Intro to the English Romantics

Academic Earth asks you to rethink romance in our introduction to the English Romantics. These poets celebrated emotion over reason, stood in awe of nature’s majesty, and certainly weren’t afraid to shake things up.

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The Tyger
By William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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The modern world is racked with passion. Whether it’s your stack of paperbacks about the Pirate Barbarian King and his mistress, your eleventh online dating profile this year, or a sensuous bag of “dark chocolate minis,” you can pretty much get away with whispering “How Romantic” whenever you feel like it. But you might want to rethink your usage.

See, while we are all about this lovey-dovey romance garbage today, the term “Romantic” hearkens back to a motley, dare I say, dangerous crew of 18th and 19th century artists and poets that thrust onto the world what are now regarded as some of humanity’s most radical and imaginative creations.

What we call Romanticism –the artists at the time didn’t use such a term – is all about the urge to create vividly original work. Romantics considered the vision of an individual artist to be all-important. And what was that vision, exactly? Well with all these “I AM ARTIST…ROAR” type people running around, it’s not exactly easy to group them together, but in general, it goes something like this:

“We the Romantics loosely endorsed the following:”

  • Feeling over reason, and thus the elevation of human emotions. You know, crying and getting angry and feeling moved and stuff. It’s just that…we…all get emotional sometimes. [SOBS]
  • The overwhelming majesty of nature. Nature intimidates us but we can’t get enough. Think dropping to your knees and going “WOAH” in front of a Swiss mountain [A labeled Shelley figure does just that in front of a mountain labeled Mont Blanc] or walking on a dark trail with your eyes glued to the full moon…it beats TV. [A labeled Wordsworth doing just that]
  • The genius of newness — of creations unlike anything the world has ever known! So don’t call us copycats. With Shakespeare and Milton breathing down our necks, the only way we were going to get anything done was to convince ourselves to make something new.
  • And with newness comes our love of revolution! Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite! Viva la revolucion! America $%& yeah! Dance Dance Revolution! That sort of thing. Radical reform propels us forward as artists! Where? WE DON’T KNOW. MUST GET BACK TO CREATING.

Yep, that’s the Romantics in an insultingly reductive and salty nutshell. But of course you want to know the players…the people that made the nonsense possible. While Romantics flourished all over Europe, in the English-speaking world, none grabbed the billboards with as much gusto as — you guessed it — the English. For our sake, we can neatly divide these up into two groups: the old and the new. Let’s start with the old.

The group is marked by three major figures: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Blake was a poet, an engraver and perhaps the most important forefather to Romanticism – since he was the oldest of the lot by far, he didn’t really have Romantic contemporaries. You can sort of think of him as a two hundred and fifty year old Dr. Seuss…that was REALLY into the creation of the universe, the divide between God and Satan, making him distrust the assumed line between good and evil, and also his own illustrations, which involved copper and acid. [show examples] So yeah, Blake is like Dr. Seuss if Dr. Seuss flew through space, met God and Satan, poked fun at them, and then got some acid and used it to make pictures about all of it.

Famous Works: Songs of Innocence and Experience, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “The Tyger”

Coleridge, on the other hand, could be called a bit tame. He was mostly into writing long, metered poetry. Boring, right? Well, if opium-fueled dreams of Emperor Kubla Khan’s kingdom of Xanadu sound boring, then sure. What about the epic journey of a wild-eyed mariner who ends up killing a an albatross…with a crossbow, watches the crew of his ship turn to zombies and then spends the rest of his days wandering the Earth telling his tale? Yep, pretty dusty stuff. Oh, he also went to America to found one of its first utopian settlements. But since it wasn’t the 60s and nudist colonies didn’t exist yet, it failed. Hold up, was I just describing the new bassist for GWAR? Let me see here…nope, definitely Coleridge. One badass dude.

Famous Works: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan” and “The Eolian Harp”

Wordsworth is our last fogey. He’s sorta the godfather of nature-y Romanticism. What with his wandering around England’s Lake district with the “Lake Poets,” including Coleridge, taking in the surroundings and thinking back on being a wild 20 something that liked to roll in the fields. Wordsworth would go on to write masterpiece after masterpiece, often with overwhelming depictions of the woods, the water and the sky. You could say the dude dug the earth. He insisted that artists must reckon with the forces of the world via nature immersion. Once an artist did, their imagination would erupt into poetic language.

He was also one of the first artists of the last 300 years to champion the poetry of everyday people – Sly Stone owes him one. Wordsworth felt that hardworking laborers made civilization tick. And he concluded that they had a language of their own that needed to be worked into art. His efforts have had a major impact on much of the modern creative process.

Oh and his sister Dorothy hung out with him a lot. They did lots of what we now call “hiking” together. Their journeys were a major source of inspiration. In fact, she might have written some of his poetry, but William likely took the credit because being a woman sucked for pretty much all of history. Got to watch out for that Wordsworth.

Famous Works: The Prelude, Lyrical Ballads and “Tintern Abbey”




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