Nature has been in used in poetry for years to express inspiration and emotion. However, it was during in the 18th century when Jean Jacques Rousseau rejected civilized society and glorified the state of nature, and in that his writings ushered in the age of Romanticism. Poetry written in this period placed more emphasis on the emotional side of human beings, on the virtues of nature and on the perfectibility of nature. Romantics believed in idealism, which existed in nature, thus they portrayed their sentiments through nature and its surroundings.
The writers of the period 1880-1901, were known as the Victorians. Britain was the most powerful nation in the world and it had made lot of scientific and industrial progress in the recent years. However, Victorian poets were often uncertain about life as there was a massive crisis of faith during this period. This is reflected by their poetry as for many, the Victorian period was of physical comfort but of spiritual doubt. Victorian poets, like the Romantics used nature to convey their passions and feelings.
I have decided to explore the themes and the use of nature in three different poems, namely, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802” (William Wordsworth – Romantic), “To Autumn” (John Keats – Romantic) and “Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold – Victorian). I feel that these poems directly allow the readers to understand the use of nature to communicate the inspirational message in the poetry and express the poet’s feeling.
In Westminster Bridge, the poet celebrates his love for London, bringing together the city’s man made and natural features to create a perfect harmony in the atmosphere. The mood of the poem reflects the tranquillity he has found in the nature. Written in a Petra Chan s sonnet, the poem enhances our perception of the poet’s love for the city. Wordsworth has arranged the poem in an Octet and a Sestet; the former gives us an objective and idealistic views of London while the latter, reflects the effect nature has on the poet.
Wordsworth makes first reference to nature when he says:
“The beauty of the morning; silent and bare,”
The word “bare” represents that London is unadorned and simple. He also appreciates the silence and the natural beauty at dawn; a sight presumably rarely seen by any living human being at that time. By reading the poem, one can feel nothing but tranquil, picturing oneself there.. The poet encompasses the man-made features with nature in the next two lines when he says:
“Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temple lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky;”
Encompassing two very different features together, the poet has created a perfect harmony, symbolising that in the city of London, the most dissimilar of things can survive together, peacefully. The word “lie” at the end of line conveys that the “ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples” seem to recline and are conscious of their marvel. Wordsworth sets a very peaceful tone demonstrating nature co-existing with man.
Next the poet moves on to paint a very rosy picture of the atmosphere:
“All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”
He has made use of very positive adjectives to describe the surroundings. This is a very idealistic view of the city. “Smokeless” is a very significant word to describe the air of London as during this time, the air could not be more polluted in London and similar industrial cities – a smokeless sky was a rather rare sight. “Bright and glittering” reflects the illumination of the atmosphere.
Similarly, in the next couple of lines, Wordsworth goes on to portray the magnificence of the English sun:
“Never did the sun more beautifully steep
In this first splendour, valley, rock or hill. ”
An assault of colour hits the eyes and a feeling of warmth and security runs down the spine. The word “steep” intensifies the reader’s sense of touch. Wordsworth not only wants one to take notice of the sunrise, he wants one to be absorbed by its warm rays and feel relaxed – taking a breath of fresh clean air. The words “rock”, “hill” and “valley” are all linked to the nature, symbolises the importance of using nature in poetry as it makes us visualise the poem more clearly.
Wordsworth is so overcome with perfection of “the river glideth in his own sweet will” – the river is moving at his own sweet pace not being stopped nor forced. The “houses,” where the inhabitants live, the life of the city, seem to be suspended in time. He cries out to God – thanking and praising him for allowing him to be a witness to such a sight. He makes use of apostrophes towards the ending to reinforce his passion. Wordsworth’s ending simply reinforces the stillness, silence and angelic perfection of nature in an early morning London.
Kenneth Johnston, author of “The Hidden Wordsworth” says that “even in his (Wordsworth’s) lifestyle, William Wordsworth’s public image was that of ultimate nature poet, wandering lonely as a cloud, gazing benignly at nature and small children. It is probably safe to say that by the late 20th century he stood in critical estimation where Coleridge and Arnold had originally placed him, next to John Milton – who stands, of course, William Shakespeare…”
The next poem that I am going to examine is “To Autumn” by John Keats.
John Keats addresses the season of autumn, with its fruitfulness, its flowers and the swallows gathering for migration. The extraordinary achievement of this poem lies in the poet’s ability to utilise nature, like “Westminster Bridge”, to express his emotions attached with one being in the twilight of his life, metaphorically, the season of autumn. This poem is written in a three-stanza structure, with each stanza being eleven lines long and each is metered in iambic pentameter. The mood is that of tranquillity, like “Westminster…” The poem celebrates autumn as a season of abundance, a season of reflection, a season of preparation for the winter, and a season worthy of admiration with comparison to what romantic poetry often focuses upon – the spring.
“To Autumn” is concerned with quieter activity of daily observation and appreciation. In this quietude, the author finds the fullest and the most beautiful expressions. The poet uses the most powerful of expressions to achieve effect; it is often associated with nature:
“And fill all fruits with ripeness to the core,
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells”
The adjectives such as “ripeness” and “plump” provide the reader with an excellent description of the landscape. The poem makes uses of gestures of full growth and nurturing and a lot of nature imagery. However, unlike “Westminster” the poet has only used nature as imagery not to express his emotions.
In the next stanza, the poet makes use of onomatopoeic expression, alliteration with nature to signify the strength of the wind:
“Thy hair soft-lilted by the winnowing-wind;”
This use of language creates a rather humble and peaceful atmosphere for the reader. It emphasises the harmony of autumn and this effect, which is used often throughout the poem, could also be a metaphor for the slow down of life during autumn, and the imminent death of the season.
In the next line, the poet makes use of a flower to emphasise the drowsiness of the poem:
“Drowsed with the fume of poppies,”
Poppies are flowers used to make opium, which was a form of drugs experimented by poets during that time. The flower imagery here is used negatively to show the effects of taking drugs; drugs could bring one to the “Autumn” of one’s life, nearer to death?