Man’s Separation from Nature in Poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
In England, Romanticism was established in the late eighteenth century. While in political, social, and economic life French revolution marked a new order, in literature and arts, Romantic vision became triumphant. Reacting to the Industrial Revolution and growing urbanization, one of the most significant subjects for Romantics was nature. Feeling people’s alienation from nature, Romantic poets strove to reunite humanity and the natural world. Exploring the theme of man’s separation from Nature, Wordsworth, and Coleridge each went its own way defined by their personalities and social philosophies.
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Romanticism was marked by a turn from the external to the internal and spiritual world. Nurturing their individuality, everyone arrived at their own understanding of divinity and moral law. From the first three lines, William Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World is too Much with Us” (1807) sets the subject of the alienation of a modern person. Not feeling the unity with nature, the reader can think that “the world is too much with us” implies urban living (1). For people born in the city, their “world” is overpopulated; people are crawling like ants, and soon the city limits will overflow. Another reader can perceive the word “world” as a natural realm. In this case, “the world is too much with us” because people mistreat nature. The late 18th and the early 19th centuries witnessed the arrival of the full-blown Industrial Revolution, and people could already see the result of the negligence and careless treatment of the ecosystem. In “The World is too Much with Us,” Wordsworth presents a rather commonplace viewpoint of a Romantic adherent, but in an unsettling way. Pondering about how many people, including him, are alienated from nature, the poet observes the meadow. He explicates the reason why “the world is too much for us” and intentionally fails to finish the comparison with pagans, “I’d rather be/ A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” (9-10). The reader waits for the closure and has to fill it in by oneself, assuming that the outburst refers to the Christian God. Indeed, the Dissent Christianity was a prevailing religion in Europe. Therefore, if there is a state religion and the majority of people behave wrongly, one may logically assume that the false religious teachings caused this decadence. Saying that he is a “pagan” rather than “a citizen of Christian civilization”, Wordsworth underlines his nonconformism.
In contrast to Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge saw an inextricable connection between God and nature. His position in “Frost at Midnight” (1798) is one of a believer where the author in a conversational mode muses about his life and his infant’s future. Coleridge remembers that when he was a child, he suffered to be far away from his family in a boarding school in another city. Therefore, he wants another fate for his little son. Being reared in the city’s “'mid cloisters dim”, Coleridge wishes for his child to belong to the vast spaces of the countryside, “But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores” (55-56). This kind of natural beauty will teach the child about the presence of God, and it will bring happiness into the soul. The structure of the poem is cyclical. Coleridge begins and finishes the poem by gazing at the work of frost on the icy window. The film of soot on the fire-grate triggers his thoughts about school and childhood, making him think about his child and his place in the world. The poet believed that “the structure of a poem should reflect the structure of existence, and he saw the latter as cyclic in nature.” Inasmuch as his train of thoughts inevitably leads to thinking about God, in the same way, his child will be prompted to deduce God’s existence from “that eternal language, which thy God /Utters, who from eternity doth teach/ Himself in all, and all things in himself” (61-63). Coleridge was a Christian. The end of stanza 3 clearly demonstrates the poet’s ardent faith when he imagines how his son will be prompted to inquire about God’s deeds. Thus, Coleridge actively uses his religious experience as a poetic source.
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While playing with pagan views sometimes, Romantics, on the whole, did not favor that much the idea of God being removed from nature. Such a viewpoint was too scientific, and Romantics felt themselves, strangers, in the world completely explained by scientists. Often Romantics almost embraces pantheism with their eager attempts to understand the world. Keeping thinking on the relationship between man and nature, Romantic poets felt that there is a spiritual presence in the natural environment, and human life is penetrated with this kind of spirit. In “Eolian Harp” (1795), Coleridge attempts to comprehend the world in pantheistic terms: “At once the Soul of each, and God of All?” (48). Comparing the human mind to a harp placed in an opened window with the wind of nature freely moving through it, Coleridge draws a parallel with his mind idly and constantly searching for the truth. Being a Christian, Coleridge is swept by “one intellectual breeze”, which causes his personality to vibrate and generate thinking activity (47). Pantheistic worldview would be ideal for peace-loving Romantics, but the problem with it was that it would seem to imply all creation is harmonious and well supplied by some spiritual force. If the world could have been the way Coleridge imagined it, there would be no need for moral striving. However, under a watchful eye of his Christian wife, Coleridge drops his “vain philosophy” and, by the end of the poem, he returns to his habitual understanding of the universe with Jesus Christ and God Father (57).
Even the rebellious Wordsworth eventually converted to a more conservative outlook. In The Prelude, against descriptions of nature as a background, Wordsworth writes the story of his life and gives an account of his evolution as a poet. The Prelude is considered one of the greatest long English poems. Imbued with romantic and picturesque descriptions of nature, Wordsworth explores the themes he wanted to discuss in a meditative way. One of the main topics for Wordsworth was the advantage of rural living over urban. For Wordsworth, nature was a source of well-being. Taken away from nature, people seek additional sources of entertainment and stimulation, while all they need is out there. In The Prelude, Wordsworth demonstrates his maturity by his manner of talking about nature. If in his youth Wordsworth viewed nature in a fanciful and mechanic way, then in his mature years he used nature as a means to transcend the physical plane of existence. Wordsworth offered to overcome nature with the power of one’s imagination. Closely connected to emotions and feelings, they become favored over reason and intellect. Another idea of Wordsworth was “wise passiveness.” Creating his verse “Expostulation and Reply” (1798), Wordsworth suggests that the experience of nature and the outside world seems to be pretty much inoperative. Thus, one could gain knowledge from nature almost subconsciously. In contrast to the ideal of Enlightenment, Wordsworth does not believe in bookish learning. He feels that the nature of man is wisely made by the Creator and does not need anything additional:
The eye it cannot chuse but see,
Cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against, or with our will (17-20).
According to Romantics, being connected with one’s feelings and nature makes people humane. In the poems of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, the reader can see the fascination with nature. While valuing descriptions of nature, Wordsworth and Coleridge hardly ever wrote poems for purely decorative purposes, rather using nature poetry in a meditative way to embody the themes they wanted to discuss.