Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Vision of Nature

The Romantic Movement came to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century; the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats reacted against the more socially committed poetry of the Augustan age, also known as the ‘Age of Reason’. They insisted that poetry ought to be personal and about one’s emotions. In fact, Wordsworth famously described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Romantic poetry was enthused by emotions, imagination, and freedom – all of which would have made the Augustans uneasy.

Nature was one of the central themes of Romantic poetry; the Romantics, artists and poets alike, disliked the scientific rationalisation of nature during the Enlightenment, and so they reacted against it by depicting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque, beautiful qualities. The Romantics were distrustful of the modern human world, and indeed much of their writing (particularly Blake’s) was in response to the Industrial Revolution, which they saw as an invasion of nature. They were writing in a time when travel to areas in North America and Europe became much more common, and so people were able to see and explore the wild landscapes of distant lands. For example, in his poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, Keats describes the “realms of gold” and staring into the Pacific “upon a peak in Darien”.

Alone and surrounded by nature, the Romantic poets were able to harness their most powerful thoughts regarding human nature and the human condition. John Keats, one of the more prominent Romantics, in his poem “Ode to a Nightingale”, reflects upon the transience of human life and the perils of death. He enviously addresses the nightingale, writing: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down…” Through admiring nature, Keats is able to initiate a meditation upon life and death. William Wordsworth is perhaps the Romantic poet who wrote and reflected upon nature the most; in his poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth expresses his belief in a pure communion between nature and humanity through childhood, and the importance of memory in maintaining that communion. His writing is full of picturesque imagery, expressed through simple language:

                  “Five years have past; five summers, with the length
                  Of five long winters! and again I hear
                  These waters, rolling with their mountain-springs
                  With a sweet inland murmur. – Once again
                  Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
                  Which on a wild secluded scene impress
                  Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
                  The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”

Both Wordsworth and Keats, as well as the other Romantic poets, clearly view nature as a thing to be respected and revered; it was, for them, a harmonious place for reflection, and they felt that technological progression was threatening their sanctuary.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was no exception; he too revered nature, and it was a predominant theme in much of his writing. Coleridge described poetry as “the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man,” and so the effect of the natural world upon his poetry is unsurprising. Wordsworth and Coleridge published their collection of poetry “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798, and it is said to mark the beginning of the Romantic era. The two poets are, therefore, seen as pioneers of the Romantic Movement.

Coleridge favoured lyricism and a highly musical tone. This adds a strikingly stylized effect to his writing, which is overwhelmed by alliteration and assonance, as he believed that common diction did not do justice to the sublimity of nature. It is true that he and Wordsworth set out to “ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure,” but Coleridge was still able to enliven his writing through complex poetic techniques. Clearly his vision of nature is of some magnificent being worthy of the utmost praise, and the beauty of lyricism is needed to present its true glory.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge see nature as a teacher. In Wordsworth’s poem “The Tables Turned”, he boldly writes:

“Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.”

The two poets even go so far as to capitalise the word nature, so as to present it as a sort of divinity, just as Rumour and Fortune are gods in Virgil’s Aeneid. Coleridge sees nature as an educator, and this seems to be a common theme of the Romantics: they clearly hold nature in a very high regard. In his poem “Frost at Midnight” he writes:

                  “…so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters…”

Coleridge therefore sees nature as a preacher of the word of God, revealing to man the laws and language of the Classical Theistic deity. Moreover, he addresses nature as “Great universal Teacher!” thus stressing his reverence.

Obviously, one of the major themes of Coleridge’s poetry is the glory of nature. His writing is filled with imagery and descriptive language, describing the unfathomable depths of the natural world. In “Kubla Khan” he writes, memorably: “And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.” Nature is, in all of his poems, presented as a sublime and beautiful thing. Furthermore, Coleridge insists in “The Nightingale” that nature should be a thing of endless joy, rather than a medium onto which humans can reflect their feelings. He writes: “In Nature there is nothing melancholy.” He addresses nature as a friend, and also views it as a comforter to his baby. He writes: “And I deem it wise / To make him [his son] Nature’s play-mate.” Clearly he views nature as a great, loving entity, and believes that it should be both cared for and respected.

William Wordsworth, as aforementioned, saw childhood as an inevitable link with nature, and indeed he believed that as one grows older, they become more disconnected from nature. Moreover, he thought that we must use our memories in order to relive that oneness with nature. Coleridge, however, saw that link as fragile and precious, and indeed it is one of which he was deprived. In his poem “Frost at Midnight”, Coleridge writes: “For I was reared / In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” He then goes on to compare this childhood with an idyllic Wordsworthian upbringing, saying that his child “shalt wonder like a breeze / by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / of ancient mountain…” While Wordsworth viewed childhood and a connection with nature as almost synonymous, Coleridge did not. He did, however, hope that his son would have and experience that connection.

Coleridge, in a number of his poems, seems keen to emphasize the differentiation between the human mind and the natural world. In “Dejection: An Ode” (which, because it was originally written to a lover, is clearly a revelation of his own feelings) Coleridge emphasizes that human feelings come from within, and are separate from nature, and this idea is also seen in “Frost at Midnight”. No matter how long he gazes at “the western sky, / and its peculiar tint of yellow green,” he cannot escape his “stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief”. Despite this, Coleridge still manages to compare his mind to the natural world through metaphor, writing: “The hope grew round me, like the twining vine, / And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.” Coleridge is, through his poem, expressing his anger in not being able to be comforted by nature, something that Wordsworth rejoiced in. This contrasts with the theme of “The Nightingale”, in which Coleridge says that nature should not be described as the embodiment of human feelings. He writes:

                  “(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
                  And made the gentle sounds tell back the tale
                  Of his own sorrow)...”

Another common theme of Romantic poetry, which often features in Coleridge’s poems, is transience. Although transience is not so common with Coleridge as it is with Keats, it is still a recurring idea. The insignificance of humanity with regard to nature is often emphasized, and indeed in “Kubla Khan” Coleridge writes: “Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. / So twice five miles of fertile ground…” His epic language accentuates the extent and size of the natural world, and emphasises the irrelevance of humanity. Moreover, in “Frost at Midnight” Coleridge uses words like “eternal”, “all”, and “ancient” to insinuate the transience of the human condition, and in “The Nightingale” he refers to “Nature’s immortality”; this is a common trait of Romantic poetry. For instance, Shelley writes in “Ozymandias”: “‘Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.’”

Overall, Coleridge’s vision of nature is very similar to that of most of the Romantics – he sees it as an entity not only to preserve and care for, but also to respect, to immerse oneself in, to learn from, and to rejoice in. 

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant, Tom. It's great to see you enjoying this marvellous poetry. I adore Wordsworth's "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey". You must go to the Wye Valley someday and see the area. One, small thing: it was Keats who wrote "On first Looking into Chapman's Homer". We had a copy on a poster on our bedroom wall in Glossop when we were in Sixth Form. I expect your mum will remember it... Amazing to think Keats was only 25 when he died.

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  2. I actually wrote an essay during my undergrad that made the almost opposite argument - that the Romantics weren't actually that interested in nature because they didn't really understand it. I compared them to various poets of the 20th and 21st centuries and argued that the romantics' conception of 'nature' is actually more about the pastoral, a romanticised (!) vision of rural life, and about themselves, rather than any genuine care, relationship with or understanding of nature.

    For example, in Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey poem he's actually as much concerned with the signs of human activity (charcoal burners) as with any manifestation of nature, and the poem is actually about himself and his own feelings. Similarly, Keats' Ode to a Nightingale is all about the poet and only very incidentally about the actual bird. On the rare occasions when they actually talk about genuine 'wildness', as in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, they're as likely to express fear and disgust as wonder or appreciation.

    My tutor said he disagreed with me, but he gave me the best mark for any of my undergrad assignments. I still sort-of stand by the argument, particularly with reference to Wordsworth, though I suspect you probably know all of these poets much better than I do. The poets I compared them to included Mary Oliver, whose poem "I found a dead fox" is one of my favourite poems ever and is, in my view, far more sympathetic to nature than anything the romantics wrote:
    http://yearsrisingmaryoliver.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/i-found-dead-fox.html

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  3. Very interesting! Perhaps they were more concerned with the pastoral/idyllic landscapes and scenery of nature, rather than the intricacies of nature. You're certainly right in saying that Keats uses nature to develop his thoughts into a meditation on human life - but he doesn't deny nature's beauty!
    Lovely poem, and thanks for commenting! Tom

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