The Romantic period was one of the most exciting in all of British literary history, as two generations of authors wed artistic experimentation with philosophical insight to explore the most pressing challenges and questions of their time.

With selections from William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron, among others, fellows will study responses to some of the major conflicts, crises, and concerns of this remarkably tumultuous time, including the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, women’s rights, and class conflict. What hopes and fears, expectations and disappointments surrounded the French Revolution? How did British poets respond to the rise and fall of Napoleon? What were the inalienable rights of men and women? How did poets represent popular uprisings and government reaction? How did they perceive the place of their nation in the world and in history?

Christopher Scalia on the value of the humanities


Christopher Scalia

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies department at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on literature, culture, and higher education. Prior to his role at AEI, Dr. Scalia was an English professor with a specialty in 18th-century and early 19th-century British literature.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you characterize the attitude toward Scottish national identity as expressed in two poems by Burns and the relationship between Scotland and England? Quote specific passages from the works to support your claims.
  2. How would you describe the speaker in “To A Mouse?” What is his reaction to what he’s done to the mouse? In what ways does he sympathize with the unhoused rodent, and what differences does he emphasize? What is the poem suggesting about the status of the rural laborer?
  3. Select from one set of the following poems: “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”; “Holy Thursday” (Innocence) and “Holy Thursday” (Experience); “The Chimney Sweeper” (Innocence) and “The Chimney Sweeper” (Experience); “The Divine Image” and “A Divine Image.” Compare and contrast the two poems: what common and disparate themes do they explore? How do their tones, images, and attitudes overlap and differ? Do they seem to be making different points, or the same points in different ways?
  4. How do any 1-2 of Blake’s poems (apart from those listed in the question above) represent human nature? For example, do the poems suggest an innate goodness to man, or do they hint at (or yell about) man’s fallen nature? What threatens or endangers the goodness our nature may have?


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Williams support the French Revolution in A Farewell, for Two Years, to England? According to her, why should the English support it? What bolder or deeper hopes does she have for the future of England?
  2. Choose from one of the poems listed below. What is the poet’s attitude looking at the Revolution in retrospect? What events changed his mind? What conclusions or lessons does he draw from the events in France?
    1.  Wordsworth, The Prelude
    2. Coleridge, “France: An Ode”


Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Byron describe Napoleon? What strengths led to Napoleon’s rise, and what weaknesses led to his downfall? Does the passage offer any insights into human nature more generally? How do the stanzas about nature (46-52) contrast with those about Napoleon?
  2. Compare and contrast how Wordsworth and Shelley depict Napoleon in their sonnets. Does either poet see anything admirable about Napoleon? What did they fear or dislike about him? What larger point do they try to make based on his life? What larger ideas or concepts or did they believe Napoleon represented? (Select from two of the poems from this week’s readings.)
  3. Choose from two of the Hemans poems assigned for today’s session. What makes the central characters of these poems heroic, exactly? That is, what virtues do they possess, what traits make them exceptional, and/or what actions make them notable? Do the share common traits or virtues? Are they different in significant ways? What larger causes do they represent?


Discussion Questions:

  1. In Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem, what challenges is the war abroad creating in England? What is the speaker’s attitude toward her nation and its cause—patriotic? Critical? What influence does Britain have around the world? What future does Barbauld envision for Britain and for freedom around the world?
  2. Based on two Shelley poems assigned for this week, how would you characterize the poet’s attitude toward social and political change? Why are such changes necessary? Who or what will be the force behind the changes? Does he provide a clear sense of how the changes will be implemented, exactly?


Discussion Questions:

  1. Selecting from one of the poems below, discuss: What power does the sublime have on the poem’s speaker? To what external force does the sublime object point—God? Nature? Man? To what degree does the poet’s vision of the sublime correspond to what Burke lays out in A Philosophical Enquiry?
    1. Coleridge, “Chamouny”
    2. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805, XIII.1-184)
    3. Shelley, “Mont Blanc”
  2. Choosing between “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” discuss how Keats’s speakers respond to the title object. What effect does the object have on his senses? What ideas about art and mortality does the object conjure? How does the speaker resolve these ideas at the end of the poem (if at all)?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Study Dostoyevsky’s first great novel, an astonishing prophecy of ideological terror & social insanity.

Shakespeare’s Prince & Tyrant

Explore the political and religious contexts of Shakespeare's plays.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Explore the fundamental human question of the nature and existence of God with Melville's great American novel.

Traditions of Freedom

Study the intellectual roots of conservative thought, focusing on the works of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.

Liberty & Order

Reflect on what is required today to sustain (or revive) our free and liberal society. 

Shakespeare’s Henry V

Explore Shakespeare’s insights into the exercise of power.