Supplementary information: Man and Nature in English Literature

Note: supplementary information in italics.

1. The Chain of Being: Nature as a hierarchical system.

In the Middle Ages the universe was seen as a perfectly ordered system of concentric circles with the Earth at its centre. Each circle corresponded to the orbit of the known planets, with the stars at the outer level. Beyond this was the outermost circle, the “Primum Mobile” or “prime movement of heaven”. This understanding of the physical world was Greek in origin and remained the orthodox view in the Renaissance, although Copernicus (1473-1543) challenged it with his suggestion of a heliocentric universe (i.e with the sun at the centre).

This hierarchical order of the heavens was mirrored in the rest of creation. All things and creatures have their position in a hierarchy, a “Chain of Being” leading from God down to the angels, to Man and then down through the animal kingdom. Each aspect of creation had its own hierarchy, culminating in excellence: e.g. minerals culminated in gold, birds culminated in the eagle, mammals in the lion etc.

2. The Chain of Being as a model for social order

The “Chain of Being” was manifested in human society. At the top was the monarch, mirroring God’s position, below him the lords (here seen paying homage to the king) and at the bottom the poor serf, toiling for his master. The status quo of medieval society was therefore an expression of God’s will, and anything that disturbed this “natural order” was evil.

Disturbances in social order might be reflected in disturbances in the natural world, in the form of storms, portents and visions. (The ghost of Hamlet’s father can be seen in this light.)

In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the character Ulysses sums up this idea of the connection between social and natural order:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre, 
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol   
In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd 
Amidst the other, whose med'cinable eye 
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,    
And posts, like the commandment of a king,   
Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets    
In evil mixture to disorder wander,   
What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,   
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds!

3. Nature in the Renaissance

In the Renaissance there were two conflicting ways of looking at nature. On the one hand, the view inherited from the Middle Ages was that, since Adam and Eve’s ejection from Paradise, nature had become degraded – and degrading. On the other hand, the Greek and Roman literature that inspired Renaissance writers often depicted pastoral life as more virtuous than city life.

Shakespeare’s writing is rich in natural imagery. His comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” draws heavily on fairy lore in both its characters and its setting, and paints an idyllic, magical picture of the English countryside. Above is a late 18th century illustration of the play by Henry Fuseli. It shows Titania, Queen of the Fairies, waking up in the arms of Nick Bottom, the “clown” of the play, who has been given the head of an as by the mischievous fairy Puck.

4. “Natural philosophers” like Newton demonstrate the systematic, orderly aspect of Nature

The Age of Enlightenment saw an explosion of interest in nature as an object of scientific study. The painting is by Joseph Wright, the same artist that painted “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump” (see Access to English: Literature p. 90).This picture is called “The Orrery” – an orrery being an early form of planetarium – and shows the scientist demonstrating the movement of the planets in the solar system. Demonstrations of this sort were a popular way of spreading popular interest in the latest scientific discoveries.

The scientist in the picture is thought to be modelled on Sir Isaac Newton, the English “natural philosopher” who is credited with laying much of the foundation of modern science and engineering. His fields of study included astronomy, mechanics, gravitation, mathematics and optics, but he also wrote extensively on religious matters. The ordered perfection of the natural world, he argued, presupposed the existence of God.

5. The Noble Savage

The 17th and 18th centuries brought English adventurers and settlers in contact with “savage” people in far corners of the world. For writers and philosophers such people became a mirror in which to see their own society. For Daniel Defoe, the “savage” Friday was an unfinished creature, full of moral and intellectual potential, but lacking two vital elements to achieve his full humanity: civilisation and the Christian faith. Followers of the Romantic movement, however, saw primitive peoples in a rather different light; They were in possession of something – a closeness to nature, a natural dignity – that we, the civilised races, had lost.

Although the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau never actually used the term ”the noble savage” himself, his name is often associated with the idea that Man freed from the shackles of civilisation is more noble and more in tune with his real nature. The history of mankind, as Rousseau sees it, is a tale of degeneration from the balance of his natural state to the corruption of modern society. In the same way, childhood was seen as being “truer” state than adulthood.  

6. The Romantics and Nature

For Romantic poets like William Wordsworth the English countryside was a constant source of poetic inspiration. At a time when industrialisation was beginning to make its mark on the landscape in the form of growing cities and smoking factory chimneys, Britain’s few areas of wilderness took on an almost religious significance. For Wordsworth communion with the natural environment was essential for spiritual growth. Wordsworth lived out this belief in practice, walking for many miles a day in his beloved Lake District.

In one of his most famous poems (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”), Wordsworth remembers coming across “a host of daffodils” dancing in the breeze. He describes how the sight not only filled him with joy at the time, but serves as a spiritual resource later in life:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

7. Advance of Industrialism

For many growing up in the industrial centres, dancing daffodils were not even a distant memory. During the 19th century England was transformed from a predominantly rural country to a predominantly urban one. The contrast between town and country had never been stronger. William Cobbett (1763-1835), a radical writer of pamphlets, called London “the Great Wen” (wen = byll) and living conditions for the working class were grim.

The Romantics had largely ignored the urban poor as subject matter for their poetry, finding more inspiration in the “unspoiled” natures of country folk. Insight into the misery of life in the city’s slums and tenements finally reached the reading public through the novels of Charles Dickens.

8. Modernism and Nature

For most Modernist writers it was the city that captured the imagination, for it was here that the modern world experienced most intensely. The Modernist poet no longer sought the solitude of the hills for his inspiration, preferring the bustle and noise of the street, the café and the metro. Anyway, the First World War had demonstrated how pastoral idyll could be transformed in the matter of hours into a landscape of complete destruction.

In the first decades of the 20th century nature was not only disappearing as a literary setting, it was disappearing in real life. In both Britain and America growing populations and a growing middle class meant that ever larger areas of countryside were transformed into suburbia. Wild nature was tamed and portioned off into nature parks, to be visited on outings.

9. Growth of environmental awareness

”You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, sings Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi, and with the growth of suburbia and the gradual disappearance of untouched natural scenery came a deep nostalgia for nature. This was compounded in the 50s and 60s by the realisation that modern technology and consumerism came at a price: pollution, ecological imbalance and depleted resources.

For some – for example, the “hippies” of the 60s – the reaction was to try to go “back to nature” and create a simpler lifestyle based on ecological principles. For many writers new environmental insights were expressed in often nightmarish visions of the future. Science fiction became a favourite genre in which to think through the environmental challenges facing the world.

Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 30.06.2008

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