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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #26: Our Last Blog!

When talking about English literature, it is useful to group the authors together according to the time they lived. But sometimes authors have traits of earlier or later periods. For example, George Gordon Byron was a Romantic poet. But he probably has more in common with the authors of an earlier period, namely the Augustan age of poetry (1700s). So his poetry reads more like that of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift than that of William Wordsworth. Much of the literature of the Augustan Age (Neoclassical Period) is satirical, as is Byron’s. Also, Byron's poetry, like much of Augustan Age poetry, comments on or reflects the manners and social conventions of high society; Romantic Period poetry does not. In contrast, a much earlier poet James Thompson, who lived during the Augustan Age, reflects characteristics of the Romantic Period Poetry in his lush depictions of nature. You see, then, that the classifications below are helpful in understanding when a poet wrote but not necessarily are they descriptive of how he wrote.

     You do not have to memorize the exact dates! You can easily see that some overlap, and there are years which are totally unaccounted for between periods. Rather, you should know the general times that the periods refer to. For example, the Romantic Period refers to the turn of the century, from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. 

Periods in English Literature

Medieval Period (450-1450)

Renaissance Period (1300-1600)

Elizabethan Period (1558-1603)

Jacobean Period (1603-1625)

Caroline Period (1625-1642)

Civil War/Puritan Period (1642-1658)

Restoration Period (1660-1689)

Neoclassical (Augustan) Period (1689-1750)

Romantic Period (1798-1837)

Victorian Period (1837-1901)

Edwardian Period (1901-1910)


In our blogs, we have gone over poets of the Medieval Period (Chaucer) and the Renaissance and Elizabethan period (Spenser, Donne, Herbert, and others). We have also gone over a few poets of the Romantic Period. Do you remember who they were? One of them was William Wordsworth, who wrote “Daffodils.” And the others were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. Remember that Wordsworth and Coleridge worked together on a book of poetry titled Lyrical Ballads. I would like to go over a few more poets of the Romantic poets, whom I don’t teach so much to my younger students—not because they aren’t good, but because they are much more difficult to read.

     The Romantic poets, often referred to as Lord Byron George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) led, sad to say, very bad lives. Robert Southey, appointed the poet laureate of England in 1813, once accused Byron indirectly of having a “satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety.” What did he mean? He meant that his arrogance was intolerable and that because he was a noble he thought he could do anything he wanted, including bad things and everyone should turn a blind eye. Was Southey’s accusation fair? Was Byron proud and ungodly? There is much in Byron’s life story that suggests that Southey wasn’t far off in his description. I won’t get into the ugly details, but suffice it to say that he was a man who seemed to do what he wanted and did not care about what others thought. And Shelley’s biography reads like a tragic “soap opera.” His life was filled with strange, disastrous tragedies, often resulting from a selfish disregard of other people and an irreligious arrogance. Both Shelley and Byron, who were friends, died young. Byron died in Greece at the young age of 36, fighting for the country’s independence from Turkey. Shelley died at sea in a storm while sailing the Don Juan, a boat probably named after Byron’s famous poem.

George Gordon Byron

In his rank, mind, character and looks, the Romantic poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was a man of opposite extremes. He enjoyed the honor of being called “lord” (he was a noble), but ruined his noble name with his foolish behavior. He was very smart, but he didn’t seem to know how to behave himself. He was loved by close intimates for his kindness, but given to sudden fits of temper. As far as his looks, the Victorian essayist Thomas Babbington Macaulay said “he had a head which statuaries loved to copy, and a foot the deformity of which beggars in the street mimicked.” In his late twenties, Byron met up with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and with his fellow non-conformist atheist friend led a scandalous life traveling across Europe. His life of danger and adventure mimicked his own art: just like Byron himself, the hero that appears in many of his works (the "Byronic hero") wanders from place to place hiding some mysterious guilt. As I said already, Byron died at the age of 36 fighting in the Greek war for independence. 

     Although he looked down on people’s high standards of morality and led a bad life, Byron did write some excellent poetry. His poems were finely crafted and many espoused moral values. For example, his poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” based on an account given in the second book of Kings of the Old Testament, spoke against the sin of pride. Written in anapestic tetrameter, the poem concerns the destruction of an Assyrian king and the pride of life. The Vice and Virtue students might be called on to recite “The Destruction of Sennacherib” in the final rounds of the poetry bee. Byron’s most famous and critically acclaimed works include “She Walks in Beauty,” The Vision of Judgment, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan

     Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate before William Wordsworth, was a staunch Anglican and decidedly Tory. In 1821 he wrote a overly flattering poem about George III in which the king triumphantly enters Heaven where he meets, of all people, his past enemy George Washington. The American president speaks on the dead king’s behalf, saying that he had always acted “with an upright heart, as befitted a sovereign/True to his sacred trust.” The poem was little over the top, however sincere Southey was in writing it. Southey also made an attack against another popular poet at the time, George Gordon Byron, who was not a Tory. In a preface to the poem, Southey had said, in so many words, that Byron belonged to the Satanic School of Poetry. That’s pretty harsh. Byron was offended by Southey’s indirect attacks against him in the publication of his poem, and decided to write about George III himself, with the same title, the “Vision of Judgment.” The poem is a parody of Southey’s poem and makes fun of Southey’s exaggerated flattery. In his poem, Lucifer claims George III for his own, but the king is able to sneak into heaven after all. As you can imagine, the official response was not enthusiastic. The publisher, in fact, of Byron’s poem was fined a hundred pounds for attacking royalty, which was a lot of money back in the early 1800s!

     At the University level, many students, when studying Romantic poetry, are exposed to such poems as “Prometheus Unbound” and “Ode to the West Wind”—poems written by Shelley. Perhaps Shelley’s most famous poem, however, is “Ozymandias,” a wonderfully crafted poem about a statue of an Egyptian king lying in the desert sand. The inscription on the base of the statue is very ironic. It says “Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!” What is left of the king’s works? Nothing but level sand.

     Very few young people, however, are familiar at all with the name Percy Bysshe Shelley. And if they are, they have not read much much more than this one great poem, “Ozymandias.” However, his second wife, Mary Shelley, writer of the novel Frankenstein, is a very different story.  She is now praised as one of the great authors of the 19th century and her book has achieved a legendary status. Her horror novel Frankenstein is, in fact, a common household word and nearly every young person knows about the zombie-like monster with two bolts in his neck or has seen pictures or movies of him. The novel Frankenstein was created as a result of a conversation that the author, Shelley and Byron had while they were in Switzerland. During the summer of 1816, they were renting a house near Lake Geneva, and spent their time reading ghost stories and the like well into the night and talking. One night Byron and Shelley talked about the possibility of making dead things alive through the spark of life. From that conversation and a dream that she had one night, she created the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.

     Another Romantic poet was John Keats (1795-1821), who died at the age of 25 from consumption. His odes, such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” are perhaps the most famous odes in the English language. The well-known line “Beauty is Truth, truth beauty—that is all / you know on earth, and all ye need to know” is from “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” An ode is a serious lyrical poem on a noble subject often containing an irregular meter. As a handy reference, at the end of this blog I have posted a list of the centuries and some representative poets.

Kinds of Poems

Now that we have come to the close of our poetry bee blogs, I want to finish up business regarding poetics, by going over terms that we use to describe certain kinds of poems. Much of this information you have already been exposed to, so don’t panic! I am painfully aware that by this time you’re probably thinking, when is Mr. Walter just going to call it quits! Maybe you not only thought this but shouted it while sitting at your desk. I suspect your mom came into the room wondering what in the world was going on. “Mr. Walter can’t possibly expect us to memorize all this material before the bee!” you say to your mother. “Look how long this blog is!” Your mother eases your anxiety: “I don’t think he expects you to, honey.” And your mom would be right if she did say that. I don’t expect you to memorize all this material—that is, most of you. When my sons participated in the National Spelling Bee years ago, there were students studying the dictionary beginning with the letter “A.” “Really?” you ask. Yes, really. Did my sons do that? No. But they didn’t win either. They realized that the competition was fierce, and did as much as they could considering their schedules. We all had a grand time in Washington, D.C. In fact, it was one of our family’s most memorable and enjoyable experiences. I hope that you will have the same participating in our poetry bee this coming week. Perhaps you will win and perhaps you won’t. Whatever the case is, I hope the poetry bee will be a positive, memorable experience whether you do or don’t! And I hope you will be glad for the winner, as our family was for the two students who won in the two spelling bees we participated in. They indeed were super spellers, and super students, and deserved to win. We were in awe of their scholarship, endurance, poise and dedication and let the experience serve as an example to all of us always to try our best, even if we don’t win in the end. Well, let me finish this blog.

When most people think of a poem, they most likely think of a lyric poem.  A lyric is usually much shorter than an epic, and does not have a developed plot. However, lyric poetry has qualities that epic poetry does not.  For one, it is more personal and tells the poet’s feelings. Even though the epic poem’s story can bring out feelings in the reader, the lyric is more directly and openly emotional. The word “lyric” comes from the word lyre, a stringed instrument that looks like a harp.  The poets of Ancient Greece often sang their poetry to the lyre. There are many different types of lyrical poetry, including odes and sonnets.

The ode is a serious form of poem. It is used for emotional topics for both sad and joyous themes. It has an uneven meter which allows the poet great freedom in writing. Wordsworth’s famous ode entitled “Intimations of Immortality” is an example of this form.

Another kind of lyric poem is the sonnet. The English Victorian poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (brother of Christina Rossetti) wrote that a sonnet “is a moment’s monument.”  The sonnet’s shortness makes this lyric poem indeed a monument in a moment’s reading.

    There are two traditions of sonnets: the English and Italian. Both are iambic pentameter in meter and contain fourteen lines, and often are love poems. The short size of the sonnet allows the poet only a short time to say something. They are thus very powerful and say a lot in a little space. The English sonnet, also called a Shakespearean sonnet, has the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg; that is, it contains three quatrains and a concluding couplet.  Often that concluding couplet has an ironic bite to it. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets using this form, and therefore it is easy to see how his name became attached to the English sonnet.

The Italian sonnet is also called Petrarchan sonnet.  It has the rhyme scheme abba abba cdecde, or one octave and one sestet.  The Medieval poet Petrarch (pictured above) was famous for his love sonnets, written to his beloved Laura. 

Other writers of the sonnet include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote love poems addressed to her husband, Robert Browning, and Philip Sydney, who wrote a sonnet sequence titled Astrophel and Stella.   A 16th-century poet named John Donne wrote many famous sonnets entitled The Holy Sonnets, which is a sonnet sequence not about love, but about spiritual matters.

Colonial American

Anne Bradstreet

19th-century American

John Greenleaf Whittier

James Russell Lowell

William Cullen Bryant

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

20th-century American

Gertrude Stein

Robert Frost

E.E. Cummings

Carl Sandburg

T.S. Eliot

Sylvia Plath

Shel Silverstein

English Medieval


Geoffrey Chaucer

English Renaissance/Elizabethan

William Shakespeare

Edmund Spenser

Walter Raleigh

Mid-17th century English

John Milton

John Donne

George Herbert

Robert Herrick

Thomas Traherne

18th century/Neo-classical British

Isaac Watts

John Dryden

Alexander Pope

William Cowper

James Thomson

Early 19th century/Romantic British

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Robert Southey

William Wordsworth

George Gordon Byron

John Keats

Mid to late 19th century/Victorian British

Robert Browning

Alfred Tennyson

Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thomas Hardy

Translators (Dates indicates are those of a translation of one of the epics)

Alexander Pope (1715)

William Cowper (1791)

Richard Lattimore (1967)

Robert Fitzgerald (1974)

Robert Fagles (1990)

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