Narrative Poetry of Romanticism

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      The Romanticism had an abundant crop of verse narratives or stories told in verse. The principal practitioners of this species of poetry are Coleridge, Scott and Keats. Mediaevalism is the main inspiration of these verse tales. In their forms, too, the poets work upon the older methods. The Spenserian stanza, the ballad metre - these are the vehicles of this species but these were changed for the better to suit the purposes of these inspired writers.

narrative poems in which mediaevalism serves as the main inspiration Hyperion and Endymion are classical in theme and spirit.
Narrative Poetry

      Coleridge wrote his supernatural poetry in the narrative form and three of his poems of the kind are The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan. Of these The Ancient Mariner is a finished product and the other two remain as splendid fragments. Nobody can say what beautiful poems these would have made if they were carried to completion. The Ancient Mariner is a beautiful work of art. It conveys the subtle sense of mystery that surrounds the commonplace things of everyday life. The whole poem is steeped in the colour and glamour of the Middle ages. The supernatural elements are crude and sensational, so much as that they make the flesh creep. But the poem is great in its subtle psychology and pictorial quality. It is a beautiful dream and the Ancient mariner himself seems like a being from the land of the dead. The horrors through which he passes are psychologically treated. The poem is a story told in pictures; it is rich in the description of land, sea, sky, polar region, storm, etc. All these are superb. Over the whole poem there is the strangeness and remoteness even when describing ordinary things and these mark the highest romantic art. Christabel is a wonderful piece of art in spite of its unfinished state. The supernatural here is refined and 'distilled through the air as it were. It is a masterpiece of the art of suggesting enchantment by purely natural means. The pictures of nature and the two women are of unsurpassed vividness and grace. But as a story it counts for little. Its plot is thin; it has none of the human interest with which the narrator of a poetic story must need invest it. The characters are shadowy creations having little hold on life and reality. In style and rhythm it is a masterpiece. The diction is homely and simple; there is no attempt at fine writing. The music of verse, based on a new principle is subtle and admirably suited to the subject. It is a perfect flower of mediaeval balladry and romance. Kubla Khan is another masterpiece. It is a cluster of incoherent images, but it suggests the theme of poetic imagination and poetic creation. It has a dreamy delicacy and rich suggestiveness.

      Walter Scott, as a narrative poet, is undoubtedly of a high order, but inferior to Coleridge. He is a great story-teller both in verse and prose. The Homeric characteristics of simplicity, grandeur and vividness are wonderfully displayed in his metrical romances. Some of his more important metrical romances are The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. These poems had an instant success and made Scott famous. As a tale The Lay of the Last Minstrel is of poor quality - it is confused and difficult; the poetry is mediocre but it has the grace of displaying the poet's healthy love of nature and the vitality of the style. Marmion generally regarded as Scott's masterpiece deals with the tragedy of the battle of Flodden Field. It is intricate in details, and encumbered with a mass of antiquarian scholarship. But with the touch of the battle of Flodden Field it quickens considerably. The Lady of the Lake has Scott's usual picturesqueness and the effective use of the wild scenery of the Trossachs. It contains some of Scott's best lyrics. Today Scott's narrative powers are somewhat unduly disparaged. His defects, more than his merits, are emphasised today. "He lacks the finer poetical values, such as reflection, melody and sympathy; he is deficient in humour; he records crude physical actions, simply portrayed". But despite these limitations many modem tellers of verse tales have been considerably influenced by the vivid and graphic force displayed in Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. That he contributed a new zest to the romantic methods of story-telling cannot be denied.

      Lastly, Keats as a narrative poet shows considerably merits, though his greatness lies in the 'Odes'. Isabella or the Pot of Basil, The Eve of St. Agnes and Lamia are narrative poems in which mediaevalism serves as the main inspiration Hyperion and Endymion are classical in theme and spirit. In the former he takes Paradise Lost as his model and attempts an epic on the classical style, but he gives it up abruptly in the third book as "it is too Miltonic" (as he says.) It is in his romantic tales that he shows more of his genius. Isabella is based on a tale of Boccaccio in his Decameron. Its theme is the murder of a lady's lover by her two wicked brothers (compare Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi). Its art is not negligible. The sips of taste are fewer; the styles deeper in tone; the tale is told with an economy and precision new in Keats." The treatment of pathos in the end bespeaks an artist. The Eve of St. Agnes regarded by some as Keats's finest narrative poem is a blend of defects and merits. Its narrative quality is not very remarkable; there are no plot, surprising turns, suspense and solution (denoucement). The story is of the slightest. The characters, too, though warm and vivid are more or less conventional and help little the progress of the story. But the charm of the story lies in its mediaevalism and picturesqueness. Some of the mediaeval touches in the poem have been criticised but there are no doubts that in reading the poem "we are born into a land of enchantment, we feel the air of romance blowing around us." Its setting is a world of fairy love, of ideal chivalry, of feasts and solemn religious austerities. Every line of the poem throbs with the life of imagination and beauty. The lack of narrative interest is more than compensated by the series of the glowing pictures in which Keats is an adept. Colour, perfume, imagery and music are blended wonderfully in the poem. It is written in the Spenserian stanza; the chivalric tone and archaism of the style too recall Spenser. But the style is Keats's own, "it is sensuous and highly decorative without being cloying." Lamia is a story of a beautiful enchantress (a serpent-woman like Geraldine). It is well-told and moves briskly. It has the usual pictorial richness of Keats's poetry. It is written in heroic couplet deftly handled. But the introduction of somewhat vague and confused allegory detracts from the artistic beauty of the poem.

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