There is a way to read these guys (and yes, lamentably, they’re all guys, although Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, also included in this volume, make for a great read). Context helps: if you can’t afford to fly to England’s Lakes District, where a number of the romantics lived and wrote—it’s probably overrun by tourists anyway—create, if you’re able, your own Lakes District here in Quebec. If you aren’t so lucky as to own one, rent a summer cottage, preferably sans Internet, cellphone or television access, on a tranquil body of water for a week or two. There, amid the forest hush, lapping waters and the songs of birds, one can more easily enter into the enormous sweep and quietude of, say, Wordsworth’s Prelude:
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in,
Pushed from shore.
Here are poems of truly splendid lyricism, among the best any language has to offer: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Ozymandias, Keat’s When I Have Fears and Ode on a Grecian Urn—well, the list goes on. (If you can’t afford to get away, Blake and Byron, also considered Romantics, provide more urban entertainment.)
It was Wordsworth who wrote, with presciently modern anxiety, “The world is too much with us.” But these writers, in their flight from the predations of the early industrial revolution, at least had the mental space to luxuriate in a relatively untrammelled nature. What if they lived today? They would surely be overwhelmed.
Literature always has its precedents, but the Romantics can be credited with the first fully realized lyrical expression of modern individualism, with a full-blown cult of personality that goes with. Two centuries later we are still very much under its spell, even as it has morphed into the narcissistic grotesqueries of star culture. One need only think of Luka Rocco Magnotta spending hours looking at his own Internet images before being apprehended by police.