Nature. We all know what it means. (Cows, the sky, puddles, volcanoes …) But what does it mean to have this single, oddly abstract word for the entire domain of the organic and nonhuman? How did we become so estranged from our own sustaining element that we could point at it and call it “nature”? I love nature: There aren’t many things you can say that are simultaneously as banal and as ontologically forlorn as that.
Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry is a glowingly—one might almost say throbbingly—detailed account of an experimental year: the period from the summer of 1797 to the autumn of 1798 when two men, high on revolution, made a do-or-die attempt to rewire the relationship between the mind and the world. They made this attempt through the medium of poetry—one of the men was William Wordsworth, the other was Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and they failed, obviously. But the effort was glorious, and the poetry it produced (“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan”) is still with us.
We know it now as Romanticism; back then it was confusion, a wrangling with the sublime, a nameless impulse struggling toward articulation. It happened on the edge of the Quantock Hills, in Somerset, England, and as a corporeal summoning of the two poets, Nicolson spends a year in the Quantocks. Embedded, embodied, deep-tissue research: Nicolson walks the lanes and hill paths that they walked; he extends his mind into the views, prospects, and visions that greeted them; he dives into their drafts and notebooks, into the poetry in its germinal roughness. The place-names ring like spells: Lady’s Edge, Slaughterhouse Combe, Seven Wells, Hare Knapp.