Courting the Universe: Romantic Beauty vs. the Romantic Sublime

In the Romantic Era (late 18th century to approx. 1850), poetry developed and blossomed through the works of beloved writers such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Today people remain captivated by their words and the stories they told. I believe this is – at least in part – because of two ideas: beauty and the sublime.

Romantic beauty is the appreciation of lovely things. Perhaps this is the delicacy of a flower of a stream. It is the sweet feeling of calm appreciation of (often) small things from nature.

The romantic sublime is very different. Though also an appreciation of beautiful things, it is of monumental scale rather than of that which can fit in the palm of your hand. Romantic sublime imagery includes the Alps, or a magnificent sunset. The sublime reveals human smallness and the fragility of mortality, instead of the fragility of nature.

These two types of beauty inspire two types of awe: titanic and gentle. They are two parts of humanness, manifested in poetic terms – arguably the best way to explore and define humanness. They truly are romantic ideas, not just because of their period, nor in the Valentine’s Day kind of way, but because they ignite the soul.

These two poetic devices merge internal and external and person and nature, contextualizing humanity on a grand scale. This literature turns readers into Gulliver as he learns about human nature from the view of a Lilliputian or a Brobdingnagian. There is nuance. There is playfulness.

Ultimately the beautiful and the sublime establish a flirtation between the poem and the Universe – a courtship not taken lightly.

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