Romantic Melancholy

Romantic Melancholy

Romantic Melancholy : Melancholy is one of the inevitable products of the typical romantic temper. Apart from such personal factors as ill-health, an unhappy marriage or social ostracisation, most romantic poets were led to ‘occasional fits of melancholia by the inherent quality of their creed.

Romantic Melancholy

Their romantic approach to life shuttlecock them between hope and despair. All of them, fundamentally considered, were optimists; and like all optimists they fell into moments of despair. Romantic melancholy (or what Mario Praz terms “romantic agony”) is essentially different from other kinds of melancholy we associate with Hardy or the melancholy of Sir Thomas Browne.

Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him -whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might.
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. –   

Hardy’s melancholy is the natural product of his profound pessimism which hinges mainly on his deterministic conception of the universe. Browne’s melancholy has an essentially subjective origin; it arises from his persistent interest in the themes of decay and fatality and their appurtenances. His is a macabre imagination exulting m the contemplation of these themes which always inspire him to give his best. The eighteenth-century poetry of the “graveyard school” is also instinct with the same kind of melancholy.

Romantic melancholy, however, is of its own kind. It is the product of moments of depression inherent in almost every optimistic philosophy or attitude towards life. Few poets can remain always balanced on the crest of a euphoric certainty that

God is in his Heaven:
All is light with the world.

A man like Hardy can be a firm pessimist, but few can be firm optimists. Almost all the romantic poets were, essentially speaking, optimists. Their fits of melancholy were due mainly to two factors:

(i)         Their occasional (and very painful) awareness of the unbridgeable gulf between the world of reality and the world of their imagination.

(ii)        Their recognition of the impossibility of the materialisation of their visionary projects. Melancholy is natural during moments when the infeasibility of pet imaginations comes to be realised.

Thus romantic melancholy is, pre-eminently, the outcome of a basic dichotomy which at times gives rise to the feelings of disillusionment. Samuel C. Chew observes in this very context: “The attempt to find some correspondence between actuality and desire results in joy when for fleeting moments the vision is approximated but in despondency of despair the realization comes that such reconciliations are impossible. Thus Byron’s Lucifer tempts Cain to revolt by forcing upon him an awareness of the inadequacy of his state to his conceptions.’ A sense of this contrast is expressed by Shelley in those poems in which there is a sudden fall from ecstasy into disillusionment. The same sense adds a new poignancy to the melancholy strain inherited by the romantic poets from their predecessors.”

Disillusionment resulting in melancholy is also evident in the political belief of some romantic poets. Further, as most romantic poets were turbulent characters unable to adjust themselves in society they ventilated melancholy feeling. They thought the world to be out of step, but the world threw the opposite charge into their teeth. The feeling of being solitary, especially in the case of Shelley, found melancholy expression.

After these general observations let us consider individually the most important romantic poets with respect to the question in hand.


Wordsworth was the least melancholy of all the romantic poets. It was mainly due to the fact that he seldom felt himself to be in a state of utter solitariness. There was his sister and there was the ever-consoling Nature always at his elbow. He believed, and actually felt, that Nature leads one from joy to joy. He was an incorrigible optimist though he was aware, like Crabbe, of the miseries of villagers who lived, unlike townsmen, right in the heart of Nature. When Michael finds his son tost in the ignominious ways of the town, he is shocked. Wordsworth points out that love sustained Michael, for

There is a comfort in the strength of love
Which makes a thing endurable, which else
Will overset the brain or break the heart.

Wordsworth’s optimism finds its way even in the midst of elegiac sentiments. Consider, for instance, the last of his Elegiac Stanzas (Suggested by a picture of Peele Castle, in a storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont):

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights, of what is to be borne!
Such sights or worse, as are before me here,
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

In spite of his normal optimism Wordsworth often expresses himself on the misfortunes inevitable to the human predicament. In his years of maturity he was particularly aware of them. For example, he says in Tintern Abbey:

For I have learned
To look on Nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing often times
The still, sad music of humanity.

Thus even his mysticism is not without a chastening element of melancholy.

Wordsworth’s political disillusionment was also responsible for some utterances of melancholy. The French Revolution (1789) fired him as it did a large number of young hearts throughout Europe, with new hopes of the deliverance of humanity from the shackles of age-old tyranny. The fall of the Bastille was for them an incident to rave over. Recalling the days of the Revolution, Wordsworth writes:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Later on, however, with the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon, his enthusiasm for the slogan “liberty, fraternity, and equality” declined steeply. He felt that the Revolution was not Nature-but man-made. The ensuing melancholy feelings drove him straight away to the lap of Nature who nursed his wounds and healed them up. Momentary moods of depression, however, continued visiting him as ever. In Resolution and Independence he describes one such moment in the following lines where he represents himself as absorbed in “untoward thoughts”:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness:
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

This mood does not, however, continue for long, for study of the fortitude of an extremely old leech-gatherer comes to him with the message of a new hope.

Wordsworth’s emotional career was calculated to arouse melancholy feelings. His ill-fated alliance with a French girl sent him brooding; but his poetry is surprisingly free from the expression of melancholy bred purely by subjective causes.


Coleridge went through the same vicissitudes of political feelings as Wordsworth. He and his poetry are, however, much more melancholy than Wordsworth and his poetry because he could not find the same “healing power” in Nature as Wordsworth did. No doubt, to start with, Coleridge felt identically with Wordsworth that “Nature did never betray the heart that loved her.” But later on, this Wordsworthian panacea stopped working for Coleridge’s peculiar ailment. In the Ode to Dejection Coleridge sets forth his contradictory view of Nature which he regards not as a spirit capable of leading even the most cheerless man to a heaven of joy, but as something essentially external, which only mirrors a man’s mood, be it of joy or sorrow. Says he:

0 Lady! -we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live; 
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud.

What makes Nature look cheerful is the inner joy peculiar to every man, present in some, absent in most. He says, accordingly:

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life whose fountains are within.

This “passion and the life” are internal, having nothing to do with Nature or anything external

We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms our ear or sight;
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from mat Light.

Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge was a victim of protracted spells? the darkest melancholy arising from a feeling of guilt and from the gnawing consciousness of the approaching demise of his always certain poetic inspiration. Coleridge was an opium addict living alternately in the Arabian Nights world of utter despair fast approaching with its monstrous jaws wide open. His Ode to Dejection is a soul-rending dirge on the death of his poetic talent. What distinguishes it as poem of melancholy is its overwhelming sincerity. With this ode the Coleridge of KublaKhan, Chrislabel, and The Ancient Mariner was dead and only a mental wreck remained behind.


Shelley was, essentially, an optimistic dreamer. He was used to visualising and giving expression to the golden age which he believed was always round the corner. All of his long poems, like Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound and The Revolt of Islam, are permeated with a remarkable spirit of optimism which makes light of all conceivable hurdles. Nowhere in them does he strike a note of pessimism, melancholy, or disillusioning scepticism. However, his lyrics are almbst invariably melancholy in their predominant tone. Therein we find him always lamenting and complaining,

0 world! O life! O time!
On whose last steps I climb.
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more—Oh, never morel

And listen to the “lyric cry” in the following lines from Ode to the West Wind:

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d-
One too like thee:
tameless, and swift, and proud.

According to Ian Jack “Shelley’s lyrics are the utterance of a solitary.” They, he further says, “are soliloquies, not dramatic monologues.” The longer poerns and lyrics are reflections of the two opposite moods-the moods, respectively, of optimism and pessimism. According to Ian Jack, there is no basic contradiction between these two moods. “Shelley, ” says this critic, “was optimistic about the future of the human race, pessimistic (almost always) about his own future as an individual.”

Being the most directly personal of all his poems, his short lyrics are naturally the most melancholy. Religion has been described as what man makes of his solitude: the same description might he applied to Shelley’s lyrics. As Mary Shelley pointed out, “It is the nature of that poetry…which overflows from the soul oftener to express sorrow, and regret than joy; for it is when oppressed by the weight of life, and away from those he loves that the poet has recourse to the solace of expression in verse.”

At times Shelley’s melancholy arises from objective observation rather than personal feelings. A good example is to be found in To a Skylark:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not.
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.


Without mincing matters it may be said that more than any other romantic, Keats was an escapist. He built up his spiritual home in the romance-draped Middle Ages and the Greece of yore which he considered to be a land of ideal beauty. Any intimate contact with the harsh world of reality was abhorrent to him. He was a patient of tuberculosis which ultimately cut him down in the flower of youth. By turns he feared and courted death. His sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be” is quite typical of him. In the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ he gives vent to really poignant feelings. He is in love with “easeful Death.” He desires

To cease upon the midnight with no pain.

The nightingale is a denizen of some other immortal and romantic world, unaware of the misery of this world in which human beings are destined to live.

The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other goan,
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.


Byron shared very little of the true romantic melancholy. However, he was the most cynical and  misanthropic of all the major romantic poets. He was a megalomaniac who regarded himself to be superior to the entire world which he openly and persistently despised. What we are aware of in him are not exactly spells of melancholy but of withering scorn and scarifying contempt which often lead him to a end of all-denying cynicism not free from depression. Well does Joseph warren Beach describe Byron as “the elevated soul tortured by his own perversities and doomed by his superiority to a life of lonely pride.” But whereas Shelley’s loneliness led him to melancholy, Byron’s led him to spells of gross ill-temper.

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