William Cowper – The Castaway

This is a ballad with an unusual and distinctive subcurrent of introspection – a movement that is glimpsed at the start but surfaces fully in the final stanzas. The performative, distancing tone and perspective of the ballad form collapses and the terror and isolation of the striken sailor are traced to their source in the emotions of the speaker. This overwhelming sadness is all the more terrible for its namelessness, the profound personal loss that even to the end hides behind the allegory of the drowning sailor. One could read in this internalized ballad the heralding of the Romantic era and the cult of Self, yet the real ache of the poem is felt most strongly in the reticence it maintains to the end. Continue reading

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Felicia Dorothea Hemans – The Homes of England

A subtle and elegant assertion of belief in the traditional order and customs of English society, this poem is more than the grating panegyric that might be suggested by the title. For the main it glosses over class struggles and divisions, imagining a kind of equality enforced by shared faith and patriotism. At the same time there is a hint of a recognition of the plight of the ‘lowly’, and perhaps some responsibility on the part of the ‘stately’. The poem never goes so far as to imply things could be different – indeed this would run counter to its first purpose: to affirm the traditional way of things, and to look to the past for an ideal model of English society. Continue reading

S. T. Coleridge – Frost at Midnight

A poem that captures the meanderings of reflective thougt, this piece uses loose, prose-like but beautifully shaped blank verse. The poet considers nature, which in contrast with much romantic poetry shows elements that are less than ideal, even malignant. The silence of the winter night precipitates a reflection on death, and the sleeping child awakens the poet’s own childhood memories. The wandering thought suggested by these different ideas is elevated in the tidy, discrete stanzas of the poem, and offered as a way of life for the sleeping infant. The incredible beauty of the final stanza offers hope for the child but in its eery silence prevents us from forgetting the slow creep of death. Continue reading

William Wordsworth – Three Years She Grew

This poem mourns the loss of a beloved, evoking her beauty and intimacy and suggesting a futility and wastefulness in her sudden death. Nature is described simultaneously as the inspiration and mirror of her beauty – through which Wordsworth explores competing conceptions of femininity – and as a rival lover, jealously snatching ‘Lucy’ away before the speaker can have her. The poem concludes in a state of ambivalence regarding nature’s effect on life – imparting both beauty and impermanence. Continue reading

Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ode to the West Wind

The violent wind evoked so powerfully by Shelley’s Ode is, as in many Romantic poems, representative of a tumultuous inner state of anguish. The racing rhythm and churning word inversions dramatize what can also be seen as emblematic of a violent and unpredictable Age, wreaking havoc but with the prophetic promise of peace to come as the seasons change. Juxtaposed with this destructive wind force is a vision of wind as the deity of poetic inspiration, a ‘spirit’. The ‘Wild’ freedom of the wind is also a symbol of lost youth. The poem’s sonnet-length stanzas suggest a dialectic structure, which we find in the uneasy recognition that violent tumult, while feared and fought, is also the source of poetic inspiration and freedom. Continue reading