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The man hasn't been to Africa

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"Lines Written in Early Spring" is a poem that's meant to make the reader ponder human depravity.  Sitting in a grove, the poet notices

Through the primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 't is my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure: -
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
And, because the poet is "[i]n that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts/Bring sad thoughts to the mind," he concludes, on the basis of all this natural hedonism - of air-loving flowers and pleasure-hopping birds

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
To which I can only reply:  Will, you got it all wrong.  

Like anyone living in Kenya, I am absolutely swamped by nature, and none of it is chirpy hoppy happy.  The acacia trees do not give me the impression that they enjoy the air they breathe; they have long, spiky thorns that embed themselves in the soles of my Crocs and poke through to pain my feet.  The maribou storks do not seem to thrill with pleasure at every motion; they're carrion birds on the look-out for something dead to eat.  On safari with my mother, we saw the carcass of a camel that had been killed by a lion: it was missing a hind leg and its face was being eaten by vultures.

Well, one might sigh, what can you expect from the Romantics?  The poetry is lovely, but their politics could never be taken seriously.  

But the irony is that reflecting on nature can reveal some very romantic notions about humanity.  What lion has done charitable deeds?  What maribou stork has made a heroic sacrifice?  What acacia tree has died for love?  

When the Romantics argued that we should be more like nature, they misperceived nature: nature is very practical.  What is romantic about human nature is precisely what distinguishes us from the rest of nature: our unique capacity to be motivated by ideas, instead of needs.

Every time we stand up for justice, strive for self-improvement or create something because it's beautiful, we're acting romantically.  (So, of course, were British religious inquisitors who burned heretics at the stake, and Red Guards kicking elderly "intellectuals" in the stomach: romantics all.)  And, despite the invariable excesses of this modus operandi, the highest of human achievements have resulted from acting on ideas.

That said, "what man has made of man" is nothing to be proud of.  Given our potential, humans writ large are obviously more depraved than is tolerable.  But if I were sitting in a grove in early spring, what I'd reflect is that it could be so much worse.

(Benjamin Robert Haydon's portrait of William Wordsworth from The Telegraph)

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