It is very tempting to turn this review into a full-flown dissertation, indeed dissertation upon dissertation, of each of the Romantic poets whom Bowra covers here and to engage him upon every point, so significant do they seem to me. Happily or regrettably, this is not possible in an Amazon review. So, here is my overview of Bowra's treatment of the English Romantic poets and their immediate successors:
One must be reminded , first of all, of the critical zeitgeist at the time when the lectures, upon which this work is based, delivered at Harvard in the late 1940's whilst Bowra was on sabbatical from his native England, were given. At the time, the "New Criticism" was all the rage and to champion the Romantic poets, at the time, was considered no less than heresy. Anyone less than an eminent Classical scholar such as Bowra would have been dismissed out of hand. Luckily, Bowra was such a Classical scholar and we thus have this marvellous survey of English Romantic poesy.
Bowra in this book, does a splendid job of explicating how the mythology of Blake was melded into the musicality of his verse without becoming bogged down in Blakean mythopoeics,and he convincingly describes Coleridge's Ancient Mariner as "a criticism of life". He is also the first writer I have read who rightfully casts Wordsworth as the tragic figure he became after losing his poetic powers, as the poet himself describes in "Intimations of Immortality".
On Shelley, he writes gloriously:
"For Shelley poetry was the only way to grasp this ultimate reality, because it must be understood not through the intellect but through the imagination....his triumph is that, through the enchantment which his poetry sets on us, we are able to explore regions of which he is the discoverer, and almost the only denizen."
He further gives a piercing reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and explains why, despite Keats' exquisite sensitivity to the beauty of the physical world, or perhaps because of it, he knew that "unheard music is sweeter still" and that dwelling solely on the transitory delights of this world does not achieve the transcendent.
I've given the respective reader much more than a soupçon of what to expect from this delightful overview of what the Romantics, through their poetry, achieved, endured and the light they continue to shed on mankind in the 21st Century. Please do read this engaging book to plumb the depths further.