A Powerful Relationship: Nature and the Human Mind

Before hanging out in nature suspended from an Eno hammock in a pair of Chacos was popular amongst students at the university in Fayetteville, Arkansas, poets such as William Wordsworth and Percy B. Shelley were hanging out in nature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. While students may find the outdoors restoring after a week of exams, or a place of contemplation for their Friday night plans, Wordsworth and Shelley were finding restoration from the post revolution chaos and heavily contemplating the human mind and its relationship with nature. As contributors to an emerging aesthetic movement referred to as Romanticism, these poets were part of a new conversation that focused on the emotional and intellectual experience of the individual. As Wordsworth’s contemporary, Shelley was greatly influenced by the way the poet fleshed out his perceptions in his work through this relationship with nature. Although the two poets are thematically similar, the way they address themes surrounding nature is unique. When carefully examining the poems “Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by Wordsworth and “Mont Blanc” by Shelley, we find both poets exploring the connection between the power of the human mind and nature with a distinct approach.

Speaking in local Fayetteville lingo, Wordsworth could be described as the “chiller” poet of the two. Although both Wordsworth and Shelley believe that nature has an incredible influence on the human mind while the human mind simultaneously has influence on nature, Wordsworth finds this relationship to be a restorative and tranquil one, where Shelley finds it to be more active. In an essay titled “Shelley’s Unwriting of Mont Blanc” written by Christopher Hitt, the author distinguishes the poets by stating that: “…their emotional responses are markedly different – Wordsworth ‘grieves’ whereas Shelley celebrates…” (141). If we categorize Wordsworth as “chill,” then we can label Shelley as “rebellious.” Working to put forth a radical world view of nature as religion, Shelley’s reaction to the relationship between nature and the human mind is much more energetic. Shelley finds that nature can excite an individual by both its beautiful qualities and its horrifying elements, leaving them in an “awe-full” state rather than the tranquil experience that Wordsworth describes.

Wordsworth examines this tranquil experience in “Intimations Ode” by exploring the relationship between the human mind and nature as one moves from childhood to adulthood. He begins the poem by describing the experience he had with nature as a child by stating: “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light…” (1-4). Viewing nature as if “in celestial light” gives it both supernatural qualities and glorifying elements. In stanza four, the speaker poses questions asking why this relationship with nature has changed with age when he says: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” (51-57). Later in the poem, he answers these questions by explaining that as the child grows up they begin to imitate the adult. Therefore, they move away from their relationship with the natural world and begin to adapt to social constructs.

As we move towards the end of the poem, Wordsworth gains a clearer understanding of why ones experience with nature changes as they age. He does this by illustrating the relationship between nature and the human mind. The tenth stanza states:

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primary sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In the years that bring the philosophic mind.

This is a discernable example of Wordsworth’s recognition of the affect the human mind has on nature, and vice-versa. Although nature no longer evokes the magical affect it once did when he was a child, it has now instilled in him a deeper understanding of the knowledge he has gained. When he was a child, he looked upon nature and was mesmerized by the power of its beauty. Now that he is older, he looks upon nature and is struck by “philosophic” thought. It is the relationship between the power of our minds and the power of nature in which he believes both the experience as a child and the experience as an adult is derived. In the last two lines of the poem he explains: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (222-223). This alludes both to his conclusion of the poem, as well as his entire theory of poetics in relationship to nature. For Wordsworth, just looking upon the “meanest flower” can initiate deep “philosophic” thought. This is the reason he finds the relationship between nature and the human mind to be so powerful. He describes this experience to be restorative or tranquil. It could be that our contemporary Fayetteville “nature lovers” acquire a similar philosophic restoration to Wordsworth as they hike Devils Den (just to take a picture at the top).

Or, possibly they aren’t looking for a restorative hike in Devil’s Den and prefer to go rock climbing in the Ouachita Mountains where they find a more active and energetic experience in nature like Shelley does in “Mont Blanc.” The first stanza of the poem distinguishes Shelley’s approach to nature from Wordsworth’s when he says: “The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, / Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom – / Now lending splendour, from where secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings” (1-5). In these first few lines of the poem, we see a difference in Shelley’s relationship with nature as he doesn’t just describe nature as a happy place of restoration, but as something that can actively provoke a wide range of emotions and thoughts both “dark” and “glittering.” Wordsworth also gives nature the ability to inspire multiple emotions including both joy and sorrow throughout “Intimations Ode”, but he doesn’t present these emotions as working as interchangeably and actively as Shelley does.

This active relationship between the human mind and nature peaks when the speaker of the poem becomes acquainted with the mountain. He explains how this mountain elicits both a beautiful and horrifying experience by describing it first as “snowy and serene” (61) and then questioning “is this the scene where the old Earthquake daemon taught her young / Ruin?” (72-3). This excerpt illustrates “Mont Blanc” as unique in comparison to “Intimations Ode” by the way Shelley describes nature as both beautiful and terrifying. This active relationship that Shelley is describing is one that is influenced by the human mind. Like Wordsworth, Shelley finds that nature stimulates the mind in great philosophic ways. In stanza four he states: “And this, the naked countenance of earth, / On which I gaze, even these primaeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind” (98-100). Here we see that Shelley thinks of nature as a teacher that can create deep thought in relation to human experience. Christopher Hitt supports this idea in his essay when he explains “The speaker of the poem has at last come to the realization that “thought,” whether that of his “own…human mind” or of human minds generally, is ultimately subject to the power of “things,” to the “secret strength” they yield” (153). “Things” is referring to nature, and in this case specifically the mountain. Hitt is quoting directly from the final stanza of the poem where Shelley exclaims: “The secret strength of things, / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!” (139-141). This passage illuminates the notion that the mind’s influence on nature and nature’s influence on the mind works interchangeably. This relationship is comparable to what Wordsworth describes at the end of “Intimations Ode.”

Clearly, Wordsworth and Shelley find nature to be sublime. Although the affects they find it has on the human mind are unique from one another, they both recognize the relationship to be equally powerful. Attending school in a town that seems to appreciate the outdoors, it couldn’t hurt our students to consider nature as a place of intellect and knowledge while they hike in their Patagonias and drink cheap beer around a fire. Maybe they already do. Maybe they’ll write a poem about it, or possibly, a blog post.

Work Cited:

Bear, Joel. Chaco Life. Photograph. Joel Bear, United States. Web. 6 November 2014. https://www.tumblr.com/search/chacos#

Hitt, Christopher. “Shelley’s Unwriting of “Mont Blanc”.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47.2 (2005): 139-66. Web.

Shelley, Percy B. “Mont Blanc.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Vol. 2a. New York: Longman, 2006. 871-74. Print. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries.

Wordsworth, William. “Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Vol. 2a. New York: Longman, 2006. 553-58. Print. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries.