Shelley’s Natural Poetry – A case study of Nature in Romantic Era

Natural History and Natural Philosophy in romanticism

The Romantic Period, defined approximately between 1790-1830, was an important timeframe for the formation of science as we know it today, with its rigorous method, continuous ramification of subject matter and cultural desideratum to use knowledge as a tool for life improvement. From Natural History through Natural Philosophy to Science, the complexity of this movement is suggested by the diversity of language styles, methodology, social approach and assumed purpose of each actor, specifically nature discourse.

Natural History, as a descriptive study, is rooted in field work and specimen collection, infused with literature and addressed to anyone interested. It is based on a more intimate approach to Nature, and on this rapport it builds its own aesthetic and philosophy. The field enjoyed an increased popularity in British society because it provided both functional results and artistic delights. As Catherine Ross noticed[1], the public was a crucial agent. Firstly, because it was composed by highly educated men, with diverse backgrounds, but still raised in the same classical spirit, reading the same books and attending the same lectures. Those are men formed to receive both types of knowledge, scientific and poetic. And because of this, whoever wanted to gain the public attention, had to resort to both receptacles. As the same author proves[2], the public switched from rich gentlemen with too much free time, to active men of society, pursuing knowledge to enhance the common good. In their work, intellectuals needed to keep in mind the market relevance of the results. For all these reasons, Davy had success with his lectures and Wordsworth had to give up poetry for a prolonged period of time. There was no place anymore for the isolated genius, and the demiurgic, hermetic arrogance prepared the fall for most creative enterprises. One example given by Ross to show this kind of compromise to public reception is Davy’s experiments, on which she notes that “this was not only scientific professionalism; it was a species of theater or performance art – small wonder that Davy captured not only the Romantic audiences’ intellectual attention but also their emotional and aesthetic interests in ways that few poets did.”

Natural Philosophy, on the other hand, is an older enterprise, tracing its origins back to Aristotle’s times. It has already a germ of scientific methodology, its language tends to be of a more realistic, experimental nature. Romantic period revived Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton’s writing and further developed a language more precise, of a more mathematical style. Gravity law, corpuscular theory of light and other such theories were reborn to create a competing disciplinary structure out of natural philosophy by
grounding it in mathematical principles and by formulating a distinct formal language for physics and astronomical knowledge.


One of the funny challenges of the epoch was that Natural Philosophy stands as a more valuable knowledge than Natural History. It required intensive training and further specialization, dedicated research spaces and tools, while the democratic knowledge of the other made it made accessible to the large public. Some practitioners of Natural History, in a popular display of irony, challenged this divide between theoretical and practical. For reference, we can take a look on the satire of “The philosophical puppet show”, or, Snip’s inauguration to the President’s Chair: “Preach not to me of theoretic art;/  I – like a whore – profess the practic part,” declares the Banks puppet in the play (Snip 1663:17)[3].


If we can talk today about a transition from Natural History to Natural Philosophy to Science, we can be prone to reductionism. We can also consider the development of instruments as the main agents of revolution, but that can still be classified as a simplistic view. The path taken in this essay is to look at this subtle shift of vision through the lenses of literature. The points to discuss are how the metaphorical discourse is employed in the popularization of science, how the scientific discoveries are engulfed in the literary imagery and, finally, how both science and literature divided their subject. If Newton’s mechanical philosophy gave birth to a lifeless nature, objective and governed by intrinsic laws, the parallel movement emphasized the subjective, the elusive self of the individual and of nature. This reaction was led by poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats and Blake. One of the antinomies used in their work was that of nature. From Lake Poets perfection of nature and its inherent good, which stands out of human reach, through Blake’s fallen kingdom, where The Sick Rose will always betray her followers, we can sketch a map of nature’s image, and human place in it, swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other.  On one hand there is W. Blake, who, in his poem “The Sick Rose”, gave a cruel imagery of natural element as “the invisible worm” who with “his dark secret love/Does thy life destroy.”[4]

And, on the opposing side, there is the Lake poet W. Wordsworth who, in the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, sings an ode to the eternal beauty of daffodils, which “flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude/And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.” [5] The flower image is common to both, but where one sees a picture of dark conqueror of hearts, the other finds a delightful pleasurable counterpart.

Demeter with a scalpel and the science of building up paradise in the backyard

As the poem exemplified here, “The sensitive plant” implies the primary background of the garden, it is necessary to say a few words about garden imagery in the romantic time. As mentioned above, productivity and utility became the standard by which knowledge of nature was proven to be worthy of pursuing. In her work, Rachel Crawford[6] gave some directions by which the botanical taxonomy was rooted in every day’s life, with reference to the kitchen garden. Natural beauty took a complete turn, from the majestic and impersonal view of wild landscapes, to the confined, artificial space of the kitchen garden. The author’s analysis of kitchen garden manuals shows that they tend to unite didactic purposes with lyrical technique, in order to reach the public taste of the time. The functional aesthetic of the garden requires artifice, human control over natural phenomena. For the British public, nature was not a safe, familiar place for human subjectivity to project onto. By controlling nature, each gardener became a Deity and the garden a world by itself, or in Crawford’s words, “in calendar entries, especially, the gardener is portrayed as both regulator and genius of the garden. Under his tutelage, the garden is a product of artifice in which design, although everywhere apparent, produces sublime disorder.”[7]

Shelley and his theoretical discourse on art

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the subject of this essay, was also a child of this time. Science has been his long-lasting fascination, and this can be seen from the youngest year’s natural experiments to the imagery, motives and leading ideas of his late poems. James Lind was his mentor, and the personality having the most impact on his development. When the young Shelley met him, he was the idealized image of the man of science. Another important personality in his life was Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. His work, „The temple of nature” or „The origin of society” was crucial to the poet, and this can be seen in Queen Mab’s subtitle “A poem with philosophical notes”, copying the same form of Darwin subtitle in “The Origin of Society: A Poem with Philosophical Notes”. His widely known ars poetica, Shelley’s essay “A defense of poetry” is a crucial work on the place and purpose of creative arts. Written as a response to T.L. Peacock’s article, “The four ages of poetry”, the text presents the role of the artist and its creative endeavors. For the scope of this essay, there are a few things of importance: Firstly, the discourse regarding the origin of art. Following Shelley’s metaphor, man is like a lyre on which external and internal factors print their impression. The principle active in human being, and, says Shelley, probably in all sentient being, transform this impression into harmonious melody. The result of this process is seen on different media, be it the pencil, the picture, the statue or a book of laws.

The poet is a Creator in the largest sense of the word, a mirror that does not reflect life as it is but dresses it into its highest form of harmony principle. Poetry enlarges the mind, “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as they were not familiar”[8] Art is, in this view, inherently human and, in the same time, superior to any individualistic and conscient endeavor. It is a principle of harmony, potent in humankind and awakened in those gifted. Secondly, the idea related to the usefulness of art. Poetry is of use for morality not by giving directives, but by allowing man to “go out of his own nature”. In this view, the motor of moral good is imagination, which poetry only enriches. “Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which resembles” And, thirdly, the antinomy between grossiere sciences and art. Art is an active force, a creative process, a synthesis, while science is a passive contemplation of the relation between thoughts, an analysis. In his words, “reason is to the imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance”. Pleasure is the purpose of a conscious being. He differentiates between two kinds of pleasure, one permanent and universal and another transitory and particular. Utility in this distinction is either “what strengthens and purifies the affections…and adds spirit to the senses” or merely “wants of our animal nature”. The latter’s advocates “an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty”. The former, in its definition, it needs to include a series of paradoxes by which “from an inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human nature, the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the pleasures of the superior portions of our being”. Though not necessarily linked with pain, as Shelley gives further examples of these pleasures in love and friendship, or “the ecstasy of the admiration of nature”. And only this sense is where utility should be pursued. What Shelley says further in the text about “mere reasoners” is related more to moral philosophy. As for mankind awakening, no philosophical analysis of society could induce the values created by art. As for the science improvement, Shelley’s view is that he was at the point where humanity “had eaten more than we can digest”. The improvement in mechanical arts needs a of the creative faculty of imagination.

When, in the last part, Shelley seems to sing an ode to poetry, it should be remembered that he calls upon the human faculty of getting out of itself and reshaping what one knows within the harmonic faculty. The process seems to be of a double cyclicity in relation to nature. It allows firstly a de-personalization of the self, then an almost alchemical transformation of, let’s say, scientist conclusions and mechanical knowledge, within the furnace of creative harmonic faculty. The result is the work of art, which only now has the potential to reach further. It is important to note that this process is out of reach for the will; one cannot decide to become a poet or to write poetry. And to lastly consider, in the light of what was told until now, his famous conclusion “Poets are the unknown legislators of the world”. As in the image sketched above, only the poet is capable of that degree of reality reconstruction upon the laws of human subjectivity. Considering the above, Shelley’s account of nature is one of a naturalized soul. The rapport between science and reality is one of a lowest degree than that between soul and reality or soul and science.

The Sensitive Plant or Mimosa Pudica


For the purpose of exemplification, the poem discussed further is “The Sensitive Plant”. By its scientific name mimosa pudica, it is a species known for closing its leaves as a response to physical stimuli. In addition to its response to physical stimuli, the leaves also droop in response to darkness and reopen with daylight, a phenomenon known as nyctinastic movement.[9] Going forward with the same flower motive which remained from Wordsworth and Blake, and its corresponding natural representation, I will take the chance to trace the routes of its botanical substratum and meaning.

In this poem Shelley describes mimosas in correlation to the human emotions. His conclusions are taken from Erasmus Darwin’s reflections on mimosas as a strange bridge between plant and animal kingdom. This parallel between natural world and human emotion is as old as poetry itself, but what is new in Shelley is that emotion stands as the link between human and nonhuman world. This idea is linked with his pantheistic view of poetry. As Nathan Cervo puts it [10]: “For Shelley, a “person” (whatever that is) achieves monistic rapport by sensitization, by stripping the insulation of matter, which includes the accretions of conventionalized Lockean psychological atomism, from the sheer electricity, the absolute “unweddedness” (the meaning of the Greek etymon for electricity), of the brain-soul dialectic. Among the aestheticized elect, this stripping or enucleating of the noumenal (archetypal) self always issues not in the triumph of time and its minions but in the apotheosis of the soul by way of Sentimental Naturalism” This shows that the path to the core of a “person” is to be reached by taking down layers of “matter” (physical as well as psychological Lockean one), removing the core/nucleus which can stay at the basis of the individuation principle, until it remains only the universal “soul”, the same substance shared with all natural beings. The sensitive plant is placed in the enclosed, artificial space of the garden, acting on its natural habit of enclosing its leaves on night and opening them to sun. The soul, so to speak, of the „companionless sensitive plant” is in a continuous wanting for love. The images of the other flowers in the garden is the one of femininity in blossom, a paradise of senses. The idea of unity emerges in the first part of the poem, where each plant „was interpenetrated/With the light and the odour its neighbour shed”. And, unlike the other flowers, the sensitive plant was deprived of any sensual qualities; all she has left is a desire for the Beautiful and a feeble, though unique, connection with nature cyclicity. The God of the garden, The Lady, is further introduced as a tendering force. When she appears, Shelley does not take her out, as an individuality, from the harmony of the Edenic garden, but he puts her inside it, on a preliminary deeper level, „like a sea-flower unfolded beneath the ocean”. The singularity and loneliness of the Lady makes her the counterpart of the Sensitive Plant. This tender gardener not only provides for the plants, but also shelters them from the ugliness and from all the „things of obscene and unlovely forms”.

As, once autumn came, The Lady died, nature died with her too. The garden changed and, once the course of natural transformation begins, the Edenic space became the feeding ground for all things the Gardener kept away. The wild vegetation is presented here as parasitic and monstrous. As the time passes and the spring returns, the sensitive plant remained but a skeleton prone to decay. Shelley’s view is also deeply rooted in the botanical knowledge of his time, as the same descriptors are used for the sensitive plant behavior. But he takes this knowledge a step further and infuse it with that creative principle described in “A defense…”. The same one that elevates the scientific knowledge from mere necessity and satisfaction of primal needs is used to give an account of perennial soul marching through time. The sensitive plant becomes not only a metaphor, but a counterpart, a mirror of poet’s place in nature and in time. The paradise-like image at the beginning creates a crescendo image of togetherness and harmony, only to be disrupted by the companionless Sensitive Plant. One of the paradoxes of aesthetic transmutation is that “the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the pleasures of the superior portions of our being”. What has been done in poem is to change the view of death and decay from the purely descriptive natural phenomenon of nature into an almost serene sensation of perpetual immanent change. For the sake of comparison, let’s look on Erasmus Darwin’s description of mimosas: “Weak with nice sense, the chaste mimosa stands,/From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands;/Oft as light clouds o’erpass the Summer-glade,/Alarm’d she trembles at the moving shade;/And feels, alive through all her tender form,/The whisper’d murmurs of the gathering storm;/Shuts her sweet eye-lids to approaching night;/And hails with freshen’d charms the rising light./Veil’d, with gay decency and modest pride,/Slow to the mosque she moves, an eastern bride;/There her soft vows unceasing love record,/Queen of the bright seraglio of her Lord.—/So sinks or rises with the changeful hour/The liquid silver in its glassy tower./So turns the needle to the pole it loves,/With fine librations quivering, as it moves. “ –  Erasmus Darwin, “The loves of the plants”.[11

We can notice, from both poems, that the plant personification is feminine. In this case an ephemeral, delicate and tender image. This is a recurrent motive, as plants were portrayed either as impersonating feminine desirable qualities, either as oversexualized feminine motives. By looking at the two texts on the same flower, one can see that both are infused in poetic language and metaphors. It is a characteristic of the Romantic period that, in order to proliferate the scientific knowledge (of botany in this example), the most accessible dress is the one of literature. We do not see in Darwin texts (nor was intended) the bleak taxonomy of contemporary botany. “The loves of plants” was a poem written by a botanist. On the other hand, “The Sensitive Plant”, still using the same river of botanical taxonomy provided by Natural History, enriches the meaning of the personification and introduces philosophical conclusions based on the passage of time and the rite of initiation. Another way to interpret the poem, in the light of what was previously said, is that, even in the controlled and artificial space of the garden, nature ultimately escapes humanity’s caring hand. As Shelley is attentive to notice, the aesthetic of the enclosed space is not a conquered beauty. For a short period, as short as a human life can be, The Gardener can participate and be included in the natural harmony and Edenic beauty of its creations. Once time expires and the decaying cycle begins, formal beauty of the senses vanishes. What remains is the perennial virtues of art: “For love, and beauty, and delight, /There is no death nor change: their might/Exceeds our organs, which endure/ No light, being themselves obscure.”


1. Heringman, N. (Ed.). (2003). Romantic science: The literary forms of natural history. SUNY Press.

2. McCalman, I. (1999). An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford University Press.

3. Halsted, J. B. (1969). Percy Bysshe Shelley:“A Defence of Poetry”. In Romanticism (pp. 81-97). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

4. King-Hele, D. G. (1992). Shelley and science. Notes and records of the Royal Society of London, 46(2), 253-265.

5. Cervo, N. (1988). Hopkins’ the Caged Skylark and Shelley’s to a Skylark. The Explicator, 47(1), 16-20.

6. Levere, T. (2010). Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. xxi+ 525 pp., illus., index. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

6. Kelley, T. M. (2012). Clandestine marriage: Botany and romantic culture. JHU Press.

7. Ruston, S. (2013). Humphry Davy and the Sublime. In Creating Romanticism (pp. 132-174). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

8. Heringman, Noah. “Natural history in the romantic period.” A Concise Companion to the Romantic Age (2009): 141-167.

9. Heringman, N. (2004). “Peter Pindar,” Joseph Banks, and the Case Against Natural History. The Wordsworth Circle, 35(1), 21-30

10. Shelley, P. B. (2019). A defence of poetry and other essays. Good Press.

11. Darwin, E. (1806). The loves of the plants (Vol. 2). J. Johnson.

[1] “Twin Labourers and Heirs of the Same Hopes” The Professional Rivalry of Humphry Davy and William Wordsworth – Catherine E. Ross

[2] Ibid.

[3] Heringman, N. (2004). “Peter Pindar,” Joseph Banks, and the Case Against Natural History. The Wordsworth Circle, 35(1)

[6] Lyrical Strategies, Didactic Intent Reading the Kitchen Garden Manual – Rachel Crawford

[7] Ibid.

[8] Shelley, P. B. (2019). A defence of poetry and other essays. Good Press.

[10] Nathan Cervo (1988) Hopkins’ the Caged Skylark and Shelley’s to a Skylark, The
Explicator, 47:1, 16-20

[11] Darwin, E. (1806). The loves of the plants (Vol. 2). J. Johnson.