While “Romantic” by genre, one can see that not all Romantics are necessarily created equal. This is evident by comparing and contrasting two works of a couple great “Romantic” poets, William Wordsworth—a Romantic poet in every sense of the word—and Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic by title but not necessarily in the same respect as Wordsworth.
One finds in Wordsworth’s works an utter spiritual connection to the world around him as well as a pursuit to find in that world Truth and idealism. It was Wordsworth himself that said poetry “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” a perfectly Romantic maxim indeed. Delving into some of the Romantic aspects of Wordsworth’s 1798 masterpiece, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, one can find a plethora of examples that epitomize the Romanticism in every sense of the word. First, one should remark further about Wordsworth’s perspective on poetry being the “overflow of powerful feelings.” This Romantic philosophy is seen quite vividly throughout Tintern Abbey.
And now with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food for
Future years. (259)
To be certain, these are but a few of the many lines in this poem that convey to the reader the awesome sense of emotion that Wordsworth feels upon standing in the glory of Tintern, but the lines so contain some important elements of Romantic philosophy. First, one grasps the concept that, as though in a ramble of unadultered flow, Wordsworth realizes both “dim” and “sad” overtones suddenly arrested by the “revival” of the mind anew, now elated on the “pleasing thoughts” of a bright and fulfilling future. Indeed, one therefore sees a “spontaneous overflow of emotion,” for Wordsworth—in but the span of few lines—express a profound and dramatic progression of emotion.
There is, however, another Romantic element not to be missed in these few lines, and that is the matter of idealism. As is powerful emotion, idealism is seen throughout much of Tintern Abbey, but it does arise in the aforementioned lines to an extent for the prospect of a pleasant present and prosperous future express the concept that all is right in the world, and all will be so still in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. That “life and food” is not only being had at the time of the revelation but also evident in the times to be is not only a comforting suggestion, but assuring that utopianism is in the cards.
That, without doubt, mankind and nature is abounding in vitality and that nourishment is plentiful is among the principles of those who strive to attain a society where the ideal notion of healthy life is indeed a reality. One can see a third important element of Wordsworth’s Romanticism is the concept of Nature. Nature, in its most glorious form, is seen in all her splendor with depictions such as:
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (258)
These incredible depictions serve as both a tribute to the grandeur seen upon this planet but also play another important role: they put Nature–not necessarily Man–at the forefront of this poem. Insomuch, Nature is allowed to reign supremely in this poem for it remains the prominent backdrop of this poem and also provides the central catalyst for practically all of the emotions that are evoked by Wordsworth throughout the whole of this poem.
Turning to Shelley’s 1818 work Ozymandias, one can find that, while there are components of Romanticism present, they are not nearly as grandly displayed as in the illustrious tones of Wordsworth and Tintern Abbey. For one, Ozymandias contrasts starkly from Tintern Abbey in that Shelley is highlighting not so much the sandy desert, but man’s proud intrusion upon it: the remnants of a now-dead king and his reign. “And on the pedestal [of the statue] these words appear:/My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,/Look upon my Works, ye mighty, and Despair!” (768).
For being a Romantic poem, where Nature usually takes center stage, it is highly glaring that the ruins of man steal the show. Further, one must remark on another aspect of Romanticism: the evocation of emotion. While one of Wordsworth mantras was poetry “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” it seems one may be hard pressed to find many powerful feelings in Shelley’s Ozymandias—at least when compared to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. The Shelley work reads more like a detached account of what the “traveller” found while on his excursion than an emotive revelation of feelings stimulated upon finding the decayed statue (768). Indeed, while words such as “passions,” and “heart” appear in the work, they relate not to the poet, but the king who created the statue (768). Even in that respect, though, emotion is little and largely speculative, not experienced.
Finally, on the topic of idealism, we see not hope and life in the Shelley piece but rather death and decay. The material feature is the severed statue and its “lifeless” elements of the “[w]reck” that now “decay[s]” in the “bare” and “lone” sands (768). Indeed, idealism in this poem may exist in the possibility that the deceased king was merely a mortal and therefore no more powerful or mighty than any other mortal being on this planet. Yet, this message is merely implied rather than necessarily obvious; furthermore, this idealistic tone is surrounded by the rather downcast notion of a broken statue eroding away in the harsh realm of desert sands, wind, heat, and aridity–hardly an ideal locale by many standards.
Certainly, as literature goes, Wordsworth and Shelley share in being members of the Romantic literary canon. However, as evidenced from the above comparisons and contrasts of these two disparate works, one finds that no two writers–or Romanticists–are exactly alike.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. General Editor Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 768.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. General Editor Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 258-262.