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Literature

Romantic Poets & Nature

Along with possessing a deep appreciation for beauty, individualism, self-determination, and all things Gothic, British Romanticism poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge also appreciated the wonders of the natural world around them, especially since they lived in an area of England surrounded by lakes and streams, wide open pastureland, and a vast assortment of plants and animals.

They were also fortunate enough to have been surrounded by some of the finest art collections in Britain during the late 1700’s and the early years of the 18th century, such as in the British Museum and private art collections. In addition, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge were children of the Age of Enlightenment which stressed the importance of man’s place in the natural world.

Thus, unlike many of their predecessors, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge understood the power of poetry to describe the true realities of nature and how it could  “symbolically represent their emotions and thoughts” (“Romantic Poetry”). In essence, for these Romantic poets, nature “represented the truest form of divinity” (“Romantic Poetry”), an ethereal paradise created by God but ruled by man.

For William Wordsworth, nature was the ultimate source for poetical inspiration and symbolized everything that was pure and untouched by the hands of men. As a poet, Wordsworth “did away with allusions to classical gods and goddesses, nymphs, sprites, and the heroes” of ancient Greek mythology, such as Athena, Zeus, Odysseus, and Achilles, and instead utilized his “love of the meadows and the woods and the mountains” as the primary source for many of his poetical works (Williams, “Wordsworth”).

One excellent example is “Lines” which was composed “A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” on July 13, 1798–“”These waters, rolling from their mountain springs/With a soft inland murmur. Once again/Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs/That on a wild secluded scene impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion, and connect/The landscape with the quiet of the sky” (Hunt, 754, lines 3-8).

In these lines, Wordsworth expresses how often he contemplated the natural world about him, in this case, sitting on a cliff high above the ruined Tintern Abbey and writing verse. In many ways, “Lines” as well as his other best-known poem “Prelude” symbolizes Wordsworth’s understanding of his own “cosmic insignificance” (Williams, “Wordsworth”) as compared to the world of nature which will outlast the lifetimes of all men and civilizations.

Similarly, John Keats found great inspiration for his poetry through the influence of nature which as a world unto itself was filled with beauty and grandeur that transcended the petty problems of man and his world which existed outside of nature. Keats also transposed his own feelings and emotions based on what he observed in the natural world while writing his poetry, such as in “Ode on Melancholy” in which he describes the beauty and sensuousness of “droop-headed flowers,” “the green hill in the April shroud,” “sorrow on a morning rose,” and “rosary of yew berries” (Hunt, 796).

Of course, Keats’ immense love for nature served as the theme and backdrop for one of his most celebrated poems “Ode to a Nightingale,” composed in 1820. In this poem, Keats expresses his inward sentiments based on observations in nature like a nightingale flying among the trees “In some melodious plot/Of beechen green, and shadows numberless” while singing “of summer in full-throated ease” (Hunt, 798, lines 3-5). Keats also uses some beautiful and very poetic language to express how he feels deep inside when the nightingale bids him “Adieu!” and flies “Past the near meadows, over the still stream/Up the hillside” and into “the next valley glades” (Hunt, 798, lines 12-13). As one can see from these lines, Keats utilized the natural world as a stimulant for his verse, much like (or possibly unlike) Samuel Taylor Coleridge who allegedly drank laudanum (opium) while composing “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

For Percy Bysshe Shelley, the universe of the natural world was a sort of oasis or paradise where he could lose himself while contemplating the sublime beauty of a bird in flight (akin to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”) as in “To a Skylark” in which he observes a skylark rising “Higher still and higher/From the earth thou springest/Like a cloud of fire” (Hunt, 807, lines 6-8), and then disappearing into the “golden lightning/Of the sunken sun” (Hunt, 807, lines 11-12).

However, Shelley also appreciated the power of nature to destroy all that is beautiful and sublime and to recreate itself during the seasons, changing from the cold bitterness of winter and into the life-affirming warmth and splendor of springtime. The first verse of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” sums this up perfectly–“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being/Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (Hunt, 808, lines 1-3).

Compared to Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge occupies the position as perhaps the greatest and most talented of all the British Romantic poets of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. His most famous poem is of course the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which contains many symbolic and metaphorical expressions related to the natural world, such as having the sea as the setting for the adventures of the mariner, and using an albatross to represent man’s folly via the old image of a dead albatross hanging around the neck of a sailor responsible for its death which in effect dooms all of his crewmates to a terrible demise.

Ironically, Coleridge composed a poem entirely dedicated to nature, simply called “To Nature,” inspired by taking a stroll through the English countryside during the early months of spring, 1820. As Coleridge once admitted, “To Nature” is a poem that dwells “half-humorously and half-anxiously on the life and spirit of Nature” (Hunt, 823) which Coleridge saw as the quintessential source for all of life as well as death which he so expertly enclosed within the lines of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “To Nature.”

For example, Coleridge states that while strolling through the beautiful English countryside, he felt a sense of “Deep, heartfelt, inward joy” while observing in the leaves and flowers that surrounded him “Lessons of love and earnest piety” (Hunt, 824, lines 3-5). So taken was Coleridge by the natural beauty of his surroundings that he concludes this poem by declaring that he will “build my altar in the fields” and use the “blue sky” as his dome or ceiling. He also praises the “sweet fragrance” of the wild flowers that provide a glorious incense for the sense of smell.

In essence, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge represent the best of the British Romantic poets when it comes to expressing the beauties and wonders of nature. They also symbolize the power of the poetical imagination, especially when under the influence of the natural world with all its splendor and majesty. As Wordsworth once remarked, poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Hunt, 772) that arise when a poet enters the natural world and beholds all of its beauty which was placed there by the “spirit of eternity” for all men to enjoy and contemplate (Hunt, 773).

Bibliography

Hunt, Douglas, ed. The Riverside Anthology of Literature. Boston: Houghton- Mifflin Company, 1988.

“Romantic Poetry.” Web. 2013. 13 Feb. 2013. <http://britishromanticism.wikispaces.com/Poetry>.

Williams, Caleb. “Wordsworth: Celebration of Man and Nature.” Web. 2006. 14 Feb. 2013. <http://www.sol.com.au/kor/6_03.htm>.