E212: British Literature since 1760

The Romantic Understanding of Nature
by Al Wlecke / Al Drake

Alfred Drake. Office: 423 UH | W 12-1 | ajdrake@ajdrake.com

a) Romantics consider "nature" as the antithesis of inherited and institutionalized practices of thought, self-alienated ways of making sense and assigning values and priorities.

b) They also see it as a substitute for traditional religion. By the mid-Victorian Period, "doubt" becomes endemic to the whole middle class. Religion is a source or moral knowledge, a source of faith that the world is intelligible.

c) Romantic "nature" is a vehicle for self-consciousness. The Romantics' preoccupation with natural phenomena amounts to a search for the true self, for one's real identity. See Thoreau's Walden Pond: "the wilderness is the salvation of the world." Nature makes people know what they truly are, what god wants them to be.

d) Nature is a source of sensations--healthy feelings. It is therapy for a diseased, overcivilized heart. Humans can discover emotional health in nature. Such health leads to moral and spiritual clarity.

e) Nature is a provocation to a state of imagination. Sensation leads to imaginative vision. See, for example, the poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." The speaker is traveling through nature when something stops him. He becomes Geoffrey Hartman's "halted traveler." What stops him? "a host of golden daffodils." Notice the Miltonic, biblical connotations of the word, "host." In this poem, sensation (the perception of the daffodils) transforms itself into vision.

f) Romantic "nature" is an expressive language. As in "The Solitary Reaper," natural images provide us with a way of thinking about human feelings and the self. So the natural image is at the same time an expressive one. (For example, if a tree can survive a great storm, the person who perceives it can survive his or her own trials.) Wordsworth uses mimetic language to describe or imitate nature. But at the same time, his mimetic imagery expresses something about the speaker's reaction. "The Solitary Reaper," for example, is about the speaker's emotional reaction to the Reaper's song: the poem's natural images represent an overflowing mind.