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Wordsworth and Coleridge saw themselves as “worshippers of nature.” How is this demonstrated in Lyrical Ballads? (an exam-style essay)
Themes relating to nature are instrumental in the poetry collection Lyrical Ballads by William Wordworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As part of the Romantic movement, both poets strongly believed in a power and supreme beauty of nature and the education it can impart onto man, and their works in Lyrical Ballads demonstrate this.
In ‘The Dungeon’, Coleridge demonstrates his view that nature has healing properties and that it would be a more effective method of rehabilitating criminals than the usual method of locking them away in prison would be – an elevated view of nature and its power. He justifies this opinion using glorious imagery describing nature as he sees it, with the intent of portraying its complete beauty.
Thy sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets,
Thy melodies of woods, and winds, and waters,
Coleridge also uses a direct contrast and juxtaposition with this and the dark imagery used in the first stanza to emphasise the beauty of nature. He also does this to demonstrate that the dark and horrible dungeon and the free and beautiful nature are polar opposites, and ultimately to come to the conclusion that they have similar effects on criminals.
Circled with evil, till his very soul
Unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed
By sights of ever more deformity!
Using this juxtaposition, Coleridge explains that the total beauty of nature will overcome the criminal and their dark ways. He expresses how nature will appear a “jarring and dissonant thing” as it is as far-removed from their dark and deceitful ways as is possible. Finally, he concludes that this will immediately have the effect of healing him and removing all bad intent that he possesses (“His angry spirit healed and harmonized / By the benignant touch of love and beauty”) This conclusion is very much in keeping with the Romantic idea of the supreme power and beauty of nature and the profound impact it can have on man.
This is a theme also explored in ‘The Tables Turned,’ in which Wordsworth argues that there is more to be learnt from nature than there is from books and conventional education. To this end, he uses a affable and conversational style (“Up! Up! My friend, and quit your books”) to mimic the emotive encouraging of one man to another to leave their studying aside and go out into nature. In this conversational style he abandons the pretence and subtlety that are commonplace in classical poetry, and tries to persuade the reader of the much greater value of experiencing nature, in contrast to the irrelevance of books, through such passages as “Let Nature be your teacher”. The personification of nature throughout serves to further emphasise the fact that it can be a superior substitute for conventional education, and has a far greater knowledge to impart than its perceived inanimateness would suggest.
In the last two stanzas, a different tone is adopted as Wordsworth ceases his direct plea and talks of, using emotive language such as “murder”, how humanity’s “meddling intellect” and study of, amongst other things, nature, has distorted and lessened its beauty. To conclude the poem, he uses the metaphor of books being “barren leaves” (dead and of little value), in contrast with the previous personification of nature and its rich portrayal of being beautiful and very much alive.
This human distortion of nature is also a theme prominent in ‘The Nightingale.’ In this, Coleridge argues that the classical poets of old who commented on nature did not have a full understanding of it, but instead wrote at length about it, projecting their own feelings and opinions onto their depiction of it. He manifests this through the Nightingale, which the speaker cannot believe is portrayed as “most melancholy,” whilst, he argues “in nature there is nothing melancholy.”
Showing disdain for the poets who wrote like this, he takes a similar approach to Wordsworth in ‘The Tables Turned’ and argues that they had far better “stretch’d [their] limbs / Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell / By sun or moonlight”, or in other words experience nature and come to understand it fully before writing about it. He further concludes that nature is essentially joyous and should inspire joy; it must not be made to serve simply as a screen upon which our human feelings are indiscriminately projected.
Throughout Lyrical Ballads, unsophisticated form and structures are used, such as in The Dungeon, which is written in simple blank verse, a style of writing very similar to normal everyday speech and in The Nightingale, which is subtitled “a conversational poem.”
This form is used to help convey that their poetry can be ordinary and be understood by ordinary people, and that its themes are relevant to all. In the case of The Dungeon, this idea is then emphasise by the use of a prisoner as the main character; elevated and unrealistic characters are not used; the likes of whom were prominent in classical poetry, which Wordsworth and Coleridge undoubtedly viewed as out of the reach of the normal person. This shows that the poets wanted their message to reach as many people as possible, and it not bypass some who would be put off by more formal poetry. It is also in keeping with the Romantic belief that wisdom is not to be found in books, sciences and the arts, but in nature itself.