With the foundation laid by Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, the emergence of modern science and the scientific method, the Enlightenment saw a new approach to human experience and understanding. A wave of change swept across European thinking, exemplified by the natural philosophy and scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton. Enlightenment rationalists realized the changing world in which they lived and saw better than most the effects of the Industrial Revolution.
They also realized the erosion of religious faith and the many evils it sought to overthrow in exchange for science and reason, and began to reject the artifice of cultural and institutional constructs such as education and labor. These themes became prominent in the work of such others like William Blake and William Wordsworth, as they observed the natural world and humanity’s place within it, exploring and emphasizing an understanding of nature as a key to positive human progress and knowledge.
This new faith of Blake’s in the natural goodness of humans contradicts the concept of the fall of Man, espousing that the evils of modern culture is a mode of psychic disintegration and of resultant alienation from oneself, one’s world, and one’s fellow human beings (Abrams 39). To Blake, like later poets of the Romantic age such as Wordsworth, the only hope of recovery for humanity rested in reintegration into the social and natural worlds.
Often credited with officially ushering in the Romantic era, William Wordsworth lamented that poetry spanning John Dryden to Alexander Pope consisted of scarcely an image from external nature: “from which it can be inferred that the eye of the poet had been steadily fixed on his object” (9). Wordsworth searches for moral, spiritual, and emotional value in the natural world, instead of tradition.
In “The Preface to Lyrical Ballads” in 1798, Wordsworth wrote that “I have endeavoured at all times to look steadily at my subject” (9), hoping to capture the sensuous nuance of natural phenomena that the reasonable eye of the Enlightenment poet missed. Like Blake before him, Wordsworth asserts that faith in many traditional beliefs pale when compared to faith in the truths of Nature.
With the revolutions in America and France, Napoleon’s ascension to power, and the growth of the common man as a political force, the end of the Romantic era would soon usher in the modern world that is known today.
Abrams, M. H. “William Wordsworth: 1770-1850. ” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Abrams, M. H. 7th Ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.