The Romantic Poets: and the role of Nature
The poetry of the English Romantic period (1800-1832), often contain many descriptions, and ideas of nature, not found in most writing. The Romantic poets share several charecteristics in common, certainly one of the most significant of these is their respective views on nature.Which seems to range from a more spiritual, if not pantheistic view, as seen in the works of William Wordsworth, to the much more realistic outlook of John Keats. All of these authors discuss, in varrying degreess, the role of nature in acquiring meaningful insight into the human condition. These writers all make appeals to nature as if it were some kind of living entity calls are made for nature to rescue the struggling writer, and carry his ideas to the world. One writer stated in his introduction to a Romantic anthology:
The variety of this catalogue implies completedness;
surely not phase or feature of the outer natural world
is without its appropriate counterpart in the inner world
of human personality. Nature, then, can be all things to
wails, like the poet himself, for the world’s wrong; or it
lifts his own thoughts to scatter them like leaves, like
and heart-ache, the happiness of the nightingale’s song
intensified an unbearable consciousness of unattainable
Nature took a different role in each of the Romantic poets, and even the PreRomantics, and Victorians writings, but each of these writers has that one major thing in common: They all write extensively on the role of nature in the lives of people.
The English Romantic poets, hailing mostly from the Lakeside district of England, would have grown up in a region that is known for its natural beauty. These writers did not know the ugliness of the city, nor do they have any experience of the crowded streets, and polluted air of London. To these writers, the world is a very beautiful place. There are wonderful virgin forests, pristine lakes and rivers, and beautiful wildlife, making this region a wealthy little virtual paradise. Certainly this would (at least partly) account for the facination with the natural world that can be found in these poets. They mostly grew up seeing nature in its highest form of beauty, and they were definately influenced by their environments.
Throughout the course of this paper, four poems, written by three poets, will be discussed in some detail. Additional poems and poets will also be mentioned briefly as this discussion progresses. They are Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality, stanzas: One, two, four, and eleven, as well as parts of five and eight. The second Wordsworth poem is: My Heart Leaps Up. The second poem will be Percy-Byshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. And the final poem will be: Bright Star by John Keats. Each of these poems contain strong references to nature, and its role in the developement of human identity, and additionaly, of the sacredness, almost divinity that is to be found in nature. Throughout these poems, the reader will find, as has been mentioned, a varrying (yet still somewhat common) idea of the importance of nature. This should help the reader to catch a little insight into how the English Romantics viewed man and his role within nature, as well as nature’s role within human society and specificaly, how nature can effect and individuals development over his lifetime.
Let us now turn to the first poet that we will discuss, William Wordsworth. Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, released a book of poems titled: Lyrical Ballads. With this book came the beggining of the Romantic period. Wordsworth declared that: ” Poetry, should be written in the language of the common man and should be about incidents and situations from common life” (Francis, 36). Clearly this is a rejection of the Neo- Classical tradition, and an embracing of ordinary things and people. Wordsworth can really be classified by his very romanticized view held toward nature:
A love of nature is one of Wordsworth’s predominate
and invisible spirit that is present everywhere in the
Clearly Wordsworth fits very nicely into this paper’s claim toward the Romantic view of nature. In the first poem of his that we will discuss, Ode on Intimations of Immortality, we can see many great examples of his use and view of the natural world. Additionaly it is interesting to note his discussion on children, whom he believes to be “closer to God than adults” (ibid). We will now pause to quote from the afforementioned stanza’s:
Ode on Intimations of Immortality
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of your;– Turn
wheresoeve’er I may, By night or day, The things which I
have seen I now can see no more.
The rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight Look round her when the
heavens are bare; Waters on a starry night Are beautiful
and fair; The sunshine is a glorious birth; But yet I know,
where’er I go, That there hath passed a glory from the
Ye blessed creatures, I have heard the call Ye to each
other make; I see The heavens laugh with you in your
jubilee; My heart is at your festival, My head hath its
coronal, The fullness of your bliss, I feel– I feel it all.
adorning, This sweet May morning, And the children
are culling on every side, In a thousand valleys far and
wide, Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm, And the
babe leaps up on his mother’s arm:– I hear, I hear, with
joy I hear! — But there’s a tree, of many, one, A single
field which I have looked upon, Both of them speak of
something that is gone: The pansy at my feet Doth the
same tale repeat: Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
And O ye fountains, meadows, hills, and groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves! Yet in my
heart of hearts I feel your might; I only relinquished
one delight: To live beneath your more habited sway.
I love the brooks which down the channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they; The
innocent brightness of a new-born day Is lovely yet;
man’s mortality; Another race hath been, and other palms
are won. Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts
that do often lie too deep for tears.(46-52).
Notice divine imagery throughout. The writer uses the phrase: “Apperelled in celestial light”, reffering to the earth as if it can put on the light from the heavenlies, like clothing. He compares its glory to that of a dream, or from something in a far of land. Stanza two has images of raibows, the moon, waters, and sunshine. Very celestial and important images, beyond what we normaly discuss when we are discussing nature. Stanza four, discusses children, as was mentioned earlier, before going on to discribing the tree and the field that: ” speak of something that is gone”, and of the pansy that does the same. He personifies these images of nature, as if they have a specific tale of another age, to tell. At one point, in stanza five, he refers to: “Nature’s priest”, as if nature is really his deity, and there exists a clergy surrounding it (48). Simalarly in stanza eight, he writes of a “Mighty prophet!” (49). He is talking of a human as the prophet, but as prophet of what? Of nature.
So it is thus far very clear that Wordsworth is regarding nature as somehow being divine. To him, the natural world is almost a God. He goes on in stanza eleven, to discuss nature as people sometimes discuss a religious experience. He cries to the “fountains, meadow, hills, and groves”, that he feels their might in his heart, and his “one delight to live beneath (their) more habitual sway” (51-52). He even seems to suggest that nature has a personality that cares for mankind “That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality” (52). Nature is given such a great significane that even “the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie to deep for tears” (ibid). Wordsworth’s ideas about nature seem to change a little as he ages, which is undoubetdly due to his move towards Christianity. Here, however, he definately expresses the typical Romantic view of the natural world.
Some critics have assumed that: ” The Ode is ‘Wordsworth’s conscious farewell to his art, a dirge sung over his departing powers’” (Trilling, 123). Other writers dissagree, but none the less, the significance still remains. If Wordsworth has decided to describe his growing feebility, and loss of ” the glory and the dream…”, than nature has certainly been given a very important role to play (53). He chooses creatures from the physical world to relay his suffering and his intense hope. The flowers, fields and trees all ask him what has happened, where has his poetry gone too. Why can he no longer see the celestial light on the world? He has really given nature the highest role in his writing. As we turn now to the second poem by Wordsworth, we will find many of the same themes througout.
The second peom, My Heart Leaps Up, follows many of the same conventions:
My Heart Leaps Up
My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; So it shall be when I am
a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die!
days to be Bound each to each by natural piety. (53).
Here we have Wordsworth declaring his appreciation for beauty in the natural world, perhaps partly for the same reasons that he does so in the previous poem: “Wordsworth not only confirms his senses but also confirms his ability to percieve beauty” (Trilling, 126). Additionaly, it is clear that Wordsworth had a great admiration for natural beauty as a youth, and claims that he still has it and if he ever looses it, he wishes to die. He, once again, places a great deal of weight on his perception of nature and the physical world’s importance on human life. Another item that we can draw from the text is his statement that “The child is father of the man” (53). This is typical of Wordsworth, who often regarde the child to posses greater wisdom than the adult. Children are closer to God, and they have an innate appreciation for the world’s beauty, that their aged counterparts often do not possess.
Many of the same kinds of ideas can be witnessed in the next writer that will be discussed. Percy Bysshe Shelley, was the other major early romantic writer, besides Wordsworth and Coleridge. Shelley was ” an idealist who believed in the essential goodness of human nature” (Francis, 82). Shelley was more preocupied with visions of the “absract, misty and ethereal” (ibid). Certainly not the everyday, physical world that Wordsworth largely concerned himself with. The poem we will look at by this writer is Ode To The West Wind. Stanza’s one and five.
Ode to the West Wind
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, Pestilence
strickin multitudes: O thou Who chariotest to their
dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, Each
like a corpse within its grave, until Thine azure sister
of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill (Driving
sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) With living hues
and odors plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; Destroyer
and Preserver; hear, oh hear!
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: What if my
leaves are falling like its own! The tumult of thy mighty
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou Me impeuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguesed hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? (83, 85).
Like Wordsworth, Shelley appeals to nature, as a higher power, to rescue him from the “thorns of life” (84). In the first stanza, Shelley writes of autumn, vivid images of the dead leaves, and winged seeds that cover the earth. Anyone who has ever seen fall, can clearly picture all the beautiful colours of “hectic red”, covering the trees (83). All soon to be replace by only the death that comes with winter, until the Spring “shall blow Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth” (ibid). He personifies the Spring, as if it has some kind of power to wake up the sleeping world, and usher in an era of new life. Spring can fill the world with “living hues” and preserve and destroy all things (ibid).
The fourth stanza (not hitherto quoted), contains images again of the wind lifting the dead leaves up, and seemingly giving them life. He compares the freedom of the leaves, to the freedom he has experienced as a boy, and his longing to return to such a carefree state. Then comes his most concise pleading for nature’s help “Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! (84). The final stanza, quoted in its entirety above, finally completes the metaphor of his “dead thoughts”, as leaves (85). He is imploring the wind to spread his thoughts over the earth so that they might somehow become part of a new awakening. He also uses the metaphor of “Ashes and sparks” being driven across the land, ignighting the world on fire (ibid). Finally he states that the wind is like a trumpet of prophecy declaring the arrival of the Spring.
Now we come to the last poet, and consequently, the last poem that we will be discussing. It is Bright Star by John Keats:
Bright Star John Keats.
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou are–
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night, And
Watching, with eternal lids apart, Like Nature’s
patient sleepless eremite, The moving waters at their
preistlike task Of pure ablution round earth’s human
shores Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask Of
snow upon the mountains and the moon: No– yet
still steadfast, still unchangaeble, Pillowed upon my
fair love’s ripening breast, Awake forever in a sweet
unrest, Still, still to hear her tender- taken breath,
And so live ever– or else swoon to death. (110).
Keats compares himself to the stars and measurese his own stability by its. He wants to be like nature’s “patient sleepless eremite” (110). Unchangeable, inmutable and steadfast, not being subject to the whims of a moment or the fleeting emotions that he was subject to. He also brings in images of a “soft-fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and the moon”(ibid). He also imagines the snow being on his lover’s breast, it seems almost that he is refering to the mountains or the moon. It is also interesting how he refers to the “The moving waters at their preistlike task Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores” (ibid). In keeping with common Romantic style, Keats has incorporated an image of the spritual into his work, similarly to what Wordsworth accomplishes in his Ode.
Like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley John Keats is definately under the impression of nature being a great and benign force: Almost divine. However:
Interestingly, this godlike nature beyond nature is becoming, as it now emerges, increasingly humanized. It loves, suffers loss, and mourns; and its essence thereby defines itself as something other than mere being or thoughtless life– something like a type of mind (Hodgson, 81).
This becomes apperent in the later Romantic works, but even in these, the poets are calling for compassion from nature. They want nature to look down upon them and to suffer with them and trully, to rejoice with them. To restore them to their health and defend them against their critics and naysayers.
The Romantic poets were rather preocupied with the natural world, as is probably pretty obvious by now. So much of their ideas came from the very fact that most of them lived in the Lakeside district, a very beautiful place. They grew up with a great admiration for the physical world, and came to almost adopt a pantheistic outlook on life, especially Wordsworth. Shelley and Keats were less focussed on the spiritual realm, but as both of their writings clearly show, nature was still highly regarded if not deitized.
St. Stephen’s University
Prof: M. A Smith
The Romantic Poets: and the role of Nature
of Works Cited :
Camilla, Sister Francis S.L, The Romantics and Victorians., The MacMillan company, New York: 1961.
Frost, William, Romantic And Victorian Poetry., Prentive- Hall. Inc, Englewood Cliffs: 1961.
Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination., Viking Press, New York: 1942.