Earth First: The Romantic Vision

by Michael Colebrook

Reprinted from GreenSpirit, Spring 2000

In his discussion of Wordsworth’s poems A N Whitehead1 points out that the Excursion, which is described as A philosophical poem containing views of Man, Nature, and Society opens with a line about nature: Twas summer, and the sun had mounted high and for the best part of thirty lines we are treated to a detailed description of the landscape; only then does the poet meet the friend he sought. In the same vein, Emerson2 opened an address to the senior divinity class of Harvard University in July 1838 with a eulogy on the natural world. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. . . Coleridge3 opens an ode titled France, written in 1798, with a complete stanza about nature:

Ye clouds, that far above me float and pause,
Whose pathless match no mortal may control!
Ye ocean waves, that, wheresoe’er ye toll,
Yield homage only to eternal laws!
Ye woods, that listen to the night-bird’s singing,
Midway the smooth and perilous; steep reclined;
Save when your own imperious branches swinging
Have made a solemn music of the wind!
. . .
Oh ye loud waves, and oh ye forests high,
And oh ye clouds, that far above me seated!
Thou rising sun! Thou blue rejoicing sky!
Yea, every thing that is and will be free,
Bear witness for me wheresoe’er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest liberty.

Only in the second stanza does he begin on the subject of his poem:When France in wrath her giant limbs upreared,And with that oath which smote earth, air, and sea,Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free,it is a feature of much of Romantic writing that nature comes first; people and their thoughts and activities come second, having been firmly placed in the context of the natural world, in a particular place or landscape or season. This is no mere literary artifice, it represents a significant transformation in the view of the relationship between humanity and the rest of the natural world. The natural world is no mere mechanical stage on which the human drama is enacted. It is not a vale of darkness and suffering in which we have been placed in order to struggle for the salvation of our immortal souls, neither is it an opponent that has to be challenged, dominated and moulded to suit human needs and aspirations. The Romantic view of nature is as the source and context of human existence and as such it deserves, and is frequently given, pride of place in any consideration of human endeavour.From the implied challenge in the opening words of Rousseau’s Emile4Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man, to Emerson’s plea5, why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight [into nature]and not of tradition, Romanticism recognised that humanity should acknowledge the natural world as a source of revelation; of knowledge and wisdom that could be gained through direct experience, letting nature teach her lessons in her own way and in her own time. This is not always easy: Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc6 contains lines that epitomise the problem:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled
Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe – not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.


Thoreau7 experienced the awful doubt on Mount Ktaadin, Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? The faith so mild is expressed beautifully by John Muir8when he found the rare orchid Calypso borealis, ‘I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy… How long I sat beside Calypso I don’t know. Hunger and weariness vanished, and only after the sun was low in the west I plashed on through the swamp, strong and exhilarated as if never more to feel any mortal care.’ These passages express what seems to be a fundamental ambiguity within the mysterious tongue of the wilderness. Wordsworth reflects on both aspects. Rowing a boat on Ulswater9 he speaks of:

…a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts
There was a darkness – call it solitude
Or blank desertion; no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.


While, on the banks of the River Wye10 he writes:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

What these poets and writers sensed was The spirit of divinest liberty; that nature makes claims to freedom, and, albeit with some difficulty, they acknowledged the paradox that while human freedom appears to be constrained by huge and mighty forms that do not live/ Like living men, it is not complete without the freedom of the natural world. Several of the Romantics went further, through encounters with the natural world they sought liberation from the constraints and failures of human society. Wordsworth opens his Prelude9 with a statement of profound gratitude to nature:

Oh welcome messenger, oh welcome friend!
A captive greets thee, coming from a house
Of bondage, from yon city’s walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured.
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? In what vale
Shall be my harbour. Underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?
The earth is all before me: with a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about and should the guide I choose
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again;

Nature, on all scales, from the vastness of a mountain landscape to the myriads of creatures in a single drop of water, presents us with breathtaking beauty, magnificent intricacy and images of peace and harmony. At the same time there is the extreme violence of flood, fire, tempest and earthquake, and in living things almost every conceivable form of eating and being eaten, of death and decay as well as birth and growth. We now recognise that the freedom of Nature is at the heart of all evolutionary processes. Throughout the natural world there is the possibility of becoming different and of testing this difference against the constraints of necessity. This is true for galaxies, stars, planets, rocks and living organisms. According to a modern Romantic, Annie Dillard11:In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe… Intricacy is that which is given from the beginning, the birthright, and in intricacy is the hardiness of complexity that ensures against the failure of all life. This is our heritage, the piebald landscape of time. We walk around; we see a shred of the infinite possible combinations of an infinite variety of forms. Anything can happen; any pattern of speckles may appear in a world ceaselessly bawling with newness… Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time.

Shelley’s lessons of awful doubt and faith so mild are not alternatives, they are simply different faces of the same teaching, one cannot exist without the other. The Romantics were not the first people to be aware of the problem, but they were among the first to be able to come to grips with it in the context of an evolving world, as Emerson12realised, We knew nothing rightly, for want of perspective. They were among the first to appreciate that the world is unfinished, as John Muir13 put it, the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation.The Romantic view of the natural world developed as a reaction against the rationalism of main stream philosophy and the deterministic view of nature which was a pronounced feature of the science of the time. Whitehead1 claims that, Wordsworth in his whole being expresses a conscious reaction against the mentality of the eighteenth century. This mentality means nothing else than the acceptance of the scientific ideas at their full face value. Wordsworth was not bothered by any intellectual antagonism. What moved him was a moral repulsion. He felt that something had been left out, and that what had been left out comprised everything that was most important. Much has happened since Wordsworth’s time, but we have still not fully succeeded in putting back into the natural world everything that is important. There is still much that we can learn from the high Romantic period.


1. Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World (Free Association Books, 1985), p.101.
2. Richard Poirier (Ed.). Ralph Waldo Emerson (OUP, 1990), p.53.
3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. France: An Ode. In Duncan Wu (Ed.). Romanticism, An Anthology(Blackwell.                1996), p.518.
4. Jean Jaques Rousseau.
Emile. (
5. Richard Poirier (Ed.). op cit. p.3.Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mont Blanc. In Duncan Wu. op cit. p.856.
6. HenryDavid Thoreau. Main Woods (
7. Terry Gifford (Ed.). John Muir, His Life and Letters and Other Writings (Baton Wicks, 1996), p.71.
8. William Wordsworth. Prelude (Book 1). In Duncan Wu. op cit p.284
9. William Wordsworth. Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. In Duncan Wu. op cit. p.240
10. Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial. 1988), pp. 144-6. Richard Poirier. op cit. p. 240. 11. Terry Gifford. John Muir, The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books (Diadem Books, 1992), p. 752.