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Module 1: Nature and Environment in English Romantic Literature

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As we explore Nature, the Environment and Ecology in the Romantic poets, we turn to Percy Shelley in this lesson. Initially, Shelley believed in pantheism—the belief that God, or a divine, unifying spirit, runs through everything in the universe. He terms this spirit the “spirit of beauty” in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and identifies it with Mont Blanc and the Arve River in the same poem. This belief treated all natural objects as possessing a soul and a life similar to humanity’s. But it is not an unalloyed appreciation of Nature: Shelley recognizes that nature’s power is not wholly positive but is also destructive, in the form of seasons, for instance, and mutability is built into Nature. That is, while nature is splendorous it is also deadly, and perhaps beyond man. It is not always a tranquil Nature. A critic JR Watson has said “in their search to find ways of expressing their internal feelings, the Romantic poets look outwards to nature to find emblems of the mind”. JR Watson’s point is when they were needed to speak about their inscapes, their internal feelings, they looked outwards for symbols and emblems of the mind itself. (Refer Slide Time: 1:58) Shelley uses the West Wind to symbolize the power of nature and of the imagination inspired by nature. The West Wind is an agent for change. Even as it destroys, the wind encourages new life on earth and social progress among humanity, but mediated by the poet. Thus, Shelley suggests a link between the power of Nature, the power of the poetic mind and poetic language in this poem. (Refer Slide Time: 2:28) In nature, the individual always dies. In the face of this mutability, the Poet prays that the wind, which controls all elements (in the course of the poem) earth, air and water, might make him its lyre. Does this imply a greater longevity or even permanence to poetry and imagination? That is, if I am condemned to die, if in the natural course of events, I decay and die, what is the chance of my imagination becoming immortal or at least having a longer lifespan? If the wind were to take me up, if the wind were to animate me, and the wind being immortal in many ways, it can impart greater longevity. (Refer Slide Time: 3:24) Addressing the West Wind as “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere”, “O, uncontrollable!”, “Spirit fierce”, “impetuous one” Shelley wishes to present the poet, himself, as something akin to the dynamic, volatile, mobile wind (hence the image of “scatter” at the end of the poem. (Refer Slide Time: 3:53) But what the Poet really asks in the concluding stanza, not that he be enabled to merge his character with the wind’s and become its instrument, but that it become him: “Be thou, Spirit fierce,/ My spirit! Be thou me,” What is Shelley doing here? Shelley is not asking to be transformed into an instrument for nature, he wants to be transformed into nature itself, he is saying let the nature be me, you be me, be thou me, impetuous one. (Refer Slide Time: 4:35) This image is no longer a metaphor for natural force, it is no longer a metaphor for dynamism, but its rather an image of artistic inspiration. The stanza which began with the petition to the wind that says “make me thy lyre”, towards its end he’s changed into something else. Towards the end he expects the wind to be subject to poetic imagination. It may be subject to my will and even perhaps diction: “Be through my lips to unawakened earth, the trumpet of a prophecy!” What he is saying is, you, as in addressing the wind, you will be subject to my poetic imagination and even perhaps my language so it is through my lips that you will become, you will be able to articulate. enunciate a prophecy. (Refer Slide Time: 5:36) The poem ends on an optimistic note, in an optimistic mood. As if the identification had worked and the seeds that the poet had sown were ready to germinate, but there is something else here: Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth! And, by the incantation of this verse, Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? (Refer Slide Time: 6:12) Shelley says, “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” The problem is with the conditional if. He does not say when winter comes, can spring be far behind, he says if winter comes, can spring be far behind. My question then would be, is there a certain uncertainty at work here? Is Shelley uncertain whether there will be spring at all. If winter comes, can spring be far behind, suggesting that winter may or may not come and if winter does not come spring will not come. He does not say when winter comes spring will follow, so there is a certain amount of ambiguity, one might say, an ambivalence about Shelley’s representation of Nature as we have seen in the case of all of them. This is tangential argument not necessarily about Shelley, but there is no way we can argue a case that all Romantics had a uniform attitude towards Nature. In many cases the Romantic attitude towards nature is often very ambivalent. In Shelley’s case there is Nature as an ally, Nature as quasi-metaphysical, Nature as quasi- mystical, Nature as also destructive. There is a fair amount of uncertainty about nature itself. (Refer Slide Time: 7:58) Nature is an ally and maybe even a reflection of himself, his character, which is why Shelley uses nature to interchange his own identity as a plucked violet, a sensitive plant, a skylark, the wind: Bird thou never wert, … Like a cloud of fire; The blue deep thou wingest, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. … In the golden lightning Of the sunken sun, O'er which clouds are bright'ning, Thou dost float and run; Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun. … Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight, … Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there. In one of his most famous poems “To a Skylark”, Shelley begins by praising the bird’s flight, the bird’s soaring flight and then he states, “Bird thou never wert”, that is, you never a bird. He transforms the embodied body to a dis-embodied voice and then he will say, and here is on your slide, a set of lines from a Shelley’s “To a Skylark”. Having said you are soaring high, he then says, but you were never a bird. There is a key phrase in there: “an unbodied joy”, so is he saying the bird is not material, and he will emphasise this, “Thou art unseen but yet I hear thy shrill delight,” Notice the image moving from the visual to the oral, from the ocular to the oral, I do not see you, I hear you, “until we hardly see” but then he says he feels “that it is there.” (Refer Slide Time: 9:18) Shelley evokes human characteristics that are the very contrast of the bird’s: And pine for what is not – Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught – Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. (Refer Slide Time: 9:35) In The Sensitive Plant another major Shelley poem, the three parts of the poem describe a magical garden, they are tended by a magical lady through the four seasons. The Sensitive Plant is made, represented as distinct from the other plants and doomed to solitude. Here is the passage from The Sensitive Plant: A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew, And the young winds fed it with silver dew, And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light. And closed them beneath the kisses of Night. And the Spring arose on the garden fair, Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere; And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest. But none ever trembled and panted with bliss In the garden, the field, or the wilderness, Like a doe in the noontide with love's sweet want, As the companionless Sensitive Plant It is a special, unique thing, it has been cultivated with great care of magical lady, but when the excerpt ends he speaks about the plant as companionless, in isolation. Then what happens? The mistress, the one who is tending the garden dies, and the garden, he says, “became cold and foul/ Like the corpse of her who had been its soul” The garden became cold and foul like the corpse of her who had been its soul, not only was there no one to take care of it, but the seasons come and go, and soon the plants die. Eventually the beauty of the sensitive plant is no more. Ugly and parasitic plants sprang from the same soil infesting the garden. Where, Plants at whose names the verse feels loath, filled the place with monstrous undergrowth Prickly, and pulpous, and blistering and blue, Livid, and starred with a lurid dew. (Refer Slide Time: 10:52) Now we move to his major Mont Blanc, where Shelley speaks of the impressions of the “universe of things”, that is, external Nature which flows through the passive universal mind, exactly as a great river flows through a ravine. Later the ravine of the River Arve, which emerges from Mont Blanc, is imaged as the universal mind, and the River Arve is described as the “universe of things.”. (Refer Slide Time: 11:17) Like Coleridge and Wordsworth in the first two sections of Mont Blanc, Shelley has described the state of the universe as one in which active impressions impinge on a passive universal mind, which then produces what Wordsworth would call “the sense sublime”. So there is an active, dynamic universe which acts upon the passive universal mind to produce something. It is in the interactions between mind and matter that arises a third quality, the human mind. So the human mind or consciousness is a product of an exchange, a transaction between Nature and mind. Later, he discovers the true meaning of Mont Blanc, it teaches skepticism, it teaches some faith, the mountain teaches “to repeal/ Large codes of fraud and woe,” he says, and here the poet is a key player. 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. Shelley is actually talking about imagination, but also knowledge about meaning making, the meaning of the mountain, coming through the mountain’s voice is not, he says understood by all, but some, the wise and the great and the good can do something. (Refer Slide Time: 12:33) Power in the case of the mountain is immutable: Power dwells apart in its tranquillity, Remote, serene, and inaccessible: And this, the naked countenance of earth, On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains Teach the adverting mind. (Refer Slide Time: 12:59) The poem concludes by speaking of the human imagination, its ability to reflect and refract the mountain. The secret Strength of things Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee! And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, If to the human mind's imaginings Silence and solitude were vacancy? The poem concludes with the major argument that the human imagination reflects and refracts the mountain. Nature exists yes, nature has power, yes, it is immutable, yes, but it is imagination in the human mind, in the human consciousness that finally interprets. Shelley is actually giving primacy to the human imagination, nature maybe active, nature maybe dynamic, maybe forceful, but it is ultimately the power of the imagination itself.