Nature is one of the most important elements of poetry used by authors to express the deep feelings and emotions of speakers. Poets had preached the sounding doctrine that the environment is a primary influence on the developing character. There was only a short step from the influence of nature on the individual to the influence of the created environment.
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The remarkable feature of 18th-century poetry is that poets used nature to depict their emotions and feelings symbolically. For instance, in The Deserted Village” (1770), Oliver Goldsmith portrays his feelings using images of seasons and fieldwork:” And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground, And sleights of art and feats of strength went round/ And still, as each repeated pleasure tired” (Goldsmith). The anxiety inherent in a sketch — the feeling of being unsettled — leads Goldsmith to other stylistic choices, most notably the creation of illusions and the reliance upon sentiment, both of which smooth away all the nonductile, nonpliant qualities of the English landscape (Enscoe and Gleckner 4).
Once Goldsmith realized that the meaning he sought in English institutions and culture was not to be emotionally his, he fabricated an illusion of stability through the very design and construction of the poem and its meaning. Similar to Goldsmith, William Cowper uses nature and landscapes to impress readers and depict the natural beauty and uniqueness of his feelings. In his works, an illusion, of course, is a distortion of reality, a deception of sorts, wherein misleading appearance is perceived as the real or true nature of something. Cowper’s commitment to an ideal as that of a wanderer on a quest drives him to weave a fabric of illusion around and through all of his experience. The wild spirit which resides in the landscapes is expressed by Cowper upon the polite world of English nature. Readers are withdrawn into the folds of an impersonal power which does not care for human attachment and love (Brown 23).
In contrast to 18th-century poetry, romantic poetry sees and depicts nature at a distance observing its beauty and charm. Using nature, romantics connect readers to heroic deeds, courage on the battlefield. Poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge portray that in contrast to 18th-century poets, romantics depicted God through nature. A predominantly visual relationship with nature implies, in fact, separation, “a state of alienation or detachment from it” (Barth 21) since the very process of seeing emphasizes the space between the eye and the object. The romantics, who relied so heavily on sight, did not make an emotional connection to the landscape. They were distant watchers, and when they sang their songs, they brought into being their own worlds (Barth 22). Of central importance in romanticism, then, is the formulation of these “verbal webs,” which offer protection while promoting self-expansion.
It is the American poet’s own voice, often in the form of a ritualistic chant, that recreates nature; rarely in his works do we find a concentration on specific and local sights and sounds. Coleridge turned imagination onto the world to meditate and modify it, but the European romantic was able to draw upon resources such as “history, legend, memory,” friends and lovers, “visions of future societies” (Barth 38), and the landscape itself to combat isolation and despair. The romantic depends more heavily on the intricacies of his own creations. The poetic flights and visions of the European romantics were not alien to their natural and human surroundings and interpenetrated with them. Critics admit that romantic poets were neither preoccupied with nature nor alive to their surroundings in quite the way as those authors who make up our first great wave of national genius (Barth 82).
Yet it requires no leap of faith to see that there are many affinities between Wordsworth and the romantics, especially in terms of the relationship between writer, word, and world, and the development of a personal, idiosyncratic style. In Tintern, Abbey Wordsworth writes: “And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things” (Wordsworth). These lines portray that having reached maturity in a country whose very distinction was to have repudiated the past, he had no accumulated consciousness of an extended cultural tradition, no deeply internalized sense of communal history. What romantic poets the traveler and pilgrim really wanted, therefore, was history as it existed (and as he could imagine it to exist) in the present moment, surrounding him with its wondrous and ever-arresting images, liberating him from the tyranny of his own oppressive insecurities. It is built on the associations poets bring with them (Enscoe and Gleckner 23).
In sum, during the 18th century, nature was used as a background and the main method to portray the inner feelings and thoughts of speakers.
The Romantic contemplates nature, both the natural world around him and his own inner nature. There are certain aspects of each that he is particularly concerned about exploring. In the course of the eighteenth century, we can trace a movement of taste away from admiration of ordered, cultivated nature towards the worship of wild, untamed, mountainous nature.
Barth, J. S. Romanticism, and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination. University of Missouri Press, 2003.
Brown, R. H. Nature’s Hidden Terror: Violent Nature Imagery in 18th-Century Literature (Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture). Camden House; 1st ed edition, 1992.
Enscoe E. Gerald, Gleckner, Robert F. Romanticism: Points of View. Prentice-Hall, 1962.