Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature

In the spring of 2000 Associate Professor of English Onno Oerlemans published the book Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature. Given the current environmental concerns, it is not surprising to find literary critics and theorists revisiting the Romantic poets with ecological hindsight. In this timely study, Onno Oerlemans extends these current eco-critical views by synthesizing a range of viewpoints from the Romantic period. He explores not only the ideas of poets and artists, but also those of philosophers, scientists and explorers.

Oerlemans grounds his discussion in the works of specific Romantic authors, especially Wordsworth and Shelley, but also draws liberally on such fields as literary criticism, the philosophy of science, travel literature, environmentalist policy, art history, biology, geology, and genetics. By juxtaposing travel literature and vegetarianism, the horse paintings of George Stubbs and the animal poetry of John Clare, the material particularity of Wordsworth and the taxonomic theories of Foucault, Cuvier and Darwin, he creates a fertile mix of historical analysis, cultural commentary, and close reading. Through this, we discover that the Romantics understood how they perceived the physical world, and how they distorted and abused it. Oerlemans' wide-ranging study adds much to our understanding of Romantic-period thinkers and their relationship to the natural world.


In the spring of 2000 Associate Professor of English Onno Oerlemans published the book Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature. Post-structuralism and new historicism have solved the problem of nature by deconstructing it: Wordsworth scholar Alan Liu says "there is no nature". For Onno Oerlemans, in Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature, this position represents an impoverishment of nature. Yes, nature comes to us laden with ideas, but its essential materiality remains.

German Romantics, such as Novalis, claimed that "inward goes the mysterious path". But for Oerlemans, the work of writers such as William Wordsworth and Gilbert White testify to Romanticism's "sheer appetite for the infinite physical presence of the world". His perceptive readings of the Romantics uncover a keen sense of nature's materiality, but also reveals a nature that is "strange and unknowable", irredeemably "other". To describe this experience, Oerlemans borrows an apt phrase from Keats - the "material sublime".

Our fascination with nature is, as Thoreau wrote, "a need to witness our own limits transgressed". It is an existential moment, an encounter with something larger than ourselves, humbling in its complexity and strangeness. For Oerlemans, the animal poetry of John Clare, the travel writing of Dorothy Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's critique of classificatory science are all part of the material sublime. Their work reminds us "that there is more to know and see than can be known or seen by one person, one perspective, one set of categories".

This superbly subtle exploration of the Romantic response to nature is a work of "green criticism." Oerlemans sees Romanticism as a forerunner of environmentalism, which he argues is deeply confused: it "includes desires to get closer to nature, to preserve it, to leave it alone, to clean it up, and to pass on stewardship of it to the next generations".

The idea that "we can and should be able to come to a complete and comfortable understanding of nature" is a fallacy, says Oerlemans. We must realise that "the natural world exists not simply for our survival or pleasure". The self-reflexive literary moment, in which the materiality of nature is celebrated but also acknowledged as profoundly other, offers the basis for a new relationship with nature.

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