By Sam Gee
Despite substantial disagreements over the meaning of that vague term “Romanticism,” there has long been a sense that the thinkers and artists we classify as such have had an outsized impact on how westerners think about the natural world. For many, “Romanticism” and “Nature” fit together like hand in glove. Some recent critics like Harold Bloom have attempted to argue that the Romantics were, in fact, not children of nature but rather prophets of the “Imagination.” But by and large M.H. Abrams’s designation of Romanticism as “Natural Supernaturalism” – a tendency to endow the natural world with a spiritual significance formerly the reserve of the supernatural religions – has stuck. When we think “Romantic,” we likely still think of rivers and woods, ruins reclaimed by weeds, sublime mountain-tops and beautiful fields of flowers.
Predictably, as the environmental crisis has come to dominate academic discussions of nature, the Romantic conception of “Nature” has come up for re-examination. Some critics have held up the Romantics’ naturalism as a powerful model for reconceiving our own brutal and domineering relationship to the natural world. Others, like the environmental historian William Cronon, have critiqued the legacy of Romanticism in environmental thought. In his classic essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Cronon argues that the master-concept of environmentalism, “wilderness,” is a product in large part of the Romantic revision of previously accepted European thinking about nature. Through the 19th-century, from Wordsworth to Muir, Cronon argues, “the sublime wilderness had ceased to be a place of satanic temptation and become instead a sacred temple, much as it continues to be for those who love it today.” “Wilderness,” Cronon writes, “fulfills the old romantic project of secularizing Judeo-Christian values so as to make a new cathedral not in some pretty human building but in God’s own creation, Nature itself.” The effect of this reconsideration of nature is, for Cronon, deleterious: it entails an “escape from history,” and a giving of “ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead” in “an urban-industrial civilization.” The quasi-religious apotheosis of Romantic nature, in short, distorts our view of the natural world as it really is, and tempts us away from our true places and ties in the human world.
Cronon’s essay is a powerful polemic – but is it historically accurate? The difficulty, too seldom acknowledged, is that there is not just one Romantic ideology of nature. If, like Cronon and other American environmentalists, we take Thoreau’s example as a central one, then we may be tempted to project the hermit of Concord’s stark, Rousseauian dualism between beneficent nature and corrupt society onto Romanticism as a whole. But a closer attention to the variety of the movement demonstrates that, in fact, a profound ambivalence about what Cronon calls the “wilderness” idea was present at the very start. The first generation of British Romantics – Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge – all, in different ways, expressed uncertainty and anxiety about what it might mean to be a worshipper of Pan.
The case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is especially significant in probing Romantic ambivalence about the nature and significance of nature. There is an old cliché that Wordsworth was the true naturalist, his friend Coleridge merely an opiate-drenched seer solely concerned with the wonders and recesses of the human imagination. There is a grain of truth to this, but it is at best reductive. Indeed, questions about the natural world and humanity’s relation to it animated Coleridge for much of his life. Even – perhaps especially – in the period prior to meeting Wordsworth, Coleridge dwelt on nature in ways that simultaneously anticipated those views of Wordsworth that we more often consider the true heritage of Romanticism, and profoundly undermined them. For Coleridge, “Nature” was a deeply fraught thing. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge saw the natural world as possessing resources for physical and spiritual renewal; and yet he also saw it as a temptation away from the human world of concrete social commitments – usually domestic or political. Wild nature thus had, for Coleridge, all the complex ambiguity and contained within itself all the ethical tensions that it does for Cronon. Its stirring beauty could be a salve or a lure to self-contained aestheticism and isolation.
Consider, as a case study, Coleridge’s famous early poem “The Eolian Harp,” first published in 1796. This poem has been the occasion of significant controversy among Coleridge scholars due to its complex textual history and what many critics perceive as a half-hearted and weak retreat into orthodox Christianity at the end of the poem. For our purposes, we might set aside the textual problems and religious value judgments to understand how the poem both evokes and interrogates the Romantic conception of nature-as-temple. The poem is set during Coleridge’s honeymoon with his bride Sara Fricker at a remote cottage in North Somerset in England. It begins with a touching tribute to his newfound domestic bliss: “My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined / Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is / To sit beside our cot.” Almost immediately, though, the poet’s imagination flies off, as he considers the strings of a lute “by the desultory breeze caressed, / Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover.” This extended dwelling on the sexualized lute culminates in an addition that Coleridge made in 1817 in which he sees the wind’s playing on the instrument as emblematic of “the one life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul, / A light in sound, a sound-like power in light / Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere.” From this metaphysical outpouring, the speaker goes on to recall days spent musing similarly out in nature. The crucial section is worth quoting at more length:
And thus, my love! as on the midway slope Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon, Whilst through my half-closed eye-lids I behold The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main, And tranquil muse upon tranquility; Full many a thought uncalled and undetained, And many idle flitting phantasies, Traverse my indolent and passive brain, As wild and various as the random gales That swell and flutter on this subject lute! And what if all of animated nature Be but organic harps diversely framed, That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, At once the Soul of each, and God of All?
To sum up thus far, the poet has—all, be it noted, in his own imagination, while speaking to his wife—gone from the praise of domesticity, to a sexual metaphor about the wind-as-spirit caressing the strings of a lute-as-matter. He then wanders out into the green world where he comes to see nature itself as like the earlier lute (or harp) insofar as it is permeated by the spirit of God. It would seem that here the Romantic ideology of wild nature as straightforwardly sacred is fully at play.
The poem’s last stanza, though, in looping back in upon itself, seems to disavow much of what has come before. Addressing Sara, the speaker says:
But thy more serious eye a mild reproof Darts, O beloved woman! nor such thoughts Dim and unhallowed dost thou not reject, And biddest me walk humbly with my God. Meek daughter in the family of Christ! Well hast thou said and holily dispraised These shapings of the unregenerate mind; Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring. For never guiltless may I speak of him, The Incomprehensible! save when with awe I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels; Who with his saving mercies healed me, A sinful and most miserable man, Wildered and dark, and gave me to possess Peace, and this cot, and thee, heart-honoured Maid!
What to make of this late change of heart? Is it, as most critics have averred, a turning away in fear at the seemingly pantheistic implications of the earlier central metaphor? Is it (as has also been suggested) a concession to Coleridge’s wife’s more delicate and conventional feelings about God and the dangers of idle speculation? Neither of these answers seems entirely plausible. Rather, we might see the poem’s movement as expressing Coleridge’s ambivalence about nature: the poem’s journey is not from pantheism to orthodoxy, but rather from domesticity to nature and back to domesticity.
Nature, in this poem, is a temptation away from the domestic and thus from social (and sexual) responsibility. The speaker exchanges the “soft cheek” of his beloved which arouses his sexual energies for the perhaps equally pleasurable—but less threatening—delights of lazily musing in nature. The heights that the speaker must be called down from by his wife are not the speculative heights of pantheism, but the emotional heights of release from the ordinary, domestic, and human. Seen this way, the speaker’s turn toward nature in the middle section of the poem is an avoidance of companionship and responsibility. Getting lost in the contemplation of Nature, Coleridge’s domestic commitments seem to fade entirely from view. The poem thus seems to suggest both the emotional thrills and consolations of a devotion to the natural world, and the social and ethical dangers of such an attachment (or, better, detachment).
Coleridge’s other poem from his honeymoon, “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement,” plays a variation on this theme. Here, the domestic and the natural are more closely conjoined, and both stand in opposition to a broader social responsibility. Like “The Eolian Harp,” this poem begins with a panegyric on the nuptial hide-out, complete with another instance of (possible) innuendo: “Low was our pretty Cot: our tallest rose / Peeped at the chamber-window.” The speaker emphasizes the mutual solitude he and his bride share in this spot that “you might aptly call / The Valley of Seclusion!” All is blessedness and happiness in the poem’s first stanza, and the rural cot is the envy of the workaday world.
Then the poet goes “up the stony mount” near the house and describes his prototypically sublime experience of “The bare bleak mountain speckled thin with sheep” which “seemed like Omnipresence!” Here the speaker feels, recollecting, that “It was a luxury, – to be!” But immediately, this revelation is followed by a guilt pang. “Ah! quiet dell! dear Cot, and mount sublime! / I was constrained to quit you.” “Was it right,” the poet asks, “While my unnumbered brethren toiled and bled, / That I should dream away the entrusted hours / On rose-leaf beds, pampering the coward heart / With feelings all too delicate for use?”
The poet wishes that “all had such” a rural retreat, but laments that “the time is not yet.” “Speed it, O Father! Let thy kingdom come!” he prays. And so the speaker looks forward to a millennial future in which all can enjoy the fruits of solitude and domestic bliss in nature. But because that future is couched in these eschatological terms, the implication would seem that such a world would be a fundamental rupture from the one we now live in. In this world, the peace of nature and the love of humanity are fundamentally at odds. Here the love of nature precludes not domestic responsibility (as in “The Eolian Harp”) but a more philanthropic zeal. Nature, in these honeymoon poems, is an escape hatch; one must choose nature or sociability, comfort or commitment.
We see, then, that at least one major Romantic writer expressed the same sorts of anxieties about a quasi-religious sanctification of nature as a contemporary critic of Romanticism like Cronon. Other Romantics, like William Blake, went even farther in their rejection of religious naturalism. And even Wordsworth, despite the clichés, could be rather uncertain about the proper way to approach the natural world. Even so famous a nature poem as “Tintern Abbey” seems to suggest that the love of nature, to be complete and spiritually elevating, must be interwoven with one’s social and familial ties.
One conclusion to be drawn from this is that even critics of Romantic views of nature are in fact participating in a distinctively Romantic discourse. By expressing ambivalence about the ideological separation of human sociability from the seeming purity of the natural world, environmentalists like Cronon are echoing the anxieties of poets like Coleridge. Such worries, far from being opposed to Romanticism, are actually a legacy of the very Romantic texts and attitudes under suspicion.
But historical accuracy and insight is not the only benefit of returning to Coleridge and the other British Romantics. For if we are indeed heirs of the Romantic conception(s) of Nature, then we might learn from those thinkers ways to navigate the rift some of us still experience between the desire for freedom and recreation in nature and the difficult comforts and responsibilities of life in human society. Coleridge’s poetry elegantly portrays the human spirit’s struggle between freedom and commitment, the woods and the town, rest and restlessness. As we seek to discern what it means to be fully human in a world we have both (in part) constructed and made good progress in destroying, we might do worse than to listen to the Romantics.
Sam Gee is a doctoral student in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. His research focuses on American intellectual history and modern religious thought. His writing has appeared in The Point, The American Scholar, The LA Review of Books, and other venues.
Edited by Tingfeng Yan
Featured Image: Robert S. Duncanson, Romantic Landscape, 1871, Smithsonian American Art Museum