The Function of Nature in 18th Century vs. Romantic Period Literature

Poets have used the concept of Nature differently in different eras. The Eighteenth century poets and Romantic poets were quite different in terms of employing the concept of Nature.

Nature stands as a source of inspiration for the poets but poets have taken it differently when they have written poetry in different eras of history. For romantics, nature constituted in poetry differently but for 18th century poets, nature’s role was different. Romanticism was a reaction against 18th century poets’ outlook (Deane, 1935, 67). Nature was admired by Romantics as it existed even wild and they considered Nature as their teacher while 18th century poets only admired Nature when it was in an organized state. The age before Romanticism is called age of reason, age of rationality and many other such names because the poets of this era gave major importance to everything that seemed reasonable and rational (Novak, 1983, 140). Nature was of little importance for them. Romantics relied on Nature mainly because for them, nature was their teacher, their guide, their source of inspiration and their mother while Nature for 18th century poets stood for normal reality or universal law. Dr Johnson said, “Nothing can please many, and please long but just representations of general nature”. Nature has two forms: Nature as an external reality and Nature as an internal reality. Nature as an external reality is that which is depicted outwardly and nature as an internal reality is that which man has inside him (Deane, 1935, 73).

Reason, common sense and good bearing were the qualities that were praised and well spoken of in 18th century but for Romantics, it was all superficiality and they thought it as restraining the natural goodness in man (Deane, 1935, 86). Wordsworth and Coleridge are the two major Romantic poets. For Wordsworth, Nature was of utmost importance. Initially he took pleasure in sensuous pleasures of Nature but with the passage of time, he saw Nature in a mystical role. As far as Coleridge is concerned, he got the gift of imagination from various aspects of Nature. Nature stood as a source of curiosity for Coleridge.

Oliver Goldsmith and William Cowper are major names of 18th century poets who diverted a bit from the old traditional poetry of 18th century. Oliver Goldsmith’s important works are found in form of heroic couplets such as The Deserted Village. William Cowper’s poem, The Task talks about Nature in a simple note. The poems by William Cowper and Oliver Goldsmith look as if a foreshadowing of 19th century Romantics (Sutherland, 1970, 120). The content of these poets was not equivalent to their contemporaries. They depicted something different and were a sort of precursors of Romanticism.

The 18th century poetry circled around three notions, realism, didacticism and satire. The subject matter of the poetry written by 18th century poets was didactic in nature. They wrote poetry as one civilized man talking to other civilized men (Novak, 1983, 154). They talked of social aspects having little contact with barbarous world of Nature. The humbler aspects of life are neglected in it and no real love of Nature is present. 18th century poets were unwilling to describe natural beauty. They were cultured men of society and disliked everything that was primitive and uncultured (Sutherland, 1970, 142).

The function of poetry for 18th century poets was only didactic as they talked about civilization, culture and improvement of present world. They took inspiration from external reality—creation and also from the works of ancient classics (Humphreys, 1970, 71). The role of poet was as a reflector of external reality. He was a critic, a teacher, a moralist and somebody who can uphold the morals and norms of a society. Poetry was meant for upholding certain ideals, standards and values (Humphreys, 1970, 86). With the passage of time, 18th century poetry started changing as some of its poets started moving towards some aspects that were previously ignored by pioneers of the age such as village life, simplicity, closeness to nature and natural landscapes.

Although Oliver Goldsmith and Cowper differed in some aspects from their contemporaries but Nature was for them not what it was for Romantics. For Romantics, Nature was inspiration for imagination. They wrote poetry not for the purpose of didacticism but for themselves. The poetry of Romantics contained their own passion and obsession of writing poetry but the poetry of 18th century poets was a rational activity, which was done with proper thinking process without any imagination (Humphreys, 1970, 89).

The poem, “The Deserted Village” written by Oliver Goldsmith is a heroic couplet, which is rich in natural images and is vivacious with an uncharacteristic note of feeling and downheartedness. In the poem, the poet visits to a countryside and mourns over the state of modern society where wealth increases and man goes towards destruction. The poet indicates towards a life in countryside at some stage in modernization and highlights the destruction of a land that was so difficultly maintained by previous residents of the area. The poem is an evaluation of luxurious life of modern society and dilapidation of rural society (Humphreys, 1970, 94).

While describing the village’s beauty, Goldsmith sketches the village scene with the help of trees, flowers, spring, stream, farm, hills, nightingale’s song, children and other aspects of Nature. The poet laments at the loss of simple bliss of nature that is felt by the poor. The rich people are shown as contemptuous towards the poor because of their simple delight that they feel to be a part of nature (Humphreys, 1970, 64). According to Goldsmith, the poor people enjoy a more wholesome life with nature as compared to the rich that prefer a more sophisticated and artificial life over the natural world.

The poem discussed a theme that was predominant in the 18th century as because of increased economic conditions, people were moving away from village life. Nature acted as something that is losing its value with the passage of time but human can only attain comfort when he is near it. In ‘The Deserted Village’, the tone of the poet is didactic and he us trying to inform to his fellow beings about the devastation being created by modern living standards and man’s farthing from Nature. Nature is used as a source of happiness of the common person, which is lost by the elite class and dwellers of the city (Humphreys, 1970, 78).

In the selection, “A landscape described. Rural Sounds” from the ‘The Task’, William Cowper indicates his love of Nature and simplicity. This poem is more diverted towards classicism than Romanticism. This is written in blank verse style and talks about country scenes. The natural imagery described in the poem constitutes of rural scenes and sounds. Like Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, he also talked about village images, nature and simplicity.

His famous line in The Task:

God made the country and man made the town

indicates his love of nature and simplicity. Cowper unlike, the other poets of his age and like Goldsmith look diverted towards nature and gets inspiration from it but he gives more importance to classicism than nature.

Romantics see Romantic poetry as a return to primitivism and nature. Wordsworth and Coleridge are great poets of Nature. They gave major importance to Nature, sounds of Nature, its secrets and its security provided to humankind. Wordsworth is called the high priest of Nature to whom Nature is more valuable as to any other poet (Harding, 1982, 35). He tried to seek comfort in Nature. Nature of Wordsworth and Coleridge was intensified as compared to the Nature of Cowper and Goldsmith. For Wordsworth, Nature was universal spirit, which was always ready for guidance of humanity. The characters, which he portrays in his poems, are simple and uncorrupted because according to his consideration, these characters are more close to Nature as compared to others (Buchan, 1963, 136).

In the early phase of his poetry, Coleridge’s attitude towards Nature was like Wordsworth but with the passage of time he came to realize that Nature give joy that is gained through Nature does not come from external Nature but from inside (Buchan, 1963, 144). His view of Nature was different from Wordsworth’s view of Nature. For Wordsworth, the outside beauty of Nature was everything that kept the capacity of giving delight.

Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey” talks about Nature as other poems written by Wordsworth. He describes a scene when he is in the company of his sister, Dorothy. The poem describes in depth the beauty of Nature seen through the eyes of the poet. We can find happiness as well as melancholy in the poem. It talks about time, humankind, ethics, society, nature and imagination. The poem discusses the full details and landscape surrounding Tintern Abbey.

Initially Wordsworth has seen Tintern Abbey when he was very young and Nature has a different role for him but when he revisited Tintern Abbey, he wrote poem on it with his mature ideas about Nature. The poem is a blank verse and is written with simple vocabulary and simple style, as is the quality of Wordsworth’s poetry. There is a sense of returning to an earlier world. In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth graces the growth of his love for Nature. Nature seems to have cast a spell on him even in his boyhood but at that stage, he was not in a position to analyze this appeal so he looked upon Nature with awe (Buchan, 1963, 151).

Wordsworth observes three stages in the development of his love for Nature: a purely sensuous love of Nature, his delight in the colour and form of things; his perception of Nature as a spiritual path and his affecting a union between man and Nature (Harding, 1982, 55). He saw man as a part of Nature or dominated by it in the final stage. Man and Nature are harmonized into a grand unity. The Abbey stands as a symbol of triumph of Nature over the works of man and through it a realization of deeper significance of the relation of Nature and man. The poem Tintern Abbey reveals a strong association between man and Nature, which is absent in 18th century poetry.

Nature is the central element that is found in all poetic works of Romantics. In the poem, Frost at Midnight, Coleridge sees himself alone with nature and he is overly joyous in this solitude. He considers man a part of nature and thinks that man has no capacity to create. Only God keeps the capability of creation. Coleridge praises the idea of recycling of nature. He is not fully alone. He has his beloved with him but he is happy that he and his beloved, both are capable of enjoying nature in its true sense (Buchan, 1963, 153). All the sounds that are around them are created by nature. He has entrusted his unborn child to Nature.

He considers nature as his helper, his soother and his companion in loneliness. By listening to all those sounds that are around him, he considers his soul flying with the singing birds. Nature is tranquil and harmonious according to Coleridge (Harding, 1982, 62). Frost at Midnight captures the true essence of nature. Coleridge describes his experience being alone with nature and its harmony. Everything around him is melodious and musical at that time.

Where melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam’d wings! (24-27)

Nature was of little importance for 18th century poets but Romantics considered Nature as a source of inspiration and gave it utmost importance for the creation of poetry. They employed natural imageries, described landscapes and depicted nature as a guiding force for humanity. For 18th century poets, Nature was only a reality that was there and played no role in the life of humankind. Whenever they make use of Nature, they used it in terms of didacticism. The turn that was there in poetry writing in terms of function of Nature changed usage of Nature in poetry. In 18th century, Nature was not taken as inspiration but Romantics took it as inspiration for writing poetry. Oliver Goldsmith and Cowper talked about Nature but their style followed classics more than Romantics. Nature helped Romantics in writing their poetry. It was like a muse of poetry that enabled Romantics to create. For 18th century poets, Nature was a fact, a reality that is there. 


  • Buchan, A.M. The influence of Wordsworth on Coleridge, 1795-1800. Toronto: University of Toronto Quarterly, xxx11, No. 4, 1963: pg 136-158.
  • Deane, C. V. Aspects of Eighteenth Century Nature Poetry. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1935: pg 67-89.
  • Harding, D.W. The New Pelican Guide to English Literature- V: The Character of Literature from Blake to Byron. London: Pelican Books, 1982: pg 35-65.
  • Novak, Maximillian E. Macmillan History of Literature: Eighteenth Century English Literature. Hong Kong: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1983:  pg. 140-160.
  • Sutherland, James. A Preface To Eighteenth Century Poetry. London: Oxford University Press, 1970: pg. 120-145.
  • Humphreys, Arthur. The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: From Dryden to Johnson: The Literary Scene. London: Pelican Books, 1970: pg. 53-97.
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  1. Posted March 12, 2009 at 7:47 am

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