What we can learn from The Romantic Poets
by Kate McCarthy
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.
-Lord Byron 'Childe Harold’s Pilgrammage'
The archetypal Romantic figure stands alone at the top of an alpine mountain range, miniscule in comparison to the immensity of his surroundings, breathless in the face of the enormous, indescribable Beauty that confronts him and infuses him with feelings of inexpressible bliss. Implicit in such experience is the longing to be free, to break free from confinement and the deflating strictures of an increasingly corrupt society.
For the Romantics and the contemporary lover of Nature, the Natural world provides an avenue through which the individual can "mingle with the Universe", shake off the petty and selfish worries of one's contemporary situation and experience a complete and timeless sense of connectedness.
The Romantics didn't revel in aesthetic Beauty in order to evade socio-political concerns- they were acutely aware of the menacing capability of Nature to bite back, anticipating our contemporary understanding of Climate Change. The explosion of the Tambora Volcano in 1815- the most powerful volcanic eruption ever recorded in history- prompted a series of artistic reactions within the Romantic circle. Byron's poem 'Darkness' (1816) describes the horrors of living in perpetual darkness caused by the ash omitted from the explosion. What he describes is near dystopian in its bleakness:
The world was void,
The populous and the powerful—was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless
A lump of death
Byron clearly possessed a profound sense of the awesome, and awful, power of Nature to diminish humankind, its power to make insignificant even those who consider themselves "powerful" by arbitrary human standards. Byron's poetry, then, carried with it an implicit but radical social message: Nature equalizes and your petty politics is meaningless in the face of its totalizing power.
It seems clear to me that society needs to get back in touch with its Romantic side. Not only because our disrespect for the Natural world has lead to incomprehensible destruction, but because, as these poets make so clear, we are simply missing out on one of the most sublime experiences in life if we fail to remember how lucky we are to be surrounded by Natural Beauty, a Beauty that does not discriminate on the bases of economics and social status. If we learnt to appreciate Nature in the same way that the Romantics did, not only would we treat the world with a little more kindness, but we'd probably feel a little less self-absorbed and rather more fulfilled, too.