Beauty Is Truth – Romantic poetry
The writings of Britain’s Romantic poets show that environmental sensibilities are nothing new. Lucy Moore delves into the minds of the ecologists of two centuries past.
The prevailing image of a Romantic poet is that of William Wordsworth, walking through his beloved Lake District and chancing upon a hillside covered with daffodils. Later, remembering this unexpected blaze of gold, Wordsworth is transported back to a mood of simple happiness and gratitude. With this poem, Wordsworth did much to bring into the British consciousness an appreciation of the picturesque, and a sense that nature, in the abstract, has a meaning that goes beyond the day-to-day provision of man’s needs.
Until the eighteenth century, man looked on nature as a resource to be harvested to supply his needs. Only the very rich, and even then only in times of peace, had time to spare worrying about gardens and hunting. But with trade and with the first rumblings of the Industrial Revolution emerged a leisured, town-based middle class. People began to think about recreation, and about escaping from the dirty, cramped cities in which they lived. This was the age of the novel, of clubs; of landscaped gardens in the country and pleasure gardens in the city. While men like Capability Brown enabled their rich patrons to feel they could control nature, transporting whole villages to achieve rolling acres of parkland, the urban middle classes took to rambling and nature walks. When the Reverend William Gilpin published his Observations on the River Wye… Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty: Made in the Summer of the Year 1770, a new craze was born. For the first time, nature became an object, instead of being taken f or granted; and this may be the moment the modern environmental movement began.
Although William Wordsworth was a popular poet, even appointed Poet Laureate in 1843, in his lifetime his writings on the Lake District far outsold any of his volumes of verse. His guide to the beauty of the hills and lakes in which he was brought up and lived most of his adult life not only made him famous but brought to the area a host of visitors. It became fashionable to go on walking holidays — and even more fashionable to have encountered Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two most famous residents of the area, along the way. Coleridge described carving his name on a rock atop a peak in Cumbria, where other climbers had carved their names, and seeing a party a moment later coming across it. ‘That must be the poet Coleridge,’ said a man importantly to his female companions, pointing it out.
In some ways the Lake District’s sudden popularity — making his wild landscape almost crowded — must have saddened Wordsworth, whose poetry describes the rapture he experienced through solitary contact with nature:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
In On the projected Kendal and Windermere Railway he further lamented: ‘Is then no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?’
Wordsworth’s use of the word ‘sublime’ in the first extract is key to an understanding of the Romantics. In the dictionary its meaning is given as lofty, elevated by joy, exalted in character; awakening or expressing an uplifting emotion, producing a sense of elevated beauty, nobility, grandeur, solemnity or awe. Its best pictorial representation comes in the work of JMW Turner, in his Studies from Nature (another manifestation of the fashion for the picturesque) and, most resonantly, in his watercolours, which seem almost to capture the essence of light.
The Romantic poets saw nature as a powerful redemptive force, a form of purification and transcendence. In Frost at Midnight, Coleridge, with his young son at his side, muses on his own childhood in London, where he ‘saw nought lovely but the sky and stars / But thou, my babe!’ he continues, ‘shalt wander like a breeze’, seeing in all of nature’s wildest shapes and sounds the ‘eternal language, which thy God / Utters, who from eternity doth teach / Himself in all, and all things in himself’.
If we think of Wordsworth in a field of daffodils, our abiding image of Coleridge is of the poet perched on a rocky, windswept crag, wearing an open- necked shirt, thick breeches, worn hob-nailed boots, with a stick beside him and an old leather knapsack containing paper and pens, and a night-cap.
Coleridge, unable to be moderate in his passions, loved the wildness of nature. ‘The farther I ascend from animated Nature, from men, and cattle, and the common birds of the woods, and fields, the greater becomes in me the intensity of the feeling of Life,’ he wrote to his friend and patron Thomas Wedgwood in 1803. ‘Life seems to me then a universal spirit that neither has nor can have an opposite’.
For Shelley, as for Coleridge, wilderness expressed an inner yearning, the sense that man’s potential was limitless:
I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.
For Coleridge, this sense of longing manifested itself in personal excess, his addiction to opium; in Shelley it came out in political radicalism. Many of Shelley’s ideas today sound reasonable, because over the past two centuries modern thinking has come into line with them; but it is important to remember how seditious his contemporaries would have found his views, and how because of them he in turn felt unable to live a conventional life.
Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet in which he declared himself an atheist, ‘through deficiency of proof’. Later, he came to admire Christian virtues, but he continued to denounce the Church for its anthropomorphism of God and the venality of the priesthood. Shelley’s own beliefs were a combination of pantheism and Platonism, a belief in a universal spirit presiding over all; although his more mature convictions were often in line with the tenets of Christianity he still accepted the description of atheist ‘to express my abhorrence of superstition’.
Shelley’s ideas on marriage were a natural extension of his anti-institutionalism. Based on the ideas of William Godwin’s 1793 treatise, Political Justice, Shelley believed ‘in almost every instance’ a young couple were manoeuvred into marriage, a societal trap, with their eyes shut, knowing neither each other nor themselves. When enlightenment dawned, they were ‘forced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake’, instead of being allowed to rectify it by separating. Although initially Godwin was flattered at Shelley’s wholehearted acceptance of his thinking, he was not pleased when, acting on these principles, the unhappily married (trapped, he might have said) Shelley eloped with his teenaged daughter Mary.
Another tenet by which Shelley lived was vegetarianism. In Queen Mab, his first political poem published in 1813, when he was 20, Shelley argued that by not eating meat man put himself on an equal level with animals, rather than raising himself above them as their predator. The painter Benjamin Haydon, affronted by Shelley’s refutation of Christianity at dinner when they met, described the poet in his diary as a ‘hectic, spare, weakly yet intellectual-looking creature…carving a bit of broccoli or cabbage on his plate, as if it had been the substantial wing of a chicken’.
This is not the image of Shelley that has endured, however. I like to think of him as his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg described him in his chaotic, book-filled rooms at Oxford in 1810. Although he disliked scientific methods — agreeing with Wordsworth that ‘we murder to dissect’ — Shelley was fascinated by the advances being made in science at the start of the nineteenth century. He admired the radical poet and biologist Erasmus Darwin, whose grandson, Charles, wrote The Origin of the the Species. Electricity enthralled Shelley: its sparkling, elusive, almost magical qualities resembled nothing so much as poetic inspiration, or spiritual illumination. He had in his rooms a primitive apparatus to which he would attach himself, entreating poor Hogg (who, having once nearly drunk a teacup of concentrated acid, was understandably wary of Shelley’s experiments) to crank up the machine so that currents of electricity flowed through Shelley until ‘his long wild locks bristled and stood up on end’.
The Romantics were divided on their views on science. William Wordsworth numbered the electro-chemist, and president of the Royal Society, Sir Humphrey Davy, among his friends; they shared a love of fishing. Davy was also something of a poet and visionary, who, like Shelley, felt his scientific experiments only enhanced his powers of imagination. His account of lying beneath an oak tree in a high wind, watching the branches tremble above him as the clouds flew past, approaches Coleridge or Keats: ‘Everything seemed alive, and myself part of the series of visible impressions; I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees.’
The Royal Society was next to the Royal Academy in London where another of Davy’s friends, Turner, was then lecturing on perspective. In his quest to achieve greater realism in his depiction of light and colour, Turner looked to innovative chemical techniques for the creation of pigments and colours. Chrome yellow, for instance — a fundamentally Turneresque colour — was invented during this period.
But many of Wordsworth and Shelley’s contemporaries distrusted the new developments in science. The critic William Hazlitt believed ‘Science clips the wings of poetry’. Charles Lamb, the essayist, was more strident; his words sound ominously modern. ‘Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilise, and then burn the world? There is a march of science. But who shall beat the drum for its retreat?’
Perhaps the most famously anti-science of the Romantics was John Keats. While Wordsworth revered Sir Isaac Newton, and was able to reconcile Newton’s discoveries with his own mystical view of nature, Keats accused Newton of having destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining its scientific origin. With its mystery dispelled, he argued, our sense of wonder at the rainbow is diminished.
‘Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ he asked in despair.
If Shelley’s political radicalism was extreme his optimism was at times boundless too. His faith in the perfectibility of man (and woman) led him to advocate republicanism, land reform and universal adult suffrage. ‘The habitable earth is full of bliss,’ he wrote in Queen Mab. ‘Every heart contains perfection’s germ.’ His utopianism was reflected in his wife Mary’s novel, Frankenstein – albeit in a dark mirror. On discovering the cruelty of the world the gentle Creature brought to life by Frankenstein longs to run away to South America, with a mate he hopes Frankenstein will make for him. There in the forest they can live in peace and partnership, eating acorns and berries, sleeping on a bed of leaves. They need nothing more than the shelter of the trees and the warmth of the sun. But Frankenstein, afraid of the Creature’s power, destroys the female he is making and thus forces the unhappy Creature back into the civilised world, with famous and tragic consequences.
Coleridge, too, had utopian hopes. He and Robert Southey dreamt of living off the earth in an egalitarian community on the banks of the Susquehanna River. In his enthusiasm for their plan, Coleridge even married Southey’s sister-in-law. But their dream, pantisocracy, proved no more than a fantasy, disintegrating just as Coleridge’s ill-advised marriage did.
John Clare, whose brief experience of London’s literary society literally drove him mad, idealised the simple way of life of the cottager: ‘Time, scarcely noticed, turns his hair to gray, / Yet leaves him happy as a child at play.’ The life of a ‘Peasant-Poet’ was what Clare hoped for himself:
A silent man in Life’s affairs,
A thinker from a boy,
A peasant in his daily cares,
A poet in his joy.
The worldly world that Clare turned his back on profoundly troubled his peers, even if they were more able than he to survive in it when necessary. Shelley, most virulent, deplored the ‘mean lust’ that bound the world in chains. Later, in Prometheus Unbound, he protested at the ignorance and selfishness of the world:
Many are strong and rich, and would be just,
But live among their suffering fellow-men
As if none felt: they know not what they do.
Wordsworth, too, saw avarice as the abiding sin of his age:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
It was perhaps John Keats who best articulated the sense of sorrow at man’s destruction of nature, and the loss this entails, that marked Romanticism. In The Pot of Basil Isabella’s lover, the modest Lorenzo, is contrasted with her merchant brothers, ‘these ledger-men’, who murder Lorenzo to prevent their sister’s marriage to a poor man. At their will, says Keats, the diver in Ceylon, searching for pearls, ‘went all naked to the hungry shark’, his ears gushing blood from the underwater pressure; at their will seals lay stabbed by spears ‘on the cold ice, with piteous bark’.
Keats’s empathy for the suffering was a cornerstone of his poetry and his private vision. Even the Lake District — that hallowed Romantic spot — only made him feel anew that abundance can never be experienced except in relation to lack. At first he was overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, but the impersonality of it all brought home to him the thought that mere aestheticism, in its self-centredness, is ultimately unsatisfying. ‘Health and spirits can only belong unalloyed to the selfish man — the man who thinks much of his fellows can never be in spirits,’ he concluded. His was a heightened sensitivity to life in all its forms. Benjamin Haydon described how ‘the humming of a bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his spirit tremble’.
William Blake shared Keats’s sensibility. ‘Can I see a falling tear, / And not feel my sorrow’s share?’ he asked in Songs of Innocence. Interconnectedness is a fundamental of Blake’s world-view. ‘For a Line or a Lineament is not formed by Chance,’ he wrote to a friend in 1827, just before his death. ‘A Line is a Line in its Minutest Subdivisions: Strait or Crooked It is Itself and Not Intermeasurable with or by any Thing Else.’
Rachel Carson used as her epigraph for Silent Spring (and the inspiration for her title) a line from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci: ‘The sedge is wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing’. Carson’s use of Keats to open a book about the damage man is wreaking on his environment adds a new dimension to the familiar fable. Where nature is usually personified as a woman, and man the destroyer, here the roles are reversed. The pale, sickly knight, seduced and discarded, is the earth; the beautiful maiden who, uncaring, watches him suffer, is mankind. The result of her neglect is a sterility from which it is only to be hoped we will recover.
As the pace of modern life spirals out of control literature remains one of the few things that can bring us back to a solid starting point. Writers like the Romantics, who found mystery in the commonplace and saw the universal in each individual’s experience, remind us to hope. Poetry’s power, its sense of rightness and intuitive knowledge, of things felt and understood, can bring us back to Eden. It reminds us of what we have lost and what still remains for us to save.
There is much in the words and thoughts of the Romantic poets that is excessive or impractical, but their beliefs and the passion with which they pursued them still serve as an example. They weren’t perfect, but at least they thought about the world and their place in it. They tried to live by the principles they espoused. In retrospect it may be easy to ridicule them or poke holes in their aims, but who can deny the energy with which they pursued them, the integrity of their intentions, or the relevance that these issues still hold for us today?
Lucy Moore is the author of three books, the most recent being Amphibious Thing (Viking), released in the UK September 2000.
J Bate, The Song of the Earth London 2000
R Holmes, Coleridge (2 volumes) London 1989 & 1998
P Hughes-Hallett, The Immortal Dinner London 2000
D King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work London 1971
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