The Romantic era was a time of appreciation for the beauty in life and one especially popular facet of this was the idea of the beauty of nature. During a time when nature didn’t have a huge presence in the lives of the busy city dwellers, poetry gave people an opportunity to appreciate scenes that weren’t present in everyday life—as we can see in Goethe’s “The Fisherman” and Blake’s “The Tyger.” Poetry of the time also explored the ability to recognize the natural beauty that was present, but harder to see through the smog of city life—as we can see in Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802.” These poems exemplify a movement that reinforced the importance of recognizing nature as a force of mystery and beauty, a value that helped to define the Romantic era.
In “The Fisherman,” Goethe employs imagery of nature as a device to make the interaction between him and the maiden (probably a siren or nymph of some kind), seem more like a wonder of nature rather than a wonder of the supernatural: “The water rushed, the water swelled, a fisherman sat by, and gaze upon his dancing float with tranquil-dreaming eye. And as he sits, and as he looks, the gurgling waves arise; a maid, all bright with water drops, stands straight before his eyes” (lines 1-8). Goethe puts a heavy emphasis on the state of the water rather than on the fisherman or the maiden; even though this could be an opportunity to talk about the maiden’s beauty and other-worldliness, Goethe leaves that entirely up to the imagination of the reader and doesn’t mention anything about the maiden herself, other than that she is covered in water drops, having just risen from the water.
This theme of focusing only on the natural aspects continues throughout the poem; as the maiden speaks to the fisherman she talks about how happy the fish are and how beautiful the ocean itself is. It’s interesting that at the end of the poem, Goethe doesn’t give the reader any information about what happened to the fisherman, but simply says that he went into the water with the woman and “ne’er was seen again” (line 32). Similar tales usually express the disappearance of the human character as a bad thing, meant as a tale of caution, but Goethe doesn’t say that at all; he never gives us any indication that the fisherman dies when he goes with the maiden, or that he meets some equally tragic fate. It is most likely that Goethe deliberately leaves out an “ending” for the fisherman and the maiden in the story to draw attention to the fact that the two characters are merely devices by which the beauty of the natural aspects of the scene are expressed, such as the glittering water droplets that cover the maiden, rather than being the focus of the tale themselves.
While Goethe highlights the beauty of nature using a rather fantastic scenario, Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802” describes a beautiful morning in Westminster as seen from Westminster Bridge in a modern (at the time) and realistic way: “Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would be he of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty” (Longman 2159, lines 1-3). Here Wordsworth begins the poem by informing the reader of the impact of the beauty of nature even in something as simple as a morning in Westminster, going as far to say that one would have to be “dull of soul” to be able to pass by the sight untouched by its beauty. He goes on to use simile to develop the imagery of nature, “This City now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the morning” (Longman 2195, lines 4-5). This choice of words is interesting because it shows how Wordsworth holds the city apart from nature; the city is not part of the beauty of the morning but instead is enhanced by this aspect of nature. He continues this imagery of nature covering the city in beauty with, “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air, never did sun more beautifully steep in his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill; never a calm I felt so deep!” (Longman 2195, lines 7-11). Wordsworth also uses personification to elevate the sun and the river, placing emphasis on the insinuation that they are indeed what makes the morning beautiful. Unlike Goethe, Wordsworth does not need to create a scenario in which something ordinary can be seen as beautiful, he simply invites the reader to see what is present every morning on Westminster Bridge, weather notwithstanding.
While the readers of Goethe were inspired to go outside of the city to appreciate nature and the readers of Wordsworth were inspired to find the natural beauty within the city, Blake introduced a kind of beauty that one could not easily experience, requiring a broader use of the imagination. Tigers were an exotic foreign creature that couldn’t be found by simply going a little ways out of the city into the country, they were part of a continent that was still being explored and might as well have been a world away, as opposed to the water in Goethe’s poem and the sunlight city described by Wordsworth whose equivalents could be sought out by most readers. Blake’s choice of subject is interesting because this poem was written during a time when explorers and missionaries were going to Africa and seeing many creatures and cultures they didn’t understand, like tigers, which were something to be feared. Explorers sent back stories, descriptions, and drawings of the horrors and wonders they were seeing, so it is likely that Blake wrote the poem based on a picture or description rather than having actually seen a tiger, which may explain why the poem carries a tone of fear and wonder. This same sense of wonder was what inspired many people in the Romantic Era, who felt estranged from nature because of the emphasis put on technological advances in the Industrial Era.
It is also interesting to note that this poem, featured in Blake’s collection Songs of Experience has a companion called “The Lamb” in his other collection Songs of Innocence. The two are meant to be reflective of each other from different perspectives. Blake starts off with the image of a tiger, with his bright orange fur, stalking through the forest in the night: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night” (Longman 2154, lines 1-2). Then Blake inquires as to what could possibly have made such a fearsome creature, questioning the idea of an omnipotent creator: “What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?” (Longman 2154, lines 3-4). Blake follows by asking where the tiger came from—“In what distant deeps or skies, burnt the fire of thine eyes?”—while adding to the imagery of the tiger being a fearsome creature, once again comparing it to fire (Longman 2154, lines 5-6). In the following lines, “On what wings did he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?” Blake insinuates that whoever created the tiger was like Icarus who flew too close to the sun (Longman 2154, lines 6-7); Blake is saying that creating something like the tiger is overreaching some kind of natural boundary. He has also changed his question: before, he asked who could create the tiger, now he asks who dared to. The next few lines continue along the lines of asking how something so fierce was created and then Blake moves on to compare the tiger to Satan as portrayed in “Paradise Lost”: “When the stars threw down their spears and water’d heaven with their tears; did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the lamb make thee?” (Longman 2154, lines 17-20). Blake is asking if the same God who created innocent beings could possibly have also created the tiger. In the poem Blake thematically questions religion, asking if a God who is considered good and who creates good things can also create evil things. On a deeper level, Blake is questioning the existence of an omnipotent being by asking who could create the tiger and also challenging the assumption that a being who could create evil could also control that evil. This is why he asks who would dare create the tiger and is also why he compares the tiger to Satan using a “Paradise Lost” reference. Blake not only questions the authority of God, he also gives an example of God not being able to control the evil he created.
It is important to keep in mind that at this time God was considered to be the creator of nature and that industrialism removed humans from nature to a great extent, thus this might also be interpreted as industrialism removing humans from God to a certain degree. This concept can be related to “The Tyger” because people were so removed from nature (and therefore God) that they were not familiar with so many aspects of nature, such as tigers, and even grew to be afraid of these things that were outside of their industrialized world. Blake used this concept of the tiger to challenge the reigning religious beliefs of the time because the interest in natural beauty and the unknown were so relevant in the Romantic Era that is was easier to get the attention of the public this way, ensuring that his message would be relevant to the readers of the time.
Each of the three poems captures the spirit of the Romantic Era because together they cover the three main categories that nature was divided into at the time, which can be described as 1) the natural beauty within the industrialized city, 2) the natural beauty that lay just outside the cities, in the surrounding countryside like an oasis from industrialization, and 3) the exotic beauty of things that could not easily be seen by the average reader because it could be found only in faraway places. “The Fisherman” gives an example of the power of nature to draw humans to it, away from industrialized society, thus it falls into the second category, and serves to remind readers that the beauty of nature is never completely out of reach, even to those who live the industrial lifestyle of the cities. “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802” gives an example of the power of nature to eclipse industrialized society, covering the cityscape with its beauty and thus falls into the first category, serving to inspire readers to appreciate what is already all around them, even in places that seem removed from such things. “The Tyger” gives an example of the power of nature to fill those of industrialized society who are removed from it with terror and awe and serves as a sample of the third category, encouraging readers to think of all the beautiful things in the world that are wild, in contrast to industrialization. Each of the three poems has its own message, but all three place a great importance on the power of nature over humankind and also prove that the Romantic Era caused people to think of themselves as being outside of nature, rather than a part of it.
Blake, William. “The Tyger” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Compact Edition ed. New York: Longman, 2004. 2154. Print.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. “The Fisherman” Poetry Archive. Poetry Archive, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Wordsworth, William. “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Compact Edition ed. New York: Longman, 2004. 2159. Print.