers against unchecked ambition, jealousy, and obsession.

Fairy Tales and Victorian Poetry

The Victorian period saw an increased fascination with childhood and literature for children, such as Lewis Carol’s *Alice in Wonderland* (1865). This interest combined with their attraction to morally didactic tales may also explain the popularity of fairy tale motifs in victorian poetry

This is showcased by the poetry of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), sister of the renowned Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her poem “Goblin Market,”, features a narrative that revolves around two sisters who encounter goblin merchants selling tantalizing fruits in a magical marketplace, exploring themes of temptation, redemption, and the commodification of women.


Her poems frequently contain spiritual allegories and explore themes such as faith, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil. For instance, “The Prince’s Progress” (1866) tells the story of a prince who embarks on a perilous journey to rescue his sleeping bride, a narrative reminiscent of “Sleeping Beauty.”

Victorian Nonsense Poetry

Nonsense poetry is a genre of verse that playfully subverts linguistic conventions, employing absurd nonsensical language, neologisms, and unexpected imagery or word combinations that defy logic or reason.

The genre’s emergence in the Victorian era has been attributed to various factors. For example, as a reaction against the rigid societal norms that dominated the age, or as a response to increasing literacy rates among children, inspiring authors to create works that appealed to younger audiences, and employing humor and whimsy to captivate their readers.


One of the most famous examples of nonsense poetry is “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, which appears in his novel “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871). The poem tells the story of a young hero who slays the fearsome “Jabberwock”. Typically of nonsense poetry, Carroll blends recognizable poetic conventions – a traditional AABB rhyme scheme and iambic meter – with meaningless, invented words:

*’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.*

Poetry of American Romanticism

American Romanticism describes a literary movement between 1830 and 1865. While it was influenced by earlier European Romanticism, it developed its own unique characteristics that reflected the values, and experiences of the American people. A prominent writer of this movement is the poet Walt Whitman.


Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” from his collection *Leaves of Grass* (1865), captures the essence of the movement, emphasizing the importance of personal experience and intuition over analytical reasoning:

*When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.*

Whitman’s use of free verse, eschewing rhyme and metrical patterns, demonstrates his dedication to individualism and natural instincts.

Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic Poetry

Another prominent figure in American Romanticism was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whose works exemplified the darker, more mysterious aspects of the movement. Poe’s poetry, influenced by the European Gothic, often delved into the supernatural and macabre.


The opening stanza of one of Poe’s most famous poems, “The Raven” (1845), demonstrates these qualities. The trochaic octameter, typical of ballads, alliteration and repetition give it an uncanny, haunting quality”

*Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”*

Emily Dickenson’s Experiments with Form

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet not widely recognized during her lifetime, though now recognised as a visionary of American Romanticism.


Her works are distinctive for their conciseness and unusual use of punctuation and capitalization. Take, for example, her poem of “Because I could not stop for Death” (1863), which begins as follows:

*Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.*

The dashes serve to create pauses and breaks in the flow of the poem, creating an enigmatic atmosphere while emphasizing key images.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

The Origins of Poetry;

Discover poetry's evolutionary origins and the function of poems in early civilizations

Rhetorical and Poetic Devices;

How poetry creates vivid imagery and symbolism using rhetorical devices

Medieval and Early Modern Poetry;

How poetry evolved between the middle ages and the time of Shakespeare

Technical Features of Poetry;

Understand the workings of meter and rhyme, and the mechanisms that make a poem tick

Modernist and Post-War Poetry;

An exploration of the movements that emerged during the rapid changes of the early 20th century

Approaches to Interpreting Poetry;

Investigate the various lenses through which poetry can be analyzed and appreciated, from Historicism and Feminist Theory

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *