The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry

By Joseph Warren Beach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
WORDSWORTH AND NATURE'S TEACHING

IF, AS I suppose, Wordsworth in 1806 had virtually abandoned the Hartleian form of naturalism in the "Intimations" ode, he had still in "The Excursion" ( 1814) a great deal to say about nature. He still had faith that man might learn much wisdom from the study of "nature." And, first of all, he held that nature was essentially benevolent, as he had held throughout his earlier periods of writing. A faith in nature's benevolence is inherent in nearly all nature- poetry up to the time of Hardy, and many different ways of regarding nature led to the same conclusion. Many different strains of thought might be present at the same time in Wordsworth's, all tending to reinforce the same faith in nature's essential goodness.

So widespread was the eighteenth-century persuasion that the natural order is an ideal one, whose arrangements are perfect, that it underlay whole systems of political economy and was assumed in many of the axioms of physics and medical science. The French Physiocrats took their name from the Greek words φύσις and ϰϱάτος, signifying, in this combination, the power of nature. They built on the theory that men in society are subject to natural laws in the same way as the physical elements, and that these natural laws must be followed by men if they are to gain their highest well-being. They could appeal, in support of this view, to the authority of Roman law and the philosophy of St. Thomas. This general concept of a natural order in society is shown by Lovejoy and Boas to have been widely prevalent among important writers of classical antiquity. In the seventeenth century Robert Boyle directed the force of his critical scientific spirit against the "vulgar notion of nature." He undertook to disprove the cheerful axioms that "nature never fails of her end," that she

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