Nature is a prevalent and vital motif in Romantic poetry, providing an essential polarity in the face of an increasingly industrialised society.
The notion of nature, the great outdoors, for example, offers the poet both literal and metaphorical escape from the ‘fever of the world’
1. In Lines Composed a few Miles above Tintern Abbey
2, William Wordsworth celebrates man finding solace in nature, seeking its ‘serene and blessed mood’, far away from the ‘din Of towns and cities’
3. Indeed, there is a sense in which Wordsworth is both physically and mentally retreating to the natural world and the beauty of its ‘deep seclusion’, this idea of psychologically or perhaps spiritually attuning oneself to nature, the catharsis of its ‘tranquil restoration’. Catharsis is perhaps the key word here. The poet’s escape to nature rejects society’s citified ‘din’ in favour of finding a ‘purer mind’ amongst nature. Nature becomes a refuge where the:
heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Wordsworth ostensibly underlines a sense of emotional articulation that comes with man’s reunification with nature. Nature has a restorative power. It speaks to the unconscious, the poet’s ‘feelings… Of unremembered pleasure’. Nature is able to evoke these ‘gleams of half-extinguished thought’, ‘the recognitions dim and faint’. ‘The mind’, as Wordsworth affirms, ‘revives again’.
The cathartic power of nature introduces a similarly prominent theme in Romantic poetry: youth and the poet’s desire to regress to a state of innocence. This theme lies at the heart of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth’s poem is a poignant evocation of the ‘dim and faint’ recollection of childhood pleasure. In returning to this bucolic paradise, the poet is reminded of the ‘coarser pleasures of [his] boyish days’4, the ‘dizzy raptures’ of his postadolescence. Read why change is constant and inevitable
Nature becomes an aide-mï¿½moire of the carefree bliss of youth. Nature and youth are intrinsic to the William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. No more is this apparent than in Nurse’s Song from Songs of innocence, in which Blake celebrates the purity of childhood. The poem’s beginning is the exposition of a pastoral Eden, where:
voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill while the conclusion:
the little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d
And all the hills echoed, the rhythm and repetition of ‘&’ being mimetic of the children’s rollicking ‘coaser pleasures’6, is a delightful evocation of the innocent bliss of youth. The language itself is simple and unpretentious, underpinning this sense of child-like virtue. Yet, while the poem is bookended by these images of bucolic innocence, the poem is also an allegory of sexual awakening. Blake’s references to:
the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise,
and the children’s protestation that is ‘yet day’ are subtle allusions to this inevitable loss of innocence. This theme occurs also in Blake’s The Ecchoing Green, where he asserts:
And sport no more seen,
On the darkening Green,8
a cogent symbol of the inescapable nature of maturation. Nature itself and ‘earth’s diurnal course’9 become metaphors for sexual awakening. Yet, while the conclusion of The Ecchoing Green is clearly laced with a capitulating melancholy, that the ‘sun does [and must] descend’, the children’s innocence and gradual maturation is found secure in these pastoral Utopias.
This notion of a bucolic paradise is likewise indicative of Romantic philosophy. Indeed, the poignancy of Wordworth’s Tintern Abbey lies in the poet’s idealistic return to nature. The recurrence of nature in Romantic poetry represents a rejection of the industrialisation of society. It is a yearning for a simpler, less restrictive society, one freed from its ‘charter’d [streets]’10 and ‘mind-forg’d manacles’11. In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth eschews the ‘din’ of an industrialised state and instead turns to the ‘deep rivers, and the lonely streams’12, the ‘beauteous forms’ of the ‘sylvan Wye’. In oblique contrast, Wordworth’s Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood is a lament for a paradise lost.
The poem begins with:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in a celestial light,13
the implication being that this is now ‘no more’, ‘that there hath’, as Wordsworth bemoans, ‘past away a glory from the earth’. His lament is crystallised when he proclaims:
But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone14.
Nature, in Wordsworth’s elegy, becomes a symbol of what once was and now, with the industrial revolution, is not. It becomes a symbol of innocence and of an innocent world in an age that has metaphorically lost its innocence. In contrast to his idyllic, pastoral imagery of nature in The Ecchoing Green and Nurse’s Song, Blake employs an industrial vernacular to condemn a repressive, industrial society. A far cry from ‘meadows laugh with lively green’15, Blake’s rhetoric in The Tyger:
What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?16
is itself mechanical and aggressive, mimetic of this repressive hammering of society.
Indeed, this sense of Romantic regression is ostensibly an unarticulated yearning for liberation and freedom from a ‘charter’d’17 society. Unsurprisingly, we see the parallels of youth and nature. While the Romantic poets look to youth in its ‘thoughtless’18 freedom, it is in nature we find this realm of liberation. While the ‘din Of towns and cities’ offers this ‘[fevered]’ world, it is a ‘fiery forge’19 of ‘charter’d’ lives and ‘mind-forg’d manacles’20. In a sense, it is repressive and lifeless, all too structured and rigid. The torpid rhythm and rudimentary a b a b rhyme scheme of Blake’s London highlights this adamantine and inflexible society, and the poet’s own disillusion with it.
In contrast, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood, are irregular in form, rhythm and line length. In terms of verse, they are altogether liberated from this sense of lyrical structure, almost attaining an elegant stream of consciousness. Nature provides this freedom. In contrast to society’s rigidity, there is a life to the poets’ descriptions of nature. Wordsworth’s Wye is alive with the ‘murmur’21 of ‘mountain springs’, where the ‘sportive wood run wild’. Blake illustrates a similar quiet euphoria and pleasure with nature. In The Ecchoing Green, he presents us with a vernal idyll, where:
The merry bells ring,
To welcome the spring,22
while, in Laughing Song, he vividly delineates the frolicsome ‘dimpling stream [that] runs laughing by’23. Nature, in contrast to a stagnant, restrictive society, is ostensibly alive. ‘All Nature’, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘seems at work’24.
This notion of Arcadian liberation, is importantly symbolised by recurrence of birds in Romantic poetry. In Blake’s The Ecchoing Green, he refers to:
Sky-lark and thrush,
The birds of the bush25,
the sky-lark, as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s eponymous poem, a bird that sings only when in flight, and often when it is too high to be visible, being liberated from the ‘bonds of earth’26 and soaring beyond the reach of the physical senses, becomes an emblem of spiritual transcendence – ‘from Heaven, or near it’27 – and freedom28. Notably, in Blake’s The School-Boy, the poet castigates institutionalisation, questioning:
How can the bird that is born for joy,
Sit in a cage and sing.29
Of course ‘the bird’ in this case is a metaphor for the titular child, whose youthful freedom has been quashed by the requirement of institutional schooling. Blake’s sentiments are echoed in Wordsworth’s:
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy, 30
from Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood, which evokes both the literal imprisonment of institutional schooling and the metaphorical prison that is adulthood. This philosophy interestingly contrasts with that belonging to Anna Letitia Barbauld, a Romantic poetic and essayist as well as being a teacher at a school in Palgrave, Suffolk. Barbauld naturally asserts in the essay On Prejudice that schooling is necessary in the development of young minds. She argues, that without the prejudice and guidance of a tutor: ‘Who is to recommend books to [the child]? Who is to give him the previous information necessary to comprehend the question?
Who is to tell him whether or not it is important?’31 Barbauld stresses that such influence is inevitable, that ‘a very small part only of the opinions of the coolest philosopher are the result of fair reasoning; the rest are formed by his education, his temperament, by the age in which he lives, by trains of thought directed to a particular track through some accidental association – in short, by prejudice’32. The implication being that education is necessary, but that it does not have to be dogmatic, that the tutor should ‘gently… guide his pupil’33. In this, the child in his development will formulate his own philosophy, his own ‘radical and primary truths which are essential to his happiness’
34. Vitally, Barbauld argues that ‘a child may be allowed to find out for himself that boiling water will scald his fingers, and mustard bite his tongue; but he must be prejudiced against rats-bane, because the experiment would be too costly’35. Barbauld concludes that ‘to reject the influence of prejudice in education, is itself one of the most unreasonable of prejudices’36. The implication of Barbauld’s theory would ostensibly oppose the view of Blake and Wordsworth who value youthful freedom in nature.
Barbauld’s arguments assert the necessity of education for children. However, while Barbauld suggests that for children to develop they have to be under the guidance and influence of a parent or tutor who will shape their vision of the world, she does not argue that the ‘bird’ must ‘sit in a cage and sing’.
Indeed, Barbauld’s philosophy of education is actually Romantic in its ideal of creating and developing the individual. For Wordsworth’s attuning to nature in Tintern Abbey represents what some critics have referred to as the “myth of nature”37. According to the introduction to Wordsworth in The Norton Anthology Seventh Edition, Volume 2, Tintern Abbey details ‘the “growth” of his mind to maturity, and the development of his emotional and moral life, as an interaction between his mind and the outer world’
38. While Tintern Abbey charts the development of the individual in his interaction with nature, Blake’s socio-political poems such as London and A Divine Image damn a society that has rejected the worth of the individual, a society of ‘charter’d’ inhabitants, futility of the ‘Chimney-sweepers cry’39 [sic], and the disillusionment of the ‘hapless Soldiers sigh’40.
Ultimately, nature in Romantic poetry can be seen to represent a yearning for the lost paradise. Blake’s Garden of Love subtly illustrates this lost Arcadia, when he finds that:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green41.
The incident represents the destruction of pastoral beauty in the industrial age. The industrial revolution is symbolically both anti-God and anti-Man. It is an environment that is man-made as opposed to nature, which is Biblically considered God’s creation. Yet, in such an age of machinery it also in part rejects man’s own capabilities in regard to industry and manufacture. What Romanticism finds in nature is spiritual consolation. As Wordsworth asserts in Tintern Abbey:
Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her42.
Nature becomes a refuge, a comfort, that in ‘vacant or in pensive mood’, as Wordsworth affirms in I wandered lonely as a cloud:
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.43
By the same token, in the face of mortality, nature endures. The ‘ecchoing green’ becomes a metaphor for renewal and rebirth. Nature, like the ‘sylvan historian’44 that is Keats’ ‘Grecian Urn’ ‘shalt remain’45 like the perpetually blooming ‘amaranths’46 of Coleridge’s Work Without Hope. In a world of change, nature is remains a vital constant.