The prosaic reader reels at the very words “Romantic poetry”. If she is adolescent, she thinks we are talking about greeting card rhymes. If she is older, she recalls a pre-Victorian parade of odes, elegies, reflections and preludes, not followed by anything. The love poems are fine if you are in love at that very moment. And the Nature poems may speak to those who wander amid cowslips and daffodils. Mostly, the lines are so heavily coded, so very Eng Lit, that few modern readers have patience with them.
But some of those Romantic poems reach through the centuries, grip your imagination and squeeze.
The most unlikely poet of that age was probably Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He wrote ponderously on the principles of poetry, which ought to have killed all inspiration. But ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is a dark, memorable work. It harks back to a primitive rhythm and a savage style of storytelling. A ship sails south of the equator and gets becalmed, and a sailor shoots an albatross. Bad things happen after that, but maybe not because of that. Little notes in the margin put a rather unconvincing moral spin on the act and the retribution. A skeletal ship piloted by Death, an undead crew, and other deliciously creepy images bring us back to the Mariner again and again.
In Coleridge's ‘Christabel', a young woman dreams of her absent lover. She walks in the woods in the middle of the night to shake off her anxiety, and there she finds the beauteous Geraldine, who claims to have been abducted and then abandoned far from home. The two women sneak into the house and sleep in the same bed. It is a confusing night overall, and Geraldine seems to be a vampire. The next morning, Christabel's widowed father cannot take his eyes off his daughter's new friend, and Christabel doesn't like Geraldine anymore. At about this point, Coleridge stopped writing. He said he knew where his story was going but he couldn't keep up the style. I sometimes wish he had skipped the style and hurried on with the story. But even then, he would have teased us with unanswered questions. Some busybody has written the rest of Christabel, but I don't want to know about it.
There is less curiosity, and more plain beauty, in the half-drawn images in ‘Kubla Khan'. The palace dome, the garden-forest in which it stands, the river that winds through the garden, the caves of ice into which the river spills, the Abyssinian maid playing on a dulcimer, and finally the man with flashing eyes and floating hair. What does it all mean? If the Beatles had written it, you'd call it an LSD trip. In fact, Coleridge awoke from an opium-induced nap with this detailed vision in his mind, ready to be written down. Then he was interrupted by a chatterer and lost most of it. And we gained a lush little fragment that reads all the better for being unfinished.