The Romantic Movement as a “Return to Nature”
The Romantic Movement as a Return to Nature : “Return to Nature” thus signified a return to natural liberty by snapping these “mind-forged manacles” or “man-made chains.”
The Romantic Movement as a Return to Nature
What is “Nature”?
First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear unchang ‘d and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty must to all impart.
At once the source, and end, and test of Art.
This is the famous counsel which Pope in his Essay on Criticism gave to writers. In fact, Dryden, Pope, and all therr followers reverenced “Nature” alike, but their Nature was not the same as the Nature of the romantics, the Romantic Movement in English poetry is generally described as a “Return to Nature.” Nature for Pope stood for normal reality’or something like the universal laws of reason. It was something internal Sftd”moral. Dr. Johnson characteristically asserted:
“Nothing can please many, and-please long, but just representations of general nature. Trie AugUstans”were against indulgence in personal whims, eccentricities, and abnormalities because’ they were “unnatural”. Thus, their slogan, “First follow Nature,” has to be interpreted in this light. When the romantics shouted “Return to Nature”, they meant that the people should return to the external world of sights and sounds, such as trees, mountains, peasants, and the sounds of storms, birds, animals etc., as also to primitive simplicity untainted by the fingers of refinement, or even “civilisation.
The Romantic Movement as a Return to Nature
” Lovejoy in “Nature as Aesthetic Norm”, in Essays in the History of Ideas (1948), dwells upon the complexity of the interpretation of the very inclusive term “Nature” and discusses a galaxy of meanings which have been attached to the word from time to time. But ignoring all semantic subtleties we may say that the slogan “Return to Nature” in relation to and as an important aspect of the Romantic Movement in English poetry has mainly two facets. It implies:
(i) Something like a political and philosophical primitivism, a general love of simplicity and corresponding distrust of sophistication.
(ii) Return to the sights and sounds of external Nature-the world of the sun, stars, trees, plants, flowers, birds, meadows, forests, etc.
Eighteenth-century poetry was urban or “drawing-room” poetry as it did not concern itself with the beauties of Nature. The romantics, without any important exception, stood for love of the sights and sounds of Nature, and some even went to the extent of finding a bond of kinship between Nature and man. To Wordsworth Nature became a guide, teacher, and friend. To others also Nature came to have a deeper than physical significance.
“Return to Nature” as Glorification of Primitivism:
The second point does not need much clarification as it is quite obvious. But we may discuss at some length the first one. “Return to Nature” in this sense meant a return to natural simplicity. Reason, common sense, and good breeding were the qualities commended and recommended in the eighteenth century. The weight of etiquette and superficial gentility appeared to the romantics to be curbing the spirit of natural goodness in man. Man had, as it were, willingly accepted to -A’ear chains of his own making. The first man to react against the curbing influences of the so-called civilisation and to give a clarion call for “‘iteration of the inner natural man was the French philosopher Rousseau who played an important part in bringing in the French Revolution.
He galvanised Europe by announcing: ‘Man is .born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, and “God made all things good: man meddles with them and they become evil.” Rousseau’s slogan ”Return to Nature” was necessarily a political and philosophical dictum intended to revive the concept of the “noble-savage” and to glorify primitivism in living and behaving. His teaching found a ready acceptance in England as in most other countries of Europe. The romantic poets can often be seen glorifying in their work Rousseauistic simplicity. Their idealisation of peasantry, childhood, and the residents of moors and heaths, for instance, is a logical ramification of the Rousseauistic creed. Their reaction against the dominance of intellect and “philosophy” (used mostly in the sense of physical science) is also to be studied in this light.
The Romantic Movement as a Return to Nature
Wordsworth strongly denounced “that false secondary power by which we multiply distinctions.” Blake represented Reason as clipping the wings of Love, and Keats declared that “Philosophy will clip an angels wings.” This anti-intellectualism, avers Samuel Chew, “was no sudden manifestation of a spirit of revolt; it had been swelling in volume for many years. In the thought of the predecessors of the, great romantic poets there had been a tendency to view learning with suspicion as allied to vice and to commend ignorance as concomitant with virtue.” While not overlooking the historical background of the romantic anti-intellectual revolt, we must give due importance to the impact of Rousseau. In his Descriptive Sketches (mostly written on the banks of the Loire in 1791 -92) Wordsworth gives a faithful, albeit a little rhetorical, utterance to Rousseau’s idea of the innate goodness of man:
Once Man entirely free, alone and wild,
Was bless ‘d as free, for he was Nature’s child;
He, all superior but his God disdain d
Walk’d none restraining, and by none restrain ‘d;
Confessed no law but by reason taught,
Did all he wish ‘d and wish ‘d but what he ought.
Blake also found man in “chains”, as for instance in London,
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg ‘d manacles I hear.
“Return to Nature” thus signified a return to natural liberty by snapping these “mind-forged manacles” or “man-made chains.” Wordsworth hailed the French Revolution as it was for him a step forward towards Nature. Later, however, when he realised that the Revolution was not Nature-made but man-made, he turned against it to seek comfort in the lap of real Nature.
Now let us consider the place of Nature in the works of different romantic poets.
It is extremely appropriate to begin with Wordsworth both because he is the “seniormost” of all romantics and is also the “high priest of Nature” to whom Nature means more than she does to any other English poet. Nature to Wordsworth was everything. After his disillusionment with the French Revolution, he sought the “healing power” of Nature. His increased interest in Nature was thus partly caused by his political frustration. The Reign of Terror in France sent him reeling into the lap of Nature. His desire to seek comfort in Nature was not something unprecedented; it was unique, however, in its intensity and sincerity.
Basil Willey observes in this connexion: “There was nothing new, it may be remarked, nothing very startling in the discovery that one can find peace and contentment in rural retirement; from Horace to Cowper (to go no further afield) there had seldom lacked poets, satirists, and moralists to recommend plain living and high thinking. But the ‘Nature’ of Wordsworth and Coleridge was apprehended with a new kind of intensity.” He further maintains that their passion to mingle themselves with landscape arose “primarily from the deflection into imaginative channels of their thwarted political ardours.”
Wordsworth’s attitude to Nature continued changing throughout his life. It started with animal and sensuous pleasures and ended on a mystic note. God and Nature became one for him. Nature became the Universal Spirit ready for guiding anyone who would care to be guided by Her. Most of the rural characters he paints in his poetry are shown to be simple and uncorrupted mainly because of their close communion with Nature. We are told about Michael that
When others heeded not, he heard the South
Make subterraneous music.
Michael’s son Luke becomes dissolute when he starts living in a city-away from Nature. The reason Peter Bell was monstrous was that
At noon, when by the forest’s edge
He lay beneath the branches high,
The soft blue sky did never melt
Into his heart; he never felt
The witchery of the soft blue sky!
We are unhappy in spite of all material advancement because “the world is too much with us” and the objects of Nature do not touch our heart. Nature should be accepted as a guide and teacher because
One impulse from the vernal wood
Can teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.
…she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e ‘er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
Wordsworth believes that
Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her.
His advice to his sister is:
Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee.
Lucy grew for three years “in sun and shower” and became (for Wordsworth) a model child. The highest joy offered by Nature to the minds in perfect communion with her is of a mystic nature. It comes only rarely and lasts just a few moments. During such moments of supreme bliss
The breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
From what has been said it is clear that so far as Nature is concerned Wordsworth, to quote an opinion, “was concerned far less with the sensuous manifestations that delight most of our Nature poets than with the spiritual that he finds underlying these manifestations.”
Coleridge’s attitude to Nature, more particularly in the early phase of his poetic career, was similar to Wordsworth’s. Very like Wordsworth he felt disillusioned at the consequences of the French Revolution and sought solace in Nature. He wrote to his brother from Alfoxden that he had “snapped his squeaking baby-trumpet of sedition” and had broken all ties with not only the slogans of the French Revolution, but everything French- “French metaphysics, French politics, French ethics, and French theology”-in order to meditate upon the causae causarum” At what Basil Willey calls “his most Wordsworthian stage,” Coleridge felt Nature to be a guiding spirit and teacher. In Frost at Midnight he expresses his desire to entrust the instruction of his infant son to Nature.
But thou, my babe! shall wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountains, and clouds,
…so shall thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
In The Nightingale he describes how he once made his weeping infant smile by treating him to the beauty of the moon:
Once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood,
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot
And he beheld the moon, and hushed at once,
Suspends, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon beam!
In the beginning Coleridge believed with Wordsworth that Nature leads one “from joy to joy” and that she never betrays the heart that loves her. Later, however, he became more “realistic” and came to realise that joy came from within, not from external Nature. This view he voiced in Dejection, an Ode:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
O Lady we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does nature live!
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud!
This was a significant departure from the Wordsworthian concept of Nature.
Nature occupies a place of distinction in Shelley’s poetry, too. .But as a poet of Nature-he is a class by himself. It is his deeply philosophical bent of mind, perhaps, which does not let him give clearcut pictures of landscape. Seldom does he portray a landscape with recognisable details. The whole thing is so misty and illusive. Most of his Nature pictures are idealised groups of scattered fragments flowing from his memory rather than portraits of what he has actually seen and enjoyed.
Shelley, like Wordsworth, believed that Nature was a living being. He, however, did not think of Nature as the Supreme Spirit meant to delight and teach human beings, but as a spirit full of the principle of love to which he did not assign any particular function.
Again, sometimes, like Wordsworth, Shelley stressed the presence of a mystic bond of union between Nature and man. In Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples, for example, he makes Nature reflect his own mood. But at other times, as in The Cloud, he drives a sharp wedge between Nature and the world of man.
An important feature of Shelley’s Nature poetry is the persistent mythopoeic element. He often suggests that the various aspects and objects of Nature are not just different parts of the One Being (as Wordsworth believed), but are separate entities each one independent of the rest. The West Wind becomes with Shelley a mighty destroyer and preserver; the cloud becomes the daughter of earth and water; the Mediterranean, a king; Night becomes the sister of Death and the mother of the “filmy-eyed” Sleep; and so forth. Shelley’s myth-making power is at its luxuriant best in Hyperion.
Shelley, like Wordsworth, found “healing power” in Nature. It is a different thing that sometimes he found himself too sad to be consoled even by her. But she is always happy and lovable. Even when she is turbulent and wild at times, she is not treated by Shelley as an alien force, but something amiable and glorious even in her tantrums.
Keats was also a great lover of Nature. He loved Nature not for her spiritual significance or deep messages conveyed by her, but for the sensuous pleasures which she offered. Compton-Rickett observes: “Whereas Wordsworth spiritualises and Shelley intellectualises Nature, Keats is content to express her through the senses: the colour, the scent, the touch, the pulsating music; these are the things that stir him to his depths; there is not a mood of Earth he does not love, not a season that will not cheer and inspire him.” Another critic observes: “Keats seeks to know Nature perfectly and to enjoy her fully, with no ulterior thought than to give her complete expression. With him no considerations of theology, humanity or metaphysics mingle with Nature”
Keats’s odes about Autumn and the Nightingale are very rich in sensuous appeal. They show Keats as a delicate and thorough observer of Nature. Like Wordsworth (who complained that “we murder to dissect”) he protests against the interference of scientific studies in the sensuous wealth of Nature. He wails:
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven,
We know her woof and texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things
Byron was different in most respects from the rest of the romantic poets. He shared their love of Nature, though his love is of its own kind. “In this love”, says a critic, “he has his own particular way, there is no meditative musing, little sense of mystery, but a very lively sense of wonder and delight in the energising glories of Nature.” Byron’s love of Nature was partly a by-product of his contempt of man. He took a particular delight in envisioning and describing wild and terrifying objects and aspects of Nature which seem to be mocking, as it were, the insignificance of man. He did not deny, however, the healing power of Nature.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is a society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and music in its roar
He realised the companionableness of Nature, as the following autobiographic lines show:
Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends:
Where rolled the ocean, thereon was his home;
Where a blue sky and glowing clime extends,
He had the passion and the power to roam.
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