Editor: Stanley Appelbaum
Publisher: Dover Publications Inc (1996 Edition)
Bought: Book Depository


Romanticism is a movement that spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Literary Romanticism (not to be confused with romance literature) emerged as a reaction to the rationalism, order and logic associated with the preceding Enlightenment era. Some common characteristics of Literary Romanticism include idealistic view of life, focus on emotion/personal feelings rather than reason, unusual or mysterious settings and usually a happy ending.

British Literary Romanticism is best expressed in the verse of William Blake (1757–1827), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), George Gordon more popularly know as Lord Byron (1788–1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and John Keats (1795–1821). Walter Scott (1771–1832) is better known for his historical novel Ivanhoe (1820).

In America, Romantic writers include James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), Washington Irving (1783–1859), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) and Herman Melville (1819–1891).

What are the poems about?

The most popular poems in this collection have influenced popular culture right up to today. Many of today’s readers will have come across modern cultural references to these poems before they have actually read the original works.

The Tyger (1794) by Blake has one of the most famous first stanza ever written: “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” This poem, together with its companion (or pendant) poem The Lamb (1789), suggest that good and evil both flow from the same source. Fearful Symmetry is the title of episode 2.18 of the X-Files.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797–98, side notes added 1815–16) by Coleridge is a fantastical tale of the sole survivor of a ship that was mysteriously blown off course and then equally mysteriously blown back to its home port. The poem is replete with symbolism. It is the origin of the metaphor albatross around (one’s) neck and the phrase “Water, water every where / Nor any drop to drink” (although I always thought the second line was And not a drop to drink).

Kubla Khan (1798) also by Coleridge starts with the famous lines “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree”. Coleridge wrote in a preface to the poem (unfortunately not reproduced in this volume) that he composed a poem of 200–300 lines in a (possibly opium-induced) dream after reading about Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol Emperor of China Kublai Khan. When he woke up, he started writing the poem but was interrupted by the proverbial “person on business from Porlock” which caused him to forget the other lines. The 54 lines Coleridge managed to write down paint a vivid image of a “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” Coleridge’s poem has been credited with making the term Xanadu a metaphor for splendour and opulence. The 1980 movie Xanadu starring Olivia Newton-John took its name from this poem – great soundtrack, so-so movie. Welcome to the Pleasuredrome is the title track of British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s debut album (1984).

Lord Byron’s works are still read but his literary reputation has been largely overshadowed by his complicated life: his lover Lady Caroline Lamb described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. His name has given rise to the term byronic which is used today to describe a man who is “an alluringly dark, mysterious and moody” (Oxford online dictionary). A fascinating footnote: Lord Byron’s only legitimate child is Ada Lovelace who is generally regarded as the first computer programmer, thanks to her colloboration with Charles Babbage.

The title of Shelley’s Ozymandias (1817) refers to the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramasses II (c 1303 – 1213 BC). The theme of the poem is that even the most powerful ruler (“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / Look at my works, ye Mighty, and despair”) will eventually fade away and his legacy crumble into dust. In the graphic novel Watchmen (1986–1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the antagonist Adrien Veidt calls himself Ozymandias.

Keats is best remembered today for 6 odes he composed in 1819, including Ode on A Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale. A mere 2 years later, Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome. He was only 25 years old.

How is the book?

This is part of the Dover Thrift Edition series. That means it contains only a short introduction and very brief commentaries on the poets. There are no notes to individual poems. The works collected in this volume are in the public domain and easily available for free on-line. So, a Dover Thrift Edition is an economical way to get a no-frills anthology in book form.