Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets

Course No. 2477
Professor Willard Spiegelman, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
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Course No. 2477
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Course Overview

The verse of the English Romantic poets is as daunting in its scope and complexity as it is dazzling in its technique and beautiful in its language. Professor Willard Spiegelman illuminates masterpieces of English literature by poets Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron, as well as women Romantic poets.

His emphasis is on technique, on how a poem accomplishes its objectives, and on "how it means." To this end, he meticulously dissects the poems, directing you to points of interest that merit close observation.

What Is Romanticism?

A much-abused term, Romanticism has at times been shorthand for "wild," "irregular," "gothic," and "modern." It has been associated with love of the exotic, revolt against reason, vindication and defense of the individual, liberation of the unconscious, reaction against science, worship of the emotions, return to nature, and so on.

These generalizations are not particularly helpful. Romantic poets never even identified themselves as "Romantic." But we can describe some common concerns among them:

  • They wrote about Man's relationship to nature, which, with the universe, they considered active, dynamic entities. There is, though, a counter-desire to escape from nature and to deny Man's connection to it.
  • There is a concern with society and politics, and an idealistic notion that humanity can transcend its enslaving traditions.
  • The Romantics were conscious of consciousness itself—of the power of the mind as a force for self-glorification and a seed of self-destruction.

The lectures focus on the poems themselves, and they also tell the story of six great poetic souls and the impact of their personae on their age.

Come to Know the Poets of the Course

Lord Byron was a dashing, swashbuckling figure, "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" said a woman who did know—and loved—him. A man of monstrous appetites and ambitions, his insouciance and supreme self-confidence are reflected in his agile turns of phrase and his audacious, almost cheeky rhymes.

But there are other sides to Byron: the brooding Byronic hero, morose and reclusive, and his tender, generous, and stoic side. This is the man who would write to his sister, in the twilight of his truncated life:

Though the day of my destiny's over,
And the star of my fate hath declined,
Thy soft heart refused to discover
The faults that so many could find.

William Blake never achieved even the limited fame of his Romantic counterparts, but his radical, idiosyncratically Christian vision inspired many in the counter-culture movements of the 1960s.

An advocate of free love who remained happily married for all of his adult life, whose poetry was caustic social and political protest, Blake was an individual in the extreme. Much of his poetry, notably the Songs of Innocence and Experience, seems simple, but it contains layers of complexity and theological sophistication. As Dr. Spiegelman puts it, "difficulty is not the same thing as depth."

Here Blake ruminates on the nature of darkness and evil in these lines from "The Tyger":

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Like many of the Romantics, William Wordsworth was a bundle of contradictions. Beginning his career, Wordsworth was involved in radical political circles; some speculate that, in Germany, he was an agent for the British Foreign Office.

His poetry is marked by guilt, loss, and inward reflection. Dr. Spiegelman puts it this way: "Wordsworth has struck many readers as sane, haughty, and impossible to know. The man who called the poet 'a man speaking to men' in the preface to Lyrical Ballads often seems troublingly opaque."

Later in life, though, Wordsworth found himself comfortably ensconced as a minor celebrity, an elite country gentleman and the Poet Laureate, light years removed from the anxiety of his youth.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge formed one half of the greatest intellectual friendship in literary history, but, for good and for ill, he stood apart from his protégé Wordsworth. In several handfuls of poems, 15 at most, he transformed English poetry.

Perhaps no other writer so gifted as Coleridge was ever plagued by so much neurosis and self-doubt. Plastic and vast, his mind contained multitudes, yet, hobbled by an addiction to laudanum and paralyzed by the contradictions of his own self-examining processes of thought, he constantly berated himself for laziness.

Coleridge could never be pigeon-holed, and his output ranged from the somber tale of crime and punishment that is "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to his gentle, expansive conversation poems, such as "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

Percy Bysshe Shelley similarly resists containment or easy definition, exploding as he did with talent and creativity. Possessed of almost unnatural physical beauty, Shelley wrote poetry that inclined toward the metaphysical, occupying the realms of dense, abstract, philosophical thought.

The lectures that concern Shelley will require some of your most concentrated intellectual exertions but also bring you some of the richest rewards this course has to offer. There is a reason, after all, why the same Oxford University that expelled him for preaching atheism would later erect a statue of the deceased poet as a fallen angel.

John Keats has also been cast as something of a fragile beauty, too tender for this world. His life and work contradict this characterization. These lectures introduce you to the genial but fierce young man of flaming ambition and terrier courage, the man whose indomitable will kept him going in his final months, long after the resources of his body had abandoned him.

This spirit and drive transformed what was, by all accounts, a pedestrian poet in 1816 into a poet for the ages only four years later. Keats's poetry was alive to the last, whether examining intellectual adventure and wonder in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" or reflecting on mortality as a form of "ripeness" in "To Autumn."

Women Romantic poets had sunk into obscurity by the middle of the 20th century, but in their time their volumes were bestsellers. Felicia Dorothea Hemans and Charlotte Turner Smith were as anthologized and admired during their lives as were Wordsworth and Coleridge. Scholars have revived interest in these neglected poets and critically re-examined their works.

An Acclaimed Teacher and Scholar

Dr. Spiegelman has taught students to love and appreciate poetry for 30 years and has twice been awarded SMU's Outstanding Teacher Award. The Dallas Morning News said his first course, How to Read and Understand Poetry, was inspiring. "Dr. Spiegelman never loses sight of the intimate relationships between the poet and the page, and between the words and the reader."

Romantic poetry is Professor Spiegelman's specialty, and he has written two books on the subject, Wordsworth's Heroes and Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art. He is also a well-known writer on contemporary poetry and the author of The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Romantic Beginnings
    Standing in the shadow of Shakespeare and Milton, the Romantics would take the epic themes of the masters and try to recast them in their own voice, suited to their own times, to "make it new." x
  • 2
    Wordsworth and the Lyrical Ballads
    Wordsworth's goal in Lyrical Ballads was to trace the "primary laws of our nature" by showing how the imagination colors ordinary experience in a state of excitement, and by using the "real language of men." The results, in "The Two April Mornings," "The Fountain, " and "Nutting" are straightforward and simple, but sometimes these still waters run deep. x
  • 3
    Life and Death, Past and Present
    In his famous "Lucy" poems, Wordsworth's title character represents his view of mortality as part of a continuous and proper cycle. But the "still, sad music of humanity," as he calls it, also rings in the changes of age for one's very self. In "Tintern Abbey" and the "Intimations Ode," he asks what may be recovered of what time takes away. x
  • 4
    Epic Ambitions and Autobiography
    The Prelude is an effort to plumb the depths of a single human psyche, and craft it into a model for a common human collective consciousness. It is also a search for the origins of consciousness. How, Wordsworth asks, does the boy become the man? In the mode of an almost Christian confessional, he searches through memories of joy, guilt, and fear for the answers. x
  • 5
    Spots of Time and Poetic Growth
    In this second lecture on The Prelude, Dr. Spiegelman shows how Wordsworth locates the building blocks of a mature personality in what he calls "spots of time." These sublime experiences, usually connected with nature, carry him beyond himself to a love of the world, and from there to love of man. His completed epic on moral education through nature would influence great writers to come. x
  • 6
    Coleridge and the Art of Conversation
    A brilliant talker, it is appropriate that Coleridge is known for his "conversation poems." "Conversation" has multiple meanings, referring to informal language, but also to connections; to discourse between individuals and similar relationships between man and nature. In "The Eolian Harp" and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," Coleridge first signals his belief in one common heart, shared by all living things. x
  • 7
    Hell to Heaven via Purgatory
    Coleridge once wrote "I believe most steadfastly in Original Sin; that from our mother's wombs our understandings are darkened...our organization is depraved, and our volitions imperfect." In "Cristabel," "Kubla Khan," and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," he explores these themes of fallibility in man, and the possibilities of redemption. x
  • 8
    Rivals and Friends
    Although there is no doubt that Coleridge loved Wordsworth, he came to be plagued by the suspicion that his one-time student had surpassed him. Convinced of his own artistic impotence, he would write beautiful and troubling poems about his own fears and uncertainties. x
  • 9
    William Blake—Eccentric Genius
    If Blake was the most Christian of the Romantics, why did he toil in obscurity, so far outside the mainstream? Blake's rebellion was tied up with his Protestantism and his concern for humanity above hierarchy and authority. Yet his ironic satire of English society can easily go unnoticed by virtue of his Songs' apparent simplicity. x
  • 10
    From Innocence to Experience
    In The Songs of Experience, the veil has truly been torn away, the scales fallen from the eyes. In poems like "The Pretty Rose Tree," "The Garden of Love," and "Ah Sunflower," Blake takes such stable notions as the virtue of sexual fidelity, the value of organized religion, even the very concept of heaven, and complicates them. x
  • 11
    Blake's Prophetic Books
    Blake famously wrote "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man's." In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Four Zoas, and other prophetic books, he advances feminism, abolitionism and other refusals against the status quo in a grand, apocalyptic, and visionary voice. x
  • 12
    Women Romantic Poets
    One might expect that the popular Romantic verse of women, such as Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans, celebrated domestic virtues. One might be surprised by the pointed social commentary and wide ranging erudition that these women, writing under difficult circumstances, incorporated in their work. x
  • 13
    "Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know"
    An aristocrat and a rebel, an egotist who could laugh at himself, a seducer and a loner, Byron captivated all who knew him with the multiplicity of his character. The same variety marks his verse, deceptively difficult, but light and easy in its touch. x
  • 14
    The Byronic Hero
    This lecture examines the dimensions, characteristics, and the longstanding appeal of the dark, brooding, melancholic, sexually alive, and magnetic creature we call the Byronic hero. As seen in Manfred and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he is not of this world, nor of our species, but curiously above it. x
  • 15
    Don Juan—A Comic Masterpiece
    Don Juan is the showcase for Byron's forté in full-flower: the polysyllabic, improbable, almost gymnastic rhyme. Over the course of this meandering epic, he touches almost every aspect—psychological, emotional, and physical—of human love while making it all look easy. x
  • 16
    Shelley and Romantic Lyricism
    Of all the poets, Shelley most invokes feelings of dualism. "Ozymandias" punctures the idea of human ambition, but acknowledges the permanence of passion. "To a Skylark" is skeptical that the poet can approach nature in its artistry, but marshals all its lyric force to do just that. x
  • 17
    Shelley's Figures of Thought
    Shelley was a serious intellectual with philosophical interests. In "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc," he is able to incorporate inquiries on the transcendence of truth and the nature of the divine into a poetic form. x
  • 18
    Shelley and History
    That Shelley was a radical but not a revolutionary is no small distinction. In Hellas and other poems, Shelley yearns and hopes for progress, but is hard-headed about the limits of political solutions. Mere man, absent "mind-forged manacles," has the true power to free himself. x
  • 19
    Shelley and Love
    Shelley's own romantic exploits certainly leave him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and caddishness, but his poetry evokes a tremulous, elevated sexuality that transcends mere sensuousness. Never has erotic freedom enjoyed such a compelling poetic argument. x
  • 20
    Keats and the Poetry of Aspiration
    Keats's rapid ascent from apprenticeship to mastery seems fueled by an almost preternatural awareness of his mortality. His first masterpiece, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," displays one of the hallmarks of his work, an occupation with the inner realms of thought. x
  • 21
    Keats and Ambition
    Keats was both thirsty for, and wary of fame. Resigned to providence in life as he would be in death, he felt poetic greatness must come naturally or not at all. In "On Fame" and other poems, he suggests that the fretting over the things of this world is eased both by escape from self-consciousness and revelry in it. x
  • 22
    Keats and Eros
    Keats is always concerned with the interrelations between sexuality and human imagination. In The Eve of St. Agnes, he employs language that engages every sense to serve the theme of sexual fulfillment. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" reflects the darker, antithetical side of Eros. x
  • 23
    Process, Ripeness, Fulfillment
    In "Ode to A Nightingale" and "To Autumn," Keats locates the paradoxes of melancholy dwelling with beauty, and of true immortality dwelling within death. This moving lecture concludes with Keats embracing death with heroic equanimity. x
  • 24
    The Persistence of Romanticism
    Echoes of the English Romantics can be heard in popular music lyrics of the 20th century, including American rock n' roll, but their real legacy comes in the form of the English-language poets, especially in America, who have profited from them, responded to them, and reacted against them. x

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Your professor

Willard Spiegelman

About Your Professor

Willard Spiegelman, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Dr. Willard Spiegelman is Duwain E. Hughes Jr. Distinguished Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He earned his A.B. degree from Williams College magna cum laude and with highest honors in English. He did graduate work at Harvard, where he held Woodrow Wilson and Danforth fellowships and earned an A.M. and a Ph.D. Professor Spiegelman has won three fellowships from the National Endowment...
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Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 35.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The title described the contents of the course I remember enjoying the English romantic poets in high school English class. I purchased the course to relive those good times and reacquaint myself with the poets and what they offered the world. I was not disappointed. Professor Spiegelman provided historical, cultural, and biographical context as well as insights into genius of the poets as revealed in the selections. His knowledge of European poetry and poets and his masterful readings added much to my satisfaction.
Date published: 2020-05-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Big disappointment This is a fine example of a professor succeeding in making a fascinating subject boring. He has no ear for poetry at all. His recitation of "Kubla Khan" was particularly cringeworthy--he missed all the music, all the interplay of sounds. I soldiered on through the course until I got about halfway and then I couldn't take any more.
Date published: 2018-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good blend of biography and literature It’s a shame that Prof. Spiegelman’s poetry overview is no longer available, but this “elective” course will give you a taste of his ability to blend historical information with the study of specific works. The poets he focuses on in this course are among my favorites, and among the cornerstones of English Lit (which, unfortunately, is disappearing from our nation’s campuses). The Prof provides biographical sketches of each of the six major poets, shows how they interacted with each other, and how their works were received by their contemporaries. He places them in the context of their period in English history, and in the overall “Romantic” movement of the time. Frankly, I prefer to read poems silently rather than hearing them read, but the Prof’s excerpts should spur you on to read complete, larger works to enlarge your vision of each poet. I’ve read all of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, and a lot of Wordsworth and Blake, but I’m curious now to finally finish Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” and to delve into Byron’s writings more deeply. Thanks for bringing back things I learned decades ago in school, and for providing much new material to make the works of these poets even more meaningful.
Date published: 2018-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Passion for the Subject Comes Through I think anyone who is not a poetry lover would have second thoughts on listening to The Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets. Professor Spiegelman's love of the subject comes through in every lecture.
Date published: 2018-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from an excellent review of the subject and additional details of events/individuals that were related to the transcendentalist movement.
Date published: 2018-01-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Make one change, please It's a bit early for a review since I've done only about a third of the course, but... I'm enjoying the course very much. The lectures are clear and interesting and its outlines are helpful. The poetry selections seem to be about the right length, enough to give a good idea of the poet, but not overwhelmingly much to read for each lesson. (This isn't not a university course, after all.) The one thing that would help immensely would be a mechanism to scroll through the reading materials more easily. If the "text" had a "go to page _" feature, for example, it'd be so, much easier to jump from the start to a target, from a lecture outline to the accompanying poems, etc. Perhaps there is such a feature that I've not found? This is my first Great Course and based on my experience so far, I will likely do more. Do try to make the workbook more flexible and then friendly.
Date published: 2018-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from English Romantic Poets Highly recommended! Perfect for car audio system on the iPhone while traveling or around town. Amazing what one learns after assuming full comprehension. Humility is always the best bet. (: 5stars
Date published: 2017-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sublime, to Say the Least I have have completed dozens of courses from the Teaching Company, and many were quite remarkable; however, Prof. Spiegelman achieved something in "Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets" that few educators ever do (fewer still in the audio/video/distance learning medium): he gave me the gift of a truly meaningful educational experience. I'm referring to those extended academic experiences cultivated and presented by educators who not only desire for their pupils to grow intellectually, but who also reveal their very human vulnerability and sincerity as they--perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly--expose their own self-interested pleasure and delight in the subject matter. I will admit as a matter of disclaimer that I had considerable prior knowledge of Romantic poetry before taking this course, but please do not let that dissuade you from this unique educational opportunity. Indeed, while I have a degree in English literature and have therefore spent some significant study and instructional time with the Romantics, my feelings toward the poetry had always vacillated between aloofness and outright annoyance. This is what made Prof. Spiegelman's course so "sublime" (if I may borrow the Romantic term): I left the course with a genuine passion for the Romantic canon. This passion, I suggest, was the inevitable result of this lecturer's own enthusiasm and moving emotional attachment to his subject matter. Prof. Spiegelman crafts each lecture to offer the perfect summation of factual and biographical detail, while never neglecting to spend the majority of the time focused on providing insightful and provocative readings of each poet's major (and sometimes minor) works. The only downside to this course was that I finished each lecture with a sense of minor dread, having chipped away at a course that I wished would go on much further than its paltry 24 lectures. In terms of highlights, the course would have been worth the cost of admission for the lectures on John Keats alone. It is in these lectures that Prof. Spiegelman betrays his own favoritism for the tragic figure of Keats in four emotionally charged lectures. Please don't deny yourself this opportunity to experience a course that lives up to its subject matter. Prof. Speigelman's expression of love and respect for the Romantics is not to be missed.
Date published: 2017-06-25
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