Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement that occurred at the end of the 18th century. This period came as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment where nature was as crossroads with the scientific developments of that time. This is one of the bases for many works of literature that was produced during that time. This essay will use the examples of three Romantic poems from different prominent Romantic poets: “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” by William Wordsworth, “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy B. Shelley, and “When I have Fears that I may cease to be” by John Keats. This essay will discuss the thematic concerns extant to each poem, before concluding and uniting the three poems through the theme of mortality and death as expounded in each poem.
First, in “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways”, Wordsworth conveys his admiration and love for the eponymous female character denoted by the pronoun “she”. The poem is arranged in three quatrains (stanzas containing four lines each) and are written in iambic pentameter. In the first stanza, Wordsworth highlights the character Lucy’s innocence and compares her to unspoiled nature, as evident in “a violent by a mossy stone”. The use of contrast is also evident in his astral metaphor “fair as a star, when only one / is shining in the sky” (“She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways”). Together, they reflect his adoration and love for Lucy’s character. However, similar to the poems that will subsequently be discussed, the issue of death is introduced in the last stanza, where “Lucy ceased to be / the difference to me” indicates the profound effect of Lucy’s death on Wordsworth. The use of the A-B-A-B rhyme scheme here, where “be” and “me” links the issue of Lucy’s death to Wordsworth personally, further characterises the profound effect of her death on Wordsworth.
Next, in Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, the poem also similarly discusses the issue of death to convey the theme of mortality. The depiction of the autumn winds, as described in the first stanza with more gruesome and grim diction, such as that of “unseen”, “Dead”, “Ghosts”, “black, and pale”, “pestilence-striken”, “dark wintry bed”, “corpse”, “grave” and “destroyer”, indicates the effect that the Autumn wind has on Shelley during the time of writing as it harbingers the cold winter (“Ode to the West Wind”) . The poem is broken into five sections denoted in roman numerals, each of which contains four tercets followed by one couplet. The tercets have a rhyme scheme of A-B-A. Contrasted with the previous poem, Shelley more hopefully denotes that after winter and spring, as evident in the fifth section of the poem, where more energetic diction such as “mighty harmonies”, “sweet”, “impetuous”, and “trumpet” indicate hope. Furthermore, the use of five exclamatory statements, and the use of a rhetorical question “O Wind/ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” suggests that the possibility of rebirth and renewal after death, which is the core thematic concern in this poem.
Finally, the theme of mortality is also evident in the poem “When I have Fears that I May cease to be” (1818) by John Keats. The poem takes the structure of a fourteen line poem, divided into three quatrains and a couplet, and is written in iambic pentameter. The poem reflects Keats’ personal fear of mortality, suggested in the opening line where he says “When I have fears that I may cease to be”. It also denotes Keats’ ambitions for success, as evident in the third and fourth lines. This is seen in his ambitions to have “high-piled books”, “rich garners”, “full-ripen’d grain” and “teeming brain”. However, the poem also reflects the morbidity of his pessimistic belief that he will die before he accomplishes these, since he says “that I shall never look upon thee more / never have relish in the faery power”. This poem ultimately reflects Keats’ personal notions of death and his inabilities to achieve his dreams and ambitions before death ultimately hits.
In conclusion, all three poems expound on the theme of death in different ways. Wordsworth uses it to deify the subject of his love that runs through many of his poems, Lucy; Shelly uses it to signal hope in the change of seasons; and Keats uses it to pen down his thoughts on his unfulfilled ambitions before death.
- Keats, John. When I have fears that I may cease to be. Poetry Foundation.1818. Web. 19 August 2017.
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Ode to the West Wind. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 1819. Web. 19 August 2017.
- Wordsworth, William. She Dwelt among the Untrodden ways. Poetry Foundation. 1798. Web. 19 August 2017.