Nature in the Late-Victorian Imagination

Nature in the Late-Victorian Imagination

Victorian poets abandoned the verdant, inspiring model of nature popularized by the Romantics.
Victorian poets abandoned the verdant, inspiring model of nature popularized by the Romantics.

If you have ever read the Romantic lyrical poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Keats and compared it to the poems of late-Victorians such as Thomas Hardy, then you might be surprised at how nature became completely reinvented within less than a century. The Victorian Age witnessed a radical metamorphosis in artistic representations of the natural world from inspirational and benevolent to malignant and competitive. The pastoral, imagistic treatment of nature as a sublime force akin to a god was usurped by the idea of a nature that was indifferent to human lives. It also gained a persona. No longer was nature simply an environment; it was an autonomous agent that could exact its will on living beings. This new, pessimistic model can clearly be seen in poems like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1837-38), an elegy to his friend Arthur Hallam, with lines like “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” which evoke a blood-thirsty conception of the world. Other popular poets also explored the theme of doubt and uncertainty in nature, such as in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1851), which reads,

…For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain (ll. 30-34)

This harsh, fatalistic language is a reflection of what is commonly called Victorian pessimism. Gone is the nurturing manna of the Wordsworth’s lake district. Arrived is the merciless wilderness where only the strong prevail.

Although it is often claimed that Darwin was the catalyst of Victorian pessimism, it is important to note that these two poems were published before 1859, the year On the Origin of Species was released. While Darwin’s work was preceded earlier in the century by the geological studies of Charles Lyell and the writings of German anthropologists such as David Strauss who drew similar conclusions about the origins of life, the pessimism has no one cause. Tennyson and Arnold were merely antennae for a sense of uncertainty, closely tied to understandings of the link between faith and nature, that had been gestating for several decades.

One of the writers whose work best exemplifies the Age of Pessimism was Thomas Hardy. His novels and poetry, especially later in his life, were preoccupied with understanding how nature operates and how to reconcile compassion and ethics with the nihilism suggested by material science. New antagonistic renderings of nature, one critic observes, were an unavoidable consequence of scientific progress and the erosion of religious faith that often accompanied it:

“Conscious design, providence, harmony, benevolence have all evaporated from the concept of nature. As a subject for poetic exaltation it no longer has any value; and inevitably it goes into the discard, together with concepts more strictly theological. Thomas Hardy sounds the death-knell of the old nature-poetry.” (Beach 260)

Hardy, however, was not a whole-sale pessimist. His fiction and poetry rather tried to understand the world as it is or how it hypothetically could be. Nature contains the potentialities for savagery but also grace. And while Darwinism may have overthrown dogmatic models of the natural order, rather than leaving a moral vacuum, it could also be a replacement. In other words, the world was not shown to be without order, but operating in accordance to laws of nature, even if those laws were not well understood.

These poorly-understood natural laws that operate the world became a motif of Hardy’s poetry, often serving to question man’s illusory dominance over nature. This idea is central to one of Hardy’s most popular poems, “The Convergence of the Twain,” a piece of occasional verse written in response to the sinking of the

The Titanic was the inspiration for Hardy's poem "The Convergence of the Twain."
The Titanic was the inspiration for Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain.”

Titanic in 1912. Although technically modern, since it was written after 1901, the year Queen Victoria died, this is not a Victorian poem even though Hardy was firmly rooted in Victorian culture and used its major themes. The poem moves from describing the wreckage of the vessel, contrasting it with its hubristic construction, to introducing the idea of the Immanent Will, a force that is part of the universe which “stirs and urges” everything, Hardy writes (line 18). The Immanent Will is a manifestation of the obscure natural laws which seemed to guide objects and people in their interactions. It is a mixture of fate and natural law, and it is the mysterious force that plans the catastrophic rendezvous of ship and iceberg:

And as the smart ship grewIn stature, grace, and hue,In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be:No mortal eye could seeThe intimate welding of their later history (ll. 22-27)
No mortal eye can see what only the omniscient eye of nature knows. The poem portrays the sinking of the Titanic not as an accident of human error or a tragic coincidence, but the result the design of nature.

In depicting the plans of the Immanent Will, Hardy also reveals the insignificance of human achievement when compared to the natural world. The remains of the Titanic lie “deep from human vanity” (l. 2) where “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (ll. 7-9). This image juxtaposes the ostentatious mirrors—here symbols of the vanity of those who once looked in them—with the repulsiveness of a deep-sea creature. Other strange undersea creatures wonder how this metal behemoth came to dwell in their habitat: “Dim moon-eyed fishes near/Gaze at the gilded gear/And query: ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here?’…” (ll. 13-15). These animals are not only used to equalize humans with the most basic of life-forms, but they also are suggestive of Darwinism and the vast multiplicity of species that his research seeks to explain.

“The Convergence of the Twain” is emblematic of the departure poetry had taken in the 19th century from the inspiring verse of the Romantic period to the grim elegies of the late-Victorians. Hardy’s work is concerned with timeless poetic themes, such as nature and vanity, but he addresses these topics through the lens of Victorian science and skepticism. The nature he posits is not harmonious and nurturing, but savage: a jungle which reflected the reimagining of the industrial nation as competitive and ruthless. This jungle, however, is not without patterns. The collapse of one model of nature made space for new discoveries, theories, and art to reconceptualize the world during the coming of Modernity.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 8th ed. New York : W.W. Norton & Co, 2006. Print.

Beach, Joseph Warren. “Hardy.” Thomas Hardy: Critical Assessments. Ed. Graham Clarke. Vol. 4. Mountfield : Helm Information Ltd, 1993. Print.

“Duddle Heath”

Hardy, Thomas. “The Convergence of the Twain.” Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems. Ed. James Gibson. Houndmills : Palgrave Publishers Ltd, 2001. Print.

“The Titanic”

Created by Greg LaLuna

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