Poetry writers try to evoke a feeling or emotion in the reader that they themselves felt or thought. Possible topics cover the gamut of human experience. One theme in poetry not limited to the Romantic Age is that the loss of innocence puts us at odds with nature and the universe, and that ethics and morality, are universal laws rather than man-made laws. Three examples of such writing are Auguries of Innocence by William Blake, Ode on Intimations of Immortality by William Wordsworth, and Mending Wall by Robert Frost.
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“Two poets, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge started the Romantic Age in English Literature. The period’s emphasis on nature, the common man, and emotion over logic presented itself in many of their works (Polanko).” Two of the main points of Romanticism were “the cultivation of sensibility, emotion, passion, in opposition to classic rationality and common sense, and an appreciation of nature, on philosophical as well as aesthetic grounds. eighteenth-century literature, even poetry, had been predominantly an urban literature. The predecessors of the romantics, the pre-romantics, opened their eyes to the beauty of wild nature, and described it with loving exactness. they found a harmony between nature and man; nature is good, and man is good insofar as he cleaves to her. . .. The Romantics believed that the emotions, spontaneously released, conducive to good conduct (Stirpes)”.
In Auguries of Innocence by William Blake, its short form also known as To See a World in a Grain of Sand, the writer tries to convey how we live in a relational universe (Bai). And that human nature tends to be morally contradictive.
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
The first four lines illustrate that though it’s just a grain of sand, that grain of sand is part of the world and therefore it is the world. And that the wild flower is the beauty of heaven expressed in that flower, the microcosm expressing the macrocosm. It is how to view the world through the eyes of the innocent. To hold infinity is the palm of your hand means that there are no boundaries, that we are all one, therefore, we can choose to be one with the universe, or at odds against it. Eternity in an hour means that we are all that has gone before and that will come after, that what we do will echo through time, and that time can be stretched and shrunken, and is ours to mold. What we do with that time will affect all that come after (Jemmer).
The poem goes on to tell about injustices to nature and animals that goes against heaven and natures response.
“A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell through all its regions.”
Blake uses many religious symbols throughout the poem appealing to the reader not just on the level of the Universe and Nature, but also on a religious level as well. He refers to heaven, an angel i.e. cherubim, hell, and the Lamb.
“He who mocks the infant’s faith
Shall be mocked in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.”
The passage above can have a dual meaning, not only from a secular point of view but also from a biblical point of view. That those who mock faith in Jesus will be mocked in age and death, that if you do not teach your children faith in Jesus that you shall never be raised up again at the Resurrection, and that he who respects faith in Jesus shall triumph over hell and death.
He also speaks of the mistreatment of Jesus and that though he was crucified, he still forgave those who did so. ” The lamb misused breeds public strife, And yet forgives the butcher’s knife.” This refers to the fact that Jesus still forgave those who crucified him in addition to all those who persecuted him.
Blake also talks about how immorality and cruelty affect society and the country as when he says ” To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.
The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation’s fate.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.
The winner’s shout, the loser’s curse,
Dance before dead England’s hearse.”
The above passage tell that immorality and greed legitimatized by society will seal that society’s fate and leave it dead.
In contrast to Blake’s universe, Wordsworth’s nature in Ode on Intimations of Immortality, is the good that man should follow. That man has in his own being, empathy and nobility of spirit, but that by learning artificial social conventions, and distancing himself from nature, that man forgets his true self and becomes immoral and selfish (Sparknotes).
Wordsworth starts out by expounding how the innocence of early childhood allows a person to see truth and reality, a time of creativity and imagination, that when he loses this innocence and creative spirit, he then loses the ability to see beauty and reality, instead becoming frustrated by becoming emotionally separated from one’s world, and loses the ability to imagine, relying instead on analysis and criticism. That the world loses its joy and wonder (Seaton)
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
He laments that although he can still see things such as the moon, rainbow, sun, and rose, and though they are still beautiful, that something is missing.
One of the most famous lines of the poem, ” Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” relates that when born, we still have the beauty of heaven in memory but that as we mature, we lose that memory (Gradesaver). He alludes to a belief in reincarnation in this line. He also speaks of how we rush to adulthood not realizing what they are giving up by doing so. That “birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” because we came from heaven and had memories of that. And that parents and society encourage our children to grow and mature forgetting what we ourselves once lost. That instead, one should hold on to the innocence that once lost cannot be retrieved again until death whereupon our eyes will once again be opened.
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He believes that before birth we were in heaven and had total cognition of all that heaven is, but that as we grow we forget that. That God is our home that we came from and ultimately must return. Nature is also part of God. He relates this in this passage, “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature’s priest, And by the vision splendid, Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day.”
Mending Wall by Robert Frost may not traditionally be thought of as a poem about innocence, morality, and ethics, yet its seeming simplicity belies the many levels of meaning that can be derived from it. Generally, it’s thought of as about relationships between neighbors, but there are also intimations of natural laws at work here and universal morals.
The first paragraph alludes to a force or entity that has no love for walls. It is not hunters though at times hunters may be the cause.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”
The writer sees little sense for a wall in their situation where there is no livestock nor crops that would negatively interact. Yet his neighbor clings to a saying that his father taught him, “Good Fences make Good Neighbors”, a man-made rule that the writer doesn’t agree with. Why should there be a wall between neighbors if there is no practical reason for it? Common sense would seem to dictate that the wall is not needed. The very earth seems to conspire against them in the building of the wall and in keeping it up (Sparknotes).
The writer feels that even nature agrees with him in that man-made tradition is silly, and that we should let nature take its course.
Bai, H. Banack, H. To See a World in a Grain of Sand: Complexity Ethics and Moral Education. Simon Fraser University (Canada). http://www.complexityandeducation.ualberta.ca/COMPLICITY3/documents/Complicity_31c_Bai.pdf
Gradesaver. Wordsworth’s Poetical Works Study Guide. http://www.gradesaver.com/wordsworths-poetical-works/study-guide/section9/.
Jemmer, P. Jemmer, R. Ashe Journal. Eternity in Ephemerality: An Enduring Enigma. http://ashejournal.com/index.php?id=294
Polanco, A. William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/910543/william_wordsworths_ode_intimations.html
Seaton, B. Everything2
Ode: Intimations of Immortality – and – Dejection: An Ode. Everything2. http://everything2.com/title/Ode%253A+Intimations+of+Immortality+-+and+-+Dejection%253A+An+Ode.
Sparknotes. Frost’s Early Poems. http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/frost/section3.rhtml
Sparknotes. Wordsworth’s Poetry. http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/wordsworth/themes.html.
Stirpes. The Tenets of Romanticism. http://forum.stirpes.net/arts/2476-tenets-romanticism.html.
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