Early Romantic writers: Wordsworth and Shelley

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      The expression Return to Nature which literary historians use to emphasise one of the dominant features of the Romantic Movement in English literature, is derived from Rousseau, the celebrated French philosopher of the eighteenth century whose thoughts had far-reaching consequences. Rousseau has been called "the father of Romanticism", whose revolutionary naturalism had profoundly affected the Romantic nature poets. The power of the natural scene to respond to man's needs is the core of his naturalism.

Nature is a healing power to Wordsworth, but Shelley is conscious of no message from Nature for mankind.
Wordsworth and Shelley

      Rousseau was the first to perceive the harmonious relation between man and nature. In his view the artificialities and complexities of civilization have tended to corrupt and distort the human mind and as a remedy he advocated a return to a life in nature - "to the real life of the earth and air and not to the bookish nature of the artificial pastoral." (Albert). His famous Emile is a tract on education of nature. In fact, Emile foreshadows Wordsworth's Lucy, who 'grew three years in sun and shower' to be taken up by Nature as her pupil. But it may be noted that naturalism applies only to one aspect, though dominant enough, of romanticism and not the whole of that complex movement; hence it is now somewhat unduly discredited.

      As applied to Romantic poetry, the expression has a special significance. Nature, as a theme, had been banished from English poetry by eighteenth century poets of the school of Pope. These poets were mainly town-dwellers who had no eye for open-air and fresh nature. They looked at Nature through the spectacles of books. Thus Pope in his poem The Windsor Forest, has given generalised picture of nature as found in Homer's or Virgil's poems. The pictures are artificial and stereotyped. Nature to these poets was a convenient background for depicting human mind; it was only a store-house tor drawing imagery. Thomson, Cowper, Goldsmith, Burns and Blake, called the poets of transition show a real passion for Nature, a sense of joy in the open face of nature, observed lovingly and with care. This gradual re-awakening of an interest in nature reached its climax in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, shelley, Keats etc. They are the poets and priests of nature and in some of them, as Albert has said 'a feeling for nature rises to a passionate veneration.

      The leader of this school was, of course, Wordsworth, the most passionate lover and worshipper of nature. His views of nature are summed up in his famous poem, Lines written on Tintern Abbey. He is one of the most loving, penetrative and thoughtful poets of Nature, the world has ever seen. Nature, according to him, is not merely an arrangement of attractive forms, colours, sounds, etc. appealing to the senses. But he spiritualises Nature as a great revealing power. In his view Nature is sentient and alive. She is permeated by an indwelling spirit whose "dwelling is the light of the sun" and the minds of men. To hold communion with this spirit is the highest object of life. Nature is the best of healer of wounds. Contemplation of this living spirit induces in him a spiritual ecstasy in which he "sees into the life of things." She is a friend, philosopher and guide to man, never betraying him. She leads him from joy to joy and contributes to man's moral health. She is both 'law and impulse' to man encouraging him to good and restraining from evil. She is the best of the teachers of man. Thus the poet is the most unwearied worshipper of Nature and has sung her praise in all his poems. He is pre-eminently the poet of nature. It has been pointed out that there are sides of nature-namely nature in 'tooth and claw', to which he was energetically blind. Thus his poetry of nature is over-optimistic.

      Another great nature poet of the age is Shelley. Like Wordsworth, Shelley loved Nature passionately and recorded his impressions of Nature with loving care and observation. But there is a difference. While Wordsworth describes natural sights in a series of vivid images, Shelley's descriptions are frequently vague and confused. Wordsworth describes the whole of nature in various aspects; to Shelley the elusive, indefinite and changeful aspects of nature appealed more. The calm of nature appeals to Wordsworth but Shelley was more attracted by the wild and uncontrollable in nature. Shelley, too, believed, like Wordsworth, in a spirit pervading the universe. But to Wordsworth it is Thought that teaches duty, to Shelley it is Love expressing itself in beauty.

      Nature is a healing power to Wordsworth, but Shelley is conscious of no message from Nature for mankind. Wordsworth looks upon Nature as an ultimate reality, but Shelley sees in it "the veil of the unseen and the types and auguries of a better life on earth. All the imagery of Nature's more remote and skyey phenomena was inseparable in his soul from visions of a radiant future and a renovated humanity" Lastly, the myth-making power of Shelley is a distinct feature of his nature poetry. He conceived the objects of nature as having a life and individuality, like the Greeks of old. His cloud, the west wind, the skylark, the flowers are a race apart from humanity. The Cloud, Ode to the West Wind, To A Skylark, The Sensitive Plant are some of his great nature poems.

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