Dismantling the Romantic ideal

Romantic literature stained the way people viewed nature.

Art by Claire Ollivain

Two hundred and five years ago, Mount Tambora erupted. 

On April 6, 1815, the residents of the Indonesian archipelago mistook the eruption for a cannon firing in the distance, for an enemy attack on the East India Company, for the distress call of a ship in the ocean, for pirates. It was only the next morning, after a torrential downpour of ash rain did people begin to suspect a volcanic eruption. Tambora was widely considered to be extinct, but local indigenous people reported rumblings from deep within the mountain in the months before. The sound was so loud the people of Java thought it seemed impossible to come from so far away, and originally attributed to the mountains Klut, Bromo, or Merapi.

Four days later, the volcano erupted again. An eyewitness described three flaming columns of lava shooting up into the air, and the mountain immediately being consumed by liquid fire. Molten rock and ash engulfed the surroundings, so much so that the darkened sky hid the incandescent mountain peak from view. Ash clouds thickened and lava bled down the slope, heating the air thousands of degrees, which caused it to rise. Cool air rushed down, giving birth to whirlwinds that uprooted trees, houses, families. The village of Tambora was leveled. Lava gushed into the ocean, and reacted devastatingly with the cold sea water: it threw greater quantities of ash into the atmosphere and created massive fields of pumice stones along the shore. These fields were carried off by strong wind currents, drifting west.

Volcanic ash remained in the upper atmosphere for years after, blocking out sunlight and decreasing surface temperatures globally. Dark rain clouds loomed over Europe throughout the summer months, deeming 1816 the ‘Year Without a Summer.’ There were reports of brown snowstorms in Hungary, the snow polluted by volcanic ash. Crops failed as the famine devoured, and record numbers of people starved to death. 

The same year, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Godwin (later Shelley) travelled to Geneva. Horrific weather conditions confined them indoors leading to ghost-story competitions beside fireplaces, where the likes of Frankenstein, Byron’s human vampire, and Darkness were born. Byron also wrote the opening of Manfred and The Prisoner of Chillon, with Percy Shelley penning Mont Blanc and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. 

In recent decades, scholars of romanticism and climate change have turned to each other. British scholar and ecocritic Jonathan Bate analysed the role of climate change, namely the Tambora eruption, in John Keats’ work. In I stood tip-toe upon a little hill (1817) Keats spoke of air that was “cooling” which is a direct reference to 1816 being the second-coldest year in the Northern Hemisphere since 1400. In Ode to Autumn (1819) Bate questions Keats’ version of the season, using climate data and the disastrous effects on food production from 1816, to the subsequent stabilization of the climate in 1819 to explain its eroticism and lush imagery. 

‘Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath’ (1845) Joseph Severn

In all of Keats poems, his thinking about nature can be connected to his expression in poetry. In An Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope wrote that nature is “at once the source, and end, and test of art.” But unlike many other manifestations of it, nature is not always kind and tame, but fragile and unstable. Keats wrote in that manner not only because he was studying botany, and therefore arguably more knowledgeable than his contemporaries, but also because he was studying at a time where his life was fraught with uncertainty, when an irregular climate disrupted the norms of natural growth. 

The climate conditions of the present day are comparable to the shock experienced in the years after 1816. We, too, are living in fear of extinction, preoccupied by thoughts of how we do and how we should interact with the environment. But our circumstances are mirrored: where temperatures fell in the nineteenth century, they are rising rapidly now. People romanticised the Year without a Summer because it gave birth to literary masterpieces like Frankenstein, Darkness, and Ode to Psyche. What works will be inspired by our recent summer of fire in Australia, the Amazon, and in California? What epics will be composed in the wake of the Indian drought? 

Romantic literature stained the way people viewed nature. In 1924, American geographer John Kirtland Wright was the first to explore the impact creative literature had on socio-cultural and environmental phenomena. He wrote that “some men of letters” were “endowed with a highly developed geographical instinct.” He believed that, as writers, people train themselves to visualise regional elements most significant to the human condition. 

The Romantics created worlds of their own and fostered fixation on physical place in readers, capitalising on the fact that the kinds of scenery they seized was terra incognita in the neoclassical worldview. They emphasised hidden intellectual meanings of place, of experience, of attitude by depicting mythologized versions of reality. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and Percy Shelley all believed their poetry reflected their “imaginative vision” and was therefore an emotional response to place and experience. Thematically, literature from this period exposed the chasm that opened up between humans and the natural world; the beginnings of the industrial revolution causing cracks in what was conceived as steady ground.

In 1744, Joseph Warton published the poem The Enthusiast: or The Lover of Nature in which he explores the core ideologies of sensibility, and what eventually metamorphosed into romanticism. He criticised “cities, formal gardens, conventional society, business and law courts,” and praised “the simple life, solitude, mountains, stormy oceans.” He believed that poets owed their originality to nature, and that direct contact with the natural world was essential in order to experience the identical incidents of happening upon a lush valley and falling in love with a milkmaid or a forest nymph that formed the basis of romantic literary expression.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. It was inspired by incidents and situations from common life; but in this context “common life” refers to a serene rural man living in harmony with nature. This primitive existence was intensely subjected to over romanticisation and vivid imagination. 

But this was not the reality for common people and their relationship with the natural world became impossibly tangled with this fanciful recreation, obscuring the actuality of place. Wordsworth’s favorable manifestations of lush beauty and solitary pastoralism did not reflect how small farmers suffered, rural poverty, or childhood mortality. In the process of representing nature, one cannot help but think something was constructed to further the romantic vision.

Romanticism is more than a specific movement that occured within the constraints of a decided time period. It denotes a half-century of cultural history, and is best defined as an intellectual continuum nurtured by the age of sensibility that impacts literature and art to the present day; however, in relation to the global climate, there are major trends like material ecocriticism that shun romantic ideals. Romanticism is characterised by an obsession with the emotional over the rational, and the natural world over an industrial one. All literature produced in this era did not adhere to the bounds of romanticism, and this would be easier to acknowledge if romanticism wasn’t considered the period’s greatest accomplishment. A single term cannot represent the nuances of the period; the revolution, the counterrevolution, newfound climate sensitivities, class struggle, industrialisation, slavery and abolition, imperialist war. 

There are six defining names within the movement: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. All of them poets, and all of them men. It would be inaccurate to say that male writers were simply more eminent in the Romantic era. Writer Alan Richardson believed that the lack of prominence of female authorship in this period is due to the “colonization of the feminine” and the attributes associated with sensibility. Feminist scholars have been unable to successfully write women into Romanticism because of the uncomfortable space women already occupied within the movement. Women are bound to men in romantic literature, their portrayals more akin to narcissistic projections rather than realistic representations.

The Romantics do not erase the patriarchy or colonisation. Rather, they present these tools of oppression in muted ways, attempting to justify their many horrors. In The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Werther took his life after a woman refused to marry him. In She was a Phantom of Delight (1807), a woman was “sent to be a moment’s ornament.” In the first extended study of the role gender played in the Romantic era, Marlon B. Ross argues that defining the appropriation of women is intrinsic to romantic ideology. Their works focused on the feminine, but not the feminist. The romantic poets embedded the patriarchal constructs of their own world into their preoccupation with the natural one. The movement condemns traditionally masculine ideals but not male power. 

La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (1893) John William Waterhouse

The range of women as a social class in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries is curious in the way they are represented. In La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819), Keats talks about a woman who overpowers and seduces men — miles apart from Wordsworth’s docile peasant women. In the real world, women were starting to enter factories and sustain indispensable roles on farms. The forest nymphs and milkmaids were performing domestic and industrial labour, the reality of their lives a far cry from the poets’ conception of them.   

In Wordsworth’s The Triad (1828), he presents masculine ideals of voiceless women manifested in three forms; a woman who possesses “domes of pleasure,” a “domestic queen” sitting by an “unambitious hearth,” a woman whose love can “drink its nurture from the scantiest rill.” In a letter to Sylvanus Urban, the fictional editor of Gentleman’s Magazine, Keats wrote that women should abstain from reading novels as it will not teach them “social virtues,” “the qualifications of domestic life,” or “the precepts of Christianity.” 

These perceptions of women in the romantic era stem from their perceived direct connection to nature. Women function as motifs, as sexualised iterations of the landscape; as a Greco-Roman personification of Mother Nature. These women, like nature, were beautiful because they were wild and dangerous, untamed. In the beginning of La Belle, a poem heavily situated in physical space, the woman is “full beautiful, a faery’s child,” symbolising idealism. But then she seduces the knight; she sings him a “faery’s song” that connotes non-consensual persuasion and takes him to her “elfin grot.” 

Before the Romantics, nature was conceived in terms of order. The Baroque garden, emblematic of Italian Renaissance architecture, was at the apex of ‘natural beauty’ — with carefully curated geometrical shapes aimed to communicate man’s preeminence over nature. But as the romantic movement took greater hold of the literary consciousness, these views shifted. As poets attempted to recreate literary experiences in place, people turned to peaceful lakes, open fields, and moss-covered cottages. 

Finding beauty in the concept of ‘wilderness’ and disorder itself is conceived as a colonial fantasy. Edward Said defined the term ‘orientalism’ as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient. Further, It is important to note that writers from the romantic era often wrote about foreign lands without actually visiting them; Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias (1818) was inspired by a portion of a statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, rather than the physical place. Alternatively, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and Eastern Tales (1813-1816) were inspired by his tour of the Ottoman Empire, drawing parallels between the despotism there and the British Empire’s imperialism. Romantic portrayals of foreign spaces focused more on mystifying them, an action that informed early colonial tourism.

In 1929, writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley published an essay titled ‘Wordsworth in the Tropics.’ It is heavily reflective of the ways the romantics constructed fantasies of foreign landscapes. Huxley criticises the version of nature he was faced with in the tropics and areas which are less temperate than Europe; stating that the “Wordsworthian who exports this pantheistic worship of Nature to the tropics is liable to have his religious convictions somewhat rudely disturbed.” This represents a highly westernised view of the world, idealising the domesticated nature of Wordsworth’s lakes and showing contempt for the dangers nature presents. Colonialism is contingent on conquering lands considered ‘untamed’ and ‘unused.’ Huxley’s colonial mindset was mortified to face a “tangled, prickly, and venomous darkness” where he expected peaceful glens and beautiful milkmaids. However, his response further criticises Wordsworth’s version of nature: believing that he was either naïve or intentionally censored the truth. The idyllic landscapes in his poetry, according to Huxley, were because “the god of Anglicanism had crept under the skin of things, and all the stimulatingly inhuman strangeness of Nature had become as flatly familiar as a page from a textbook of metaphysics or theology. As familiar and as safely simple.”

The Romantics portrayed an extremely selective and glamourized version of nature. Romanticism neglected all that did not fit into the constraints of romantic idealism and poetic conjecture and presented them as fact. They shared the philosophy of Spanish philosopher Jorge Santayana, who believed the immensity of the natural landscape to be unknowable; hence following that it was acceptable to hand-pick and emphasise certain elements and have confidence that it would always be true enough. They wrote about a mythical country that existed within the pockets of industrial development; another version of reality where rural peasants lay among flowers in the rising sun instead of toiling away at factories, copper mines, and slate quarries.