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The Romantic Movement of poetry focused on the return to the individual as much as the political revolutions of the time. In doing so, there is also a return to the natural world in poetry that had been superseded by a more predominant abstract setting. In general, the natural world plays a more pertinent role in poetry than in prose writing. It acts not only as a setting but also interacts with the individual poet or audience. Certain natural elements can determine how the narrator feels or even can reflect their emotions. As in the pastoral, setting the natural world contains certain strong themes that can take focus in a poem. It creates a world of potential metaphors and motifs that come naturally to the reader and the poet, as they are founded in emotion before intellect. The potentiality of the natural world is reflected in the work of two of the most renowned poets of the Romantic Movement. William Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey as well as John Keats with his poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci displays how the natural world can be more than just a setting. Both works contain a strong integration of natural themes, and in many circumstances the natural setting of the poem plays an active role in the poem.
There exist several themes within both Tintern Abbey and La Belle Dame Sans Merci that are habitual within a natural setting. The most predominant is some type of change or growth. It is common in romantic poetry that is set within the natural world to observe some type of development in the poet that mimics the changing of nature. It usually parallels the changing of seasons, or even just the progress of the sun over the course of a day. The coming of spring can symbolize a new beginning or the setting of the sun can represent a peaceful end. It can interact with the poet intensely, or conge with the reader delicately. Regardless of how it is applied, it creates a sense of familiarity as most readers are acquainted with the natural world that surrounds them. In his poem Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth relates how his perspective on nature has changed dramatically since his last visit to this familiar place. The poem indicates that the setting is spring, which is reflective of Wordsworth’s spirit.
These plots of cottage ground, these orchid tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. (Wordsworth, 11-14)
Wordsworth describes how he feels a sense of renewal which is a common theme that is conducive with spring. Not only do Wordsworth’s emotions reflect the setting, but the setting also inspires the emotions. As spring begins to flourish and grow the poet mimics the change. This is common of the relationship between the poet and the natural setting.
The same feature appears in John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The main character appears to the narrator in a dismal and barren location. Initially the narrator questions why the knight would be “alone and palely loitering” (Keats, 2), but as the poem progresses it becomes evident that the setting turns gloomy as the knight does. Before the knight lost his “fairy’s child” (Keats, 14) he was happy and the natural setting was blooming.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said-
I love the true. (Keats, 25-28)
But after the mysterious woman abandoned him in the night, the natural setting changed to reflect his emotion. Now the character is lost, hopeless and cold. The season changes to winter as “the squirrel’s granary is full and the harvest done.” (Keats, 7-8) and the knight reflects this in is sadness. These two poems demonstrate this natural theme of change. For Wordsworth the change of season is reflected in the poet whereas for Keats the change of season mimics the change in character.
The natural world in poetry often takes an active role in the language of the poem. Although this is not exclusive to the setting it has a stronger meaning within a poem set in nature than it would in a more abstract location. Wordsworth uses an interesting form of alliteration in his poem Tintern Abbey to create different sounds that he would have heard while was writing . Within the first twenty two lines of his poem the predominant sound is created by the letter s or c. This creates the sound of the wind that Wordsworth would be hearing on the hill where he is writing.
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.
By adding the excessive “s” sound, Wordsworth creates his imagery with more than words. This fits well with the romantic style of poetry which aims at emotion before intellect because the sound creates a feeling not an idea. In regards to John Keats no alliteration is apparent in his poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci but there is an interesting language element none the less. In his poem a knight is lured by a mysterious lady who abandons him after he has a frightful nightmare. The character that he was lured by sang to him “a fairy’s song” (Keats, 24) and he assumed told him that she loved him in a “language strange” (Keats, 27). This poem has varying interpretations, one of which could be that mysterious lady was a creature of the forest where the knight now sojourns. Perhaps she is a nymph or some other mythological figure. She seems to be an extension of the setting as she appears and disappears. The knight is entranced by her and does not speak a word as she sings to him, “And nothing else was said all day long, for sidelong would she bend and sign a fairy’s song.” (Keats, 22-24). With this interpretation the setting takes a more active role because the character is an extension of the setting. Her description leaves the reader pondering who or what she really was, and the knight’s dream fits well with the idea that she is a forest creature who lures men. This very credible interpretation is entirely based on the fact that the “fairy’s child” does not speak any recognizable language. The style that Keats uses contrasts the way the Wordsworth uses alliteration, but both styles of integrating language with nature attributes a more active role to the setting.
In addition to naturalistic themes and language, Tintern Abbey and La Belle Dame Sans Merci are teeming with symbolism and metaphors pertaining to the natural setting. Wordsworth and Keats both successfully integrate their respective settings with various elements of their poems. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a considerably shorter poem than Tintern Abbey yet it balances its use of creative symbolism thoroughly. In the third stanza of the poem the narrator is describing the appearance of the knight. His description of him includes reference to two flowers.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too. (Keats, 9-13)
Not only is the initial narrator relating the knight’s face to different colours, but his choice of flowers contains a concealed metaphor. The lily is considered to be a traditional symbol of death whereas the rose is more commonly known as a symbol of love. The withering rose would obviously represent the knight’s love for the mysterious woman, whereas the lily represents the knight’s disillusion. By using a metaphor that conjoins nature with central themes of the poem, the poet assigns the natural setting with a more active role. The description also foreshadows what may come in the knight’s tale.
Not only does Wordsworth’s poem include similar organic symbolic metaphors, but as it is a much longer poem, the entire setting carries significance. One of several subjects discussed by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey is his perspective on religion. Wordsworth seems to propose the concept of heaven on earth in his description of his surroundings and the emotions that it inspires.
A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, -both what they half create,
And what perceive; well please to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. (Wordsworth, 95-111)
Wordsworth expresses that it is nature that guides his soul. All this being expressed in the vicinity of the actual abbey seems intentional. Wordsworth seems to be making a bold statement here about his own religious beliefs as well as the impact the setting has had on him. The setting that is described becomes a powerful force for Wordsworth, one of sublime stature. This is an intense example of how the natural surrounding of a poem can take an active role in the poet’s work. Both poems contain elaborate symbolism and metaphors which are intertwined with the natural world; this successfully attributes an active role to the setting.
One of the most distinct aspects of the Romantic Movement of literature was the appeal to emotion before intellect. This quality is reflected in Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey and Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Both poems are written in a natural setting that takes a very active role in the poem and appeals to the reader through imagery not articulation. Nature themes, nature language, and nature symbolism all contribute the overall effect of the setting and its impact on the poet as well as the reader
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