Romantic Writers: Imagination and Nature
For the English Romantic poets, Nature provided a primary theme and acted as the psychological and spiritual inspiration for many of their most profound and enduring works. Three key poets of the Romantic movement, William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge provide a good example of how Romantic poets saw a dualism in nature that consisted of an ideal and also included a “fallen” ideal. Although William Blake was actually not a member of the Romantic movement and preceded the Romantic movement by a few years, his poetry shows many of the attributes that are associated with English Romanticism. One of the things his poetry shows is a visionary experience of nature and the poet’s attempt to articulate this vision in symbolic terms.
Blake’s poems present a simple surface. Often, they are short poems with readily identifiable subjects such as flowers, animals, city-scapes and landscapes. The poems rely on a “sing-song” rhythm and on repeating imagery. An illustration of this is Blake’s poem “The Echoing Green” which has a seemingly ideal surface: “The Sun does arise,/ And make happy the skies./The merry bells ring,/To welcome the Spring.” (Blake, 7) and within these opening lines there is only the faintest hint that ideal nature contains potential peril or negativity.
The hint lies within the words “does” and “make” which imply that Divine force must be present in order to create paradisal reality. In other words, without the sun, there would be no nature at all. This seemingly obvious and simple fact means little in logical or scientific terms, but when the poem is read symbolically, the connotations are clear. This aspect of symbolism in nature is pronounced even moreso in Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” In this poem, Blake imagines the duality of nature personified in the symbol of a tiger. For Blake, nature is not only good but contains the latency of evil or destructiveness in it as well.
By comparison, Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” engages the reader with pleasant “legato” style lines and imagery, all for which falls among pretty expected and familiar imagery and diction: “I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils;” (Wordsworth, 31). Obviously, there is nothing shocking or even the least bit unusual in Wordsworth’s bucolically descriptive opening stanza. Wordsworth slowly extends and deepens the associations and images of his poem. The imagery flows from a simple, easily imagined scene as described in the first stanza to a more complete and captivating description of nature’s beauty. The implication of nature’s grandiosity and the human observer as an aspect of this grandeur is as clear in Wordsworth’s poem.
Like Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw a duality in nature, but he also recognized the innate capacity for natural symbols to represent the human psyche and the human imagination. For Coleridge, as for Blake, the human soul and nature were one. This means that the ideal projection of nature is an ideal projection of the human soul in the poetry of a romantic poet, but so — also — is the projection of the human capacity for destruction, waste, and ignorance — what might be loosely termed as “evil” or the fallen ideal. Coleridge’s famous poem “Kubla Kahn” deals with this dichotomy in nature and in the human psyche. Coleridge’s symbolism is much more elusive and complex than Blake’s and verges on what many consider to be a type of poetic secrecy. Because Kubla Kahn is widely regarded by critics as a fragment, that is an unfinished poem, it symbolically represents nature in both form and symbolism, particularly with the preservation of essential mystery.
The poem concerns a vision that the poet had while in a dream. The poem’s vision is inspired by nature and, in aft, posits the dual aspects of nature: ideal and perverse as represented by the domes in the poem. The contrast in visions is Coleridge’s division of his experiences of nature. One aspect of the poem is to show the disjointed idealism, the perversion of reality which takes place when man (represented by Kubla Kahn) attempts to impose his will or vision nature. The ideal aspects of nature flourish within harmony and imagination.
The symbolism employed by Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge allowed these poets to represent a complex and nuanced vision of nature, one which contained not only their ideal projections and visions, but their apprehension of a fallen ideal, of the “experience” which harms nature and allows man to fall out of balance. For both poets, it is the frightening and inspiring aspects of nature which drive poetry and make it both necessary and vital to human happiness and growth.
Appelbaum, Stanley (Ed). English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology, Dover Publications, 1996.