“What are men to rocks and mountains!” Elizabeth Bennet’s exclamation belies an important romantic-era question about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. It is a question Onno Oerlemans explores in Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature, which finds the romantic “impulse to ‘know’” the natural world of rocks and mountains to result in a key dilemma, in so much as that world proves incapable of being resolved into distinct, categorizeable objects (195). Physical proximity to nature often reveals the observer’s epistemological distance from nature. Unlike the work of various other “green” critics (one thinks especially of Bate and McKusick), Oerlemans’s book indeed unearths an antipathetic nature–akin to Hartman’s and Weiskel’s negative sublime. For Oerlemans, romantic writings evince “a nostalgia for the material world we know we are somehow a part of but yet [find ourselves] estranged from” (22). Hence, Wordsworth’s poems repeatedly reveal the inherent “indifference, hostility, and inimicalness of material reality” (35), while his and Dorothy Wordsworth’s travel writings foreground the “inability of language to penetrate or reproduce the materiality of the physical world” (185). Similarly, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and his dietary essays demonstrate how “doubt about our human mastery of nature reveals to us our dependence upon it [nature] and the need for a new temperance” (119). Indeed, for Oerlemans these intimations of nature’s otherness, of its resistance to conceptual containment, “ought to inspire”—to result in—“awe and respect” (29).
But can moments of awe, produced by intuiting nature’s indeterminate otherness, provide or at least promise to provide the ground for a more respectful human relationship to nature? Can sublime awe trump (or stand apart from) entrenched ideologies of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism–ideologies arguably rooted in notions and depictions of landscape? Oerlemans would appear to think so, finding in Wordsworth “a complex sympathy that at once recognizes a deep-rooted commonality between humans and animals, and a respect for the individuality and even incomprehensibility of non-human consciousness” (95). But one wonders, especially given the historian Lynn Hunt’s arguments about the development of universal human rights: as initiated by eighteenth-century and later readers’ imaginative sympathy for literary depictions of Others (e.g., Richardson’s Pamela). Might similar sorts of connections have been, and still be, necessary for humans to extend respect and rights to the realm of nature? Or can awe, inspired by sublime conceptual disjunctions and semiotic limits, also inspire respect and even (ecological) concern? Extending the old question about whether poems really make anything “happen,” can (and did) the “material sublime” play a part in guiding and improving our relationship to nature? What are poems to rocks, trees, and mountains?
– Kurt Fosso