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The poetry of romance: Keats and Shelley

The sonnet went into decline in the Augustan age, as their ponderous long-winded style did not lend itself to the pithy succinctness of the sonnet.

By contrast, the romantic poets found it well adapted to their needs. Two of the most famous examples are Keats' sonnet written on Looking Into Chapman's Homer (1816), and Shelley's Ozymandias (1818).

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

First published in The Examiner, London, December 1, 1816.

John Keats (1795-1821).

Keats was in error in talking of Cortez. Actually it was Balboa, not Cortez, who first crossed the isthmus to the Pacific. Keats had read Robertson's History of America and apparently confused two scenes there described: Balboa's discovery of the Pacific and Cortez' first view of Mexico City. But who cares, when there is such great poetry?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

First published in The Examiner, London, January 11, 1818

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Shelley's rhyming scheme is all muddled, fitting neither the Petrarchan or the Shakespearean model of the sonnet: a b a b a c d c e d e f e f.

But again, who cares, when the poetry is as good as this?

For some modern sonnets in a romantic spirit, see Sonnets 2000.


For the length of a lazy afternoon
I lay in bed, alive to the music
Of the future, musing and dreaming on
The extravagant feats of heroic
Cultures still to come: sculptures as lovely
As the Greeks’; portraits as mysterious
As the Mona Lisa; dark tragedy
As fathomless as Shakespeare; palaces
As captivating as the Alhambra;
And startling finds of science allied with
Beautiful tools to spawn a plethora
Of pleasures. As I sucked the very pith
Of such sweet reveries, then you appear,
To make these splendors meager by compare

From Sonnets 2000 References: See Stephen Denning, Sonnets 2000(iUniverse, October 2000)


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