“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
These opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ are perhaps the best-known example of the microcosm in Romantic literature. The poem comes from one of Blake’s notebooks, The Pickering Manuscript, where it appears without line breaks (however, these lines are often published as a separate quatrain). It expresses the idea that the beauty, mystery, and totality of the miniature is characteristic of the whole.
The Romantic poets had a special interest in the ordinary for its microcosmic and representational roles in poetry. In his Biographia Literaria, S.T. Coleridge describes poetry as a special kind of composition set apart from works of science by its metric and phonetic structures and designed for the purpose of pleasure. On the whole, poetry produces delight compatible with the gratification produced by each component part, which harmonizes with the other essentials.
In the same text, Coleridge celebrates Wordsworth’s ability to endow everyday subjects with new meaning. For Coleridge, the magic of good poetry must ‘give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand’ (Biographia Literaria 169).
Each Romantic poet employs this ‘novelty’ differently. When Blake sees the grain and flower, he really sees earth and heaven; but the small objects in Wordsworth’s poetry often become microcosmic through a symbolic or relational function. One might think of Wordsworth’s fantastical dream of the stone and the shell in Book V of The Prelude, the circling birds in ‘Water Fowl’, or the rose in his ‘Immortality’ ode. The critic Whitehead observes how Wordsworth uses daffodils and primroses as points of relation to the totality of the universe: ‘His theme in nature in solido, that is to say, he dwells on that mysterious presence of surrounding things, which imposes itself on any separate element that we set up as an individual for its own sake. He always grasps the whole of nature as involved in the totality of the particular instance. That is why he laughs with the daffodils, and finds in the primrose “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”‘ (Whitehead 117). Wordsworth’s poetic power derives from his examination of real objects in a somewhat subjective respect to the whole: his particular appears always in relation to the universal.
Concerning the recurring geometry in nature, the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis) perceived a system of patterns present in seemingly disparate objects: ‘wings of birds, shells of eggs, in clouds, in the snow, in crystals, in forms of rocks, in freezing waters, in the interior and exterior of mountains, of plants, animals, men, in the lights of the sky, in plates of glass and pitch’ (Novalis I, 12). Novalis believed these patterns were nature’s ‘hieroglyphics’, which, if comprehended, would correspond the recurring patterns of nature with the universe. The teacher-figure in his nature novel, Die Lehrlinge zu Sais, states that the person who would understand the language of nature must observe this natural geometry, build upon the associations found between the objects, and explore their impression upon the mind. In his notes for an encyclopedia project entitled Das Allgemeine Brouillon, Novalis explains: ‘For some people, it seems not at all worth-while to trace the divisions of nature; and is even considered dangerous undertaking. They say, as we can never reach the tiniest grain of material bodies, never find their simplest compartments, since all magnitude loses itself, forwards and backwards, in infinity; but it’s the same with the species of bodies and powers. Here, too, one discovers new species, new combinations, new appearances, even to infinity’ (III 63).
Novalis’s writings prefigures today’s fractal mathematics of infinitely large and infinitely small self-replicating, geometric patterns developed by the mathematician Mendelbrot in the 1970’s. Although this branch of mathematics was initially dismissed as worthless pseudo-math, fractals today are being used for ecological studies by using smaller temporal and spatial increments of natural objects to develop and test theories of relationality of the entire ecosystems.
In a similar way, the Northamptonshire peasant-poet, John Clare, features wild-flowers, trees, birds, and bird nests, as poetic subjects that represent living parts of a larger network that comprised his sense of home. The interest and compassion with which he describes his subjects makes him renowned for his love of the particular. Edwin Paxton Hood, an 1851 Congregationalist minister, and admirer of Clare writes, ‘Other poets selects a river, or a mountain, and individualise it, but to Clare all are but the parts of the same lovely Home, and as every part of the home is endeared—the chair, the shelf, the lattice, the wreathing flower, the fire-place, the table—so is every object in Nature a beloved object, because the whole is beloved’ (Bate 516). Clare came to understand the woods and fields surrounding his own town of Helpston as a unit of cosmic totality.
Clare’s most recent biographer, Jonathan Bate, claims that Clare’s hometown of Helpston is the key to understanding his poetry. Clare’s ‘identity was bounded by the horizon of his locality,’ Bate writes, ‘To leave Helpston was to go out of his knowledge’ (Bate 41). In recalling his childhood, Clare details a telling incident: ‘I had imagined that the world’s end was at the edge of the horizon and that a day’s journey was able to find it’. He recollects in a poem entitled ‘Bird Nesting’ his journey to find the world’s end and ‘o’er the brink just peep adown/To see the mighty depths below’. One morning when he was a child, he set out to find the world’s end, became lost, and, by sheer luck, found his way back home. ‘But,’ he recalls, ‘when I got into my own fields I did not know them—every thing seemed so different’. Like the beloved flowers in Wordsworth’s poetry, place becomes for Clare a point of reference. In this case, the principle is reflexive: with the sense of universal place disoriented, the particulars become unfamiliar.
The American naturalist Henry David Thoreau also uses home, or as he called often it, the ‘Meridian of Concord’, as a microcosmic point of relation. Thoreau knew the flora of Concord so well, he allegedly told Emerson that, ‘if waked up from a trance, in this swamp, he could tell by the plants the time of year it was within two days’ (Emerson 22). The swamp referenced is undoubtedly ‘Gower’s Swamp’, a cirque on the east side of a glacial kame known as ‘Revolutionary Ridge’. Thoreau spent hours studying the animal and plant life in Gowing’s Swamp, and his meticulous records of temperatures in Concord inform us globally about climate change; the winters then were colder, and the flowers bloomed much later. From bird-nests to constellations, the inner workings of the natural world were evidence of spiritual truths. In a journal entry, Thoreau writes, ‘God did not make this world in jest; no, nor in indifference… I love the birds and beasts because they are mythologically in earnest. I see that the sparrow cheeps and flits and sings adequately to the great design of the universe; that man does not communicate with it, understands its language, because he is not at one with nature’ (Thoreau. Journal, III, 368).
I tend to think American Protestantism is accountable for Transcendentalism’s love for microcosms as insights into God. Consider Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century New England Congregationalist minister most prominently known for his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’. Edwards occupies a significant space within American thought by bridging the divide between the Puritanism of New England and the Enlightenment rationale of many of America’s founding fathers. Having only read the ‘Angry God’ address, you may find nothing more in Edwards than a raving preacher, but his essays and letters reveal a very different character. For Edwards, the living things in the world ‘are ordered [and] designed to shadow forth spiritual things’ (Edwards ‘Images of Divine Things’ 16). He, too, had the eyes of a naturalist. In what’s known as the ‘Spider Letter’ (1723) addressed to a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, Edward explains with painstaking detail how a spider moves through the air with invisible thread.
The corollaries he draws from this lengthy observation are attributed to the ‘wisdom’ and ‘exuberant goodness of the Creator’ (Edwards 5). His sermons and treatises are full of anecdotes about the natural world and are always mentioned in relation to the spiritual truths he could deduce from them.
In a very real sense, the microcosm in its many forms vivify nature and offer perspectives in understanding the interconnectedness and relationality of nature’s parts and simultaneously challenges the notion of a part as an autonomous or isolated object. Whether wild-flowers, birds, or beloved places, Romanticism’s love for the particular endows us with unique perceptions about our place in the world. In our own time of environmental crisis, these insights have an inimitable ability to restore our attention to place within a broader ecological and universal context.
Bate, Jonathan. John Clare: A Biography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London: Oxford UP, 1973.
Edwards, Jonathan. A Jonathan Edwards Reader. Ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema. Yale, 1995.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Thoreau. The Minerva Group, Inc., 2004.
Novalis. Werke: Works by Novalis, Schriften. Ed. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel. 2nd. Ed. 4 vols. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960-1975.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Journal, Volume 3: 1848-1851. Ed.
Robert Sattelmeyer, Mark R. Patterson, and William Rossi. 1991.
Whitehead, A.N. Science and the Modern World. New York, 1925.