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… a desultory style
This essay discusses the elements of Romanticism found in three late eighteenth/early nineteenth century poems. The three key poems chosen are Tintern Abbey1 written by William Wordsworth, Frost at Midnight2 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ode to a Nightingale3 by John Keats. There are many similarities between the poems and some key differences.
Tintern Abbey shows many key elements of Romanticism. The poet is isolated and in an imaginative state of mind. Wordsworth is deep in meditation and gives the reader his answers to some of life’s problems. He is outdoors with nature, which is essentially (in Wordsworth’s opinion) an expression of God. Wordsworth’s poem could almost be interpreted as a sermon. Wordsworth senses
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man –
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (95-103)
It is in this imaginative state of mind that Wordsworth finds his peace and happiness. He is able to escape from memories of “the weary weight/Of all this unintelligible world” (40-41). For Wordsworth God is present and he feels a “sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years” (63-66).
The poem has an autobiographical character. Wordsworth discusses his past visit to Tintern Abbey, his urban life and the memories of Tintern Abbey which, though he has not visited for five years, the “forms of beauty have not been… / As is a landscape to a blindman’s eye” (24-25). He finds comfort, when troubled, from the memory of the beauty of nature. Wordsworth’s assumed audience is his sister though she is not present. Wordsworth wishes that his sister might benefit from this sanctuary of his, and he prays “Therefore let the moon / Shine on thee in thy solitary walk” (134-135). Perhaps referring to her illness and comfort she may need.
Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, is quite comparable to Tintern Abbey. The main differences are that Coleridge is alone at night, and his poem is considerably shorter - though essentially they are saying the same thing. Coleridge is isolated, but in his case he is awake sitting in front of a fire while his family sleeps. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge discusses “solitude, which suits / Abstruser musings” (4-5). Coleridge’s assumed audience is his infant son who lies beside him sleeping. He tells his son “so shalt thou see…the shapes…and hear… the eternal languages, which thy God / utters” (58-61). This shows that nature to Coleridge is also an extension of God “who from eternity doth teach / Himself in all” (61-63). Frost at Midnight begins with a description of sounds and his surroundings, moving quickly to describe “extreme silentness” (10). Coleridge also discusses his aversion to the city. He states “For I was reared / In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars” (51-53) - Coleridge saw the beauty of nature as a child while he lived in the city, where Wordsworth saw nature, but never felt the presence of God. Wordsworth saw space and a playground where “like a roe / I [he] bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers and the lonely streams” (69-70.
Keats seems deeply in a trance in his poem. He begins Ode to a Nightingale feeling a “sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk” (2). He could almost be drunk – out alone at night talking to a nightingale. In his concluding line Keats asks “Do I wake or sleep?” The circular structure of this poem begins with his heart aching and the poet drifting off into a ‘trance like’ state. In this state Keats’s internal monologue (apparently talking to a bird), discusses
What thou [the bird] hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs (3. 2-5)
Like Coleridge and Wordsworth, Keats is dissatisfied with the day-to-day business of the world. He finds peace in his imagination “on the viewless wings of poesy” (4. 3). Keats tells the nightingale “Away! Away! for I will fly to thee” (5. 1). In this dream Keats imagines he will fly and follow the nightingale – Keats becomes a bird himself. To Keats it “seems rich to die” (6. 5), and he sees the bird as “immortal” (7. 1). Keats does not refer to God in this poem, but to death, whom he states he has been “half in love” (6. 2) with.
All three poems have an organic circular structure. Tintern Abbey begins with a little background history from Wordsworth’s last visit five years previously, and describes nature and its ‘healing’ powers. Wordsworth then goes on to describe the scenery in front of him and tells us how wonderful it is. Wordsworth’s circle ends with a ‘prayer’ or ‘blessing’ for his sister. Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight begins describing his surroundings, describes his past memories, his adoration of nature, and ends with a ‘blessing’ on his son. He tells the infant “Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee” (65). The structure of Ode to a Nightingale is a little different, though still organic. Keats begins by describing his state of mind (he is always talking to the nightingale). He goes on to describe the ‘pains’ of life, and almost giving up, offers to follow the bird. Keats is alone and in darkness – a metaphor for his lack of spiritual knowledge perhaps. The word “forlorn” (70) brings Keats ‘full circle’ back to reality wondering “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?” (8. 79). In all three poems the poets are having an ‘out of body’ experience.
The narrative voices in the poems area not dissimilar. They are all conversational pieces without dialogue. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poems could read as sermons with a few alterations. Keats’s poem, on the other hand, is more imaginative, less grounded in time and place, more ‘fantastical’, to use a Romantic phrase. Keats is not only talking to a bird, he ‘becomes’ one. Though Wordsworth and Coleridge are in the midst of their imaginations, they remain in the ‘real’ world. Keats, by contrast, seeks to escape almost self-consciously.
In conclusion, all three poems have much in common. The poets are all alone, all have autobiographical elements, all have an implied audience – other than the reader – though essentially they are internal monologues. All state a love of nature and an aversion to the city/reality, and all poets achieve a circular structure – beginning with the poem in the real world, moving into a metaphysical state, and then returning to reality. Although all three poems are in a conversational form, there is no dialogue, and the poems are from the poets’ imaginings and fantasies.
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory4 states that there are two opposite points of view with regard to criticism of Romanticism.
There are those who support…[the view]…that it is a sickness of the spirit and a disorganizing irruption of subjectivism; others who hold that it was a kind of renaissance, a rediscovery, a wholly beneficial upheaval, and a much needed rejection of defunct standards and beliefs which resulted in a creative freedom of mind and spirit (p. 771).
The ‘sickness of the spirit’ opinion rings true of Keats. Ode to a Nightingale does not read like a poem written by a satisfied, happy or self-contained man. Keats feels drunk, talks to and becomes a bird, then returns to reality - or does he? He is uncertain if he is awake or asleep. Wordsworth and Coleridge fit more into the ‘renaissance’ analysis. They are discovering the beauty of the world and seeking a peaceful and serene way of life for themselves and others – which are both sane and possible.
 W. Wordsworth, Selected Poems. Tintern Abbey (c. 1797, Everyman, London, 1994).
 S. T. Coleridge, Poems. Frost at Midnight (c. 1797, David Campbell Publishers, London, 1999).
 J. Keats, Ode to a Nightingale. John Keats (c. 1819, Penguin, London, 1998).
 J A Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Fourth Edition, Penguin, London, 1999).
By Penelope Page