William Wordsworth & the Role of Nature to Man

What is Rights of Nature? - The Rights of Nature

Many people will attest how it is in the awe of nature that they find themselves most inspired and most elevated to gain knowledge of the great splendors surrounding life’s beauty. In the world of literature, few articulated this sentiment better than William Wordsworth, who insisted how it is in the very nature of man to rob this same beauty he is seeking to understand of its essence by reducing it to trivial functions and mechanics. William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” (1798) captures this perspective perfectly, as the English poet expresses his discontent with the cold materialism of the Enlightenment tradition, by appealing to the reader’s numinous instincts and pleas for the superiority of observing the world through a romantic lens.


As a poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring,” is written for the salvation of the human soul:  “To her fair works did Nature link the Human soul that through me ran.” Here, Wordsworth is establishing the idea of Nature (always written with an uppercase “N”) as the unifying theme of life, and that the human soul is a cumulative product of its work, whose place lies inseparable from its origin. But he continues, “And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

 
Whereas the poet begins with the concept of Nature as the creator and preserver of man’s soul, and thereby the ultimate source of his being, he is now introducing the danger that is bound to occur whenever man seeks to define Nature (and his place in it) by his own terms, rather than allowing Nature to define him, because any objective method of analysis demands for him to remove himself from his subject matter.  Hence, in this pursuit of knowledge man will fail utterly by foolishly distancing himself from the thing he is attempting to get closer to. 


According to Wordsworth, this has already happened and is shown in our inability to reflect on Nature through the acknowledgement that our presence is as much a part of her order as any other organism we might scientifically observe: “The birds around me hopped and played, their thoughts I cannot measure: –But the least motion which they made, it seemed a thrill of pleasure ” or, put more succinctly, what the poet probably means to say is how their thoughts he need not measure, because it does nothing to enhance the joyous sight either for himself or for the gleeful birds.  The very fact that the birds themselves are unable to reflect on the science of their pleasure, yet are still aware of the basic principles of great joy without the need to analytically deconstruct, suggests to Wordsworth that the utility of man’s rational approach to seeing Nature is deeply flawed.


The imagery Wordsworth uses is one of finding tranquil solace in simplicity, calling on man to recollect with the true provider of his senses, i.e. Nature.  Wordsworth argues that it is to his great shame that through man’s desire to study the natural world he has positioned himself outside the workings of Nature, observing it as if he is not a central component of her.  Wordsworth illustrates this in his poem by describing the manner by which all the individual parts and players found in the natural world—the flowers, the periwinkle, the birds and trees—while still remaining independent agents, never fancy themselves as being outside the workings of the grand scheme; instead basking in the beautiful harmony of Nature’s order.  Man, on the other hand, is spiritually torn; he instinctively knows that he is a part of Nature, and feels a cosmic urge to better understand her, but the more he interjects his anthropocentric lens to pursue this end the more likely he is to drive a wedge between himself and the true essence of Nature’s work.


In the poem, Wordsworth speaks from a first-person perspective, expressing his veneration for the serene beauty of Nature, and his utter disgust at how man remains oblivious to her all-encompassing presence (note, always referring to Nature in the feminine, and personalized, her). After describing the various parts making up the spirit of the natural world, the poet states, “And I must think, do all I can, that there was pleasure there,” to proclaim his break from the empiricist view of life. It is important to note how he says that he must do all he can to preserve the notion in his mind that all these seemingly harmonious creatures of Nature are indeed infused with pleasure. This is perhaps a subtle reflection by the poet on how, as a man, he is also subject to fall to the same empiricist vice if he neglects to notice his place as a product within the natural order. 


This sort of thinking follows in line well with the Romantic tradition Wordsworth writes in, especially works such as “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” where he explains how “a Poet, is implied nothing different in kind from other men, but only in degrees.” A poet only differs from other men in his ability to reveal the truth (in Wordsworth case, this is to reveal what he perceived as man’s true relation to the spirit of Nature) to his fellow brethren. Moreover, this suggests to the reader that despite the pessimistic slant about the tattered tendency of man expressed in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” there is in Wordsworth eyes still the glimmer of hope for man to reform his follies by embracing the pure emotion Nature has endowed him with, which will enable him to accept his self-evident role as an interdependent piece of a grander scheme of her beauty.


In the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth further describes the poet as “the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.” At first glance this seems to contrast sharply with his closing lines in the poem:


If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?” 


But does not this condemnation of man’s perversion of his own place in Nature’s plan also reveal a deeper appeal to man’s dignity?  It is clear that Wordsworth considers man to have deluded himself in his mechanical approach to studying Nature, but does not his stern tone convey sorrow at what we ourselves have done against nature with the greatest gift Nature has bestowed on us: our minds? 
In Wordsworth eyes, the poet knows the great potential of man, and has no choice but to shutter and weep at its foolish squandering, where he neglects his creative spark of emotion for the less spiritually fulfilling cult of Reason (which Wordsworth associates with the Enlightenment that preceded him intellectually just a short generation prior).  And it is the poet’s duty to expose this treachery, not as a condemnation but as a defense of human nature.


In Wordsworth’s work, Nature is god—with a lowercase g.  It is the absolute, the model on which all life is centered around.  Man is sinful in the sense that he has alienated himself from Nature, and will find salvation only by returning to its good graces.  A feat that can only be accomplished by freeing oneself from the baggage of society’s materialism, and return (more so spiritually, than physically) to our proper place within Nature’s own divine plan, as dependent components of its transcendent essence. 


Though Wordsworth was a professing Anglican, his musings on nature cannot be called religious in an orthodox sense of the word, but he is still a deeply religious figure if one takes into account his adherents to the belief that man’s spiritual soul needs to be nourished through the adoration of his creator, the true reason for his existence, i.e. Nature herself.  Wordsworth appears to be realistic about the prospect of man’s recognition of this, and even suggest that man’s very nature prevents him from reaching the ultimate goal of completely submerging into the omnipresence of Nature’s power.  Nonetheless, the fact of man’s spiritual limitations should not prevent him from striving to be as spiritually fulfilled as possible, using the Romantic ideals at his disposal to ascend himself and society to a plane of better understanding his place in the finely detailed workings of the universe. 

The great reflection described by Wordsworth in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” serves the function of giving man a framework on which to build his own mental shrine to the aesthetic beauty that encompasses his surroundings, and pay devotion to Nature’s work. Yes, it is idealistic, and unashamedly so.  Aiming to tell man how to think, rather than what to think; constantly holding a mirror to his face, and firmly reflecting back to him the self-evident truth of his disposition; forever tied in with the essence of what to Wordsworth is his soul’s being: Nature’s eternal spirit.

John Keats’ “Lamia”, and the Power of Human Imagination

John Keats | Poetry Foundation

It’s been awhile since I’ve read my collected writings of John Keats.  I admit many of his earlier poems are mediocre, but this only adds to the joy of seeing the development of his prose through the short time that he wrote.  By far Keats’s masterpiece is his poem “Lamia”, where he demonstrates his growth as a poet by taking his time to let the characters breath and roam free through well-paced narrative.

The title character, Lamia, appears to be beyond any consistent description:  “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-shaped, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d”(Keats, John. “Lamia,” lines 47-50).  Her appearance, both as serpent and woman, is filled with allegorical affirmations of her beauty, but it is a surreal beauty that lacks any real substance.  Akin to a pleasant dream, where the dreamer is engulfed by the euphoria overtaking his sleep, but cannot grasp the images around him because no matter how vivid and enticing they are, they are still simply imaginary.  This is the reality in which Lamia exists, completely dependent on a dreamer’s slumber to give her substance, which in essence is not much of a reality at all.  Even after being turned human by the god Hermes, Lamia’s entire existence rests on having others, namely her lover Lycius, unquestionably recognize her as the human being she is pretending to be.  And she knows that once the spell is broken, so is any claim she has to the material world:

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into a noisy world almost forlorn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell (lines 32-39).

Lamia exists as a thought, a passion, made real by the mind of the person that holds her image as true, but just as any thought, it can only be sustained for as long as a person is willing to, before it vanishes or is replaced.  Lamia’s existence appears to be just as capricious.

Keats’s Lamia is a creature whose entire interaction with the material world is determined by a person’s faithful acceptance of her human form.  Which is why all it takes to destroy Lamia is for the skeptical Apollonius to refuse to be mystified by her trance, “More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel: Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs; There was no recognition in those orbs” (lines 258-260).  And due to Apollonius’ wakeful eyes, Lamia’s fate is sealed, “Than with a frightful scream she vanished” (line 306).  Therefore, through this final exchange, Keats’s supernatural being turns out to be a nonbeing.  The fact that Lamia was endowed with the finest beauty and imagery might serve, in Keats’s view, to enhance man’s spiritual soul, but it does not change the fact that no matter how enticing or soul-fulfilling, Lamia is not material—hence not real.

Much of Keats’ personal convictions can be found in the text.  Where the mysteries and anomalies of life are accepted and revered–as Lamia’s character is revered throughout the poem–but the underlying cause of this experience is not externalized to an outside source, existing beyond the imagination of the individual person that has dreamed up the image.  Rather it is a reflection of man’s deep struggle with the mysteries of life, and his attempt to cope with his inability to sufficiently account for them.  Though despite all of this uncertainty, the unimaginable still has to be understood as being imaginary.

The Darker Side of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem, “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, takes the reader into the emotional turmoil of loss, regret, and death, as they shape the human experience and understanding of the world that surrounds us.  The prose begins with the startling lines, “Before I see another day, Oh let my body die away!”  A clear plea for death, enunciated through a tone of exhaustion.  The prospect of continued existence has become an unbearable burden to the speaker, forcing the exclamation of “Oh” as a preemptive sigh of gratitude for the sweet relief of death that the speaker hopes will come soon as a deliverance.  In common Wordsworthian fashion, the narrative is not complete unless it offers a reverence to the natural surroundings of the poem’s setting:

In sleep I heard the northern gleams;

The stars, they were among my dreams;

In rustling conflict through the skies,

I heard, I saw the flashes drive,

Judging by the description above, the speaker is in the icy regions of the northern latitude, where the famous Northern lights have been documented as making a seemingly “rustling” and crackling noise through the air.  The diction implies that the speaker has been stranded to look at this scenery for some time, and though overwhelmed by the majesty of it, the beauty of the imagery only works to remind the speaker of the blissful state that death would bring, “And yet they are upon my eyes, And yet I am alive.”  The beauty of the northern sky serves as a contrast to the narrators destitute state, which stands in for Wordsworth’s greater message that while we who dwell under Nature’s grace will inevitably fade away, the grace of Nature itself will always be eternally observable in the night sky, no better the fickle state of the observer.

The poem transitions from the sky, back to the individual, as the narrator draws links between natural processes and the human experience:

My fire is dead:  it knew no pain;

Yet it is dead, and I remain:

All stiff with ice the ashes lie;

And they are dead, and I will die.

The speaker understand that once death arrives, she will no longer be in any state to either contemplate the event, or complain about it–in death the fire knows no pain, and neither will any of us.  Watching the ashes that remain from the once flaming campfire focuses the narrator’s mind to recognize the temporary reality of her current pain.

Though the poem appears to have reached a point of serenity for the character involved, the prose quickly takes a turn towards reminiscences of life and regret:

Alas!  ye might have dragged me on

Another day, a single one!

Too soon I yielded to despair;

Why did ye listen to my prayer?

Wordsworth’s poem narrates the story of an American Indian woman left behind by her companion when she decided she could not continue the journey any longer.  The first two lines in the above passage would have the reader assume that this is a tale of callous abandonment, but the last two lines imply that the woman’s companions continued on without her, at her own insistence (hence, the retrospective woe, “Why did ye listen to my prayer?”).  The whole passage is one of  self-scorn for not having persisted against the obstacles faced, for not having chosen life over a defeatist end.  Although the speaker now recognizes that she could have held on further, the recognition comes too late; she now is where she saw herself at when she chose to give up trying.

The narrative then adds another layer of dimension to the emotional turmoil of the poem, with the following lines:

My Child! they gave thee to another,

A woman who was not thy mother.

When from my arms my Babe they took,

On me how strangely did he look!

Through his whole body something ran,

A most strange working did I see;

–As if he strove to be a man,

That he might pull the sledge for me:

And then he stretched his arms, how wild!

Oh mercy! like a helpless child.

The story of loss takes a new turn, as the seemingly abandoned woman now takes on the role of an abondoner.  Wordsworth draws a contrast in the behavior of the child in comparison to his mother; whereas the mother lays down to surrender to the elements, the boy’s demeanor is one of positive life affirmation–a desire to continue forwards at all cost–against whatever may arise in his path.  But the mother recognizes that this positive determination in her child’s eye is futile to help her, and gives the impression that she holds herself responsible for not meeting the boy’s drive and forcing herself to head on.  To be separated from one’s child is a reality all people will eventually face as they shuffle off this mortal coil, but to hand him away to another and then wait remorsefully for death to come is the very zenith of despair.  Perhaps this is the reason for the narrator’s initial unwillingness to muster forward after her premature surrender to the forces of nature, causing her to later muse privately to her gone child, “Then do not weep and grieve for me; I feel I must have died with thee.”

The theme of despair and sorrow is not uncommon in Wordsworth’s poetry, but usually it is told in a sense of pining for Nature’s simplicity, and a romantic plea for greater introspection of the joy’s of life and love.  But in “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, the poet deviated from the format his reader’s are accustomed to.  Here, the tone begins in pain and ends in pain; the reality of Nature’s cruelty is not rationalized away–no apologizes on behalf of Wordsworth’s deified grace of Nature is offered.  As the poem’s ending shows, loss, regret, and death are inseparable components of life, and no retrospective pleas or complaints of one’s past actions will amend this fact:

Young as I am my course is run,

I shall not see another sun;

I cannot lift my limbs to know

If they have any life or no.

My poor forsaken Child, if I

For once could have thee close to me,

With happy heart I then would die,

And my last thought would happy be;

But thou, dear Babe, art far away,

Nor shall I see another day.

Bibliography

Wordsworth, William.  “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” 1798 (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, Cambridge Edition, 1932 reprint).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as Allegory to the Terrors of the French Revolution

The Unexpected Twist That Makes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein A Bold,  Experimental Work Far Ahead of Its Time | by Spencer Baum | Medium

Although it came to serve as a hallmark for the advent of the Gothic literary genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be separated from its origins in the Romantic tradition.  The Romantic movement in literature (circa 1800-1840) was a reaction to the perceived mechanical, stoic approach to viewing the natural world through the logic of Enlightenment rationalism.  The aim of the Romantics was to introduce the value of the emotional experience in human expression, especially in its relation towards physical reality.  Arguably, it’s historical infusion in English literature can be traced directly to the artistic response to the Reign of Terror (1793-94) which arose out of–and in many ways defined the popular image of–the French Revolution.

The poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, which exalts the aesthetic beauty of nature over its rudimentary empirical observations, set the tone for much of the later Romantics who followed.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband, was another key figure in the Romantic movement, who heralded the naturalistic worldview, without making reference to the lifeless trappings of cold rationalism.  This is the environment Shelley was surrounded by as she penned her novel in 1818.  Despite often being overlooked as a mere accomplice to Percy’s more provocative work and demeanor, it was Shelley who expressed most poignantly the Romantic horror towards the Revolutionary elements that sparked the literary appeal for a greater appreciation for the aesthetics.

In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a passionate man, enamored by the creative possibilities offered by scientific thought and rigor:

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.  In other studies you go so far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is food for discovery and wonder (Chapter 4, page 49).

He is the quintessential child of the Enlightenment, not content with merely contributing to the understanding of life, but seeking to challenge the conventions that have traditionally constituted the definition of life itself:

Whence, I asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?  It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice and carelessness did not restrain our inquiries (page 50).

In this pursuit he labors, and theorizes, and experiments, until his desire for reanimating life in the lifeless is actualized.  The philosophical origins of the French Revolution followed a similar intellectual path.  The Enlightenment writings of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, and Locke (among numerous others), too, sought to instill the spark of life in a lifeless body; the lifeless body being the decaying corpse of the common populace, whose dire condition was sustained through the traditional conventions that maintained its own authority by reducing the worth of the powerless to little more than a living death.  Like the feverish thrill of excitement that accompanied Dr. Frankenstein’s climactic success in creating life, the uprising of the lower caste of society against the social order that governed them–most vividly symbolized by the popular storming of the Bastille in 1789–served as a reinvigorated yelp of life echoing the labors of the minds that planted the seeds of its ascent; or, as articulated in Dr. Frankenstein, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (page 51).

Within the context of Shelley’s narrative, Dr. Frankenstein isn’t a malicious figure.  Indeed, he is a rather sympathetic character, whose intellectual feats and desire to push the frontiers of knowledge are quite admirable; even benign.  However, the man allows his zeal to take control of his reason, causing him to lose track of the reality he is bringing about before him:

But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the results (page 51).

The excitement of the event blinded the young scientist from contemplating either the means by which he was arriving at his desired results, or the possible consequences that these results would bring to fruition.  Thus, upon reaching the final hour of his work, Dr. Frankenstein at last stood back to observe and reflect on his creation, only to gasp in horror at what he had brought about into the world:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!  Great God! / I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. / I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart (Chapter 5, page 56).

Unable to deal with the reality of his creation, Dr. Frankenstein abandons it in disgust and fear.  Forcing the creature to venture into the world without order or guidance to nurture his maturity.

One can imagine the philosophical architects of the French Revolution having a similar reaction to the Reign of Terror that arose out of the hopeful revolt in 1789.  The events that disposed of the royal ruling order of France were instigated by the widespread uprising of the exploited masses against the forces that sought to keep them in chains.  It was seen as the will of the people at long last triumphing over the tyranny of their rulers.  Oppression and persecution at the hands of the monarchy was at an end, and the calendar could be set back to Year One, to symbolize the dawning of a hopeful new era of liberty and justice.

Lessons of the French Revolution

Unfortunately, the hope for change proved short-lived, as the concept of liberty and justice, rather than being put to practice, became mere cult devotions in the new regime, which swiftly began to denounce all who failed to properly adhere to the new revolutionary system as heretics to both.  Therefore, like Frankenstein’s creature, the Revolutionary model was arguably created with the most virtues of intentions, assembling together the most intellectually viable parts and ideals available.  Yet, outside of the containment of philosophical musings, where hypothetical entities and situations obey the whim of the ponderer, this idealistic goal turned into a nightmare.  Or, more astutely, once “rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (page 57).

Frankenstein’s creation begins life innocently, but the grotesque circumstances of his existence fuel within him an unyielding destitute and hate.  At first, he wants to uphold the greater aspects of the human spirit (and contribute to it positively, if possible), but his abandonment by his creator, and the scorn leveled at him for his monstrous appearance, causes him to become evermore vengeful and destructive:  “Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?  I will keep no terms with my enemies.  I am miserable and they shall share my wretchedness” (Chapter 10, page 96).  His creation came about through the feverish frenzy of a strained mind, and his continued presence, incapable of assimilating with his greater surroundings, must therefore be justified by virtue of force and, if need be, destruction.   Particularly towards the person that gave him life and subsequently wishes to deprive him of it.

Similarly, the Revolutionaries who spearheaded the rise of the new order, and had zealously advocated the use of terror as an instrument against all possible dissenters, began to see their creation turn against them, as even the most powerful of them were duly marched to the blade of the guillotine.  Signifying how, in the end, the Terror ultimately managed to subdue even its own makers, who failed (or refused) to restrain it when they still held the power to do so.  This shift in control between creator and creation is a sentiment best captured when Frankenstein is confronted by his creature’s haunting words against him, “Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (Chapter 20, page 160).

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gives a body to the monstrous history that spurred the Romantic literary tradition she was an immutable figure in.  However, in doing so, she also diverting from the standard premise promoted by her Romantic counterparts, by emphasizing on the fact that while man’s creative nature and passions can bring about unspeakably valuable works of creation and wonder, allowed to go unrestrained, this same nature can bring about monstrous consequences; for both the innocent and guilty alike.  No matter how well-intentioned the initial motivations may be.

Bibliography

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus, (Signet Classics:  New York), 1818.  1983 reprint.