A Romantic Nihilism: A Beautiful World Doesn’t Care, and That’s OK

The world, specifically Earth, is a fairly, large place with various forms of life surrounding humans. Though humanity has taken hold as a major dominant species, the Earth and universe seemingly refuse to acknowledge any of this hierarchy when it comes to natural disaster and growth, floral and animal life will live or die regardless of one’s own existence, the universe will continue to unravel its timeline of events regardless of what single being such as us can do. Rather than to take this with fear and anxiety, one can instead note this with a calm, peaceful admiration of the beauty of life as it continues forward. This can be reflected in the work of “A Monk By the Sea”, crafted by Casper David Friedrich, and then further within the work of Wordsworth in “Michael, A Pastoral Poem”. In the poem, the rather sad but likely common tale of misfortune is spun whilst an atmosphere of flourishing nature surrounds the characters. The contrast between nature as a cool, careless force working beyond human interference can be seen in both works as a background, grounding a sad but real world for the people that live in it.

In the painting, the monk stands alone as a vast, dark blue ocean continues for what seems like forever, only met by an equally expansive bleak sky. One can simply say that this is a depressing atmosphere, with gray clouds, the abyss of the ocean ahead, the loneliness of the monk. However, the title and the image itself give way to a deeper interpretation, concerning the status of human life in comparison to that of the natural world. The ocean, be it dangerous and vast, is still home for countless species of marine life. A monk stares not into a gloomy, watery grave but rather a massive reserve for life. If it were any other man staring, one may find themselves falling deeply into an existential crisis when seeing such an abyss, but instead the title specifically notes the figure is a monk. A monk, a man of faith, is coming to terms with the vast emptiness of man surrounding him, but should more easily recognize the beauty of millions of lives swimming and crawling, existing, before him. This is a world that cares not for his faith, or his own body — it’s simply an ocean — and yet it is ever so powerful and great compared to his own vessel.

Within the poem, the tale is spun of a man with great financial loss, but the story is not told before Wordsworth gives vibrant imagery of the rural life around him. The imagery introduces with, “Up the tumultuous brook of Green-head Gill, You will suppose that with an upright path / Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent / The pastoral Mountains front you, face to face. But, courage! for beside that boisterous Brook / The mountains have all open’d out themselves, / And made a hidden valley of their own” (lines 2-8). One may already feel overwhelmed by the mountains and the hidden valley, massive landscapes. Only after nature is noticed then, is the story tied back down to the theme of the tale, a place of “…utter solitude” (line 13). Throughout the poem, Wordsworth continuously continues unraveling Michael, the unfortunate shepherd, as his life seems to sink worse and worse with his only hope, his son, becoming seized by the city. It is notable that the urban atmosphere becomes something that draws further upon Michael’s misery, showing that the events of loss will happen even with the coordination and structure of human society. At the poem’s end, when Michael’s tale is concluded with a final dismissive look at the remnants of his hope of the sheep fold, nearby the image of “Beside the boisterous brook of Green-head Gill” (last line) remains. Taking the painting into account, I perceived Michael’s tale as the minimization of human misery, how despite what seemed to be the world crumbling down on poor Michael, the ultimate effect on the surrounding nature was minimal as a “boisterous brook” continues to flow on regardless. Instead of solely perceiving the poem as a tale of loss, seeing through the eyes of the monk upon the water’s edge would fail to find any major meaning in said loss. It’s sad, it hurts, but ultimately the world around Michael continues forward – there can be at least some peace in knowing the brook continues to cheerily rush, the mountains still tower over him, the valley still sits where it always had been.

There’s something beautiful and truly romantic then in the pastoral poem – when a man loses just about all his hope, he can at least be reassured mother nature cares not for his pain, and will continue to live its own life.

-William Fernandez


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