Living Romanticism

Kathryn Hamilton Warren (University of Texas at Arlington)

In the fall of 2015, a class I was supposed to teach on contemporary literature didn’t make, so my colleague Tim and I batted about other options for me, seeing as I had to teach something. “How about this course on the British Romantics?” Tim proposed. Our resident Romanticist had recently left our institution, and her course was still on the schedule. Someone needed to step in. “Are you up on your Wordsworth?” Tim asked. My immediate response was an unequivocal “no.” I am an Americanist by training, and more well versed in realism and naturalism than in Romanticism to boot. But because the alternative that fall was teaching advanced composition, I dusted off an old Norton and a book by Harold Bloom and got to work.

I’ve been teaching Romanticism in some fashion ever since, whether British or American or both. During that time my life has shifted, the world opening up in subtle but significant ways, and Romanticism has been both the lever for that shift and the lens I perceive it through. The ideas, insights, and language I’ve immersed myself in and talked to my students about have given me a vocabulary for stirrings I’ve had since I was a child, becoming personal provocations, less definite than a map or a guide, but propelling nonetheless.

This is not how professors are supposed to think about literature. Our training encourages us to interpret, analyze, and argue. Instead, I find that my response to the texts I teach these days is to feel, first of all, and then to inhabit the literature subjectively in order to test its use as “equipment for living,” in the evocative phrase that titles one of Kenneth Burke’s essays (Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living” 293). As an outsider to the field, I came to Romanticism unencumbered by the debates roiling in scholarly journals or by any sense that a particular poem was so canonical as to be dull. One might also call that position ignorant or even irresponsible, I am aware. But it was my ignorance that made it possible for me to submit to the poems in a way I might not have otherwise. I was naïve enough to approach the period uncritically, and my uncritical embrace of what the Romantics had to teach me in the fall of 2015 shaped the way I taught the period from there on out.

The title of my essay— “Living Romanticism” —points in two directions. It suggests that Romanticism is still alive, and second, it offers Romanticism as a way of living. In what follows, I’ll explain how these directions became the pedagogical aims through which I sought to reproduce the practice of Romanticism both in the classroom and in my students’ lives. The approach I describe below emerged as I taught a course on British and American Romanticisms three times, over a period of a year and a half. In this class, my ultimate goal was to pave the way for my students to be transformed, as I have been, by their encounters with Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, and (David Foster) Wallace. A highly canonical lineup to be sure (no surprises there), except perhaps for the inclusion of Wallace. It was what we did with them that was innovative—or maybe just so rearguard as to be novel these days.

Romanticism Is Still Alive

My first step, back in 2015 and in the semesters that followed, was to create a mood in the classroom that made the subject we were studying seem current, relevant, and ongoing. Music has been one of the most effective tools in achieving this aim. I use it to create an atmosphere, playing a song in the five minutes or so before class begins and accompanying the song with a PowerPoint with visuals for the day: portraits of the writer, photographs of the landscape they lived in, perhaps a picture of a house, or a gravestone.

With my own musical library in mind and more than a little help from Google, I assembled a list of songs that took me through all 42 class days. Some of the links were obvious, as with Patti Smith’s “My Blakean Year” or Iron Maiden’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (which I played along with PowerPoint slides of the Gustave Dore woodcuts). Others, less evident, I could explain to my students’ satisfaction: Wilco’s song “Born Alone” is assembled from fragments of nineteenth-century poetry, including Dickinson’s; U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” evokes the restless dissatisfaction of the poet in Shelley’s “Alastor.” But other connections were more tenuous; the songs were like the literature in mood, but with no direct link. The Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt” and a handful of songs by Elliott Smith all evoke, for me, a host of Keatsian paradoxes and tensions by way of intricate songwriting. The Indigo Girls’ “Prince of Darkness” and Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” both extend a generous, open hand to our many-peopled world, much in the spirit of Whitman. James Rovira’s excellent edited volume Rock and Romanticism presents an extended argument about rock music as a renaissance of Romantic thought, exploring the Romanticism inherent in musicians including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Leonard Cohen. I wasn’t aware of his book at first though; I was riffing.

Admittedly, many of these choices were, as one student pointed out on a student feedback survey, “subjective.” Of course. But subjectivity was something I leaned into in this class, and I encouraged my students to do the same, looking for ways that, to them, Romanticism was manifest in the world around them. It didn’t take long for the students to join in, emailing me with their suggestions for musical matches to the reading, including Lynard Skynrd’s “Simple Man” for Thoreau, or Bastille’s “The Weight of Living Part 1,” with its albatross reference, and plenty of songs I’d never heard of. By the end of the course, we’d collectively assembled a robust playlist of songs that had the power to transport us right back into the poetry and prose we’d explored together.

While music built an affective bridge from us to the Romantics, the literature itself—and the direction our discussions of it took—was sometimes all that was needed to recognize the persistence and relevance of Romantic concerns in the present. This was the case with Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry. My students recognized Shelley’s need to defend the literary arts in a climate that applauded technological advances and material progress as a pressing one that has not gone away; in fact, such a defense might be more necessary today than it was in the nineteenth century. Shelley writes, “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave” (530). Our conversation about these lines assumed a decidedly presentist bent from the get-go, as we talked about the way our smart phones, the internet, and our social media accounts have circumscribed our worlds and limited our powers of observation, even as they have expanded the scope of what we, in theory, can notice and perceive. It was Shelley’s emphasis on perception that moved my students more than anything. In discussion and in their writing assignments, they pointed repeatedly to his assertion that “poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (517). This, for many of them, was the heart of Romanticism, the preeminent idea that they took away from the class.

Shelley and Keats also gave my students a new way to think about their education. We discussed at length Shelley’s notion of how the moral imagination develops through the empathetic engagement that literature helps foster. The English majors in my class were familiar with needing to defend their choice of major to their parents, their friends, and themselves. They could rehearse the familiar claims that we humanists make about the value of critical thinking, analysis, clarity of expression, and close reading. They were, in other words, used to taking the practical skills and habits of mind that English studies helps develop and putting them toward some other, more workman-like application: law, journalism, technical writing. What few of them had considered before was Shelley’s claim that reading literature has a moral component. He writes, ‘The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. (517)’ For those students in possession of a traditionally religious sensibility, this passage affirmed for them the goodness of their academic vocation. For those committed to working for social justice, the idea that reading is a way of regarding the pain of others helped them to see what we did in the classroom not as divorced from practice, but essential to it. This portion of the Defence led to conversations about the importance of reading about people who are not like you, even about people whom you may not like. It led us to consider what limits can be placed on empathetic identification, whether some perspectives are more worthy of our time and effort than others. Should we bother reading a short story written from the point of view of a racist sheriff, like James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” or is our time better spent in imaginative dedication with a victim of racism? What is the value—or is there one?—of inhabiting a point of view we find repellant? It also got my students to reconsider literature they had heretofore thought of as “apolitical,” for they began to think of seeing through other eyes as one of the most intimate, and enduring, political acts at hand.

Keats followed Shelley in my syllabus, so when we got to his letter to his brother and sister-in-law demarcated in the Norton as “The Vale of Soul-Making,” they were primed to consider the question that critic William Deresiewicz, invoking Keats, raises in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. To what degree do our institutions of higher learning encourage the development of the ethical and moral components of the self (Deresiewicz 13–15, 77–87)? The university I teach at is not educating the American elite. Still, my students were eager to discuss Keats’s notion of the world as a “vale of Soul-making” and to think about the role their classroom educations had played shaping and refining their emotional, moral, and ethical intelligences (117). Their answer, mainly, was that this facet of education was rarely foregrounded in the classes they had taken. In exploring Shelley’s and Keats’s ideas about the centrality of literature to human flourishing, community, and ethics, however, my students became inspired to make those kinds of connections themselves. For many of them, a link that had been tenuous or implicit became visible, and thereby plastic. Shelley and Keats empowered my students to take more responsibility for their educations and to make the cultivation of their very person a central part of that process.

At the end of this course, I fast forward to the twenty-first century as a way of demonstrating to my students that even though we can demarcate the Romantic period temporally, a certain Romantic sensibility, set of concerns, and philosophical or spiritual posture that is Romantic in nature persists in present-day literature and culture. To illustrate the point, I turn to David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address—a short, pithy text that contains links back to many of the thinkers we’ve studied. Wallace, a picture boy for postmodernism, is also, I submit, a closet Romantic, more earnest than ironic. Most of my students haven’t heard of David Foster Wallace in the first place, so they don’t need me to persuade them of this reclassification, and when they turn to his commencement address from 2005, the links are apparent enough. Here he is, concerned, like Shelley and Keats, with the moral dimensions of education. Wallace is keen to demonstrate the limits of a liberal arts education and to propose that we all go further, learning not just how to think, but what to think about—a proposal that Thoreau voices, albeit in different phrasing, throughout Walden. Like Coleridge, Wallace suffered, trapped by his own perspective and a frequently recurring sense of numbness and distance from the world. Wallace confronts the despair-inducing potential of everyday life and challenges his audience to transform that life, and themselves, through empathy and imagination. In his climactic call to action, he sounds downright mystical, evoking Whitman and Emerson, to be sure, if not Blake, when he challenges us to pay attention so that it will be within our power to “experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down” (93).

The closing exercise for this course on British and American Romanticisms, which we turn to immediately after discussing Wallace, is an activity I named the “Whither Romanticism?” forum. At the beginning of the semester, I challenge my students to keep their eyes and ears open for Romantic artifacts in our contemporary culture, and at the end, they share their findings with the class. As I put it to my students, the idea is to ask whether, how, and to what degree Romanticism persists in the present day. Is it a literary movement that ended in the nineteenth century, or is it a transhistorical movement, a structure of feeling that grows out of specific circumstances? If it’s the latter—and, obviously, this exercise presupposes an answer to that question—what might those circumstances be? We take one class day for three-minute presentations on the artifacts—quick, clear, and concise. Then the next class day is devoted to a wide-ranging conversation about Romanticism emerging from the archive they assemble.

Most students did not struggle to come up with an artifact; in fact, many had trouble limiting themselves to one. It was no surprise to me that many students chose music, given the nudge I’d provided by framing each class day with a song. The rapper Tyler the Creator appeared more than once across the three semesters, as did David Bowie and the singer-songwriter India Arie. I can always seem to count on interest in the Gothic; at least one student each semester chose a TV show or movie in that genre to talk about. Two of the more intriguing contributions over the years were Instagram—a technology that aestheticizes ordinary objects of everyday life—and the blog Humans of New York, which, à la Whitman and Wordsworth, trains its focus on regular people thus rendering them marvelous in their specificity and uniqueness.

This exercise made my students feel like experts on Romanticism, able to apply what they’d learned about the nineteenth century to culture in the twenty-first. On the second day of our forum, I challenged them to consider what the artifacts they’d assembled could tell us about the connections between Romanticism and capitalism, race, gender, and politics. One semester, there were at least three Disney films submitted as Romantic artifacts, which raised the question of whether Romanticism has been coopted by the culture industry, repackaged and sold back to us and our children in the form of movie tickets and plush toys. (My students were less troubled by this possibility than I.) Was Romanticism available to people of color and to white women, who, by and large, were missing from our syllabus? My students felt that it was, and demonstrated as much through their analyses of songs by Kendrick Lamar and Joanna Newsom. One semester, with visible trepidation, a student posed this question, “Is there something Romantic about MAGA?” Her question, which she feared would offend or inflame her classmates, led instead to a productive conversation about the function of nostalgia in both Romantic thinking and contemporary politics.

An exercise like this—and a presentist approach like mine—risks collapsing the temporal distance of two centuries, potentially flattening out the historical specificity of both our moment and the Romantics’. I’m okay with that. From my perspective, what we have to gain by becoming intimate with the past outweighs what is lost.

Romanticism as a Way of Living

How can a teacher encourage students to experiment with Romanticism as a way of living, in and outside of the classroom? I didn’t set out to do that at first. Only after I taught Romanticism a couple of times did it become apparent to me that I was, in fact, presenting Romanticism as a way of being in the world, one that I promoted through my assignments and activities. And once I realized that, I made my purpose explicit, both to myself and to my students.

One assignment that I came to hope might change the way my students and I inhabited the world was the requirement to memorize and deliver a (Romantic) poem. Inspired by an article in the New York Times that ran in August 2017, “Memorize that Poem!,” by Molly Worthen, I added the poetry recitation assignment to the syllabus right at the beginning of the semester, an impulsive last-minute addition. I wanted them to internalize a poem—to live with its words in their head. Speaking for myself, I’m sometimes alarmed by the sheer number of 1980s and 1990s rap lyrics I have at my command, yet there’s no Keats in my mental library, no Wordsworth, and hardly any Dickinson. That, I decided, had to change. How might my vision of the world be transformed if I could summon the words of those poets at will?

I told my students that I would memorize along with them; I wasn’t going to make them do something I myself was unwilling to do. So, I started small and built up, eventually going for broke with Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality Upon Recollections of Childhood” (I still have a few stanzas of that one to go). This practice did, indeed, shift my way of being in the world. I carried stanzas of Blake with me on my runs, the trochees matching my footfalls. I whispered “Frost at Midnight” to myself while watching my daughter on the playground. I ran over Wordsworth when stuck in a traffic jam. Now, even though I’m taking a break from this practice, phrases will float up into my consciousness when I need them, offering a slightly different way of seeing things, a gloss on my understanding.

From what I can tell, it didn’t exactly work that way with my students. Predictably, many of them chose the shortest poem they could find. I listened to a lot of declamations of “The Tyger.” After one semester of this, I changed my evaluation system so that only by choosing a longer poem could one earn the highest grade, sort of like the scoring system for Olympic diving. Students started to be bolder in their choices, and some of them went on to memorize poems beyond the syllabus, committing to memory works that moved them, personally, just so that they could have those words at the ready. I’ve seen former students around campus, and I always ask, do you still have that poem in your mind? Most of them do.

My writing assignments were more effective than the poetry recitation in fostering fluency in the aspirations, methods, and ways of being and knowing that the Romantics embraced. Teaching Romanticism coincided with a certain weariness on my part with respect to the traditional analytic essay. I wanted to find a way for students to write about literature that required them to understand it well enough to adapt it to their own purposes. To that end, the first writing assignment, called “Romantic Imitation,” asked students to write a poem in the form of either “The Tyger” or “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” As I explained to them, one way to appreciate the relation of meter to meaning is to attempt to reproduce that meter oneself. I told them that the form had to match one of these two poems, and the content should align with either Blake’s or Wordsworth’s thematic concerns: Christianity, social critique, the ordinary, or recollection, just to name a few. My hope was that students would be inspired by Blake and Wordsworth to apprehend their own lives in a different way. The second part of the assignment required that they write an analysis of their poem, explaining how it was in keeping with one of the two poets’ visions. What this assignment got students to do, in almost every case, was to see moments in their own lives—from buying groceries, to going on a morning run, to remembering childhood—as worthy of poetic contemplation.

Another writing assignment asked students to compare the poetic visions of at least two British Romantics by drawing on the poets’ work in prose. This project evolved over three semesters. The first time, I asked them simply to make a chart comparing and contrasting various poets’ answers to questions like “what is a poet?” and “where does poetry come from?”, as well as “what can poetry contribute to society?” Grading those charts was stultifying. But one submission jolted me to attention. It was a PowerPoint presentation in which the student imagined Ellen DeGeneres putting those questions to Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Ellen’s commentary in between responses served as the analysis. The format was brilliant, her innovation hilarious, and the whole project showed me that she understood the poets’ ideas, because she could adapt them to a new context.

The next semester, using that student’s PowerPoint as a model, I modified the assignment so that students had to bring the poets into conversation in some new arena, be it an interview, or perhaps an exchange of letters, or maybe even writing a short play in which two or three of them interact. The requirement was to incorporate the poets’ own words into the new scene while also writing new dialogue that they used analytically to compare and contrast the poets’ ideas. One student made a comic strip story board in which Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats go for a walk together, discussing negative capability and the possibility that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world while they wander past a field of daffodils and hear a nightingale calling in the distance. This student wove the poets’ words into a dialogue that highlighted their commonalities while also drawing attention to their differences. Another student wrote a rap battle between Wordsworth and Coleridge (with a special guest appearance by Blake!), after the fashion of MTV’s “Wild ‘N Out,” with Nick Cannon. From what I gather—I’ve never seen the show—one member of each team is chosen to compete against a member of the other team in a lyrical showdown. Wordsworth started the battle off.

Yo, the name is Wordsworth
And [I] make these words work
And Cockermouth, Cumberland is the place of my birth
And I don’t really rhyme, that you should know
But I’ll put down my prose for the rest of this show5
But first, shout out to my sister Dorothy
I wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t there for me
Man I love you sis, just thought I should say it
Helped me with the poems that made me famous
My poems are elevated, “sense of sublime” 10
And I write about myself because I'm worth my time
Coleridge winning? That’s not valid
Already cut from “Lyrical Ballads”
Why that look on your face? You need to stop it.
And get that opium up out your pockets15
Poetry takes sensibility
“emotion recollected in tranquility”
No different from your everyday speech
Everything you learned, you learned from me
A poet has greater knowledge of human nature20
And in that world, you are a stranger
“The Eolian Harp” ? That was a disaster
“A sinful and most miserable man” should know his master
You bastard.
Crowd goes crazy
All student writing is reproduced here with written consent.


When the author and a couple of his classmates performed the entire thing to the instrumental beats of the Houston-based DJ Screw, I was floored. We all were. By translating the Wordsworth and Coleridge relationship into a familiar idiom, he made the poets’ ideas modern and their complicated friendship relatable, taking Wordsworth’s behavior in the historical record and transforming it into the braggadocio for which rappers are well known. It was brilliant.

It was the last assignment in the course, however, that most explicitly asked students to think about elements of Romanticism as potential equipment for living. I asked them to write a listicle—a mix of list and article—that answers the question “how should a person be?” by using the ideas and language of Thoreau, Whitman, or Emerson personally and seriously enough to consider what the writers’ convictions and advice might mean for us today. They didn’t have to be direct about it, though, so long as they got at the question somehow. “So basically,” one student asked, “you want us to write clickbait?” Pretty much, I answered—but intelligent, nerdy clickbait, with quotations, citations, and analysis. Clickbait for English majors. Some of them put their listicles online, using Listly. Others kept it simple, with Word documents or PowerPoints. All of them managed to harness the language of American Romanticism and adapt it to the present, with titles promising to tell us why Emerson should be your therapist, what kind of boyfriend Whitman would make, or why you wouldn’t want to invite Thoreau to your housewarming party.

The titles were classic clickbait, all right, but the substance of each item on the list went far beyond what one would expect from a site like Buzzfeed. The student who wrote about how you might recognize your current paramour as Whitman reincarnated accompanied each item in her list with a GIF. Number four on her list, “He Has a God Complex,” came with a picture of Kanye West gesticulating against the background of the following words: “Everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?’ I just told you who I thought I was, a god. That’s who I think I am.” Below the Whitman/West juxtaposition, her own analysis appears, ‘Other guys stare at the stars and marvel at the universe. Your guy thinks he is the universe. Whitman boldly claimed he was “a kosmos” (Song of Myself 497) and although he isn’t a total megalomaniac, his empathy, rejection of shame, and connection with others makes him feel a little special—prophetically special. Whitman’s highest worship was his own body, declaring “Divine am I inside and out, and make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from” (524). Try to reason with him all you want, but he’ll just tell you that he can’t “understand who there can be more wonderful than myself” (1281), which is a great argument until it’s his turn to wash the dishes.’ Her tone is teasing and familiar, but even as she pokes fun at Whitman for his grandiloquence, she also makes clear that one way to be in the world is to assert that you are the world. In her analysis, the student points to the way in which embodiment itself can be sacred.

Other students were more earnest. Another list, “Thoreau’s 7 New Year’s Resolutions to Rejuvenate Your Life in 2018,” included items such as “Ditch the Unnecessary Luxuries,” “Focus on Your Character Rather Than Your Deeds,” “Turn Off the Tech,” and “Don’t Enslave Yourself to Success and Public Opinion.” In mining Walden for advice, the student had found pieces of wisdom she could embrace. The introductory paragraph to her listicle offered Thoreau as a contemporary guru. ‘Have you ever set out into the new year determined to remodel your life, but found yourself slipping back into the monotony of your old day-to-day routine? Have you struggled in the past to start living the kind of life that allows you to live freely and meaningfully? Oftentimes in drafting resolutions, we focus on making changes in our outer lives, while ignoring the fact that external habits are rooted in internal values. Henry David Thoreau’s ideas and critiques on how a person should live will help you achieve a fresh start in transforming your view of your identity, your purpose, and the way you engage with the world around you.’ By way of their listicles, some wry and teasing, others heartfelt, my students managed to convey something enduring about the American Romantics’ proposals about how to live in the world.

Sometimes my nudge toward living romantically was spontaneous, as when I was preparing for the day’s discussion of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” and I came upon these words: “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings” (96). It seemed to me downright criminal to sit there in a classroom to discuss those words, so I didn’t. That day, we sped through the highlights of Emerson’s essay. Then, when one student pointed out this line and answered me accurately when I asked her what it meant, I sent them all out of doors. I told them to wander around campus for the remainder of our time that day, not together, and without their phones. Their only task was to pay attention to what was around them, and, at the end of the day, to email the class their observations.

Seeing the emails pour in was exciting. A lot of students noticed how little they’d noticed before. Many of them paid attention to the squirrels, and the birds, and the trees. Others saw how often their fellow students walk around with earbuds in, tuning out. Many of them simply appreciated the opportunity to be outside without a destination, just being. I took their words and wove them together, erasing individual authorship in the process but coming up with a multivoiced “I”—“Unity in Variety,” as Emerson might say (Nature 52). The next class day, I gave them my collage of their observations, and we read it aloud together. Over the three semesters I did this exercise, which was spontaneous the first time and then, of course, ceased to be, but the students loved it—in sun, in rain, in the early spring chill. Together they wrote,

I started thinking a lot about presence, and how much of my life I spend existing in a place other than the physical space I am currently occupying. I am always thinking ahead or behind, worrying about the past or the future or both, so much so that the present usually goes unnoticed.

It all reminded me how sometimes it's easy to get lost in what you feel you should be doing, what is expected of you from society, or maybe even trying to find your way in life. Nature, however, has no concept of these kinds of pressures, it just takes life for what it is.

In feedback surveys, several students cited the day they spent outside as the most valuable of the semester. The best day of class was the day they wandered around alone, without me. I tried not to take it personally.

Given how much they relished being outside, when I taught a course on Transcendentalism, I took my class on a hike at a nearby nature preserve. Seven of them showed up, unused to being out of bed at 10 am on a Saturday and giddy at the prospect of seeing each other off campus. As we made our way through the scrubby cedar forest and into the sunshine, over muddy trails and by meadows of bluebonnets, the students said they wished they could get outside more often. They talked to each other, and to me. Every so often, we stopped and read aloud a piece of Thoreau’s essay “Walking.” Taking in Thoreau’s words in the classroom is one thing; reading them in the sunshine as we beheld the lake and trees below us was quite another. On the hike, two students climbed a tree. One broke a shoe. Another brought water for the rest of the group. When we got back to the parking lot—muddy, sweaty, tired—the bond among us was warmer and more affectionate than it had been when we set off. We closed with these words of Thoreau’s—“So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn”—and said goodbye (280).

Did these nudges move the students toward a different way of being in the world? Yes, in some cases. A few weeks into the semester, I noticed that one student had added a Blake quote to the signature block of his email. Another told me that he’d started carrying a notebook around to jot down ideas and observations, instead of relying on his phone. He said that now when he goes running—he was on the cross-country team—he doesn’t zone out anymore, but looks around him. A third noted, in his final exam booklet, that the class had helped him grow not only as a scholar, but as a person. And a fourth wrote in an email, “At the beginning of the semester when you said that students in the past said that this class changed their life, I didn’t believe you. Now after going through the class, I can definitely say I have a new and better perspective on life.”

I am not alone in my conviction that the poems I care about can offer a path to the good life. In recent years, books prescribing literary or philosophical figures as guides have proliferated, a genre unto themselves. Consider Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, William Braxton Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, or Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are and Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life blend analysis with memoir, as do the bibliomemoirs My Life in Middlemarch and A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by Rebecca Mead and William Deresiewicz, respectively. Whether about philosophers or fiction writers, these books share the belief that reading has ethical import. To those inclined to read purely for pleasure, they say that reading can matter. To those trained in the hermeneutics of suspicion, they remind us that we can come to literature in more than one posture, for more than one reason. The practice of bibliotherapy, in which a therapist or teacher and her patients or students discuss fiction in order to provide therapeutic benefit, relies on the possibility that literature can heal. Writing about her experience with bibliotherapy in the New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey asserts, “In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.” Dovey’s observation, which strikes me as Romantic in its own right, aligns with pedagogical currents in the scholarship of teaching and learning that underscore the importance of being “human first, professor second,” so that, in turn, it is our students’ uniqueness, their individual interests and needs, that drives our pedagogies (Davidson).

Still, the question remains, as it always does, of how to embody and transmit these convictions, however deeply held, in the classroom. Tell your students that a bunch of poems have the potential to change their lives, and you’ll be met with skepticism, at best. For me, the answer doesn’t lie in any set of best practices, hacks, or tips. Instead, it comes down to modeling. Spend 16 weeks making plain what the literature means to you, giving the students opportunities to internalize and repurpose the ideas they encounter, and it will likely come to mean something to them, too. What I feel most proud of when I reflect on my own teaching British and American Romanticisms is not any particular technique or assignment. It’s that my students and I created a space where it was okay to take things personally. That in itself is an innovation.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The Philosophy of Literary Form. 2nd ed., Louisiana State UP, 1967, pp. 293–304.
Davidson, Cathy. “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course.” Hastac: Changing the Way We Teach and Learn, 11 May 2020,–davidson/2020/05/11/single-most-essential-requirement-designing-fall-online-course. Accessed 12 June 2020.
Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. Free Press, 2015.
———. A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter. Penguin, 2011.
Dovey, Ceridwen. “Can Reading Make You Happier?” New Yorker, 9 June 2015, Accessed 12 June 2020.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Prose, edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, Belknap, 2015, pp. 91–109.
———. Nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Prose, edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, Belknap, 2015, pp. 34–73.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002, pp. 509–35.
Thoreau, Henry D. “Walking.” Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer, Yale, 2013, pp. 243–80.
Wallace, David Foster. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, Little, Brown, 2009.
Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy, Penguin, 1975, pp. 63–124.


Recommended Reading

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Other Press, 2010.
Botton, Alain de. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel. Vintage, 1997.
Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford, 2008.
Kaag, John. Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
———. Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life. Princeton, 2020.
Keats, John. “Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 21 April 1819.” Selected Poems and Letters of Keats, edited by Robert Gittings, Heinemann, 1966, pp. 117–19.
Mead, Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. Crown, 2014.
Rovira, James, editor. Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2. Lexington Books, 2018.
Worthen, Molly. “Memorize that Poem!” New York Times, 27 August 2017, Section SR, pp. 1.


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