5 ways the Romantic poets can help us during Covid

Brontë, Blake and Shelley knew a thing or two about the human condition, even during a pandemic, says Charlotte Brunton

Charlotte Brunton

Coronavirus: How the Romantic poets can help us get through the pandemic

Ah, 2020. The year when we were forced to stay at home, to dwell in our emotions and to seek solace in the sometimes very small spaces around us.

When times are tough, many of us turn to the arts to find answers. This autumn, I have found myself looking to the great Romantic poets for wisdom and comfort.

And boy, have they provided! I have read, and taught, these poems countless times over the past five years, but never before have they felt so relevant and telling as this time around.

Coronavirus: The wisdom of the Romantic poets

So, what wisdom or support can the Romantic poets offer us during this time of uncertainty?

1. Wordsworth

and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a soft inland murmur.

While we can’t traverse our way around Europe or take trips to the Lakes, we can step outside our homes and wander.

When our freedom has been restricted in so many other ways this year, and our ability to comprehend bar charts and rising statistics has become clouded, stepping outside and discovering the power and beauty of the natural world has been something that has become a coping mechanism for many.

For those of us who did this and managed to leave our phones at home in the process, Wordsworth, among his contemporaries, would undoubtedly be proud.

2. Blake

“Is this a holy thing to see, 

In a rich and fruitful land,

Babes reducd to misery,

Fed with cold and usurous hand?”

At the start of this pandemic, it seemed that change was afoot.

Homeless people were being temporarily housed, people were donating as much as they could to food banks and we were celebrating the dedicated NHS staff each week by clapping at our doorsteps.

But the pandemic kept going and the tone rapidly changed. MPs voted against pay rises for nurses. Teachers went back to being the villains of the public sector.

And we were relying on footballer Marcus Rashford to ensure that underprivileged children had food to eat during the school holidays. 

This pandemic has only too visibly shown the gaping holes in our society and the need for us to ignite our inner William Blake and Marcus Rashford to always fight against social injustice.

3. Emily Brontë

“I welcome thee, Benignant Power;

Sure solacer of human cares,

And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!”

When there’s not much pleasure to be taken in the real world, why not do as the Brontë sisters did so well and immerse ourselves in the imaginary world?

The Brontë sisters revelled in their imaginary kingdom, Gondal, where their toy soldiers resided. But the poetry that stands from this period shows not just remains of the fictional world of Gondal, but also allegorical tales and expressions of lived experience.

With Netflix’s stock price up massively from last year and sales of puzzles and board games soaring, people are looking at ways to escape reality in 2020 and, in doing so, may actually be making some sense of these unprecedented times.

It’s amazing what we can do with an active mind and a dull life.

4. Shelley

“I could lie down like a tired child,

And weep away the life of care”

Shelley’s poetry conveys the juxtaposing extremes of ecstasy and despair that are familiar to so many of us this year.

Unforeseeable deaths, virtual funerals, self-isolation, shielding, unemployment, lockdown, furlough: all terms that would have been unfamiliar to many of us at the start of this year and sadly, are all too familiar now.

Yet team this with Zoom games’ nights, Zoom discos, Zoom cocktail making, Zoom weddings, optimistic vaccine news, a revived sense of community spirit, electing a US female vice-president, to name but a few, and we realise that not everything has been doom and gloom.

Despite the difficulties of this year, humans have a tenacious spirit for life; something Shelley captures so beautifully in much of his poetry.

5. Byron

“I lived, I loved, I quaff’d”

The younger Byron, the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron, had an important message for us all: live our lives to the fullest.

He compelled us to do this, without fear of what would come next. Even within a world of tiers and limitations, we can all find ways to try and achieve this.

Inspired by a desire for liberty; for denouncing the exploitation of the poor; for subverting the norm and finding solace within oneself, the Romantic poets have never felt more relevant as we head into 2021.

Charlotte Brunton is a secondary English department head at the British School of Gran Canaria. She has taught internationally for three years

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