Romanticism as seen by Anita Brookner may have famously had its 'discontents', may indeed have been, according to Isaiah Berlin, the cause of all the problems of 'the age', but in England at least it revolutionised attitudes to the natural world.
In place of the medieval view of Nature as a mysterious force which simply got on with things in its own God-given way (Natura naturans — 'nature naturing') the Romantics endowed the natural world with intent, a life of its own operating independently of human affairs according to its own rules. Wordsworth gives 'Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ'. And Coleridge's Ancient Mariner affronts Nature by shooting the Albatross but regains its healing force by blessing it 'unaware'.
Bolder spirits, while deeply respecting the natural world, tested themselves against it. One hundred and ninety-five years ago, the 29 year old English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley set out to sail with a friend from Livorno to Lerici in the Gulf of Spezia. Shelley was keen to return to Spezia as soon as possible and so his boat, the Don Juan — named in honour of Byron who was also visiting the Ligurian coast at that time — was readied for the sea on Monday afternoon 8 July.
Shelley, brilliant, mercurial, daring and innovative but an inexperienced sailor, was undaunted by the deteriorating weather and not deterred by the advice of his friend and mentor Edward Trelawney, an ex-naval man, or the misgivings of a local fisherman who pointed out 'those black lines and [clouds like] dirty rags hanging on them out of the sky — they are a warning; look at the smoke on the water; the devil is brewing mischief.' The Don Juan nosed out into the fog gathering over the water and was quickly lost to sight.
Trelawney remembered the weather as strangely 'oppressively sultry. There was not a breath of air in the harbour. The heaviness of the atmosphere and an unwonted stillness benumbed my senses ... It was almost dark, although only half-past six o'clock. The sea was ... the colour ... [of] a sheet of lead, and covered with an oily scum. Gusts of wind swept over without ruffling it, and big drops of rain fell on its surface, rebounding as if they could not penetrate it. There was a commotion in the air, made up of many threatening sounds, coming upon us from the sea.'
This quintessentially romantic interpretation of the gathering armaments of Nature would not have surprised the Ancient Mariner and elements of it persisted late into the 19th century. In Marcus Clarke's For The Term of His Natural Life there is a brief reminder of both Trelawney and Coleridge: 'In the breathless stillness of a tropical afternoon, when the air was hot and heavy, and the sky brazen and cloudless, the shadow of the Malabar lay solitary on the surface of the glittering sea.'
But for Clarke, the natural world in the Antipodes had gone silent: '... this our native or adopted land has no past, no story. No poet speaks to us. [If] we need a poet to interpret Nature's teachings, we must look into our own hearts ...' And it is in this same essay that he asks and famously answers, 'What is the dominant note of Australian scenery? [It is] Weird melancholy.'
Colonial Australia was a wholly post-Romantic phenomenon and its inscrutable, endlessly unfolding, seemingly faceless bush answered all the invaders' questions with tantalising, sighing silences. Only the Aboriginals knew about its immemorial past; only they could hear its still, sad music, only they knew that this 'isle [was] full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.'
"170 years after Arnold first had a shot at writing 'Dover Beach' we are missing out on certitude and peace; we live with confused alarms of struggle and, for refugees, especially, flight; we have a surfeit of ignorant armies ... "
Born a few months after Shelley had drowned and desperate to understand the animate, living Nature that the Romantics had known, Matthew Arnold too found the natural world had gone silent. Where Wordsworth had heard 'strange utterance [in] the loud dry wind' and 'the sky seemed not a sky / Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds', Arnold sadly concluded that:
the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.'
Many of the dreams have indeed come true and the world for many is still beautiful and various. Nevertheless Arnold, with the annoying clarity for which he became known, would point out that, getting on for 170 years after he first had a shot at writing 'Dover Beach', we are missing out on certitude and peace; we live with confused alarms of struggle and, for refugees, especially, flight; we have a surfeit of ignorant armies; some of the most privileged people in the world are debating whether millions of their countrymen and women should get 'help for pain'; and things are certainly 'darkling' as forests are razed or burnt, reefs die, and water diminishes or is stolen.
Brian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.