How can I work out what Romantic poetry means? Help!

Getting to Grips with Romantic Poetry: What are Wordsworth and Coleridge saying and how can we work it out?

I had a lovely email from a clearly hard-working and enthusiastic A’ level student in the UK who is studying Romantic poetry, whom I shall refer to as anon. Anon finds it ‘difficult to track the development of the poet’s argument and get to the heart of what he is trying to communicate.’ Anon was also concerned that school ‘discussions about Wordsworth … seem to perpetually circle around some elusive philosophical idea without ever really getting to the heart of the poems.’ Hence the request for advice.

Naturally I grabbed a large coffee first!

This was my response, which I’m sharing here in case it can help someone else.

Dear Anon,

As you will imagine I get a lot of emails requesting help. You clearly put some effort into writing yours and you raise an important issue so I’ll have a go at providing some pointers here.

It’s natural to become frustrated but anyone who writes a poem entitled ‘Intimations of Immortality’ is warning you that it’s not going to be an easy read 🙂 . Anyone who reads great literature has to make peace with the fact that some (or even much) of the meaning is likely to remain elusive. That said there are ways of making poetry more manageable – to find key themes and map the development of an argument.

Reading complex texts is a process, perhaps best understood as understanding layers one at a time.

Base layer (without which nothing makes much sense): what is the text about? The answer is always in the text itself. If in doubt notes from lessons, books or good internet resources will give you ideas for things to look for.

Establish as best you can the key themes / what the poem is about. That really is a simple as underlining all the bits that you understand and can ascribe some kind of label to eg childhood, nature, education, politics. You will find that some of these ideas crop up repeatedly – key themes – the writer focuses on them so the reader is invited to do so too.

Then we have the issue of style. Poems are not essays. You will have noticed this! They may be dealing with the same issues but the style is deliberately different. Ask yourself why someone would choose to write a poem rather than an essay. Are they appealing to the heart of the reader as well as the head and if so, why eg to have a greater, more personal impact?

Are the images the writer uses designed to make us feel nostalgia, hope or anger, to motivate us to change or to persuade us to value what he or she views as valuable? The very best poems and novels draw the reader into the world created by the writer so that s/he actually experiences what the writer is talking about eg Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’. Coleridge could have written an essay on child development but as he stares into the fire in the quiet he chooses to share his musings as a parent, to connect with the thoughts and emotions of many parents as they contemplate their babies, their own childhoods and their hopes for their child’s future.

We can apply different filters to our reading – different critical approaches or contexts, be they cultural, historical, literary or based on what we know of the author’s life and writing. Reading a work in context ie having read other pieces by the same writer, pieces written by other writers from that period, having some idea of cultural and historical contexts, will help us to see the text in different ways. If someone is writing about the French Revolution it helps to have some idea of what the Revolution was and what it meant to people at the time.

As for discussions of philosophy in class, philosophical ideas are at the heart of many poems so they do need to be addressed. Complex philosophical ideas resist neat explanations but for the purposes of study we do always need to try to define our key terms. If you are going to discuss X as a philosophical idea then you need to define X first and then read the texts in the light of that definition. A good dictionary may be enough to give you a definition but an introduction to philosophy (a book or a lecture online) would probably give you a more detailed and therefore more useful working definition. Then you can discuss the issues at hand in an analytical manner without getting lost in the vagueness of ‘I feel’, ‘I think’. Do remember though that writers often want the reader to feel, to dream a bit, to push the boundaries of their understanding in order to look at things in a new way.

All of the above are simply part of close reading or textual analysis. You might find these links useful:

What is textual analysis or close reading? (blog post)

Romantic Poets in Context (lecture)

In the meantime I wish you all the very best with your studies.