Consider how Romantic Poets present the Sublime

Anonymous exemplar essay exploring the Sublime in:

  • William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’
  • Lord Byron’s ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull’
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’


Consider how poets within the Romantic anthology present themes of the Sublime


The presentation of the Sublime throughout the Romantic anthology is particularly important as it encapsulates many other important Romantic themes: Religion, individualism, the Gothic and most commonly, the championing of nature and pastoral life. During the context of the rapidly increasing modernity and commercialisation of the Industrial Revolution, Romantics instead championed nature and the fulfillment and solace nature provided. Although the Sublime is prevalent throughout most of Romantic poetry, the presentation and development of the Sublime is significantly influenced in the poet’s personal religious, social and political beliefs and experiences. In particular, Romantics such as William Wordsworth, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Byron and Percy Shelley hold particular significance in the creation, development and presentation of the Sublime and its themes.

The focus on nature and pastoral living is one of the most significant themes illustrated within the Sublime. Throughout William Wordsworth’s poetry in particular, nature is depicted as providing solace, healing and unified, unlike humanity. Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ mentions the “pleasing thoughts”, “tranquil restoration” and “sense sublime” experienced through the power of nature. Wordsworth’s flowing, continuous structure and use of enjambment reinforces the peaceful tone and his use of sibilance slows the pace, reflecting his inner serenity and mindfulness. The theme of nature is also presented in contrast with the “din of towns and cities”, in order to criticise humanity’s modernity and corruption. His reflection throughout the poem highlights the transcendence and elevation experienced through the Sublime. Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ describes the unity of nature: “thousand blended notes” in order to emphasise the separation and disharmony of mankind. In addition his repetition of “What man has made of man” provides further criticism of society as Wordsworth “lament[s]” humanity’s social and political failures including industrialisation and mass production of the time. The context of the poem holds particular influence as the the Industrial Revolution emphasised the discontent and immorality of humanity. In contrast, nature represented beauty, spirituality and reflection.

Unlike the serenity created through nature, the Sublime also had the impact of causing terror and fear. Author Sue Chaplin defines the Sublime as “[the] sense of grandeur and magnitude that had the power to inspire transcendence of mind, or terror” in ‘Gothic Literature’. Interestingly, many of the Romantics lived relatively short lives and focus strongly on the themes of mortality, the supernatural and decay. This is clearly demonstrated throughout Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ through his personification and semantic field of death: “spirit[s]”, “rotting”, “hell”, “corpse” and “dead” throughout the Mariner’s dramatic tale. Since the use of the Gothic and sensational within the Sublime poignantly reminds the audience of their own mortality, Romantics such as Lord Byron have used this to champion their own belief systems. Through his  ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull’ Byron elucidates his promiscuous and lavish lifestyle, encouraging others to behave in the same way “since” we become “wasting clay” regardless. This nihilistic and outrageous approach contrasts with his later poem: ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ as he insecurely focuses on leaving a lasting legacy behind and dying a purposeful death. His use of Gothic imagery: “funeral”, “blood”, and “grave” highlight his anxiety for his own death whilst his allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: “my days are in the yellow leaf” combine the natural with the Gothic, exemplifying the Sublime.

Thirdly, the Sublime also contains strong religious themes and allusions, reinforcing the context of the time. William Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’ poems offer religious criticism, highlighting his disapproval of organized religion through the negative connotations in both poems: “beadles”, “guardians”, “usorous” and “cold”. However, his repeated allusions to Biblical stories and religious language demonstrate his own spirituality Christianity as well: “babes”, “lambs” and “heaven”. “Walking two and two” compares the children to the animals of Noah’s Ark as well as the seeds in the ‘Parable of the Sower’ found in Matthew, Mark and Luke in the New Testament: “Their ways are filled with thorns”, to reinforce the children’s innocence and dependency.

Individualism is another significant theme found throughout the Romantic anthology, highlighting the transcendence and power of the Sublime. Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ describes individualism as terrifying and lonely: “Alone on a wide, wide sea: So lonely ‘twas that God himself scarce seemed there to be”. William Blake depicts individualism in order to separate himself from the public in ‘London’: “I wander thro”, “I hear”, making himself the passive observer instead of participant. Similarly, Wordsworth’s poetry commonly features his observations of nature that he experiences while “sate reclined” “alone”. Although many of the Romantics find solace and advocate their own individualism, they also experiences loneliness and insecurity as a result, too. Percy Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ best exemplifies this as he writes of the tremendous loneliness he feels: “Alas! I have nor hope nor health…nor fame, nor power, nor love.. Others I see whose these surround-”. His use of exclamatory and caesura throughout reinforces his emotive tone and melancholy.

Overall, the themes of Religion, Nature, Gothic and Individualism each hold particular significance throughout Romanticism, culminating in the overarching theme of the Sublime influenced by each poet’s individual social, political and religious experiences. The Sublime is found throughout most of the Romantic anthology, providing transcendence, fear and comfort to its audience and creators.

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