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How To Write An Essay On Romantic Poetry

This section contains descriptions of the two essay assignments for the course.

Essay One

For your first assignment, please write an essay (approx. 5-7 pages) focusing on one poem (or two sonnets) by Lloyd, Smith, Seward, Wordsworth, or Coleridge. You certainly may - though you are not required to do so - refer to additional poems or to Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads if it will help you illustrate a point. Keep in mind, though, that your essay should be conceived as an exercise in close literary analysis, and should present a coherent and contestable argument about the poem under examination. What appear to be the larger themes or preoccupations that emerge from a close reading of the poem? What were the poet's probable aims in writing the poem, and how are these aims expressed? What is the relation between the "meaning" of the poem (its thematic or symbolic content) and its formal features (such as genre, rhyme, meter, imagery, etc.)?

Wherever possible, focus on key passages that offer a particularly fruitful way to frame or address a question about the poem under discussion. Be as specific as possible, and develop your argument out of your reading of the text. Make sure that your quotations do some "work" for your argument: do not, in other words, use quotations merely to illustrate an otherwise self-evident point; by the same token, do not presume the self-evidence of your quotations, but describe what significance the quoted passage has within the whole or in the context of your argument.

This essay is due in Week 6.

Essay Two

For your second essay assignment, write an 8-10 page essay on one of the following topics. While your first essay explored a single poem in some depth, your second essay should have a comparative emphasis - that is, you should focus on and develop an argument out of a reading of two or (at most) three texts. Think of this as a variation on the "compare and contrast" essay, where you draw relationships and distinctions between a few texts, and consider what may be learned by reading these texts as formulations of or responses to a single issue or problem. Considered loosely as a group, what may these works teach us about your chosen topic and about the period of British Romanticism more generally? For each topic, I have listed some authors that you might consider; feel free to choose others if you wish.

  1. Many of the texts we've read this semester have described the exercise of reason in relation to some other human faculty or condition (emotion/passion, imagination, madness, etc.). Write an essay reflecting on the opposition between reason and its others in at least two of the following authors: Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, Robinson, and Percy Shelley. What is the status of reason relative to other human faculties? Are these faculties necessary to each other, mutually reinforcing, or absolutely opposed?
    • A related topic, but one that you are welcome to approach independently if you wish, concerns the relationship of Romantic writers to science and/or scientific knowledge. From Wordsworth's critique of murderous dissection to Frankenstein's monster, the literature of Romanticism is clearly skeptical of much scientific activity. Yet many writers of the period describe poetry and science as profoundly compatible enterprises. Discuss Romantic attitudes towards scientific pursuit and understanding in the work of at least two of the following authors: Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Keats, and Mary Shelley.
  2. The period of Romanticism is characterized not least by the frequency and force of claims made in this period on behalf of the poet and the faculty of imagination. Analyze these claims, and the relationships between them, in works by two or more of the following authors: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Hazlitt. What sort of power is imagination, and what are its effects? What are the grounds upon which the poet is claimed to be a privileged figure in the modern world? And what are the difficulties facing the poet (and the imaginative faculty more generally) in that world?
  3. While many of the texts we've read seem, at one level, to celebrate the joyous potential of individuality, discussion of these same texts has often led us to consider the limitations of autonomous selfhood. Write an essay on the problematic nature of individuality in two or three texts, including The Prelude, Frankenstein, and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale."
  4. As a fourth alternative, you may write an essay on a topic of your choice, provided that you meet with me in advance to discuss your ideas for the topic.

This essay is due in Week 14.

As a rule, it's difficult to pinpoint the exact start of a major literary movement. With the English romantic movement, however, a single book is cited as the impetus. In 1798, two young poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, needed money to finance a trip to Germany, so they pooled some of the verses into a book, Lyrical Ballads. The collection was amazingly popular, and it enjoyed numerous reprintings. Most of the poems in Lyrical Ballads were penned by Wordsworth - only four were written by Coleridge. These two poets are usually referred to as the first generation romantic poets. They were soon followed by the second generation romantic poets - John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Other poets often included in this period are William Blake, Robert Burns, Walter Savage Landor, Leigh Hunt, and Robert Southey.

Although poetry dominated English romanticism, some important novelists also made contributions. These include Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Love Peacock. Romantic novels you might be familiar with are Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott), Nightmare Abbey (Thomas Love Peacock), and Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, both by Jane Austen. If you've been assigned to write an essay pertaining to English romanticism, I'm offering you some romantic literature essay topics and thesis ideas, found below.