It’s a common notion that in the movement or period called Romanticism in English literature nature is a significant force. Here I mean nature in two senses: human nature and the “natural” world. I’ll remain on the second sense throughout this essay.
As a reaction to the neoclassicists of the past, who emphasized the values of order, restraint, and reason (intellectual control), the Romantics were more interested in the liberation to be experienced and embodied in the free expression of the imagination and emotions. This doesn’t mean that people living in the late 18th Century went about crying into their coffee or habitually swooning at the sight of the full moon. People understood that emotion had a lot to do with initiative, drive, choice, and other ideas, like creativity. I would imagine that writers like Jonathan Swift also were aware of the significance of emotion to the spirit of politics and art. The question is one of degree: to what extend does reason and/or emotion (if we stipulate that things are so cut and dried in the first place) play a role in the variety of human endeavor. In politics, for example, should we go with what feels right or what we can prove to some degree?
In the late 18th Century, people also began to question traditional institutions, including existing monarchies and religions and the boundaries these institutions reflected or imposed in terms of their traditions and contexts. As a challenge to traditional values and institutions, Romanticism required (I might say requires) a metaphor against which to explore other possibilities in art and other areas of human concern, including ethics and morality. Nature became the metaphor.
A personal story. I remember being with a group of hunters in Alaska and we decided to try a short cut up what looked like a fairly easy hill. This turned out not to be the case and we entered into a world that was wild, overgrown, and human skin was not well suited to surviving the thorns, rough bark, and iron-wire tangle.
The typical definition of Nature is the tree and the bird and spider outside of human making. A more modern definition would be more inclusive to identify nature as anything not human made, like a bar of chocolate versus the cocoa tree growing on the side of a hill. The human description of nature, however, has developed over time, growing from a less concentrated human population and reduced human numbers. In the past, nature was remote and harbored powerful and alien intelligence, populated with any number of gods and demons.
The discussion of the question of nature might begin with the present moment, where the observer pauses and looks around at their place in the world. Maybe they live in the city. Maybe they live in the suburb. Maybe they’re in school, learning to read and they say something strange like: “Before knowing how to read, I didn’t know how to read.” Pretty obvious. But once one learns to read, one leaves the person who didn’t know how to read behind somewhere. That person resided in a different context or state and now we have to think of them in the past tense. We claim that people who learn how to read have acquired “culture,” a characteristic, habit, or new norm one must learn. But who was that other person who didn’t know how to read or drive or “talk good.”