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Romantic Poetry's Definition and 9 Characteristics of the Form

John Keats is perhaps one of the best-known and quintessential poets of Romanticism.

John Keats is perhaps one of the best-known and quintessential poets of Romanticism.

Definition of Romantic Poetry and Romanticism

Before we dive into the characteristics of romantic poetry, it is important to clarify the meaning of Romanticism.

Romanticism has been the subject of hot controversy among the world's critics for centuries, yet nobody has ever really been able to present or coin a universally accepted meaning of the term. Generally speaking, romanticism was a literary and intellectual movement in Europe that started in the late decades of the 18th century.

When Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798 by William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, it gave birth to Romanticism in the history of English literature. Legouis and Cazamian's work A History of English Literature states,

“The Romantic spirit can be defined as an accentuated predominance of emotional life, provoked or directed by the exercise of imaginative vision, and in its turn stimulating or directing such exercise.”

Some critics considered Romanticism as a “renascence of wonder.” Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Romanticism came into being as a reaction against the neoclassicism of the preceding age.

Romantic poetry exhibits elements of emotion, imagination, escapism, supernaturalism, hellenism, medievalism, love for nature, etc. Now, let’s move ahead and discuss the salient characteristics of romantic poetry.

9 Key Characteristics of Romantic Poetry

Several characteristics distinguish romantic poetry from other forms of poetry. The following are key characteristics of the form:

  1. A Reaction Against Neoclassical Poetry
  2. Imagination
  3. Nature
  4. Escapism
  5. Melancholy
  6. Medievalism
  7. Hellenism
  8. Supernaturalism
  9. Subjectivity

1. A Reaction Against Neoclassical Poetry

Romantic poetry carries unique features which distinguish it from other kinds of poetry. It is in absolute contrast to neoclassical poetry. Neoclassical is the poetry of intellect and reason, while romantic poetry is the product of emotions, sentiments and the voice at the heart of the poet. It is a catharsis of the poet’s emotions, thoughts, feelings and ideas bound within their hearts.

Romantic poetry is a reaction against the set standards, conventions, rules and traditional laws of poetry. That's the reason romantic poetry is acknowledged as a progressive form, at least in contrast to neoclassical. According to William J. Long, “The Romantic Movement was marked, and is always marked, by a strong reaction and protest against the bondage of rule and custom which in science and theology as well as literature, generally tend to fetter the free human spirit.”

The romantics were against the influence of reason in their poetry. They didn’t give any preference to reason and intellect in their poetry. On the other hand, neoclassical poets believed in the influence of reason. Alexander Pope said,

"True wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,

What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d."

2. Imagination

Imagination is a hallmark of romantic poetry. It is part and parcel of romantic poets like John Keats, Coleridge and P.B Shelley. Unlike neoclassical poets who shunned imagination, romantic poets emphasized it and discredited the influence of reason and intellect in any form in their work. Coleridge considered imagination to be an integral part of his poetry.

In Biographia Literaria, he discussed two types of imagination—Primary and Secondary Imagination. He said, “The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and a repetition in the finite of the external act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode its operation.”

Keats was another supporter of using imagination in poetry. He wrote, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination. What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” It is Keats’s plight of imagination that helps him leave the natural world and transport himself into the world of nightingale. Look at the following example:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

"Ode to Nightingale" by John Keats

3. Nature

A love for nature is another important feature of romantic poetry and came to hold a pivotal position in Romantic poets' work. Nature was a wellspring of inspiration, satisfaction and happiness. It is pertinent to mention here that all the romantic poets differed in their views about nature. Wordsworth was considered a great lover of nature and recognised it as a living thing—like a teacher or a god. He was the true adorer of nature. He wrote,

"One impulse from the vernal wood

Can teach you more of man

Of moral, evil and good

Than all the sages can."

"The Tables Turned" by William Wordsworth

Shelley was similarly an extraordinary lover of nature, yet he didn't think about nature as an instructor, aide and a wellspring of pleasure. He believed that nature was a living thing and that there was a union between nature and man. Shelley likewise put stock in the recuperating force of nature like Wordsworth. Wordsworth gave nature a philosophical touch, while Shelly focused on the intellectual aspects.

Keats was also an eminent lover of nature. He didn’t love nature just for the sake of guidance or spiritual inspiration; instead, he adored nature for its sensuousness and beauty. Keats enjoyed nature in its full essence and wrote,

"There was an awful rainbow once in heaven,

We know here woof; texture she is given

In the dull catalogue common things."

– "Lamia" by John Keats

Coleridge was completely different from other romantic poets of his age. He considered nature as it was and held a very realistic perspective of it. He believed that nature was not the source of joy and pleasure. Instead, it all depended on one's mood and disposition. He was of the opinion that joy doesn’t come from any external nature; instead, it emanated from the heart of our hearts. In this regard, he said,

"I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!"

– "Dejection: An Ode" by Samuel Coleridge

Allusions and descriptions of nature are one of the key characteristics of romantic poetry.

Allusions and descriptions of nature are one of the key characteristics of romantic poetry.

4. Escapism

Escapism is another striking characteristic of romantic poetry. It is a term implying a writer's failure to face the agonies of real life. They instead take shelter elsewhere and decide against fighting the odds. Escapism is perhaps the main theme of romantic poetry.

As most of the romantic poets were in the grip of miseries, they tried to take asylum in their poetry's power. It was their most loved pastime to escape from reality and take asylum in the realm of their imagination. As an example, Keats desires to fly away with the nightingale to forget the miseries of the world:

"Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy."

– "Ode to Nightingale" by John Keats

5. Melancholy

Melancholy similarly occupies a prominent place in romantic poetry and was a major source of inspiration for romantic poets. Due to extreme melancholy, all romantic poets have a tendency to compose subjective poetry.

They write poetry that is the heart's voice and don’t try to compose philosophical or complicated poetry. Instead, they just wanted to vent their feelings and emotions in an attempt to ease their minds. They want to take a load off their minds. Look at the following example:

"………………………….for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain."

– "Ode to Nightingale" by John Keats

6. Medievalism

Medievalism is yet another essential characteristic of romantic poetry. Medievalism indicates a love for the Middle Ages (from around the fall of Rome in 476 CE and the Renaissance in the 14th century), and romantic poetry is replete with elements of this era. Keats and Coleridge are the leading romantic poets whose poetry exhibited an ample amount of medievalism.

Romantic poets were against intellectualism, urbanism, industrialization and the humdrum of life. They wanted to get rid of these aspects of society by taking asylum in the far-off lands of their imagination. The Middle Ages greatly appealed to their taste; they adored weird, remote and recondite places and found that during the era more than in their own age. Look at the following example:

"O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing."

"La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats

(For additional context, a knight was a soldier of high rank only in the Middle Ages.)

A sketch of a battle during the Middle Ages

A sketch of a battle during the Middle Ages

7. Hellenism

Hellenism implies love, commitment and unmistakable fascination with the antiquated society, values and individuals of Greece. Romantic poets displayed a love for Hellenism a great deal in their poetry. They loved to explore the ancient culture of Greece; Keats' poetry is the perfect example, as it was loaded with allusions to the art, literature and culture of the civilization.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a perfect example in this regard. The pictures described in the Grecian Urn show Keats's love the Greek ideals, culture and art. Look at the following example:

"Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea-shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?"

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats

8. Supernaturalism

Supernaturalism is another essential aspect of romantic poetry, and it is yet another unique trait employed by romantic poets. Supernaturalism was used not just to create horror and awe but also for the reader's pleasure.

Coleridge is the leading romantic poet in this regard. His poem "Kubla Khan" is the most romantic in the history of English literature and is completely the product of his imagination. The whole poem is a collection of supernatural elements. Look at the following example:

"And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His fleshing eyes, his floating hair!

weave a circle round him thrice and

Close eyes with holy dread for him on

Honey – drew hath fed and drunk the

Milk of paradise."

– "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Coleridge

9. Subjectivity

Romantic poetry is the poetry of the miseries, despairs, and personal stories of the poets; it is the poetry of sentiments, emotions and imagination of the poets. Romantic poetry is against the objectivity of neoclassical poetry, whose authors avoided describing emotions in their work.

They wanted to present a true picture of society, while the romantic poets avoided descriptions of their contemporary age. Keats is the leading poet in this regard, and his work is like a biography. He wrote poetry just for the sake of writing poetry, not wanting to convey any moral message to his readers. Instead, he wanted to create and prove himself to be the best poet of his age. Throughout his work, you can find numerous clues to his personal life. Look at the following example:

"or many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain."

– "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq

Comments

chandrashekhar Raut on September 25, 2020:

Its greatly informative article. I like your hubs. They are ideal for beginners lime me. Thanks!

Zuni from Scotland on August 29, 2020:

wow, loved reading it

Jwana on June 10, 2020:

Thanks a lot, it was very useful for me

Noor.MH on April 26, 2020:

Thanks , can you give us some examples for imagintion,romantic poetry? please.

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on June 15, 2018:

Great examples posted of romantic poetry, Muhammad.

Andre C Smith from Fresno, CA on April 15, 2018:

nice writings..... wonderful

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on December 22, 2017:

Wow I feel like I traveled through a time capsule that met my romanticism the neo-classic of all time I love your page and all the authors there are so many its hard to pick one.

Mark Tulin from Long Beach, California on December 17, 2017:

nice job defining this form of poetry.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on December 16, 2017:

Thanks for your comments. I am glad you enjoy my writing.

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on December 15, 2017:

I love this video the romantic poetry the sentiments and all the emotions I see in your writing too. I enjoyed my romantic flight

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on December 11, 2017:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on December 09, 2017:

HI I love all the biblical qualities and the Victorian poems of the past my heart sinks into all the ingenious and quality work I look what you projected in your words of diction great job

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 27, 2017:

Thanks for your comment.

Israt Jahan Moon from Bangladesh on November 27, 2017:

extraordinary. very much helpful

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 16, 2017:

Thanks for your comments!

Sharmistha Das on October 15, 2017:

Awesome writing.

mif on September 12, 2017:

It is very useful to my literature exam.Thank you so much .I can easily understand. extraordinary.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on July 25, 2017:

You are welcome, Jose L.

Jose L on July 24, 2017:

Thank you so much for this info! Very straightforward.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 28, 2017:

Thanks Ahmad Khan for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 12, 2016:

I'm glad it helped you F.C.

F.C on October 12, 2016:

Thank you very much for this.This is very comprehensive,easy and helpful.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on September 13, 2016:

Thanks Paramjot Kaur for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

Paramjot kaur on September 13, 2016:

specifically headlined features, concise, great choice of quotes to further emphasise, very well written. Very helpful; thank you!

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 10, 2016:

Thanks Abida for your comments. I'm glad you liked it.

Abida on June 09, 2016:

your good effort inspire every one and its really superb notes, nicely describe every point .thank you.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 04, 2016:

Thanks Nikhat for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

nikhat on June 04, 2016:

Your notes are really good and to the point ...thanks for the notes

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 21, 2016:

Thanks TM for your comments. I'm glad you liked it.

TM on May 21, 2016:

Your notes are quite enough to fetch me the top marks...simple and captivating ....thanks aton

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 21, 2016:

Thanks Singer4Freedom for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

Ghost from Brazil on April 20, 2016:

THANKS

Ghost from Brazil on April 20, 2016:

such a great article.thanks 4 posting regarding english literature, ur notes really help me in my studies.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 07, 2016:

Thanks Dua for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you liked it.

Dua. on March 07, 2016:

Really helpful good xplanation and simple language is used..i like it..

and Ur gr8 efforts..

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on January 05, 2016:

Thanks for your comments, Ahmed.

Ahmed on January 05, 2016:

thanks for this information

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on December 19, 2015:

Thanks Fatima for your comments. I'm glad you liked it.

Fatima on December 18, 2015:

You explained it very Beautifully and the quotations from the works were awesome.From Today I love Romantic poetry.Thank you so much

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 02, 2015:

Thanks for your comments! Please, visit my youtube channel for videos about English literature. www.youtube.com/englishliteraturehub

Anisha on November 02, 2015:

thank you so much this ans. really works for me

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 29, 2015:

Thanks Parth.

parth on October 29, 2015:

Very useful ty

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 10, 2015:

Thanks Yazeed Wahas for stopping by and commenting. Have a nice time!

Yazeed Wahas on October 10, 2015:

ACTUALLY thank you so much

good explanation and wonderful comments

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 07, 2015:

Thanks Usman Tareen for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

usman tareen on March 07, 2015:

Really informative

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 06, 2015:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I am glad you liked it.

firdowsh on March 06, 2015:

A very good attempt & unique answer I've from your side thanx it's very useful for me to write an answer in exam

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on January 07, 2015:

Thanks Murtaza for stopping by and commenting! I am glad it helped you.

Murtaza Khan on January 06, 2015:

Really enjoyed thanks for writing in a very simple language

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 04, 2014:

Thanks FlourishAnyway for your comments and encouragement! Have a nice time.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 04, 2014:

Romantic poetry is my favorite, and you present it well. One of my favorite quotes: "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." - Wordsworth

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 03, 2014:

Thank billybuc for stopping by and commenting! Have a nice time.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 03, 2014:

A fine tutorial and I thank you. I didn't appreciate poetry until later in life, so I have some catching up to do. :)