The Romantic Movement was driven by an enthusiasm for experience and emotion, and the status that was attributed to this – a radical change from the lofty poetry it succeeded, and a violent reaction to the rationalism and Newtonian science that was compartmentalising and experimenting on the world. Both Keats and Wordsworth, despite writing almost 20 years apart, share a desire for escape, the need to find solace and security apart from the aggressive and oppressive society of fin-de-siècle Britain, in which the Industrial Revolution was taking a strong and powerful hold. The walking tours Wordsworth went on through the nation inspired his “Tintern Abbey”, a discussion of Pantheistic escape, and a lengthy introspective monologue about his reactions and hopes for the world and himself; the harmony if nature is presented as a balm, a therapeutic escape where he can consider and transcend his constraints .Keats uses nature also, but focuses on the sea, and the incredible power it contains, separated from humanity and the societies formed within it. Imperatives and advice feature in each, but Wordsworth’s therapy, the losing of one’s self in harmonious nature, is far more internal and reflexive than Keats’, how unusually for the young writer does not include a concrete speaker, rather considering therapy conceptually and beautifully.

“Sonnet on the Sea” uses a heavy focus on the theme of sensuality and experience to consider a therapeutic escape through the sea, the first half of the octet, one flowing sentence mirroring the extended flow of the subject of the sonnet, saturated with sensual imagery and sonic devices. Keats was inspired, “haunted” by the line in King Lear of the young Gloucester, blind, “Hark. Do you not hear the sea?” while in a field. This status attributed to the senses, “experience over experiment”, was a Romantic convention that Keats embraced, and as such we identify references through both imagery and sonic devices to the aural effect of the sea. Sibilance is employed repeatedly throughout the poem, a technique which often softens the tone of a poem and implies harmony, and there is no doubt that this effect is employed to calm the reader, just as the speaker is calmed. However, a negative connotation can also be associated with sibilance, a hissing effect which, when applied with the ominous adjective “desolate shores”, implies a dangerous power to the sea which is alluded to implicitly throughout the sonnet. Onomatopoeia is used in tandem with the syzygism and assonance that Keats became known for, the long “e” vowel in “with its mighty swell” emphasises the rhymed word in comparison to the other vowels, and creates the fluctuation implicit in a swell. Similarly, the reader is further immersed in the descriptive indulgence of the sea by the third line, “glut’s twice then thousand”; the diversity of the first vowel forced the reader, through prosodic phonology, to imagine the movement of the water, the mesmerising consistency that the rhyme scheme of the sonnet form perpetuates. Therapy is a reaction to initial discomfort, and after abandoning his four year spell as a surgeon, a symbol of anti-Romanticism, Keats fell in love with empathy and emotion, retreating from the uncaring and politically suppressive post-Napoleonic climate. As such, we identify the reactionary “dinned with uproar rude” in the middle of the octave, plosive consonance juxtaposing with the earlier sibilance, and metonymically displaying the society that Keats regretted taking part in.

The sheer force of the sea is a heavy focus of the poem, a quasi-divine force that Keats looked to for escape. The concept of a vast, unknowable expanse enthralled him, unquantifiable unlike his surgery, and this is displayed through Classical references, a trademark of Keatsian yearning for a more noble and harmonious era. The sestet displays a more imperative tone than the octave, and features two apostrophes – “oh ye” is reference to the opining of Greek epic poetry, an invocation to the Muse that would tell the story of the hero, a great authority that Keats reattributes to the sea, if we take them to refer to a separate subject than the following descriptions, or to the one inspired by the sea; either interpretation implies massive power. The octave develops the therapeutic power of the sea’s force, one which Keats associates with Hecate, the mysterious and powerful goddess of the moon and witchcraft in Hellenic mythology. The only feminine line ending comes after before the final couplet, separating them from the rest of the poem, in accordance with the tonal and imperative shift. “Sit”, “brood”, “start”, are all verbs that imply consideration, peaceful discussion, and finally inspiration from the “sea-nymphs”, the daughter-spirits of the sea. “The Sea” is given absolute authority, and absolute therapeutic status from that authority.

Wordsworth perpetuates a more free and natural tone than Keats, unconstrained by the sonnet form, rather using iambic pentameter in blank verse to convey a natural and unrestricted discussion. Wordsworth desired both connection and peaceful freedom, and for him nature was the only way this could be achieved. He followed the Pantheistic ideology to an extent, the connection between all living things, the inability to separate creator form creation, “a motion and a spirit … roll through all things”. Polysyndeton, used here and extensively throughout the poem, slows the pace and emphasises the weighted words, but an important conclusion that can be drawn from Wordsworth’s interpretation of Pantheism is his refusal to acknowledge a Judeo-Christian “God” in this and other poems. Unlike his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the natural world exceeded the power of God, was even more therapeutic and significant. The indulgent freedom in Wordsworth’s interpretation of nature is explicitly clear – he enjambs stanzas mid-line, retaining the continuity of the iambic pentameter to perpetuate a continuous flow that Wordsworth himself could escape into, “something far more deeply interfused” that represents a desire for escape to a place of free connection and the transcendence of the self. Therapy was massively important for the troubled poet – having been forced to abandon his wife and child following the Reign of Terror in the failed French Revolution he had such high hopes for, “a place made quiet by the power of harmony” was heavenly for him.

Similar to Keats, a massive status is attributed to “Nature” as a concept, the apostrophe “O sylvan Wye!” reflecting the divine power of only one aspect of the natural scene described. The transcendence of the body to a mental state of peace and tranquillity was a therapeutic concept that the Romantics, especially Wordsworth, embraced, and as such, the mind, the imagination and the connection to nature work together in this poem to achieve elevation of the self. The repeated “lofty”, referring to both the cliffs he sees and the thoughts these cliffs inspire, as an anaphoric reference to the location of the speaker, “ a few miles above” the scene he describes. Two worlds are presented to us; that of the “din of towns and cities” that corresponds to Keats’ interpretation of a harsh and oppressive society, and the reactionary dichotomy of the long, pace-slowing vowels of the “green pastoral landscape”. The fragmented and disjointed human world is shown as, through the 7 commas in 4 lines, and the hard consonants in “heavy weight”, juxtaposing with the diverse vowels of “steep and lofty cliffs”, which present the concept of nature as a divine and beautiful one. To suspend “the motion of this corporeal frame” in favour of a “tranquil restoration” of “unremembered pleasure”, a sentimental escape into memory is subtly then explicitly connected to the natural world; “revisiting” the scene, “once again” watching the hedgerows, delighting in the Wye, “how often has my spirit turned to thee?” The memory of his youth and development secures his connection to nature, reaffirming his escape through the shift in focus to his sister Dorothy, who will remember him as a “worshipper of nature”. Each poem gives a similar presentation of the aggressive human world of force and suppression of thought, but while the ominous power of nature as a divine but unknowable entity is Keats’ focus, Wordsworth indulges in a natural world of thought and memory and harmony for his therapeutic escape.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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