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Mary Wollstonecraft and the Romantic Consciousness

by Gary Lachman

One the most remarkable shifts in human consciousness occurred in the late eighteenth century. It was then that human beings discovered nature. Now this sounds absurd. How could human beings “discover” nature? Human beings had been up against nature from the start, competing with other animals, struggling to survive, enduring difficult conditions, and, eventually, learning how to use nature’s forces for our own ends and benefit, creating what we call civilization. Clearly, “nature” wasn’t some foreign land that we stumbled upon only a few centuries ago. Yet in another sense, this is exactly what happened.

This shift in our awareness can be understood by looking at attitudes toward nature only a generation earlier. In 1773, the English writer Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell made their famous journey to Scotland. The urbane Johnson had spent practically all of his life in London—he once famously remarked that if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life—and his reason for going to Scotland was to see “the wild,” the same reason many of us today go hiking or camping. Yet in his account of his trip, Johnson often complains of the mountains and lakes his carriage encounters; in some places there were no roads, and the two had to travel on horseback, which Johnson found “rather tedious.” Instead of enjoying the natural scenery that we spend large sums of money to get to, Johnson found it a nuisance. Yet only two decades later, in their Lyrical Ballads (1798), two English poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, made literary history writing poems extolling the very nature Johnson grumbled about.

There had, of course, been predecessors. The Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau had started the “back to nature” campaign some years earlier, arguing that civilization was responsible for mankind’s woes, an argument that is still around today. And the German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had more or less started what would be called the Romantic movement in 1774, with the publication of his novel of unrequited love and suicide, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe’s unfortunate hero is a person of intense feeling, given to sudden flashes of ecstasy in the face of the nature that Samuel Johnson often found “tedious.”

In the English-speaking world, Wordsworth and Coleridge are credited with introducing the Romantic sensibility, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the holiday industry, offering trips to mountains, forests, deserts, and other uncivilized landscapes, owes a lot to the sudden change in human consciousness exemplified in their seminal work. The essence of that change is that with it nature becomes an object of contemplation, not, as it had been, something either to avoid or to control. The reasons for this are complex, but basically, by this time mankind had more or less won the struggle against nature and could now sit back and appreciate it aesthetically. This was such an unusual idea that the farmers who saw Wordsworth gazing at the fields around him wondered if he wasn’t a bit “touched.” Yet at the same time that he was discovering nature, Wordsworth, and others like him, was also discovering a new world within himself. The Romantic “discovery of nature” was also a discovery of interiority. It’s no coincidence that the Romantic “I” emerges at the same time as Romantic nature.

A writer who anticipated Wordsworth and Coleridge by two years is usually not mentioned when discussing the Romantic movement. Best known for her groundbreaking work of feminism, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (although later feminists took argument with it), and also for being the mother of Mary Shelley, author of the early science fiction cautionary fable Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft was also the author of a remarkable Romantic work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796).

The book was written under unusual conditions. Distressed by her unfaithful lover, who had abandoned her and their child, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, and either to take her mind off killing herself or simply to get her out of his hair, he sent her on a business trip to Scandinavia. By this time she had already traveled widely, had witnessed the terror of the French Revolution firsthand, and had become the first woman freelance writer and critic. One might think that an account of a business trip would be unpromising reading, yet Wollstonecraft’s reasons for heading into terra incognita (Scandinavia was still a remote land then) soon become unimportant, and her reflections on the natural scenery and on herself grip the reader from the start. She is often visited by those sudden moments of delight that characterize the Romantic consciousness, a welcome relief to her suicidal urges. She speaks of feeling “that spontaneous pleasure which gives credibility to our expectation of happiness” and recognizes that “the sublime often gave place imperceptibly to the beautiful, dilating the emotions which were painfully concentrated.” On approaching the Swedish coast she notes that “the sunbeams that played on the ocean, scarcely ruffled by the lightest breeze, contrasted with the huge dark rocks, that looked like the rude materials of creation forming the barrier of unwrought space.” “The view of this wild coast,” she tells us, “afforded me a continual subject for meditation,” a remark Samuel Johnson would have snorted at. Yet this is understandable, as Wollstonecraft is seeing nature in a new way.

Although she provides fascinating accounts of the life and people she encounters, it is her response to “brute creation” and sublime nature that strikes the reader forcefully. As William Blake, who was still unknown, was doing in her own time, and as Wordsworth and Coleridge would do after her, Wollstonecraft was discovering a strange new world within herself. One word that continually comes up is imagination, a potent talisman for Blake, Coleridge, and practically every poet and artist to come. “Without the aid of the imagination,” she writes, “all the pleasures of the senses must sink into grossness.” She, like the many who come after her, is discovering the power of her own inner world, and among other things, this convinces her that we are more than just fleshy machines—the dominant view then, as now. “It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit should only be organized dust. . . . Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable—and life is more than a dream.” In a letter to her faithless lover, who would scarcely understand her, she explained that genius was a product of the fusion of feeling and thought, of desire and imagination, and that she herself had a share in this. Any reader of this work would agree.

As one of her biographers noted, “The theme of the book—a solitary traveler wandering through wild, rugged, and remote places—helped to set a fashion for questing romantic journeys.” These journeys were as often into the interior—the mind—as they were into strange lands, and the idea, common today, of traveling in order to “find oneself,” has its roots in Wollstonecraft’s own voyage. (It’s also no coincidence that psychedelic experiences are still called trips.) There would later be remarkable women travelers—one thinks of Alexandra David-Néel’s and Madame Blavatsky’s excursions in the Himalayas. But Mary Wollstonecraft deserves more credit for opening the way for generations of romantic backpackers in search of nature and themselves.


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This article is from
Our Future of Women's Liberation Issue


July–September 2007