Romantic poetry


Romanticism is the name given to a dominant movement in literature and the other arts – particularly music and painting – in the period from the 1770s to the mid-nineteenth century:

  • It is regarded as having transformed artistic styles and practices
  • Like many other terms applied to movements in the arts, the word covers a wide and varied range of artists and practices
  • It is a retrospective term, applied by later literary, art and musical historians. None of the artists we refer to as Romantics would have so described themselves
  • It was a European phenomenon, particularly powerful in Britain, France and Germany, but also affecting countries such as Italy, Spain and Poland. There was also, to some extent, an American version of the movement.

For further information and a more detailed overview of Romanticism and Romantic poetry see How poetry works > Romantic poetry.

Rossetti was influenced in her own writing by her reading of Romantic poetry. However, she does not often give an account of what she has read or been reading. Despite this, from evidence in her own poems, we can establish that the Romantic poet who most influenced her was John Keats.

John Keats

John Keats (1795-1821) was a London poet, especially known for his odes and sonnets and for his letters, which contain many reflections on poetry and the work of the imagination. During his lifetime, Keats published three books of poetry but it was only after his early death at the age of 26 that his writings began to become popular. In 1887, Rossetti's brother, William Michael, published a biography of Keats. Entitled simply, The Life of John Keats, this biography familiarised many Victorian readers with the writings of the Romantic poet.

Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel demonstrate their appreciation of Keats' poetry early in their poetic careers by writing sonnets dedicated to his memory. In 1849, when she was 19, Rossetti wrote On Keats. This sonnet speaks of the rest Keats found in death from the troubles of the world. Its sestet alludes to the words that Keats himself requested to be etched onto his tombstone instead of his name:

     What was his record of himself, ere he
         Went from us? Here lies one whose name was writ
     In water
: while the chilly shadows flit
         Of sweet Saint Agnes' Eve; while basil springs,
         His name, in every humble heart that sings,
     Shall be a fountain of love, verily. (lines 9-14)

Keats' phrase, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water' indicates how fleetingly life and fame pass. It suggests that, since they disappear so quickly, they are like something that has been written in water. By speaking of ‘St Agnes' Eve' in her sonnet, Rossetti recalls Keats' own poem, The Eve of St Agnes. The image of basil that she uses also recalls Keats own depiction of this herb in his poem Isabella; or The Pot of Basil.

The Romantic appreciation of nature

Throughout the eighteenth century, reason or logical thinking was highly valued and the significance of the imagination was often disregarded (see Aspects of literature > An introduction to Augustan literature). The Romantic poets sought to change this by introducing into their poetry an appreciation of natural beauty. Many of their poems convey a semi-religious response to the natural world which opposed the increasing industrialisation of Victorian Britain (for more information on industrialisation see The world of Victorian writers > The impact of industrialisation).

In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a collection of poetry. Entitled Lyrical Ballads, the purpose of this collection was to re-establish the link that exists between nature and man. In the preface, Wordsworth wrote that the aim of their poetry was to use ‘real' language to convey the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings': in other words, to express emotions in words familiar to ordinary men and women.


In 1789, the French people rose up and overthrew the feudal system of government which they felt was oppressing them. The first generation of Romantic writers, including William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge initially saw the French Revolution as an opportunity for justice and equality to be established. However, following the terrible atrocities that France witnessed as more and more of the aristocracy were beheaded, they regretted their early enthusiasm for the revolution.

The second generation Romantic poets, including Percy Byshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, were revolutionaries in that they opposed the systems of politics and religion that they considered were suppressing the freedom of the imagination. Many of their poems concentrate on the power and strength of the imagination and the individual mind. The events of Byron and Shelley's personal lives demonstrate that they were not afraid of disrupting convention (for further information see Mary Shelley > The Byron-Shelley circle).

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