Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Romanticism and the Corona Virus

Michael Ferber

I have been asking myself what wisdom or solace the Romantic poets might offer us during this time of death and fear and self-isolation. We won’t be climbing Mont Blanc or Mount Snowden anytime soon, or sailing off to Albania and Greece, or spending moonlit nights in the ruins of Rome. We won’t be meeting many mysterious strangers. So what distinctive gifts can the Romantics provide?

Yesterday I took a walk to think about it. My wife and I are among the lucky ones who live in a leafy community with plenty of room for strolling around the neighbourhood, and within a few miles of good pathways through protected forests. It’s spring, the birds are back, the daffodils and forsythia are just now in bloom. And then of course it dawned on me: that’s just it! That’s just what the Romantics would tell us. Get outside! Take a walk! Listen to the birds and look at the flowers! The advice we see on the Covid-19 websites about the mental and physical benefits of walking and absorbing the greenery of nature was laid out for us, in much finer speech, over two centuries ago.

Once this came home to me, I was struck with how many Romantic poems have “walk” or its synonyms in their titles. Wordsworth’s first long poem is “An Evening Walk” and his huge philosophical epic is called The Excursion. Schiller’s long meditation on the history of human freedom is called “The Walk” (“Der Spaziergang”). Burns wrote a sonnet called “On Hearing a Thrush Sing in a Morning Walk in January.” Charlotte Smith wrote “A Walk by the Water,” “An Evening Walk by the Sea Side,” and “A Walk in the Shrubbery,” among other walk poems. The prince of walk poems must have been John Clare, who gave us dozens of them, such as “A Walk,” “The Walk,” “Winter Walk,” “A Winter’s Ramble,” “Sunday Walks,” “Sabbath Walks,” “The Walk Last Sabbath Day,” and “Wandering in June.”

Among Americans, Emerson gave us “The Walk”; Jones Very “An Evening Walk,” “A Walk in the Pastures,” “A Walk in Harmony Grove,” and “The Ramble”; William Cullen Bryant “My Autumn Walk,” “A Walk at Sunset,” and “A Summer Ramble.”

And what walkers they were! William and Dorothy Wordsworth would walk twenty miles a day (and night), while his poem about the Wye River (misleadingly known as “Tintern Abbey”), though it is about a single spot, was composed orally while they walked back to Bristol. Keats walked from Liverpool through the Lake District and into Scotland. Thoreau not only travelled far in Concord, but hiked through the Maine woods; he even gave a lecture called “Walking.”

Why should we do this all this walking? Well, “hark! how blithe the throstle sings!” says William Wordsworth, “And he is no mean preacher; / Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher.” Nature, Emerson tells us, will her treasures “freely pour / In one wood walk, than learned men / Can find with glass in ten times ten.” More modestly, Charlotte Smith, after observing the carp and trout sink and dart in the stream, assures them: “Do not dread us, timid fishes, / We have neither net nor hook; / Wanderers we, whose only wishes / Are to read in nature’s book.”

And what if we are confined to a city, with at most a park or two, no doubt filled with masked walkers trying to keep six feet apart? Can Wordsworth help us much? For us at least there are the Romantic city poets: Walt Whitman, wandering at all hours through Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Blake, wandering through each chartered street of London, and Gérard de Nerval, taking his pet lobster for a leisurely crawl through Paris. They can teach us too, teach us how to look at things, how to feel for our fellow sufferers, how to imagine what better world we might make out of all this. But nature, too, if we have had any experience of it, may have deposited its gifts in us, and we may draw on them, as Wordsworth did, when the fretful stir and fever of the urban world burdened his heart. Even to yearn for nature, to daydream of escaping back to it one of these days, is not a bad thing. It keeps your heart alive, the poets would say, and reminds you where it belongs. And look out your window. You see pigeons and crows and sparrows, maybe a hawk or two, and once in a while a fox or coyote, nature’s emissaries to us, bringing us news.

The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry by Michael Ferber

About The Author

Michael Ferber

Michael Ferber is Professor of English and Humanities Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. After a stint in physics and math he majored in Greek and English at Swarthmore ...

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