Discuss the relation between the mind and the natural world as it is understood in two texts written in the period.
Coleridge wrote that in Romantic poetry, ‘paradox is the only mode in which realities of a certain order can be expressed.’ (Gurney 47) I contend that these words articulate the way in which Keats, in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, expresses his own ‘reality of a certain order’: his view on the reality of the relation of the human mind and natural world. As the speaker sits and watches this nightingale, Keats uses paradoxes and antitheses to continuously contrast the speaker’s world and the singing nightingale’s world. I will explore these antitheses, such as the dullness of the poets ache compared to the sensuous pleasure of his union with the bird, as well as the nightingale’s obliviousness to transience compared to the poet’s painful awareness of it. However I will also explore Fogle’s argument that proposes that these series of oppositions make up the ‘principle stress of the poem: the struggle between the ideal and actual,’ (211) and I aim to show that this constitutes Keats’s concluding view: in our attempt to achieve the ideal experience of nature we are only reminded of our place in the actual and material which prevents the human mind’s full union with nature. Interestingly, in Wordsworth’s ‘Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ it is this very meditation as to the transience of life which removes the speaker’s sense of dislocation and restores him with hope. Memories of childhood, and of the ultimate glorified vision of nature that he had during this youth, reinstates his connection to the natural world. Yet the true restorative power of this is only achieved when one accepts man’s mortality and the presence of expiration and demise in the world.
The speaker describes the sadness he is experiencing as a ‘drowsy numbness’ (1) and ‘ache.’ (1) His state is characterised as an emptiness or absence of something; he has been ‘emptied’ of ‘some dull opiate to the drains.’ (3) In hearing the nightingale’s song, he experiences a painful awareness of the bird’s contrasting condition: the bird, amongst nature is characterised by fullness and excess: its ‘shadows’ are ‘numberless’ and it sings in ‘full-throated ease.’ (10) Therefore his desire for a union with the bird translates as a desire to be filled and invigorated. Language and rhythm is effectively used here to create a distinction of different moods, which works to increase the sense of separation between the speaker’s own mental state and his thoughts of the natural world: in the first stanza, a sense of sluggish weightiness is created by the excessive use of heavy thudding alliterative ‘d’ and ‘m’ sounds to describes his dull ache, ‘dull opiate to the drains,’ (3) ‘some melodious plot,’ as well as the harsh and sharp ‘p’ sounds, ‘too happy in thine happiness.’ (6) This is very different to the vitality created by the light vowel sounds in the description of the joy in the sight of the nightingale, ‘beechen green,’ (13) ’ease’ (9) as well as the sensuous sounds created by sibilance: ’singest of summer’ (10) and ‘Provençal song.’ (14)
There seems to be a contradiction in the speaker’s desire in the union of the bird. The second stanza reveals the speaker’s desire for a sensuous experience, being filled ‘beaker full’ ‘(14) at the brim’ (16) yet it also describes a longing for withdrawal ‘that I might drink, and leave the world unseen’ (19) and ‘fade away into the forest dim.’(20) Kappel describes this as a desire for a ‘two-fold experience: a quickening and a forgetting at once.’(274) and the speaker’s mention of the ‘draught of vintage’ (11) is a metaphor for such conflicting desires - it promises him sensual invigoration, demonstrated by the evocation of senses during his joyful experience of it, ‘tasting of flora and country green’ (13) ’dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!’ (14) Yet it also allows him to ‘leave the world unseen’ (19) a withdrawal which then is developed into an ability to ‘dissolve, and quite forget.’ (21) This ‘forgetting’ is characterised as a forgetting of what the nightingale ‘among the leaves has never known’: (22) the existence of a mournful world ‘where men sit and hear each other groan,’ (24) and is full of ‘leaden-eyed despairs.’ (28) As we continue reading, however, what the speaker desires to ‘quite forget’ and exactly what this bird has never known is the concept of transience. The diction used to describe the human material one is that of progression of time and ageing: ‘where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’ (26) ‘where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs.’ The bird, however, is free from age and death: it is addressed as the ‘immortal bird!’ (61) In being ‘not born to death’ (61) and living with ‘no hungry generations treading [it] down’ (62) it does not know death and lives in a blissful obliviousness of transience. This continues to suggest Keats’s demarcation of the human mind and natural world and confirms ’the essential experiential distinction between the two beings, around which the poem is built: the bird is oblivious to death, man painfully aware of it.’ (Kappel 272)
In stanza 4 the speaker activates an intense engagement of the imagination in order to achieve the collapsed temporal focus that will afford him the desired union with the bird, and will permit him the same obliviousness. In this state of mind, nothing he experiences here is regulated by visual confirmation for he ‘cannot see what flowers are at [his] feet’ (41) nor can he see ‘what soft incense hangs upon the boughs.’ (42) Instead, he experiences things through taste, ‘each sweet,’ (44) ‘dewy wine,’ (49) sound, ’murmurous haunt of flies’ (50) and smell ‘embalmed darkness.’ (44) Death comes to his mind as a preserver of this ontological experience in making the transformation irreversible. It seems to him ‘rich to die’ (55) because to permanently exit the material world provides a secure and ultimate forgetfulness that promises richer delights. However, this abruptly ends his union with the bird and instead ‘tolls me back from thee to my sole self.’ (72) This is because he attempts to achieve an ideal vision of nature via a concept that is unknowable by the natural world: the ideal world of nature can’t conceptualise death; ‘no generations tread the bird down’ (62) because there are no such things in that realm. The incompatibility of his human mind and the natural world brings him back to himself and shows the ‘limit of our experience: the impossibility of synthesising, in the order of experience, the antinomy of the ideal and the real.’ (Tate 61) If we take Tate’s view, one can identify the ‘deceiving elf’ (74) referred to in the last stanza, ‘the fancy’ that ‘cannot cheat so well’, (73) as the human imagination. It is this ‘fancy’ of imagination that has fooled him into believing in the potential of an ontological union with the bird, but that has only proven to remind the poet of the limitations of his mind. Such a statement suggests a deeper criticism of the place of imagination in the Romantic literary tradition. This criticism provides "the following paradox: the world of the imagination offers a release from the painful world of actuality, yet at the same time it renders the world of actuality more painful by contrast.” (Brooks 61)
While the abrupt termination of the speaker’s union with the bird ends with a disturbing separation of the speaker’s mind and the enjoyment of nature, Wordsworth begins his Ode with a similar grievance: that of the speaker’s separation from the sense of pleasure in nature. He begins the poem lamenting the passing of the time where nature was seen in its utter glory, ‘a time when meadow, grove, and stream…to me did seem apparelled in celestial light.’ (1-4) However, the ‘delightfulness of the scene has reminded him vividly of the greater delight now lost’ (Mathison 436) because, as we can see, these descriptions are met with the exclamation that these are ‘the things which [he] have seen yet can see no more.’ (8) The imagery used is lacking in originality: a typical pastoral image of a sunny spring day in the countryside where shepherd boys play tabors and pipes and pick ‘fresh flowers…in a thousand valleys far and wide.’ (46)The inauthenticity of this imagery suggests the speaker’s perception of nature has lost a visionary intensity. These archaic descriptions of ‘festival’ (38) ’coronal ‘ (39) jubilee’ (37) are followed by a declaration of his experience of it, ‘the fullness of your bliss, I feel, I feel it all,’ (4) but the repetition here creates hesitation and doubt as to the sincerity of his experience. Johnston confirms that ‘he experiences a loss, a ‘vanishing.’’(Johnston 63) He explains that there is a loss of glory as the human mind gradually moves away from the ultimate glorious realm, that is present before earth. As children we retain memory of that pure place, so we experience the natural world magically, the child ‘beholds the light and whence it flows, he sees it in his joy.’ (69-70) However, as we grow older, the memory of this glory fades away, ‘the man perceives it die away’ (75) and this exit out of the purer, more glorious realm and into the material world is ‘but a sleep and a forgetting.’ (57) Here there is an interesting similarity to Keats’s concept of ‘forgetting’: although Wordsworth refers to the entering the material world as a ‘forgetting’ and Keats refers to leaving the material world as a forgetting, both are using this idea to describe a purer and more glorious realm outside this world, and have inverted effects: for Wordsworth, being born into this world and growing up is a negative forgetting of the more glorious ‘heaven’ that ‘lies about us in our infancy’ (66) but for Keats, his union with the bird is characterised as the positive forgetting of his own limits and is the promise of the more glorious and freer world.
In stanza 9, the Ode’s speaker moves into an awareness that the memories of childhood, ‘the thought of our past years’ (136) and of childhood perception of the glory in nature, ‘delight and liberty, the simple creed of childhood,’ (139) will grant him an access to the lost world of instinct and purity. Manning describes that ‘it is memory alone that stabilises this experience of disappearance.’ (532) Memories can restore him with the hope of pleasure in nature, the hope that he described was once lost on the ‘growing boy’ (68) of stanza 4: memories become the way in which we see the world, ‘those first affections, those shadowy recollections….a master-light of all our seeing.’ (151-5) The speaker has shifted from a grief at what he describes to have lost from nature, to a joy in the ‘strength in what remains behind.’ (183) This is part of the ‘reconciliation between his former condition and his present one, based on his memory of the past, and his recollection of the observed child which helps stimulate his memory of his own childhood.’ (Mathison, 438) Mathison explains how Wordsworth articulates the effect of this observation of the child has on the speaker, ‘Stanzas one and two have described natural sights generally…the items are merely familiar phenomena which all have witnessed from time to time.’ (435) However, when his memory is triggered, there is a rejuvenation shown in an immediacy of the language, ‘And with the heart of May, doth every beast keep holiday…let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy,’ (31-35) and here ‘we find ourselves suddenly present with the poet in a particular place…all the items are part of one scene, the tense is present, and the imperative mood is used.’ (435)
The speaker explains, however, that the restorative power of the ‘philosophic mind’ (188) is only fully achieved through the adoption of a ‘faith that looks through death,’ (187) that is, when one doesn’t purely seek untainted glory in nature but instead when one accepts transience and sees it in the world. The speaker now sees ‘the clouds that gather round the setting sun’ (198) that ‘do take a sober colouring,’ a vision of expiration and demise. The vision is also a result of ‘an eye that hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality,’ (200) which, it becomes clear, does not mean man’s literal mortality but man’s limits and the limits of human experience. Language and metaphor changes from a register of lost childhood to one of a new philosophic mindset: nature is now not understood through a series of bold exclamations of superhuman qualities, but rather through human terms: the descriptions of nature in the last stanza parallel the human qualities described earlier in the poem: the brooks ‘fret’ (195) down their channels which mirrors the child’s mother who ‘fretted’ him with kisses in stanza 7 and the brooks ‘tripped lightly’ (195) just as the speaker did as a child. Nature, in this last stanza, contrasts significantly to earlier in the poem in a way that further demonstrates a harmonising relationship to it: instead of imposing humanity upon natural objects in his description, for example lambs bounding as to the tabor’s sound and the moon looking around in the sky, here he simply draws human characteristics out of their natural presences. The speaker identifies humanity in nature, consequently suggesting the eventual establishment of an emotional union between the mind and the natural world.
In conclusion, while these poems appear to coincide in their original premise, on closer examination of the speakers’ developing mindset, the poems’ conclusions say very different things about the human mind’s relation to the natural world. Both speakers agonise over an inability to experience the pleasures of nature and express desires for their experiences to be invigorated. This causes them a destabilising and discomforting separation from nature and both seek a resolution of such separation through participation with nature itself: the speaker in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ attempts to be at one with the bird through activating his imagination, while Wordsworth’s participates in the memories of childhood in order to restore him of faith in the experience of pleasure in nature. For Keats, it is the limits of human experience, being bound to the limits of the actual, that prevents the human mind’s union with the natural world. In this way ‘the nightingale’s song expresses what is, though humanly imaginable, humanly unknowable.’ (Kappel 273) Wordsworth, however, suggests that it is an awareness of these exact human limits and seeing nature from this worldview, that can relocate the human mind into a harmonious relationship with nature. An acute acceptance of this part of human experience, in tandem with memories of childhood grants a mature and more profound experience of the natural world, one that transcends all external emotion, and instigates a deep internal one, it initiates ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’ (205)
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Mathison, John K. "Wordsworth's Ode:" Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"." Studies in Philology 46.3 (1949): 419-439.
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