Romantic Poetry and Transcendentalism
Allegorical literature is employed by many great philosophers to explain the basic tenets of their philosophies. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato used the famous cave allegory to explain how the human mind interprets the ideal material world. The teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible are metaphorical representations of God’s will. Likewise, philosophical representations are found in romantic poetry. In “Tintern Abbey”, William Wordsworth depicts his relationship to nature as rather transcendentalist, whereas Percy Bysshe Shelley’s outlook on reality in “Mont Blanc” is existential. The two poets show these philosophical preferences by creating nature imagery and describing their reactions to it.
After creating a picture of Tintern Abbey in the reader’s mind, Wordsworth describes how the scenery evokes sublime feelings of his oneness with nature. First, he describes how the emotions he experiences at the Abbey make him feel enlightened, as though he has entered into a state of meditation: “that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world / Is lightened” (38-42). Through his description of “this unintelligible world” (41), Wordsworth implies that at Tintern he understands a divine truth that is usually latent in reality. He then goes on to state that when we recognize this aspect of nature, “we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul” (46-7). Wordsworth explains that during his sublime, meditative connection with nature, he becomes one with it; a part of the “soul” that exists in all things. It is through this connection between the soul and the outside world, which is understood through the divine qualities in man and nature, that Wordsworth delivers his philosophical theme. The theme of nature’s universal presence is revisited later in the poem when Wordsworth writes, “While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (48-50). By investing nature with an aspect of liveliness, he relates nature to the lives of men.
The philosophy that there is a fundamental bond between the self and the world that Wordsworth voices in “Tintern Abbey” parallels the later teachings of transcendentalist philosophers. In fact, the popular American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to Europe to meet his heroes, Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth, who no doubt reinforced his beliefs. In his book “American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition” Russell Goodman observes that:
Emerson is a direct link between American philosophy and European Romanticism….In Emerson’s writings, the ideas and projects of the European Romantics – “the feeling intellect,” the “marriage of self and world,” the human mind as a shaper of experience…and the naturalization and the humanization of the divine – developed in a philosophically distinctive way on American soil (34-5).
The theme created by the images in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” do indeed coincide with Goodman’s assertions. Wordsworth’s observation of “the unintelligible world” (41) resembles Emerson’s “feeling intellect”; and Wordsworth’s sensation of the “living soul” (47) corresponds with Emerson’s “marriage of self and world.” Belief in the divinity of nature and man is also found in both Wordsworth’s poetry and transcendentalist philosophy. Wordsworth claims that through his emotions -when he is in “that blessed mood” (42) – he can identify a divine quality in nature. Similarly, Emerson’s writings reveal the belief that humankind and nature are divine unto themselves; he does not defer to a divine God as the Christians do.
While Wordsworth’s transcendentalist poetry focuses on the kinship between man and nature, the philosophical ideas presented in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” are based on man’s individual interpretation of the world around him. For Shelley, the human intellect, senses, and experience of reality are key. His description of the scene at Mont Blanc projects these philosophical ideals: “and when I gaze on thee / I seem as in a trance sublime and strange / To muse on my own separate phantasy” (34-6). Here, Shelley’s “own separate phantasy” places importance on his personal experience of the world, as if it were a dream only visible to him. Shelley’s poem extends this theme by creating an image of the world as a continuously changing background for a play in which Shelley is the star. He writes: “My own, my human mind, which passively / Now renders and received fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around” (37-40). In this manner, he emphasizes the fact that his own mind, centered on intellect and the senses, plays a major role in how the universe exists: a sharply individualistic view of life. The image of the world as a dream is reappears later in the poem, when Shelley asks, “do I lie / In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep / Spread far around and inaccessibly / Its circles?” (54-7). This metaphor reinforces the notion that the universe and reality, like dreams, are created by the individual, for the individual. The combination of the theme created by these images with the absence of any reference to a deity or divinity implies that Shelley’s philosophy on reality is based on the individual.
Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, therefore, reflects the tenets of existentialism, a philosophy that gained popularity in the early twentieth century. A central feature of existentialism is the belief that “man makes himself.” This implies that everyone has the ability to interpret the world as they wish, and change the world if they decide to do so. Shelley’s references to his life and experiences at Mont Blanc as his “own separate phantasy” (36) reflects this existentialist concept. Furthermore, according to Marjorie Grene in “Introduction to Existentialism”, “existentialism is the philosophy which declares as its first principle that existence is prior to essence” (2). An examination of existentialism’s inverse, that essence precedes existence, can help clarify the meaning of existence prior to essence. Augustinians in the thirteenth century believed that man’s apprehension of the idea of God as infinite proves his existence. Existentialism, in turn, holds that the “necessity of starting with the givens of our sensuous experience and proceeding by induction and abstraction to the ultimate intuitive awareness of essences and eternal truths” (Grene 3). It is with this logic and the motif of dreamlike reality that Shelley defines his experience at Mont Blanc. In order to dream, one must first exist. Only then is it possible to feel the essences and fleeting objects experienced in a dream.
Wordsworth’s philosophical ideas are based on emotion, while Shelley’s are founded on individual existence. The romantics were considered revolutionaries for their psychological introspection, curiosity about the unknown, and focus on emotion. Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s philosophical ideas were truly revolutionary. The ideas found in transcendentalism and existentialism, philosophies solidified almost one hundred years after the time of the romantics, can be traced back to Wordsworth and Shelley; they were ahead of their time.
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Allegorical literature is employed by many great philosophers to explain the basic tenets of their philosophies. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato used the famous cave allegory to explain how the […]