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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2011

22 - Romantic poetry: an overview


‘We live in mental representations of the past’, said Wallace Stevens, which might itself appear a very ‘Romantic’ way of looking at things; and ‘Romanticism’ is one of those representations. We live in mental representations of the present too of course, though, as it happens ‘Romantic’ was not a representation that would have seemed important to the ‘Romantics’ themselves: in English letters it is a retrospective category. ‘Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats did not regard themselves as writing“romantic” poems’, Ian Jack observes, ‘and would not – in fact – have been particularly flattered if they had been told that that was what they were doing.’ The word is current within the period, as it still is, in the sense that Johnson’s Dictionary offers (‘resembling the tales of romances’) before moving on to more judgmental uses, both negative (‘Improbable; false’) and more positive (‘Fanciful; full of wild scenery’) – as in the ‘deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover’ from ‘Kubla Khan’ (lines 12–13). Jack judiciously omits Coleridge from his list of authors for Coleridge did think of some of his poems as ‘romantic’, and not without pride: he recollected his planned contribution to Lyrical Ballads as poems ‘directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic’. But the word as used at the time is hardly a key to the intricacies of the age: it lacks the implicit ‘structure of dogma’ that William Empson identifies as the heart of a ‘complex word’.