Romantic Literature: Emotional Evocations From Nature
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees people. I thought, ‘this is what it is to be happy’”— Sylvia Plath
Poets and artists always have admired and mused over nature’s qualities; scenery and imagery have been conventions of art and literature since the construction of the Book of Genesis and Hesiod’s Theogony. Even so, nature was newly central to the Romantic sensibility (Damrosch et al., p. 47). Works of art in the 19th century drew attention to overlooked and often disregarded beauties of nature, such as the moss that grew on stones, the faintest stars in the sky, and even the tallest and most remote peaks of a mountain. Essentially, nature to the romantics was grand, transcendent, and particular, and it evoked many emotional connections. Ultimately, in the Romantic era, nature is depicted as embodying inspiring, healing, and divine qualities as well as embodying terror, sublimity, and suffering.
William Blake’s “The Ecchoing Green” is an example from the Romantic era that depicts nature as inspirational and healing. In embracing nature, one has the power to displace oneself from the nuisances and binding obligations of urban society: a theme also mused on by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his “Reveries of the Solitary Walker.” For instance, lines 11-20 highlight this escapism into a natural paradise theme when Blake writes, “Old John with white/Does laugh away care/Sitting under the oak,/Among the old folk,/They laugh at our play,/And soon they all say,/Such such were the joys/When we all girls & boys,/In our youth-time were see,/On the Ecchoing Green” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 58). This excerpt from Blake’s poem “The Ecchoing Green” essentially summarizes Blake’s emotional connection to the force of nature; it has the power to wipe away societal cares, simplify our thoughts to feel pure joy, and in a way reverse time and make the old feel young again. This power certainly stems from the energy of the sun as Blake alludes to in the opening lines of the poem, “The sun does arise,/And make happy the skies” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 58). Thus, it is the sun, specifically, that lends inspiration and healing to people immersed in nature.
Blake’s other poem, “The Tyger,” which shows nature as terrifying and sublime also supports this emotional connection to nature. He particularly alludes to the terrors and evils of the world that roam in the darkness of the night. This idea is apparent in the repeated quatrains one and six, “Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/In the forests of the night;/What immortal hand or eye,/Could frame thy fearful symmetry” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 59). In this poem, Blake’s feelings toward nature are vastly different than in his poem “The Ecchoing Green.” Here, Blake’s most prominent natural difference going from “The Ecchoing Green” to “The Tyger” is the absence of sunlight and thus the absence of the emotional evocations of sunlight. Blake connects the darkness in the night with the evils and fears of mankind, which we often shuffle away in the darkness of our minds in urban society, where gas street lights illuminate our way; Pure nature, however, offers no such assistance or safety at night, and the only things burning are the eyes of the tiger searching for prey unaware.
Blake, aside from introducing human fears and terrors associated with the darkness of nature, also introduces the divinity of nature. This is displayed in lines such as “What immortal hand or eye,/Could frame such fearful symmetry?” and “Did he smile his work to see?/Did he who made the Lamb make thee” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 59). Even so, while Blake questions the products of divinity in nature, it was John Keats who wrote of nature as a divine entity in itself and something to praise; he greatly capitalized on the theme of divine connections with nature, particularly in his poem “To Autumn.” Essentially, Keats deifies the season of autumn and pays homage to it as if it were a goddess. Furthermore, he draws on Greco-Roman and even ancient Near East festivals of celebrating the harvest and the cycle of life and death and the human temperaments that align with that cycle. Ultimately, Keats connects human mortality with the cycle of the seasons or the ‘mortality’ of nature; he sees that destruction and birth in both humanity and nature must be appreciated because they are central elements of beauty and wisdom.
While Keats argues that the destructive and sublime qualities of nature are good and significant, other poets such as Giacomo Leopardi viewed the divine qualities of nature to be cruel and the origins of human suffering. Leopardi expresses his view most prominently in his poem “The Infinite,” which takes a lonely and pessimistic view on nature. It is as if he feels that the vastness of nature and the universe makes him and mankind seem like insignificant creatures of God. This idea is highlighted in lines 10-14, “And then I call to mind Eternity,/The ages that are dead, and the living present/And all the noise of it. And thus it is/In that immensity my thought is drowned:/And sweet to me the foundering in that sea” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 66). In way, he depicts earth’s nature as nothing more than a grain of sand in the largest of deserts, and that he is nothing more than an electron floating around aimlessly and desperately to find happiness and meaning. His short work, “Dialogue Between Nature and an Icelander,” which argues how the destructive power of nature provides no pleasure and only causes suffering, which makes mankind lead the most unhappy lives, further exemplifies his ideas in “The Infinite.”
While Blake, Keats, and Leopardi address nature and its connections with many human emotions and feelings such as inspiration, healing, terror, suffering, and divinity, these authors also built upon tradition and writers that came before them. For instance, Blake’s depiction of nature as paradise, Keat’s idolization of nature and emphasis on harvesting crops, and Leopardi’s fear of the mighty sublimity of nature stem back to the Book of Genesis.
For Blake, as with Rousseau’s account “Reveries of the Solitary Walker,” escaping from urban societies constraints and immersing into wandering idleness in nature was to be synonymous with returning to the Garden of Eden. For them, nature was a place in which the elderly could feel young again and sorrows or worries were replaced with joy and laughter; to immerse oneself in nature was to experience a timeless Carpe Diem.
Keat’s idolization of nature and emphasis on harvesting crops perhaps comes from Genesis 1:29 and 1:30,
God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 29-30).
Notice in Keat’s praise of nature, he mentions an abundance of plants bearing seeds and trees bearing fruit like apples, gourds, sweet kernels, and poppies, but never mentions the harvesting or slaughtering of domesticated farm animals, which according to Genesis are not given for food, rather we only “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Damrosch et al., 2009, p. 29). It is also important to note that Keats in his final four lines shows this dominion over, but also the freedom of being able to graze the land for plants and seeds in the lambs, hedge-crickets, and red-breasted birds. Keats connections to Genesis can be easily overlooked, but they are certainly there and they are intriguing.
Leopardi’s apparent spite for nature as the origin of suffering and the messenger of destruction could stem back to the Christian God’s icy punishments including Adam and Eve’s exile from paradise, the biblical flood, and even his other feats of natural manipulation such as raining fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Also, throughout history, other cultures explained natural disasters as acts of gods and goddesses punishing mankind. Perhaps Leopardi’s pessimism toward nature is a reflection of his loathing of God’s seemingly heartless decisions outlined in the Bible or even Greco-Roman works of literature that depict unloving gods and goddesses controlling nature and destruction.
Essentially, what works such as Genesis and Hesiod’s “Theogony” offered romantic poets was a nature that was terrifying, yet an all-mighty tool of divinity that had the power to create life, food, and healing, yet also has the power to destroy, purge, and create suffering. Ultimately, these works highlight a world that can make a hell of paradise, or a paradise of hell—a theme highly expressed in medieval literature such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which depict nature in both its best and worst forms.
Dante’ “Divine Comedy” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” were sources of inspiration to the romantic poets just as much as “The Book of Genesis” and “Theogony” were because these were works that began to reflect on the ancient traditions of paganism and Christianity and how that past formed many of the connection or preconceptions of nature during the medieval age to the 19th century Romantic era. These works were gateways from divine/kingly dominance to increased individualism and personal reflection—that latter of which is highly characteristic of Romantic poetry.
Thus, the Romantic poets had an interesting arsenal of past traditions and cultures to muse on for their poetry that included both Christian and Pagan roots as well as classical, medieval, and renaissance worldviews. In a way, romantic poets could assimilate these roots to create a wild blend of interpretations, symbolisms, and metaphors in their writings and could precisely express their ideas by appealing to a broad past of traditions. Thus, many of the romantic poems created can take a single aspect of human experience, such as connecting with nature, and yet express a multitude of evocations of emotions ranging from inspiration and suffering, healing and pain, and divinity and sublimity. Ultimately, these emotional connections with nature summarize the Romantic worldview, which emphasized the embracing of individual emotions and connecting spiritually with the natural world.
Damrosch, D., Alliston, A., Brown, M., duBois, P., Hafez, S., Heise, U. K., et al. (2009). Romantic nature; The ecchoing green; The tyger; To autumn; The infinite; The book of genesis. In The longman anthology of world literature (2 ed., vol. a, e pp.29-30, 47, 58-59, & 66). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.