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Concepts of the Sublime in Romantic Period Writings

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08/02/20 Literature Reference this

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Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth and

To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley

To what ends is the concept of the sublime employed in the writing of the Romantic period?

Two of the most popular poems written in the Romantic period were Tintern Abbey (by W. Wordsworth) and To a Skylark (by P.B. Shelley) which disclose a lot of characteristics of the literary movements in this period. One of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is the inclusion of the natural theme and its sublime representation (cf. Walid, 2018, p. 34). Therefore, this essay will focus on this phenomenon and will be concerned with the similarities of the two famous poems regarding the integration of the concept of the Sublime of Nature.

In 1820, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his poem To a Skylark (TS) that is based on a walking tour. The poems rhyme scheme (ABABB) and meter (trochaic trimester/ iambic hexameter) are accordant. In the beginning the speaker hears and sees a bird that flies “higher [still] and higher” (7). The poet, and speaker, is fascinated by the song that the bird produces and stunned by the way it flies. He still hears it and feels the presence of the bird even if it cannot be seen anymore. The poet tries to understand what the bird is and what his presence can be compared to. But no comparison seems to be good enough. The bird is an epitome of joy. Therefore, the poet asks the skylark to reveal its secret. He asks what the song and its “sweet thoughts” (63) are about since the speaker wants to know how to find the happiness the bird represents. He states that a creature that can sing like that does not know any pain, “shadow of annoyance” (79) or “languor” (78). The poet realizes that human can never experience this bliss and happiness, because human “pine for what is not” (88) and even “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” (91). So the experience of happiness is connected with the experience of sadness. He concludes with the request of the poem that the skylark should “Teach [him] half the gladness/ That thy brain must know” (101-102).

The poem Tintern Abbey (TA), written by William Wordsworth in 1798, seems to be also inspired by a walk in the countryside – as indicated by the whole title of the poem: Lines written (or composed) a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798. The poem is written in decasyllabic blank verse and is divided into three paragraphs. The speaker first explains that it has been a long time since his last visit. While he revisits the nature around the Wye and sees its beauty, the poet feels a sense of “tranquil restoration” (30). He talks about the landscape and its power over his feelings. He describes how the memory of nature made him happy when he was alone or in crowded cities and talks about nature as his “anchor of [his] purest thoughts, the nurse/the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ all of my moral being” (108-111). But his memory is stronger than the present experience of happiness, so he notices that he has changed. The speaker still admires nature but he senses the presence of something more powerful and fundamental that seems like “a motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking thoughts […] / And rolls through all things” (100-102). In the last part of the poem he addresses his sister Dorothy. He wants her to feel the same joy he felt five years ago and to have the same beautiful healing memory.

Both poems are concerned with a sublime description of nature. In the poem TS the Skylark itself is the greatest metaphor of nature throughout the whole poem. Shelly refers to the Skylark as “blithe spirit” (1), which makes the bird immediately appear as a supernatural object. Its song and its presence seem to be from “heaven” (4). The Skylark is a metaphor for “unbodied joy” (16), happiness and well-being. The bird sings without any human negativity and complexity. Listening to the song makes the poet feel free of these too. But as he states, people can never achieve this feeling of bliss at least not without nature. Because of this sublime position the speaker really wants to understand the natural world and its secret.

In the poem TS the speaker uses a grand amount of extreme comparisons. He compares the birds’ flight to a “cloud of fire” (8). And even the drops out of “rainbow clouds” (34) are not as bright as the melody of the skylark coming from heaven. The presence of the skylark and its song surpass all of the compared objects. The climatic-like comparisons demonstrate the sublime power and position of the nature and emphasis that the skylark and its song are unearthly, celestial and unique.

Moreover, in his poem Shelly compares the skylark to a poet (36) and the song to hymns of a poet. He uses these comparisons and metaphors as a promoter for his inspiration and self-reflection as poet. As said before, the bird represents pure joy and happiness and Shelley as the poet and speaker seeks to have it too. The Skylark lives in the moment. The speaker seems to be jealous because of the freedom of the bird and wants to experience the same joy and knowledge even if he knows it is not possible. In another part of the text, the poet calls the skylark “scorner of the ground” (100), saying that its singing is better than all the existing music and poetry. Therefore, the speaker seems to be also jealous because he wants to have the same abilities like the skylark and is convinced that even this half of the amount of knowledge would enable him to produce “such harmonious madness” (104) so that the world would listen to him as attentive as he is listening to the skylarks’ song.

The unifying, strong, natural energy of a god or a spirit that is in everything appears in this poem too. According to Shelleys poem this energy brings all the human joy, happiness, faith, inspiration and divine truth. The motifs of spirits and religion in the poem underline the sublime of nature once more. The connection between the nature and the supernatural implicates that the speaker talks about a world beyond the one in which we live in and takes the reader away from “the realm of the everyday” (Hume, 1969, p. 284). Furthermore, the connection between religion and nature emphasis this sublime, since nature has a kind of religious power and influence on the imagination and also maybe society and the human way of living.

The religious component to demonstrate the sublime of nature can also be found in TA Even if the Abbey does not appear in the poem it still is a spiritual place. “The poem is one of belief, albeit a confession of humanistic faith without mention of a god” (Butler, 2003, p.42). The poet also refers to the power as “spirit” (100). Moreover, because of the consistent structure, both poems create an effect of a prayer or song itself. The poems flow musically and naturally and both speakers are very enthusiastic, passionate and dramatic. This effect is intensified because of linguistic elements like the run-on lines, the many exclamations (e.g. TA: 143, 160/ TS: 2) and questions (e.g. TS: 74-76) in the poems. In both poems the speaker appears to have on the one hand kind of a monologue to himself -excluding others most of the time and just occasionally addressing them (e.g. the sister and the nature) (cf. Thomson, 2001, p.532). But on the other hand it feels like they “preach” something and address and include the reader (e.g. when using “we” (TA: 45, 50). The poet has a heroic and visionary role. So the poem becomes kind of a prophecy and a way to spread his vision of his beautiful, beneficial experience with nature through the use of sublime language and the natural metaphors.

The main subject in TA is still the memory of natural beauty and happiness. It is also intensively concerned with the sublime beauty and effect of nature and its extraordinary description. Even if Wordsworth concentrates on the ordinary life and everyday situations like in TA, he treats and describes them like wonders (cf. Butler 2003, p. 38). Both poets have a deep and strong connection and a mystic appreciation for nature and both poems underline the beneficial influence of nature on the human mind. All objects of the natural world lead to elevated thoughts and beautiful emotions to those people who observe nature. Nature helps the spiritual and social world of people to develop in a better way. That is why Wordsworth – and also Shelley in TS- emphasise the importance of nature. The motif of wandering in this poem illustrates the fact that through wandering, the character experiences the natural world and also participates. The movement in nature allows the poet to discover, to reflect and to learn about himself, so that he can find truth, inspiration and knowledge and happiness through the sublime natural “teacher”.

The power of the human mind goes hand in hand with the power of nature. The power of the nature influences the imagination. But on the other hand, the imagination has creative power over nature. Humans are able to imagine and describe nature in different, creative ways. These ideas and descriptions shape how nature “exists”. Thus, it needs to be stated that sublime of the nature in the two poems shows also the power of the human mind.

In TA Wordsworth praises the power and ability of the human mind, the memory and the imagination. With the use of this power, humans can overcome difficult times, pain and sadness. The speaker in this poem escapes his loneliness in “towns and cities” (26) with the memory of his visit and stay in the nature. He talks about his younger self and the intense bond with nature five years ago. Even if he has changed and became older he can still memorise the strong feeling and connection he had with nature when he was younger. So one of the main motifs in this poem is the motif of memory, because it allows the speaker to cope with the cruelty and struggle in the contemporary life and world. The human mind also enables the poet and speaker to reflect and to enjoy the moment even though it has changed. He can see into the life of things and state that now the landscape and the view has another effect and inspired “another gift, / Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood / In which the burden of the mystery” (35-38) is “lightened” (41). Now, he can see beyond the surface and gain deeper understanding of the human mind. He realizes –like Shelley- that there cannot be only this “childish”, uncomplicated happiness but that human have also sad thoughts. This realization is quite characteristic for Wordsworths’ poems (cf. Butler, 2003, p. 40). The new knowledge enables him to experience “a sense sublime/ of something far more deeply interfused/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (95-97). To underline that everything is intertwined Wordsworth uses the repetition of connectives like the word “and” (e.g. 29, 75, 85). The sense of sublime “rolls though all things” (102) and that demonstrates once more that the mind and nature are a living whole.

In conclusion, it can be stated that this essay has shown in which ways and to what ends the concept of the sublime of nature is employed in these two famous poems of the Romantic period. Shelley and Wordsworth –as two representatives of poets in the romantic period- outline the power of nature through the language and a grand amount of comparisons and therefore  emphasis on the impact and importance for the human mind and moreover on the healing process and the happiness of human.

Reference list

  • Butler, J.A.A., 2003. Poetry 1798–1807: Lyrical Ballads and poems, in two volumes. In The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Cambridge University Press, pp. 38–54.
  • Hume, Robert D., 1969. Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 84(2), pp.282–90.
  • Shelley, P.B. 1863, To A Skylark, American Periodicals Series II, New York; Boston, p.6.
  • Thomson, H., 2001. “We are two”: the address to Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey.”. Studies in Romanticism, 40(4), pp.531–546.
  • Walid A. Z., 2018. Romanticism in Context: Shelley’s and Keats’s Verse and Prose: Keats’s Letters and Ode to a Nightingale, Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and Skylark. International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, 6(3), pp.34–38.
  • Wordsworth, W., 1992. “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The Cornell Wordsworth. Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800. Ed. James Butler and Karen Greene. Ithaca: Cornell UP, pp. 116-20.
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