With two poetry collections and two novels spanning the Romantic era (c. 1800-1850), Reads writers Claire Francis and Shana Hadi respectively recommend these works that contemplate the intensity of emotion and the sublime beauty of nature within aesthetic experience, with references to their modern-day significance.
“Poems” by Christina Rossetti
An oldie but a goodie: 19th-century Romantic poet Christina Rossetti’s unexpectedly titled collection, “Poems.” The volume I own is an antique copy from 1895, so while this particular edition might be just a bit rare in print, all of its contents are surely squirreled away somewhere on the internet, likely published under slightly tweaked names like “The Poems of Christina G. Rossetti” or “The Poetry of Rossetti,” or “The Book That One Poem From That 2008 ‘Doctor Who’ Episode Actually Came From.” In the spirit of May, Rossetti’s poems feel like a relaxed inhalation of flowery spring air, warmed by sunlight on the surface but cold and unsettling underneath. With titles like “Maiden-Song,” “The Ghost’s Petition,” “Child’s Talk in April,” “A Daughter of Eve,” “Dead Before Death” (same), “Despised and Rejected” (double same) and “By the Waters of Babylon,” Rossetti’s poems are lyrical pockets of the feminine, the wild, the macabre, the still, the sad, the lonely and the sharp. Rossetti has long since mastered the poet’s prerogative of capturing intimacy within a phrase, within a breath, leaving the reader feeling like someone did spring cleaning on their soul. While she can occasionally be too religiously didactic for my own taste, I’ll allow readers to interpret what exactly Rossetti means by, “We must not look at Goblin men,/We must not buy their fruits:/Who knows upon what soil they feed/Their hungry, thirsty roots?”
“English Poetry, Volume Two: Collins to Fitzgerald”
For some reason, I find myself the frequent recipient of old books on birthdays and Christmases, despite my distinct lack of shelf space; the most recent inductee into this club is a 1910 Harvard Classics version of “English Poetry, Volume Two: Collins to Fitzgerald.” With a print of Alfred de Curzon’s painting of Greek heroine Psyche and the three-headed Cerberus on the inside cover and sections devoted to Romantic legends Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Williams Wordsworth, reading through even the table of contents in this collection feels like stepping along a stone path to a fairy realm. (There’s also a poem that’s uncertainly accredited to Isobel Pagan, about whom as a writer I know less than nothing, but wow, what a name. That’s my new character name at any and all future Renaissance Fairs.) I’d forgotten just how effortlessly the Romantics can braid Classics with modernity (from Sir William Edmonstoune Aytoun’s “The Refusal of Charon” to Walter Savage Landor’s “On Lucretia Borgia’s Hair”), rapture with melancholy (Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” or Landor’s “On Living Too Long”), heartache with beauty (Keats’ “Great Spirits Now on Earth are Sojourning” or Thomas Hood’s “The Bridge of Sighs”); there’s a profound sense of solidarity in reading a poem of a century past that speaks so gently to your personal suffering. The Romantics always seemed, to my teenage self, too emo, too unnecessarily dramatic, but as I age it’s their everyday grief and existential sincerity that strikes a minor chord in me.
“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen
Bridging the interregnum between the Enlightenment and the reactionary Romantic era, Austen’s novels examine the genuity of human emotion as a credible source for human knowledge, while paying due attention to “the marriage plot” and intricacies of high society. Though this bildungsroman was her first novel completed for publication in 1803, it was not published until after Austen’s death in 1817, alongside “Persuasion.” Nevertheless, it captures essential qualities of the blossoming of youth into thoughtful adulthood and the necessity for introspection. It also satirizes Gothic novels (and lives lived as though one were in a Gothic novel), which were quite popular at the time. In the first few pages, Austen introduces Catherine Morland with an ironic quip, “no one… would have supposed her born to be an heroine,” and continues to describe the relative normality of her family history, a breakaway from the oft-dramatic beginnings of Gothic classics. In pointed reference to such tropes, Austen continues to provoke Catherine’s overactive imagination — nurtured by Ann Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolpho and the like — which eventually results in a fiasco when Catherine stays with the Tilneys’ home at Northanger Abbey. Devoted to uncovering the mysterious locked rooms that must undoubtedly be exotic and frightening, Catherine eventually realizes the inapplicability of fairy tales for some life events, and gradually matures into a young woman confident in her sarcastic humor, modest character, and budding love with Henry Tilney. (And after a childhood filled with Austen classics like “Pride and Prejudice,” I will simply say, every Austen novel is worth the read.)
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
An age-old classic first published in 1818 that has brought Shelley permanent fame, “Frankenstein” continues to challenge our humanistic faith — and borderline hubris — that we can control our environment and our self-made technology for our own needs. Shelley’s inspiration sprung from contemporary ideas on galvanism (muscle stimulation through electricity) and the occult, alongside her travels through Europe, with a layover near Frankenstein Castle, where an alchemist engaged in experiments two centuries before. These influences finally coalesced during a horror story contest among renowned Romantic writers Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori (the author of the first modern vampire story, “The Vampyre”). And this year alone, I have seen this novel appear on four class syllabuses (including two of my own), naturally with distinct versions, covers and publishers, which attests to the many transformations of this text as we reinterpret its themes within our modern context. Can we create life independent of Mother Nature, and most importantly, should we? The novel evokes notions of the ambivalence of the sublime: the essence of a J. M. W. Turner painting is channelled into the Creature, who wreaks havoc on the life of his creator, the scientific scholar Dr. Frankenstein. In such a cycle of destruction, no victor emerges, but the ensuing turmoil seems characteristic of the era’s social upheaval and interest in studying the turbulence of the human soul.