Several common themes flow through poetry of the Romantic Period. The poets, either through conscious or unconscious efforts share similar hopes, fears, and concerns. These themes include “melancholy” that is relieved through nature, the frailty of human accomplishments, and intellectual beauty.
As with today’s poets and artists, depression is one of these themes, referred to as melancholy, and the poets found relief through nature. William Wordsworth is an excellent example of this self-medication through nature. His life, like many others, featured moments of pain and the grief of lost loves. Perhaps the most intense grief for him was for that of his daughter, Catherine, who died young.(245) This pain is clear through his works, such as “Lucy Gray”, which takes on a nursery rhyme scheme and focuses on the death of a little girl. It ends with the lines “O’er rough and smooth she trips along,…/ And sings a solitary song / That whistles in the wind.”(277-79, ln 61-64) The haunting idea that the child exists, even in death, as a part of nature, singing through the sound of the wind indicates Wordsworth’s solace in the belief that Catherine lived on in the unseen world around him.
Another of these themes is the frailty of human accomplishments. Byron expresses his belief in several places, but the most predominant in my opinion is in “Darkness”. He writes, “The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, / The habitations of all things which dwell, / Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed.”(pg 615, ln 11-13) This simple image of the burning of all men’s homes represents the mortal existence we all live. Each of us, as we age, can agree with the idea, seeing that most things crumble and fall away.
One of these fading things is beauty. This subjective thing finds a place in the writings of Percy Shelley, where intellectual beauty becomes a theme. Shelley describes it in the appropriately titled “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, where he writes that it “transforms what is merely potential both within man and Nature into a realized form”.(ln 10) Shelley seems to believe in the bohemian idea that intellect, or imagination and the drive for knowledge, has an inherent beauty that makes man rise above what he is. He insinuates that if humans have an internal beauty, born of the intellect, then they have the potential for great things.
The romantic elements of “melancholy” relieved through nature, the frailty of human accomplishments, and intellectual beauty permeate the works of the period. In a time when the world was changing so dramatically around them, they embraced these ideas and wrote at length about them. These and other themes from the time helped make the way for the poets of the following Victorian period.
Greenblatt, S., & M. H. Abrams, e. a. (Eds.). (2006). The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Eighth ed., Vol. D). New York, NY, USA: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.