The Romantic poets present us with a series of problems that demand the cooperation of literary scholarship and linguistic analysis. W.H. Auden, writing as a somewhat sceptical heir to the legacies of Romanticism and modernism, summarised our difficulties. 'Poetry' he wrote, in memory of Yeats, 'makes nothing happen'. What he meant is that, unlike most other forms of linguistic representation or interpersonal exchange, the poem is confined within the vacuum of its own self-determined formal conditions. It can issue orders, promote one particular moral or ethical position above others, or enable its perpetrator to complain about his own existential condition or that which he shares with the rest of humanity, but it forbids itself from entering the same functional circuit of personal, social or political exchange as the letter, the philosophical thesis or the manifesto for the envisaged rights of man. The problem, from which no poet or reader is immune, is of how to balance the paraphrasable, functional message of the text with its specificity as literary discourse, its self-conscious deployment of linguistic properties and conventions which create patterns of signification that poems do not share with non-poetic discourses. Poetry is never immune from the uncertain relation between textual and extra-textual context, but in the period occupied by the Romantics we encounter a particularly difficult interrelation between functional purpose, aesthetics and poetic form.
It could be argued that Romanticism, at least in its somewhat confined designation as a change in the history of English poetry, was a response to an unprecedented pattern of intellectual, social and political developments. The effects of the Enlightenment were felt in the theoretical underpinnings of both the French and the American revolutions. Writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Paine and Godwin had begun to challenge and threaten the