Hear 20 Hours of Romantic & Victorian Poetry Read by Ralph Fiennes, Dylan Thomas, James Mason & Many More


By the time William Wordsworth and Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge pub­lished their Lyri­cal Bal­lads in 1798, poets in Eng­land had long been celebri­ties and arbiters of taste in mat­ters polit­i­cal and lit­er­ary. The sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, became known as the “Age of Dry­den,” for poet and lit­er­ary crit­ic John Dry­den’s tremen­dous influ­ence. John Mil­ton, Alexan­der Pope, Samuel John­son… these were lit­er­ary men whose writ­ing vied with the era’s philoso­phers and advised its nobil­i­ty and heads of state. By the Roman­tic peri­od of Wordsworth and Coleridge, no poet held such a posi­tion of author­i­ty and influ­ence as had those of the pre­vi­ous two cen­turies.

And yet, we might argue that poetry—and the exalt­ed fig­ure of the poet—became even more sacro­sanct and indis­pens­able to British cul­ture through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry; that poets became, as Per­cy Shel­ley wrote in 1821, the “unac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world.” Such a hyper­bol­ic state­ment may seem to con­flict with the aims Wordsworth stat­ed for Roman­tic poet­ry in the Lyri­cal Bal­lads’ pref­ace: “fit­ting to met­ri­cal arrange­ment a selec­tion of the real lan­guage of men in a state of vivid sen­sa­tion.” Yet when we think of Roman­tic poet­ry, we rarely think of the “real lan­guage of men.”

The nine­teenth cen­tu­ry saw the ascen­den­cy of the British Empire to its height dur­ing Victoria’s reign. Whether effect or cause of the hubris of the times, both Roman­tic and Vic­to­ri­an poetry—all the way to the end of Alfred Tennyson’s 12-cycle series Idylls of the King in 1885—gave us myth­i­cal epics filled with grandeur of expres­sion and image, and no small amount of bom­bast. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (from the Lyri­cal Bal­lads) and strange “Kubla Khan” showed the way. Keats tells an out­sized tale of the Titans’ fall from Olym­pus in Hype­r­i­on. Shel­ley gave us the bleak impe­r­i­al relics of “Ozy­man­dias.”

There were also, of course, the qui­et love and nature poems of Wordsworth, Keats, John Clare, and Wal­ter De La Mare, all won­der­ful­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a Roman­tic pas­toral tra­di­tion reflect­ing a nos­tal­gia for a rapid­ly trans­form­ing Eng­lish coun­try­side. There were the Ori­en­tal­ist poems of exot­ic won­der, and hero­ic poems of mil­i­tary val­or and rev­o­lu­tion. The lat­er nine­teenth cen­tu­ry revealed even more vari­ety as these strains yield­ed to greater spe­cial­iza­tion, and to expand­ed roles for women poets.

Kipling’s colo­nial­ist vers­es reas­sured British sub­jects of their supe­ri­or sta­tus in the scheme of things, and enter­tained them with fables and moral­i­ty plays. Oscar Wilde refined the aes­theti­cism of Keats with a deca­dent eroti­cism. Broth­er and sis­ter Dante Gabriel Ros­set­ti and Christi­na Ros­set­ti took the Roman­tics’ anti­quar­i­an­ism into the ter­ri­to­ry of medieval and Goth­ic revival. Hus­band and wife Robert and Eliz­a­beth Bar­rett Brown­ing looked also to the Mid­dle Ages, and to Italy. Swin­burne and Ten­nyson upheld the tra­di­tion of the epic, imbu­ing it with their own strange pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins did things with lan­guage nev­er attempt­ed before.

All of these poets appear in the Spo­ti­fy playlists here, titled “The Roman­tics” and “The Vic­to­ri­ans,” though you’ll notice that these aren’t mutu­al­ly exclu­sive cat­e­gories. Eliz­a­beth Bar­rett Brown­ing appears in both lists. Ten­nyson, per­haps the longest-lived and most famous poet of the age, spans almost the entire cen­tu­ry.  Keats, whose ear­ly trag­ic death con­tributed to his rock star sta­tus with lat­er read­ers, died most assured­ly a Roman­tic. But the terms hard­ly tell us very much by them­selves, mark­ing con­ven­tion­al ways of divid­ing up the lit­er­a­ture of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

What we might notice about the Eng­lish verse of these two peri­ods on the whole is its ten­den­cy toward exag­ger­at­ed, often florid and over­ly for­mal dic­tion and syn­tax, and its sen­ti­men­tal­ism, high seri­ous­ness, and deco­rum. These are qual­i­ties we often learn to asso­ciate with all poet­ry, or learn to think of as insin­cere and pre­ten­tious.  In the near­ly 20 hours of skilled read­ings here—including some by famous names like James Mason, Dylan Thomas, John Giel­gud, Sir Ralph Richard­son, Boris Karloff, and Ralph Fiennes—we hear a great deal of nuance, sub­tle­ty, irony, and beau­ty. Learn­ing to appre­ci­ate the poet­ic voic­es of over a cen­tu­ry past not only requires famil­iar­i­ty with unusu­al idioms and ideas; it also requires tun­ing our ears to very dif­fer­ent kinds of Eng­lish than our own.

Both playlists will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream Clas­sic Poet­ry Read­ings from Harvard’s Rich Audio Archive: From W.H. Auden to Dylan Thomas

Library of Con­gress Launch­es New Online Poet­ry Archive, Fea­tur­ing 75 Years of Clas­sic Poet­ry Read­ings

Rare 1930s Audio: W.B. Yeats Reads Four of His Poems

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (2)
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  • Basil QM says:

    I’m enchant­ed by your audio col­lec­tion. Thank you so much.

  • Manajemen says:

    What does the arti­cle sug­gest about the impor­tance of learn­ing to appre­ci­ate the poet­ic voic­es of past cen­turies?
    How do the playlists men­tioned in the arti­cle con­tribute to mak­ing these old­er poet­ic works acces­si­ble to mod­ern audi­ences? we have a lot of poet­ry that’s writ­ed by our stu­dents in Tel U

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