The Romantic period in English literature stands in stark contrast to the neo-classicist movement that preceded it. The birth of Romanticism coincided with the American and French revolutions, and it too was instrumental in a revolution of sorts. This movement was based on feeling and imagination — however irrational — and not on thought. While the neo-classicists believed that the world was rational and ordered, Romanticists believed in human expression, creativity and imagination. (Auerbach) Traditionalists viewed Romantics as dreamers and irrational thinkers, when all the while, England was engaged in a mini-renaissance of its own.
Many prominent Romantics furnished harsh criticisms of traditional institutions such as the church, the monarchies, and the educational systems. Romantics' poetry, it seemed, had an agenda that called for sweeping social change, or as William Blake calls it, a revolution "of the mind." (Auerbach)
Predictably, Romantic poetry was royally panned by critics; what wasn't panned was ignored completely. Keats' poetry, for example, was described as "drivelous…" while Blake's works (both in verse and in paint) where dismissed as rantings of a madman (Auerbach) or ignored altogether. Presently, however, Blake's works (and Romantic poetry in general) are held in high esteem.
Blake: "Nurse's Song" (Songs of Innocence) / "Nurse's Song" (Songs of Experience)
William Blake did not worship nature, nor was he a conservationist. However, the subject of nature did factor into many of his works. In "Nurse's Song" (from Songs of Innocence), we find children playing outside, enjoying nature and having the time of their lives. In this verse, time is marked by signs in the natural world. The nurse implores: "[t]hen come home, my children, the sun is gone down / And the dews of night arise…" (lines 5-6) Nature acts as a gentle guide for the children; their only concept of time comes from the luminaries and the light they give. The children respond to the nurse, wanting to play until the last lights in the sky are gone. Again, scenes from nature appear. "Besides, in the sky the little birds fly / And the hills are all covered with sheep." (lines 11-12) This response from the children is met with understanding from the nurse and the children resume their outdoor play once more.
"Nurse's Song" from Songs of Experience tells a different story. The laughing and shouting that is heard in the prior poem turns to whisperings. There is no sentimentality present in the nurse's attitude. She calls the children in as before, but the children do not respond to her in this poem because they know better. Again, the nurse uses the same reasoning as the prior work: "[t]he sun is gone down…" (line 5) Yet, her opinion of child's play is completely negative. To her, play is a waste of time — presumably since the children could spend their time working or in school.
Nature was not the central focus of Blake's poems, but it was a theme that did occur in many of his works, such as "The Lamb", "Earth's Answer", "The Garden of Love", "To Spring" and "To the Evening Star". But Blake was critical of worshippers of nature. In "Mock On, Mock On", he mentions both Voltaire and Rousseau and chides them for being worshippers of nature and not of "human faith and imagination." (Brady 210) Humanism and conservationism are not so incompatible, as our second English Romantic poet illustrates.
Wordsworth: "The Tables Turned"
William Wordsworth — the name itself conjures up images of nature, wooded acres and mountain scenes. Many of his poems, while occasionally mentioning God, primarily mention nature as that which is to be worshipped. "The Tables Turned" is no exception. Sub-titled "An evening scene on the same subject," this "same subject" refers to Wordsworth's near-proselytizing demeanor on the benefits of communing with nature.
The written word is another recurring theme in "The Tables Turned". Wordsworth has an intriguing aversion to books and matters of traditional education. Ironically, all I know of Wordsworth, I learned from books. Nevertheless, he implores his friend in line 1 to "quit your books" and tells him that reading books "[is] a dull and endless strife…" (line 9) If Wordsworth had lived in the 20th century, he may have likened the traditionally educated man to a robot. At the poem's last stanza, he denounces institutions of higher learning altogether. "Enough of Science and of Art / Close up those barren leaves." (lines 29-30)
Nature in "The Tables Turned" is portrayed as a viable alternative to education: "[c]ome forth into the light of things / Let Nature be your teacher." (lines 15-16) Wordsworth believes that nature can teach man more about life than standard education could ever hope to teach. "The Tables Turned" is an interesting title; it's a direct reference to Mark 11:15, where Jesus arrives at the Temple in Jerusalem and turns over the tables of the money-changers, restoring the Temple as a house of prayer. Similarly, Wordsworth wants to restore the human learning experience to that of nature, not of "Science and…Art." (line 29)
Clare: "A Sea Boy on the Giddy Mast"
Our third English Romantic poet is John Clare — noted for his short work "A Sea Boy on the Giddy Mast". The poem consists of two ballad-style quatrains; the first describes a young sailor seeing nothing but water and waves on his journey.
The second quatrain contains a simile, where Clare likens his life to the ocean waves and "th' inconstant sea." (line 5) The operative word here is inconstant and it's a theme that's been explored by many writers — most poignantly by Brian Wilson in a 1971 work: "I'm a cork on the ocean / Floating over the raging sea." (lines 1-2) Clare's "The Sea Boy" takes a fatalist approach to life and uses the vast, impersonal, raging sea to his advantage (poetically, at least).
Besides being written by male English Romantic poets, the four poems described herein have precious few common threads. All mention scenes from the natural world, but the agendas that these poems push are vastly different. Blake's Nurse's Songs portray nature as nothing but a childish diversion. Wordsworth's "The Tables Turned" uses nature as an end unto itself. Clare, however uses nature to touch on a more personal issue — the hopelessness and inconstancy of his own life.
Blake and Wordsworth would not have made good friends. Blake believed that the adoration of nature and a focus on the imagination were not compatible themes. To Blake, the worship of nature denied man his imagination. Wordsworth would have probably disagreed; his approach to nature was not all objective, but gave credence to an open mind and open heart: "[c]ome forth and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives." ("The Tables Turned", lines 31-32)
- Analysis of Walt Whitman's "Salut Au Monde!"
- English Romantics and Nature: Blake, Wordsworth, and Clare
- Tom Wolfe's "O Rotten Gotham: Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink"
Auerbach, Emily. Study Guide for Introduction to Modern English and American Literature: The Nineteenth Century. Madison, WI: Annenberg/CPB Project, 1987.
Brady, Frank; Martin Price. Poetry — Past and Present. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974.