When we think of the egotistical sublime in literature, we tend to think about lyric poetry written by the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. The Romantic period is full of egotistical ideals, and they are found outside of our lyric poetry. Canonically, the era is dominated by lyric poetry with sprinkles of familiar essays and novels. Springing off of neoclassicism in the Restoration period, classical forms were still written by popular poets, among them were Percy Shelley and John Keats. These classic forms tend to be placed under the category of the romantic sublime, when they were actually just as egotistical as their lyric counterparts. It was often argued by lyric poets that classic forms prevented poets from putting emotion into their work, but poets like Shelley and Keats were there to prove them wrong. The Romantic period is known for using lyric poetry to show the egotistical sublime, but despite this, it can be seen in the classical forms that were brought back into popularity by the likes of Percy Shelley and John Keats.
The egotistical sublime focuses on the importance of nature and natural beauty. Poets would enjoy a walk through nature, a seemingly meaningless experience, and then sit down to write a piece. These pieces would address the power and magnitude of nature as a whole while they told their stories about what, to the everyday person, would quite literally just be a walk in the park. The “sublime” is the point where nature overpowers reason. The egotistical part comes in when poets would interpret everything that they saw in relation to themselves. For example, a poet would take a walk, see something beautiful, and wonder if people would remember them after they died. The idea is that everything is related to the poet and makes them think of themselves, especially if it is beautiful and found in nature. The problem with the egotistical sublime is that a piece about an overwhelming experience with nature turns into a “woe is me” sort of poem, that we may find in a sad teenager’s diary.
In Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, he draws inspiration from the winds of autumn that spread leaves and seeds in preparation for the upcoming spring time. In nature, this is the way that new things are able to grow once the warmer weather finally arrives at the end of the winter. Shelley takes this and applies it to his writing. In the fifth section of the poem he writes, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth”(Shelley)! Shelley wants his thoughts to be spread out as far as they can be after his death. He compares these thoughts to leaves that are dying in order to bring on a new beginning. The reference to “wither’d leaves” draws the reader back to the point of leaves dying and moving around through the wind in order to transport the seeds to new places. His “dead thoughts” are a key point that ties into the egotistical sublime because it is Shelley’s way of bringing his thinking about himself into the poem while still reflecting on the natural phenomenon of the leaves falling as the seasons change. The poem, as this line shows, is about Shelley wanting his ideas to carry on long after he has passed on. He wants his inspiration to spread across the West and aid the writers of the future. Shelley uses nature as a way to express his concerns about himself and what will happen to his ideas once he is gone.
John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” is an ode that moves back and forth between Keats’s admiration for the nightingale and his own longing for death. He is experiencing some sort of emotional turmoil from beginning to end, and the song of the nightingale helps to carry along his thoughts. Keats uses this poem that, on the surface, is about a bird and the place that it calls home, as a way to channel his feelings about himself. In the final stanza, Keats writes, “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self”(Keats)! He has a moment where he is drawn away from his thoughts about the nightingale and its song, and he moves back to thinking about himself. When he uses “forlorn”, he means that hopelessness is what signals for himself to step away from his thoughts about the bird and its song. The phrase “sole self” is interesting because he has spent seven stanzas talking about himself in relation to nature, and is now going to focus completely on himself, without relying on the song of a bird. The conclusion that can be drawn here is that while Keats has been getting lost in the song of the bird and the darkness of the woods, he has not lost sight of the problem that has struck
him since the beginning; Keats has been struggling with feelings of numbness since the first stanza. This piece relates to the egotistical sublime because Keats finds a way to relate his wallowing to the natural environment where he has enjoyed the beauty of nature, particularly the home of the nightingale.
The egotistical sublime is evident in each piece because of the reference to natural elements and the relationship to themselves. Shelley thinks of the wind and hopes that it will help to carry on his legacy long after he is gone. A poem that could have been about the changing of seasons became a piece about his concerns about himself and the inspiration of his own words on the poets of the future. Keats took his thoughts about a time he spent listening to happy songs of a nightingale and related it to his own feelings of numbness and hopelessness. Both poets went against the arguments made by the lyric poets. Regardless of the form of a poem, emotion can still be found in pieces that follow the classic models. “Ode to the West Wind” and “Ode to a Nightingale” are both pieces that prove that the egotistical sublime is a concept that can be placed in any poem and is not unique to the lyric poets.
Abrams, Meyer H., and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. D, Norton, 2012.
Vechek, Chelo, editor. “Nightingale of Ancient Uglich.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 11 Mar. 2015, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nightingale_of_ancient_Uglich.JPG.
I found this website with some interesting stuff about all different aspects of life during the Romantic Period. This article in particular is about animal rights. Fun fact: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824!