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NA209212 - Collection: Great Narrative Poems of the Romantic Age

Great Narrative Poems

Great Narrative Poems

of the Romantic Age

The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats

Morte d’Arthur by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Michael by William Wordsworth

Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Haystack in the Floods by William Morris

Peter Grimes by George Crabbe


Narrative poetry enjoyed an extraordinary revival during the Romantic period and throughout the Victorian age: almost all the great poets of the century made important contributions, many of which are represented in this anthology.

The medieval era had also been an age of narrative verse — Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales stands out, of course, but works like Gawain and the Green Knight and the great ballads of Scotland and the border country are almost as impressive in their vividness and artistry. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost  may represent the Renaissance period in England, while we should also notice (for example) Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from the 18th century.


Yet the richness of narrative poetry from the 19th century remains

outstanding. Many of these poets found particular inspiration in the Middle Ages, responding to a world in which life, death and religion — as well as the supernatural — were invested with a peculiar intensity, passion and significance. The sense of mystery — of ‘romance’ — appealed directly to the Romantic sensibility, reacting as it did to the apparently impersonal rationality of Augustan thought. But each poet responds differently and

distinctively: Coleridge emphasizes the struggle between good and evil, between the Christian and the diabolic; Keats delights in a world of sensation encompassed by the threat of death; Tennyson depicts the tragic dissolution of a golden age; while Morris stresses the brutality beneath the heraldic charm of ‘medievalism’.


John Keats (1795-1821)


Keats belongs to the second generation of Romantic poets. During his brief life he matured rapidly as a poet, producing not only the intense, philosophical and richly musical Odes but also a number of fine, narrative poems, of which The Eve of St. Agnes has long been a favorite. The story owes something to Romeo and Juliet in its emphasis on young love threatened by a family feud, but Keats enriches his tale by creating a powerful series of polarities: dreams and reality, youth and age, warmth and cold, life and death...


Lord Alfred Tennyson  (1809-1892)


Tennyson, after a tentative beginning, became the most popular and respected poet of Victorian England. His sensitive nature was bruised by a painful childhood dominated by domestic strife, and later by the tragically early death of his closest Cambridge friend, Arthur Hallam. An exquisite musical characterizes his best poetry and evocative power tempered by a conflict between post-Darwinian doubt and a longing to believe. Morte d’Arthur movingly dramatizes the passing of a golden age of noble deeds and aspirations, but the tragedy is mitigated by a faith in the future: perhaps the Victorian belief in progress struggling with a deep sense of loss?


William Wordsworth  (1770-1850)


Wordsworth was born, brought up and lived in or near to the Lake District. His intention was to write a new kind of poetry which would come closer to the language and experience of ordinary people, and which would draw its inspiration from the sublime influence of Nature. Michael, written in a plain, blank verse, tells the moving story of a proud, industrious Cumberland farmer whose hard-won independence is threatened by the

dissolute behavior of his beloved only child.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge  (1772-1834)


Coleridge was born in Devonshire and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge. His life was in many ways a failure — he failed in love, failed financially, and became helplessly dependent on laudanum (a form of opium). Yet, especially in his association with Wordsworth, he was a seminal influence on the growth of Romanticism in English culture. Their joint publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798) marked the beginning of a new kind of poetry. Christabel is a fascinating (and unfinished) experiment in which Coleridge uses and unconventional meter to tell a tale of disturbing import: the beautiful and pure Christabel is exposed to the sinister influence of Geraldine, a demonic spirit who, seemingly as fair as Christabel herself, gains access to the latter’s home and heart, with destructive effect.


William Morris  (1834-1896)


Morris was a man of extraordinary versatility: apart from being a poet and pamphleteer, he was also a highly influential designer and a radical thinker. He was profoundly moved and influenced by medieval life and art, but in The Haystack in the Floods, his view of the Middle Ages is surprisingly blunt and unsentimental, although we feel most powerfully for the dreadful plight of the lovers, Robert and Jehane. The language is strong and spare, the situation utterly bleak, its climax terrible. Morris based the poem on an actual incident of the Hundred Years’ War.


George Crabbe  (1754-1832)


Crabbe was born at Aldeburgh, a small fishing port on the Suffolk coast. He spent most of his life as a country parson, but acquired a reputation as an original and powerful poet whose work was criticized by some for its ‘disgusting representations’ — in other words, his attempt to portray some of the more grimly realistic aspects of rural life. Peter Grimes — a tale of cruelty and horror — brilliantly combines an intense (and highly concrete) evocation of place with profound psychological insight.


Notes by Perry Keenlyside

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