In the preface to her pamphlet What is Creation Centred Spirituality?, Grace Blindell states that, ‘Creation Spirituality is a tapestry woven of many strands, not least of which are the whole context of human cultural history.’ It is a synthesis of the old, the new and the enduring. There is a tendency to focus either on the old (the goddess tradition, Celtic Christianity) or the new (the scientific evolutionary story of the universe) at the expense of strands that form other parts of the tapestry. In this section I wish to draw attention to the Romantic Movement, which flourished in the late 18th and 19th centuries and which I think deserves reassessment, if not resurrection, in view of the unacknowledged and often unrecognised debt owed to it by some of the more recent parts of the cultural tapestry. Isaiah Berlin claims that, ‘the importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world’.
One of the problems with Romanticism is that it is readily reduced to the popular conception of romanticism, which dictionaries define as relating to being imaginative – in the sense of being fanciful, emotional and divorced from experience. The Romantics considered here were certainly imaginative and they honoured their emotions but they were emphatically not separated from experience. In fact the opposite is true. The best of Romanticism was based directly on personal experience both of human society and of the world of nature. Wordsworth had to be dissuaded from publishing a letter expressing republican sentiments and based on his personal experience of revolutionary France. In the climate of the times he could well have faced prosecution for sedition. He developed his sensibility of the natural world through long and arduous walks of hundreds of miles through the countrysides of England, France and Switzerland. Thoreau, as well as living in the wilderness of Walden Pond, actively supported the abolition of slavery in the USA. Indeed, it can be claimed that Romanticism had its origins in a reaction against the emphasis on the rationalism and scepticism characteristic of the Enlightenment.
Romanticism is notoriously difficult to define. As Isaiah Berlin points out, ‘the literature on romanticism is larger than romanticism itself, and the literature defining what it is that the literature on romanticism is concerned with is quite large in its turn.’ Romanticism is perhaps best pictured as a tree with complex roots, many branches and varied fruit. Some of the fruit have turned out to be very bitter and some have withered on the tree, but there are also some which flourished and one of these is the element in Romanticism concerned with the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. It is this aspect of Romanticism that will be the prime focus of the papers in this section.
The key features of Romanticism that are explored in the accompanying papers are:
A realist view of the world. ‘This creed is that the actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world; and that this world is a complex of things, including our acts of cognition, … According to this point of view the things experienced are to be distinguished from our knowledge of them. So far as there is dependence, the things pave the way for cognition, rather than vice versa. (Whitehead)
… you must trust your senses:
they will show you nothing false
if your intelligence keeps you awake.
Keep your eyes open and joyful,
And move with sure steps, yet flexibly,
Through the fields of a world so richly endowed.
An organic view of the world. As opposed to the mechanistic view emerging from scientific developments of the 17th and 18th centuries, leading inevitably to a view of the world as totally determined by antecedent events, including the activities of the human mind. The Romantics saw that the only solution to the problem of determinism was to reject mechanism, and, ‘The only way of mitigating mechanism is by the discovery that it is not mechanism’ (Whitehead).
An ethical view of the world.
One impulse from the vernal wood
Will tell you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.
The natural world is the prime source of human values and therefore is of value in its own right.
A spiritual view of the world
Ever since the Renaissance the Creation had been steadily gaining in prestige as “the art of God”… The emotion of the “numinous”, formerly associated with super-nature, had become attached to Nature itself; and by the end of the eighteenth century the divinity, the sacredness of nature was, to those affected by this tradition, almost a first datum of consciousness.’ (Basil Willey). Romanticism certainly embraced this tradition. ‘The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual and strives to lead the individual to it.’ (Emerson)
Jonathan Bate. The Song of the Earth (Picador, 2000).
Isaiah Berlin. The Roots of Romanticism (Pimlico, 2000).
Richard Kerridge & Neil Sammells. Writing the Environment (Zed Books, 1998).
Onno Oerlemans. Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature (University of Toronto Press, 2002).
A N Whitehead. Science and the Modern World (Free Association Books, 1985), pp. 93-118.
Basil Willey. ‘On Wordsworth and the Locke tradition.’ In M.H.Abrams (Ed.) English Romantic poets. Essays in Criticism(Oxford University Press, 1975).
Duncan Wu. Romanticism, An Anthology (Blackwall Publishing, 2006), pp. 1477.
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This essay is in a an issue of the journal Romantic Circles Praxis devoted to Romanticism & Ecology