Topic: Changing Perspectives on Nature (2010) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper on various ideas that existed about nature from 1780 to 1830 was written by Debbie McCauley on 21 July 2010 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

...“a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.” 

(from Lines written above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798 by William Wordsworth, lines 96 to 103)

This essay will examine ideas about nature that existed in Europe during the period 1780 to 1830 as well as some of the factors that contributed to this shifting range of ideas. The poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) along with landscape artists John Constable (1776-1837) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) who worked throughout the cultural shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism will be discussed along with examples of their work.

In an historical context the growing industrialisation of Britain led by technological progress and the consequential encroachment upon nature had a major impact on the proliferation of nature in both poems and paintings. The enclosure of common land and its conversion into private ownership by Acts of Parliament deprived many of their traditional grazing rights and forced them to seek work in new industries to survive. Literacy levels rose amongst the poor who became increasingly aware of their own plight as the working poor along with its social problems, economic hardship and oppressive factory working conditions. 

The impact of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) caused tourists to turn to safer alternative destinations such as the Lake District in North West England where the improvement of roads and transport was triggering a significant increase and enthusiasm for tourism. This was further encouraged by the publication of several tourist guides such as A Guide to the Lakes, in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire (1778) by Thomas West (c.1720-1779) and Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810). Those who could afford it were able to interact with nature in a romantic sense by the contemplation of self within the natural environment, recording their journey by composing poetry or producing paintings. As the Open University (2005) explains “Poets and painters continued to be inspired by idealized, pastoral images of the countryside” (p. 7).

The tourists visiting the Lake District had a negative environmental consequence as Wordsworth writes in his A Guide Through the District of the Lakes (1835),  “The lakes had now become celebrated; visitors smitten so deeply, that they became settlers” and the lakes “were instantly defaced by the intrusion” (quoted in Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, p.101). Wordsworth felt that “visitors to any region should try to attune their minds to the natural attributes of a site, rather than to impose upon it alien fashions or expectations” (Open University, 2005, p. 68).

Wordsworth is a notable example of a nature devotee as he spent most of his life immersed in the natural beauty of the Lake District, far from the jarring influence of the Industrial Revolution and increasingly dismayed by the failure of revolutionary ideals. Turner had toured the Lake District in 1797, Constable in 1806 and, like Wordsworth; autobiographical elements seem to flow through their work. The influence that visits to places such as the Lake District had on their subsequent creations can be seen in the progression from the enlightenments ‘picturesque’ to the romantic ‘sublime,’ the order and reason of the enlightenment giving way to nature’s romantic, haphazard and chaotic manner. As the Open University (2005) explains, “Romantics such as Wordsworth, Constable and Turner sought a more individual, personalized relationship with the natural world (p. 13).

At age 28 Wordsworth wrote a poem that vividly illustrates his communion with nature, the landscape poem Lines written above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798, one of the Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy spent four days on a rambling walk which took in the Welsh abbey of Tintern founded in 1131. The poem is testament to Wordsworth’s immersion in nature, the simplicity of language and style reinforcing “his conviction of the interdependence of man and nature” (Brett & Jones, 1991, p. xxx).

Tintern Abbey is a ‘conversation poem’, the author having a dialogue with a silent listener. It consists of unrhymed blank verse or iambic pentameter, the stress falling on every second syllable within the ten-syllable lines. It is a typical ‘peripatetic verse’, commonly used during the late eighteenth century to describe a “walking tour related to moral and aesthetic development” (Open University, 2004, p. 157).

In lines 1 to 23 Wordsworth describes how “five years have passed” since his last visit and how “a wild secluded scene impress/Thoughts of a more deep seclusion” where he can “connect” to “The landscape with the quiet of the sky.” When the author observes “wreathes of smoke” he considers the isolation of “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods” (Brett & Jones, 1991, p. 113). Lines 24 to 49 describe how in the “lonely rooms” of “towns and cities” he has owed to his memories of nature a “tranquil restoration” a panacea to the “heavy and weary weight, Of all this unintelligible world.” Nature even underlies “unremembered acts” of “kindness and love.” Lines 50 to 58 seem to be calling attention to the religion of the natural world, “the fever of the world” during which his spirit has “turned to thee” (Brett & Jones, 1991, p. 114).

Lines 59 to 112 explain how this encounter provides reflection and inspiration for future years; “in this moment there is life and food/For future years,” acknowledging that he is “changed” from his first experience of the hills, from the “coarser pleasures” of his “boyish days” and now possesses more mature gifts; “For I have learned/To look on nature, not as in the hour/Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes/The still, sad music of humanity.” With this maturity he can see that nature is “The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being” (Brett & Jones, 1991, p. 115-16). In the final lines 113 to 160 Wordsworth addresses his sister, Dorothy, his “dear, dear friend” who is on her first visit during which he can see reflected his reactions of five years ago; “Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her” but can “so impress/With quietness and beauty” and that the memory of this visit for her will be “a mansion for all lovely forms” a “dwelling-place/For all sweet sounds and harmonies” (Brett & Jones, 1991, p. 117).

Constable’s paintings are a comforting, tranquil “Wordsworthian” (Clark, 1973, p. 280) expression reflecting the romantic artist’s poetic reverence of nature. The Leaping Horse (1825) Constable’s sixth, six foot canvas measures 142 x 187 cm and is the last of his ‘canal’ scenes. An oil on canvas it depicts a barge towing horse energetically leaping a low wooden cattle barrier on the Stour towpath. The horse is reminiscent of an “equestrian monument” (Clark, 1973, p. 276) being depicted in mid-spring. The boy riding it is dressed in waistcoat, white shirt and hat. A gnarled willow seems awkwardly placed central to the painting and in this authors opinion nothing would be lost if it had been removed from the composition. The upper part of the painting is dominated by a blustery cloudy white sky and patches of blue with approaching storm clouds in the lower part and upper right hand side.

Sombre, dark tones permeate the scene, rough and loose brushwork adding textural and tonal effects. White dabs of paint are used to highlight glistening damp wood, leaves, the barge’s mast with its un-hoisted sail, along with reflections and movement in the water. The white sail, directional gaze of the figures and prow of the boat lead the eye to the jumping horse. In the foreground there are plants and weeds and the perspective lines of the old timbers of the wooden bridge have the effect of placing the viewer level with right rear side view of the horse. Constable has used small dabs of red such as on the clothing of the observers which helps to break up the dominant shades of green. There is a mass of dark trees to the left of the composition which is full of intricate detail such as workers onshore and the Dedham church tower downstream on the distant right. The overall scene has the quality of being “frozen in a moment of time” (Open University, 2004, p. 83). The author wonders if the excitement felt in the picture is the anticipation of waiting to see if the horse completes its jump safely.

Constable’s Hadleigh Castle: The Mouth of the Thames (1829) is oil on canvas measuring 122 x 164.5 cm, just less than six foot, and featuring the ruin of a castle. This could be symbolic as the painting comes the year after Constable’s wife Maria’s death in 1828 and is perhaps “an expression of personal grief” (Vaughan, 2002, p. 64). The view looks out over views of the “Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland” (Bailey, 2006, p. 192) to the distant sea. The castle comprises two upright circular remnants of dilapidated thirteenth-century stonework (Bailey, 2006) which cut vertical lines to the paintings left. In the left foreground a shepherd and dog appear to be contemplating the vista. In the lower centre of the scene are rambling cattle. Cutting a horizontal swath through the right midpoint is the ocean highlighted in shimmering white, seemingly reflected from the frothing white and dark grey clouds hovering overhead. The clouds seem buffeted by the strong wind of a storm closing in from the far right.

The landscape appears to be in two horizontal halves comprising the land with castle, and the sea and sky. Overall, the romantic neo-gothic elements of the painting provoke a melancholic and poetic air, the castle ruins, perhaps an allegory of human mortality, standing as a disintegrating sentinel being gradually being overtaken the ever-enduring landscape of nature. The Romantics sense of association with nature is illustrated by poetry as much as by painting with verses occasionally displayed alongside the artworks. In the exhibition catalogue which accompanies Hadleigh Castle is a fitting poem from James Thomson’s (1700-48) The Seasons (1726-30): “Rude ruins glitter; and the briny deep,/Seen from some pointed promontory’s top,/Far to the dim horizon’s utmost verges/Restless, reflects a floating dream” (quoted in Bailey, 2006, p. 193).

Turner’s The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up (1838), an oil on canvas measuring 90.8 x 121.9 cm, is a salute to industry. It is a sentimental marine painting depicting the ship Téméraire during a panoramic sunset whilst being towed by a steam tugboat to a private dockyard for scrapping. An atmosphere of sorrow and finality permeates the nostalgic scene, a funeral procession up the Thames for the ship that played such a pivotal role in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. Admiral Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, came under heavy fire from the French, but the Téméraire’s captain managed a gutsy turning manoeuvre and was able to attack the enemy ships, without doubt contributing to the British victory. According to Venning (2003) Turner treasured the painting so much he “refused to sell it at any price because he knew that it was one of the chief pillars on which his reputation would rest, and he planned to leave it to the nation” (p. 237). It is a painting in which past glories give way to the new industrial age, comparable as in Constable’s Hadleigh Castle to a melancholic expression of human transience, “a reminder that time and death overtake men and ships alike” (Venning, 2003, p. 240).

Overall a harmonious balance is achieved through the use of colour and the placement of the subjects. Nature within this painting is depicted in a calm, reverent, poetic fashion which appeals to the emotions. The quiet scene is filled with rich contrasts of red, yellow, orange and blue. Flamboyant colour emanates from a focal point of the dazzling sun in the lower right of the painting. Orange smoke billows into the sky from the steam tugboats funnel. The bollard in the right foreground is dark, the same colour as the wheel-box and funnel of the tugboat and its reflection in the sea to the left foreground. Turner has paid minute attention to the detail of both the tugboat and the ship. In the exhibition catalogue the painting is accompanied by a poignant quote from poet Thomas Campbell: “The flag which braved the battle and the breeze, No longer owns her” (Venning, 2003, p. 240).

The horizon in Téméraire is a vibrant cobalt blue leading the eye upwards into the white clouds and further blue in the top left corner, below which a white moon can be faintly seen behind the clouds. The ships hull and masts have a white, spectral quality, phantom-like against the primary colours of blue and yellow. Although Constable paints in a more realistic light than Turner, both exemplify the growing connection between nature and the artist as represented within their work, a connection in which poetry and paintings increasingly synthesized into a romantic association. Turner’s own poem The Fallacies of Hope as quoted in Clark (1973) seems to relate to the melancholic air of the painting: “The returning sun/Exhaled earth’s humid bubbles, and emulous of light/Reflected her lost forms, each in prismatic guise/Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly/Which rises, flits, expires and dies” (p. 262).

Turner’s Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm the Night the ‘Ariel’ Left Harwich (1842) is a wildly sublime churning landscape, a catastrophic storm that heightens the viewer’s senses but was described disparagingly by critics as “soapsuds and whitewash” (quoted in Venning, 2003, p. 263). It is an oil on canvas measuring  91.5 x 122 cm, for which Turner claims he spent four hours voluntarily tied to a ships mast in order to closely observe a storm at sea, a claim upon which a number of authors cast doubt. By the long title Turner appears to be trying to depict a realistic portrayal of the feeling of nature’s sublime forces from first hand experience in the “plight of a 200-ton coastal steamer, negotiating a sea lane in treacherous waters, with barely sufficient power to prevent it being driven in to the shallows” (Venning, 2003, p. 160). It provides another example of the romanticisation of industry.

Contrasting swathes of light and dark colour including shades of brownish-black, dirty whites and murky shades of gray in “conflicting diagonals” (Clark, 1973, p. 243). A hint of blue sky in the very centre through the furious snow squalls is reflected in the crest of a raging wave positioned in the right foreground, the intensity overall added to by the rough brushwork which leaves the viewer’s eye unable to rest but instead swing left to right in a turbulent frenzy like the cresting of stormy waves and gusting winds. Central to the scene is the vague suggestion of the paddle steamer’s semicircular black wheel-box and standing vertical to the right is a mast with a battered flapping pennant atop. There is dissolution of form illustrated only by the vague dark impression of the steamer, caught as it is in the vortex of a snow storms spiraling elements of rain, spray and snow. According to Clark (1973), “The vortex was the expression of Turner’s deep pessimism, for he thought of humanity as doomed to a senseless round, which ultimately sucked man in to his fate” (p. 236-7). Nature’s elements are interacting with one another, spiraling about man’s creation which is being tossed about aimlessly, insignificant to nature as she storms on regardless. According to Clark (1973); “Turners liberation of colour, like all romantic arts, was a triumph of the irrational” (p. 263).

The Enlightenment ideals whereby nature could be rationally observed, controlled and exploited are vastly different to the Romantics notion of connecting with and submitting to nature in a very personal, individual response. As Brown (2001) explains “For many Romantics, their chosen image of creative Genius was the plant, germinating from its seed in its own cycle of life. It obeyed natural law, and could be stunted only by outside intervention” (p. 31). Wordsworth was especially saddened by the deforestation of his beloved Lakes District. This introspection was characteristic of the Romantics, along with an attitude towards the following of nature, rather than using nature for one’s own ends. He believed in the restorative effects of nature a soothing panacea to the discordant influence of industrialization.

It is interesting how the Romantics intense view of nature is often comparable to a sensory religious encounter, the experience being one of looking for God within oneself, rather than in organised religion with its intellectual and moralising judgements. As Wordsworth writes in A Guide Through the District of the Lakes “the heavens are not only brought down into the bosom of the earth, but that the earth is mainly looked at, and thought of, through the medium of a purer element” (quoted in Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, p.98). This sense of divine inspiration from nature and a mystic spirituality permeates the work of the Romantic poets and artists. As Brown (2001) explains “Artists now approached nature with something of the same reverence that had formerly been reserved for God, and the experience of the natural world became a form of worship” (p. 131).

As Wordsworth writes in his A Guide Through the District of the Lakes “Sublimity is the result of Nature’s first great dealings with the superficies of the heart; but the general tendency of her subsequent operations is towards the production of beauty; by a multiplicity of symmetrical parts uniting in a consistent whole” (quoted in Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, p.95). The enlightenment sought order and regulation within all things which included nature whereas the romantics felt nature was wild and beyond human comprehension: “The notion of the sublime, laden with notions of the incomprehensible and ungraspable, lay at the heart of and facilitated the shift from an Enlightenment to a Romantic view of the world” (Open University, 2005, p. 47).

This essay has investigated factors contributing to ideas about the natural world that existed in Europe during the cultural shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism throughout the period 1780 to 1830 with relation to the works of Wordsworth, Turner and Constable. It has examined whether nature is something for humans to control and exploit or submit to, whether nature is something ordered or regulated or wild and beyond human comprehension as well as the changing view of God as seen to be spiritually part of the Romantics ‘oneness’ with the divine purpose of nature rather than the traditional all powerful God of organised religion. 



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Brown, D. (2001). Romanticism. London, England: Phaidon.

Clark, K. (1973). The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic verses classic art. London, England: John Murray.

The Open University. (2005). Block 4: Industry and Changing Landscapes. Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: The Open University.

Venning, B. (2003). Turner. London, England: Phaidon.



 Bockemühl, M. (2000). J.M.W. Turner: 1775-1851. Kölm, Germany: Taschen.

Lavin, C., & Donnachie, I. (eds.). (2004). From Enlightenment to Romanticism, anthology II. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Meslay, O. (2005) J.M.W. Turner: The man who set painting on fire. London, England: Thames & Hudson.

Moore, G. (1992). William Wordsworth. London, England: Aurum Press.

Oxford University. (2004). William Wordsworth:  A site devoted to Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from

Parkinson, R. (1998). John Constable: The Man and his Art. London, England: V & A Publications.

Vaughan, W. (2002). John Constable. London, England: Tate Publishing.

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