For Shelley, nature represents a powerfully sublime entity which feels utter indifference for man. Certainly, Shelley describes such beautiful scenes as "earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep / Of the etherial waterfall" (Norton 2, p. 686). At the same time, however, he recognizes nature's merciless potential:

But a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shattered stand: the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed. (Norton 2, p. 688)

According to Shelley, nature is at once splendorous and deadly, a dynamic force that cannot be tamed by man. While appreciating nature's aesthetic majesty, Shelley warns man not to equate beauty with tranquility. Rather, Shelley advises us to view nature from both sides of the coin, admiring its unapproachable synthesis of power and grace.

For Wordsworth, on the other hand, nature plays a more comforting role. Like Shelley, Wordsworth sees nature as an eternal and sublime entity, but rather than threatening the poet, these qualities give Wordsworth comfort. As Wordsworth writes:

I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; 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. (Norton 2, p. 154)

Rather than placing man and nature in opposition, Wordsworth views them as complementary elements of a whole, recognising man as a part of nature. Hence, Wordsworth looks at the world and sees not an alien force against which he must struggle, but rather a comforting entity of which he is a part.

Shelley was an atheist, a fact which certainly contributed to his vision of nature as a powerfully indifferent entity. Having no benevolent God to give reason and order to the world, Shelley lived in an immensely intimidating universe of powerful and fractious components. Nature could be beautiful for Shelley, but that does not imply that it was caring. Shelley seems to echo Pascal, who said, while gazing at the stars, "The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me." Wordsworth, on the other hand, was a relatively solid and conservative member of the Church of England. Thus, with the faith of religion to back him up, Wordsworth was able to look at nature and see the benevelonce of God behind it. For Wordsworth, the world could be a place of sorrow, but it was not cruel. Though suffering surely occurred, Wordsworth comforted himself with the belief that all things happened by the hand of God, manifesting Himself in the ultimately just and divine order of nature.

Related discussions


Website Overview Screen Before Victoria British Romanticism

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000