Nature and the Romantic Poet

Catherine Peck

Catherine Peck examines the relationship between Romantic poetry and Nature, and the sublime significance of such imagery in their writing.


 Romanticism was an extensive artistic and intellectual movement, described by Isaiah Berlin as ‘the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred’[1]. Originating in late eighteenth-century Europe, it challenged the Age of Enlightenment’s scientific and rational, objective ideas, and instead promoted the power of individual imagination and subjective experience. Nature was a predominant Romantic theme in the light of the Industrial Revolution, which not only posed a threat to its preservation, but also prompted a rise in local countryside tourism to escape the expanding urban areas. Poets sought to demonstrate this through, as Carl Thompson observes, their ‘appreciation of landscape, and especially of wild or what was often termed “romantic” scenery’[2] in their work. Moreover, natural forces and iconic landmarks were also associated with the ‘sublime’, an aesthetic theory defined by Edmund Burke as ‘whatever is in any sort terrible [...] is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’[3]: fear and awe, which inspire imagination to the greatest degree. Besides this organic sense of nature, Marcel Isnard argues that ‘nature also means the principle or power that animates or even creates the objects of nature’[4], alluding to the idea of pantheism where God or a divine creative force is inherent within nature, or even the creative power of man himself. I will analyse how Percy Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1820) and William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’[5] (1798) thus explore nature to express their admiration and desire to be at one with its power, as well as to address the social and cultural impacts of man’s creative progress.


In ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley depicts how the wind drives seasonal change, with the persona addressing it as ‘thou breath of Autumn’s being’[6] who blows the dead leaves from the trees ‘like ghosts’ (3). This dark imagery of Autumn bringing death by Winter, is then contrasted with ‘Thine azure sister’ (9), Spring, who revives the fallen seeds, bringing new life. Moreover, the poem’s form – which combines a reworking of the Italian terza rima using four tercets and a Shakespearean sonnet couplet, following the rhyming scheme of aba bcb cdc ded ee – presents an interwoven, cyclical pattern, where the ending of one rhyme brings the next, reflecting on the theme, as Michael O’Neill observes, of ‘rebirth and regeneration’[7]. However, as Ferber notes, ‘Though the annual cycle from autumn to autumn via the renewal of spring consoles us for our losses [...] nature also destroys life on longer and larger scales’[8], and so the focus in the next stanzas is shifted to the temperamental weather and sea. Shelley’s forceful imagery in describing how ‘Black rain and fire and hail will burst’ (28) during a storm, evokes a threatening image of chaos or the end of the world; whilst ‘the Atlantic’s level powers / Cleave themselves into chasms’ (37-38), forming waves powerful enough to submerge ‘palaces and towers’ (33). These imaginative metaphors epitomise Burke’s theory of the sublime, as these destructive natural forces incite terror and awe.


Wordsworth presents a more passive portrayal of nature in ‘Tintern Abbey’, where the persona returns to the country after five years and feels a sense of nostalgia as he beholds ‘These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs’ (3)[9]. The flowing imagery demonstrates how they provide a ‘tranquil restoration’ (30) from ‘the din / Of towns and cities’ (25-26), making the universal experience of visiting the countryside subjective, as it corresponds to the persona’s individual thoughts. Additionally, the poet’s use of blank verse enables him to express this without the rigid poetic structure favoured by neo-classical poets; a freedom that he also wishes to impart upon his readers, inviting them, as Andrew Bennett notes, ‘to identify with [...] this experience [...] and these thoughts’[10], promoting individualism. Nicola Trott observes that ‘Wordsworth’s tourism enacts the principles of return and renewal which are embedded at the heart of his imaginative self-conception and development’[11], for he owes to nature ‘the power / Of harmony’ (47-48); a new perception that enables the persona to detect:


A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime


A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought (94-101)


This passage is suggestive of a divine presence within nature; a depiction that Shelley also uses by addressing the West Wind as ‘Wild Spirit’ (13). This links into Benedict Spinoza’s pantheism, defined by Pierre-françois Moreau as ‘a doctrine in which God is identified with the whole of nature’[12], proclaiming an immanent God within, rather than the transcendent God of Christian belief outside the universe. Thus, Shelley’s labels of the ‘Destroyer and Preserver’ (14) not only define the wind’s parallel powers, but also those of a God to be feared and loved. This further connects with the poem’s theme of regeneration, as well as a religious sense of the sublime rather than Burke’s more secular notion of nature’s effect on the body.  


Furthermore, as Philip Shaw observes, ‘for Christian and Neoplatonic thinkers of the period, the sublime, in its purest form, is emblematic of the creative power of God’[13]. However, despite the apparent religious presence supporting this argument within Wordsworth and Shelley’s poems, neither actually mention ‘God’. As Ferber quotes, Wordsworth stated his belief that ‘God is “not like his flesh which he could touch; but more like his thoughts”’ [14], suggesting an idea that God is mentally rather than physically inherent in the universe and thus mankind. This links back to the presence of divinity within the poems, to further suggest that what man himself creates can also be regarded as divine nature, supporting Friedrich Schlegel’s assertion that ‘“Every good human being is always progressively becoming God”’[15], for ‘“God is everything that is purely original and sublime, consequently the individual himself taken to the highest power”’[16]. The ‘genial spirits’ (113) as Wordsworth terms in ‘Tintern Abbey’, can be interpreted as that high power, for this expressive poetry is itself a product of man’s creative genius.


Having addressed these sublime forms of nature, both poets now seek, as Sophie Thomas observes, to make ‘a personal statement perhaps of desire or ambition’[17]. In ‘Tintern Abbey’, the poem circles back to the persona’s past by addressing his ‘dear Sister!’ (121)[18], saying, ‘I behold in thee what I once was’ (120); a replica of his childhood and his ‘glad animal movements’ (74), from which we can imagine his sister is playing among the trees as he once did. Now he hopes that his value of nature will not fade, but live on through her, that her memory of it shall also be ‘a dwelling-place / For all sweet sounds and harmonies’ (141-142), demonstrating a regeneration of memory that reflects upon nature’s cyclical processes as presented in ‘Ode to the West Wind’. On a more sombre note, Wordsworth’s persona also mourns the loss of his and his sister’s childhood and the change that time brings. Now, those ‘wild ecstasies’ (138) of youth have ‘matured / Into a sober pleasure’ (138-139) that has also alerted him to the ‘sad music of humanity’ (91), alluding to the social miseries of urban cities and subsequent unrest across Europe surrounding the French Revolution. This is also addressed in Shelley’s poem, ‘To a Sky-lark’ (1820), where the persona contrasts the sky-lark’s joyful music to how man’s ‘sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought’ (90)[19], demonstrating man’s desire for an ideal, noumenal world, to in turn show his dissatisfaction with the real phenomenal world – a distinction also made by F. W. J. von Schelling[20]. Nevertheless, Schelling states that ‘“Nature [to the artist]... is merely the imperfect reflection of a world that exists not outside but within him”’[21], which turns this negativity round to celebrate man’s imaginative power through his work, to reach this ideal, fantasy world.


In the final stanza of ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley’s persona is also aware of the passage of time, and so asks the wind to ‘Make me thy lyre’ (57), expressing the Romantic desire, as Bennett observes, ‘to transcend himself, to become nature’[22]. He longs to embody the wind and have it ‘Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth’ (63-64); a metaphor of decaying autumn leaves providing fertilizer for the spring seeds, to suggest the persona’s hope that his thoughts will rouse social change amid a world that has fallen ‘upon the thorns of life’ (54). This grim metaphor portrays the poet’s concern with the social unrest at the time, and can be linked back to the idea of man’s creative power not just in art, but also in science and industry. Although both poets’ focus upon the wonder and beauty of organic nature implies a negative view of civilisation, they must have also appreciated man’s intelligence, for, considering the context of the Romantic period, their inventions in machinery founded the Industrial Revolution that boosted the economy. Moreover, improved transport, such as railways and steamboats, aided the rising tourism, enabling people to visit the sublime landscapes that inspired Romantic theory and work. It can thus be argued that if man is a product of nature, then his inventions are also nature – essentially a ‘man-made nature’ – and should therefore be equally as sublime as his art. However, man’s industrial power has a destructive side, like nature’s parallel forces. As René and Jean Dubos argue, ‘To Shelley the colors in fall, the pungent odors of woods and fields [...] evoked only disease and death’[23], seen in how the ‘Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red’ (4) Autumn colours describe the symptoms of tuberculosis. Also known as the White Plague of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this pandemic was connected with the poor, overcrowded conditions of increasingly industrialized towns and cities. The suffering of the poor demonstrates the unequal distribution of wealth derived from man’s inventions and highlights the tyranny of the upper class, whose control alienated and dehumanised the working class. Consequently, Shelley’s West Wind can be regarded as a metaphor for the contradictory powers of man’s creations, and, by raising this awareness among his readers, he sought to act as ‘The trumpet of a prophecy’ (69), inciting feelings of revolt to address the Romantic concern with this hypocrisy.


In ‘Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth also appears to regard revolt as a justified consequence of man’s creation, challenging the tyrannical aristocracy, who are alluded to in ‘the sneers of selfish men’ (129). However, as Kenneth R. Johnston notes, Wordsworth’s ‘rhetorical habit of swerving from unstable argument to assertive personality’[24] through his memories, makes these contextual links debatable. In trying to explain what Wordsworth, as the persona, may have been ‘Flying from’ (71), Ferber notes that by 1793, due to upper-class fears of a repeat of the French Revolution in Britain, ‘government censorship’ and ‘prosecution of radical spokesmen [...] made it dangerous for people like Wordsworth to speak out’[25]. Nevertheless, in the countryside, he is still faced with poverty among the ‘vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods’ (20); a destructive presence of man that links back to the Romantic fear for nature’s preservation. The comparison between the wild ‘steep and lofty cliffs’ (5) and cultivated ‘pastoral farms’ (16), demonstrates man’s ideology, dating back to the Renaissance, that nature was a thing to be harnessed and controlled through agriculture or gardening. Now, this has escalated to industrial ‘wreaths of smoke’ (17) that battle the woods running ‘Green to the very door’ (17). Despite this, Wordsworth maintains a non-resisting depiction of nature that is also demonstrated in his poem, ‘Nutting’ (1800), where the trees and undergrowth ‘patiently gave up / Their quiet being’ (47-48)[26] to the violence of the persona embodying mankind. This suggests that nature is forgiving, demonstrating its sublimity, not through Burke’s argument of terror or Shelley’s focus on destructiveness, but through passivity, which man should take as an example to mend his ways. Alternatively, this can also be regarded as nature’s acceptance of man’s unstoppable progress. In ‘To a Sky-lark’, Shelley notes that ‘We look before and after, / And pine for what is not’ (86-87), suggesting that mankind, as intelligent, rational beings, can never be satisfied, which thus drives their creative power. Against this, organic nature cannot win and it is this that the Romantic poets ultimately mourn: the loss of nature and thus the loss of their inspiration and desire for harmony with it and the universe.


To conclude, I agree that Romantic poets are predominantly nature poets for they explore nature in its entirety, not just in an organic sense, but also in a theological and philosophical reflection on nature’s creative powers that lead to an ultimate consideration of the state of society and man’s relationship with the universe. These poems also portray the poets’ struggle to understand nature and man’s creative and destructive parallel forces, which still exist today, where man’s insatiable need to create to meet the demands of an ever-growing population, has been widely viewed to be destroying the earth’s ecosystem and ultimately himself, be it through pollution or the exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, in expressing their longing for an ideal world, the Romantic poets also present an inkling of hope, that if man desists from this destructiveness, nature can be preserved. This thus epitomises Shelley’s belief that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World’[27], for the poet’s gift of interpretation and imagination has developed throughout a succession of artistic movements that have shaped our constantly evolving society. Their work is described by Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) as ‘“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”’[28]; an act of creation inspired by the sublimity of nature that still does not cease to astonish us today.

[1]Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Second Edition) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 2.

[2]Carl Thompson, ‘Travel writing’, in Nicholas Roe, ed., Romanticism: an Oxford guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 558.

[3]Edmund Burke, ‘Part I, Section VII – Of the sublime’, in On the Sublime and Beautiful, <> (accessed 30th March 2014).

[4]Marcel Isnard, ‘Nature’, in Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson eds, A Handbook to English Romanticism (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), p. 185.

[5]Shortened form of the full title: ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.

[6]Percy Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Stephen Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. D, The Romantic Period, Ninth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), line 1 (p. 791) – All references are to this edition and hereafter line references will be cited in parenthesis in the text.

[7]Michael O’Neill, ‘Romantic forms: an introduction’, in Roe, ed., Romanticism: an Oxford guide, p. 283.

[8]Michael Ferber, The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 90.

[9]William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’, Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. D, The Romantic Period, Ninth Edition, p. 288.

[10]Andrew Bennett, ‘The idea of the author’, in Roe, ed., Romanticism: an Oxford guide, p. 656.

[11]Nicola Trott, ‘Wordsworth: the shape of the poetic career’, in Stephen Gill, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 16.

[12]Pierre-françois Moreau, ‘Spinoza’s reception and influence’, in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 413.

[13] Philip Shaw, The Sublime (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), p. 47.

[14]Ferber, The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry, p. 58.

[15]Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum (1800), quoted in Michael Weston, Philosophy, Literature and the Human Good (London: Routledge, 2001), p.13.

[16]  Ibid., p. 13.

[17]Sophie Thomas, ‘The fragment’, in Roe, ed., Romanticism: an Oxford guide, p. 515.

[18]Considering that the persona is embodying Wordsworth’s voice, thoughts and thus himself, as was popular with many Romantic poets, it can be assumed that this is Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy Wordsworth.

[19]Percy Shelley, ‘To a Sky-lark’, Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. D, The Romantic Period, Ninth Edition, p.834.

[20]F. W. J. von Schelling distinguishes between the real and the ideal, stating: ‘“When a great painting comes into being it is as though the invisible curtain that separates the real from the ideal world is raised; it is merely the opening through which the characters and places of the world of fantasy, which shimmers only imperfectly through the real world, fully come upon the stage”’, F. W. J. von Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), quoted in Shaw, The Sublime, pp. 91-92.

[21]Ibid., p. 92.

[22]Bennett, ‘The idea of the author’, in Roe, ed., Romanticism: an Oxford guide, p. 656.

[23] René Jules Dubos and Jean Dubos, The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man and Society (Boston: Rutgers University Press, 1987), p. 45.

[24]Kenneth R. Johnston, ‘Wordsworth and The Recluse’, in Gill, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, pp. 82-83.

[25]Ferber, The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry, p. 61.

[26]William Wordsworth, ‘Nutting’, Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. D, The Romantic Period, Ninth Edition, p. 309.

[27] Percy Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. D, The Romantic Period, Ninth Edition, p. 869.

[28]Susan J. Wolfson, ‘Wordsworth’s craft’, in Gill, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, p. 109.



Catherine Peck


brightONLINE student literary journal

18 Nov 2014