Thought’s Wilderness
Romanticism and the Apprehension of Nature
Greg Ellermann



Like many romantics, Percy Shelley was drawn to wilderness. The language of wild nature recurs in his poetry in often surprising ways. For Shelley, wilderness is not a tangled wood or a craggy mountain face. It is nature in flight from consciousness: a manifold of evanescent forms. In Prometheus Unbound (1819), he writes of a “swift cloud that wings the wide air’s wildernesses.”1 Meanwhile, in the famous “Ode” (also 1819), he hails the “wild West Wind . . . breath of Autumn’s being.” Such images of “unseen presence” are not only images of the natural world.2 They also evoke a state of consciousness, a poetic or aesthetic state, in which wilderness might be perceived. In a phrase borrowed from Shelley, I call this “thought’s wilderness”—a relation of mind to nature, yet a relation without mastery or control.3

Titled after Shelley’s words, this book shows how romantic writing circumvents the domination of nature that is essential to modern capitalism. Moving between the poetry and philosophy of the period, I find an attunement to nature’s ephemeral, ungraspable forms: clouds of vapor, a trace of ruin, deep silence, and the “world-surrounding ether.”4 For the writers featured here, including Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, and Percy Shelley, nature is fleetingly sensed but never finally grasped. This book describes how nature’s vanishing—its vulnerability and its flight from apprehension—becomes a philosophical and political problem. Of course, the romantics still try to present nature aesthetically. They do so by developing what I term a poetics of wilderness—a poetics that is attentive to fleeting presence and that seeks to let things be.5 Trying to imagine what ultimately eludes capture, the romantics recognize the complicity between conceptual and economic domination; they see how thought itself becomes a technology for control. This insight, I argue, motivates romantic efforts to think past capitalist instrumentality and its devastation of the world.

Thought’s Wilderness is not a social or an environmental history.6 Yet it does examine the interconnected histories of romantic studies and Marxist critical theory: at the conjuncture of these intellectual formations, I identify new methodological possibilities for the study of romantic nature. This book renarrates the history of romantic studies by pursuing unexpected affiliations between the field-defining scholarship of M. H. Abrams, Paul de Man, and Geoffrey Hartman and the critical theory of Max Horkheimer, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and Theodor Adorno. In doing so, it foregrounds the political implications of familiar literary critical statements about nature and the imagination—often cited now as expressions of naive quietism. This book contests the prevailing historicist and ecocritical consensus by arguing that the dialectic of nature and imagination is, in fact, an inherently political matter.

My claim is that revisiting debates about nature around 1960 can give us a fresh vantage on nature around 1800—and today. While recent ecological thinking rejects distinctions between social and natural processes, human and nonhuman things, I maintain that a concept of nature is analytically and politically indispensable. Since the 1980s, in romantic studies and the broader environmental humanities, “nature” has been regarded with consistent skepticism.7 There are, however, compelling reasons to preserve such a concept. For one, as Dalia Nassar observes, none of the proposed alternatives—Bruno Latour suggests “the Parliament of Things,” while Timothy Morton offers “being-with” and “coexistence”—have real philosophical benefits.8 Concepts like coexistence, she argues, do “not tell us anything other than that things stand next to one another. What they are, how they stand next to one another, and what their relations are remain unclear.”9 The things themselves get lost in “‘the constant flux.’10 This impulse toward homogeneity has profound political implications. In Rei Terada’s assessment, the contemporary theory of ecology and objects—premised on such claims as “‘Everything in the universe gets to access everything else’”—is, at its core, “an epistemology of sparkly universal colonialism.”11 Despite the now-familiar charge that “nature” simplifies or abstracts, it is “ecology” that reduces all things to abstract equivalence. The concept of nature, on the other hand, allows thinking to begin with difference, or nonidentity.12 And only thus can thinking “juxtapos[e],” as Andreas Malm remarks, “relations and laws of motion internal to capitalist society” with “relations and laws of motion internal to nature.”13 Without a concept of nature, thought’s limits are the limits of the world that capitalism has made.

To think nature’s nonidentity means developing new forms of thought—forms that might suspend or interrupt the pursuit of mastery. In the philosophy of romantic idealism, the notion of apprehension presents just such a possibility. On one hand, apprehensive consciousness grasps or appropriates nature. It seems to bear out Adorno’s claim that “our knowledge of nature is . . . preformed by the demand that we dominate nature.”14 On the other hand, as the romantics suggest, apprehension may be reformed, in the name of a less demanding relation to the world. This ambivalence persists, I shall argue, in the romantics’ frequent recourse to the term.

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87), for example—interpreted since Hegel’s earliest writings as a theory of appropriative consciousness—apprehension is a central concept: a synthetic activity of the mind required for the cognition of nature. As Kant explains it, if “every intuition contains a manifold,” then “in order for this manifold to become unity of intuition . . . it must first be gone through and gathered together. This act I call the synthesis of apprehension.”15 Significantly, this picture of mental activity is also a picture of labor. It draws out the sense of physical grasping latent in the word apprehension itself.16 Kant’s language of “going through and gathering together” evokes, perhaps, a solitary reaper in a field. For an early critic, J. G. Schlosser, Kant’s philosophy is better described as a “manufacturing industry for the production of mere forms.”17 These images, Kant’s and Schlosser’s alike, suggest an intimacy between consciousness and economic life, between intellectual and manual work—both of which take nature as an object.

The romantics see the apprehensive mind as distinctly modern, insofar as it both reflects and participates in the capitalist mastery of nature.18 According to Friedrich Hölderlin, modern consciousness entails an “original separation of the most tight unity of object and subject,” a separation that “injur[es] the nature” of “being.”19 It is essentially alienated, then, marked by division from the world. “We, with nature, are fallen,” he says, “and what once, one can believe, was one, now struggles against itself, and mastery and servitude alternate on both sides.”20 The distance from nature that Hölderlin depicts is an instrument of manipulation and control.21 It promises freedom—from determination as much as from want or need—yet it cannot make good on its promise. As Shelley explains, in the course of a similar discussion, “Man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave,” condemned to labor for the profit of a few.22 This discourse of mastery and servitude, Herrschaft and Knechtschaft, is not just metaphoric. It connotes the advancing technical control of nature, as well as the separation that makes it possible. It evokes too the plantation slavery that Susan Buck-Morss, after C. L. R. James and Eric Williams, characterizes as “a quintessentially modern institution of capitalist exploitation.”23 This association is no accident, as others have observed: capitalism defines the unwaged—primarily lower-class women and the enslaved—as a “natural resource” (Silvia Federici) or as “living ore” (Achille Mbembe) from which value can be extracted without limit.24 In sum, the romantic theory of consciousness and nature involves the whole of modern social life.

There is no returning to simple unity with nature; history’s path cannot be traveled in reverse. But in the thought of nature’s nonidentity, romanticism holds out a hope of something else: a poetic form of apprehension. While never entirely separable from appropriative consciousness, or from the laws of commerce that condition it, poetic apprehension suggests—if only in fleeting moments—that the mastery of nature need not run its course.25 The romantic poetics of wilderness, developed in various ways from this thought, reminds us that another relation to the world is possible.

This book’s argument proceeds in three stages. In the first chapter, I examine the connections between romanticism and Marxist critical theory. Reading the canonical romantic criticism of Abrams, de Man, and Hartman alongside contemporary work by Horkheimer, Sohn-Rethel, and Adorno, I bring out the crucial, and often overlooked, political-economic dimension of those mid-twentieth-century narratives about romanticism that still inform literary studies. I propose that the well-known scholarly debate about the apocalyptic imagination intersects with the critical theorists’ investigation of capitalist abstraction and the domination of nature. Both the romanticists and the critical theorists, I contend, rely on a notion of apprehensive consciousness. Thus, this first chapter establishes the methodological coordinates for the book, outlining an interpretation of romanticism responsive to the reality of conceptual and economic abstraction. This distinguishes my approach to consciousness and nature from the critique of ideology pursued by the new historicism. As the chapter ends, I look to Words worth, the poet at the heart of midcentury romanticist debate. Juxtaposing the famous “marriage of mind and nature” with the critical theory of “real abstraction,” I find in Words worth’s poetry a glimpse of nature at the threshold of apprehension.

The next two chapters are philosophical, and together they demonstrate how the romantics themselves conceived the relations among consciousness, nature, and social life. I focus on Kant and Hegel, the two most influential European philosophers of the period, both of whom sound out the limits of apprehensive consciousness. For Kant, whom I discuss in chapter 2, it is natural history—in its catastrophic and evolutionary forms—that the mind can never quite grasp. For Hegel, whom I discuss in chapter 3, apprehensive consciousness turns against itself: in seeking freedom from nature by dominating it, the modern (Kantian) subject reveals its dependence on the world. Hegel insists that this dialectic of consciousness corresponds to an economic reality—to the abstract exchange value and the exploitation of nature that characterize early industrial capitalism. These philosophers do not just anticipate Marxist critical theory, which likewise sees modernity as a process of violent abstraction. They also show, in ways that historicism has still to account for, that romanticism is its own “critical consciousness.”26

The final three chapters move from the philosophical to the aesthetic, examining the poetics of wilderness as practiced by Wollstonecraft, Words worth, and Shelley. Chapter 4 addresses Wollstonecraft’s theory of poetic language, elaborated in the Scandinavian Letters (1796) and in the essay “On Poetry” (1797). According to Wollstonecraft, the figure of anthropomorphism is a memorial to violence—to the appropriative humanization of nature. Challenging poetic and aesthetic convention, including the generalities of the picturesque, Wollstonecraft’s own experiments in figure record a ruinous history of nature in commerce. In chapters 5 and 6, I turn to Words worth and Shelley, who both call on poetry to interrupt the pursuit of mastery. Chapter 5 reads the famous lyric “There was a Boy” (1798)—later included in The Prelude (1805/50)—to show how Words worth portrays ephemeral appearance as a gift or an “accidental revelation” of nature. Chapter 6 attends to metaphor in Queen Mab (1813), and it aligns the poem’s figures of spirit with the ethereal atmospheres of natural philosophy. I suggest that Shelley’s ethereal poetics expresses a hope for reconciliation with nature. The book concludes by returning to Prometheus Unbound, where Shelley invokes “common love” as another way of being in and with—but not quite having—the world.

If, as I am arguing, the concept of nature remains vital, romanticism is uniquely able to show us why. I offer here what might be described as a defense of romanticism—both as a literary and philosophical movement and as a field of study singularly attentive to the poetics of nature. At a time when the future of romanticism looks less and less certain, Thought’s Wilderness insists on the importance of thinking romantic nature again.


1. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, I.764.

2. Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind,” 1–2.

3. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, I.742. In Shelley’s poem, “thought’s wildernesses” is a figure for poetic consciousness; it is often understood—as in Bloom, Shelley’s Mythmaking, 115, and in Armstrong, Language as Living Form, 128—to suggest that the poet transcends nature. For an alternative reading, closer to my own, see Wilson, Shelley, 96–100.

4. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, I.661.

5. See Rigby, Reclaiming Romanticism, on the “wild” as “agentic or ‘self-willed’ . . . rather than pinned down as the passive object of human knowledge and power” (15). Rigby’s claim, which I affirm, is that the encounter with wild nature need not be sublime and is not a precursor to colonization or control. For the critique of wilderness as a myth of the frontier, see Cronon, “Trouble with Wilderness.” For an overview of the debate, see Speitz, “Conceptualization of Wilderness.”

6. For the history, see Malm, Fossil Capital.

7. For the critique of romantic nature, see Levinson, Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems; Liu, Wordsworth; and Morton, Ecology without Nature. For an influential call to abandon the distinction between human and natural history, see Chakrabarty, “Climate of History.” In newer work, Levinson has returned to the topic of nature, situating Wordsworth’s poetry in the tradition of a “dynamic materialism” that includes Spinoza; the science of complex systems; affect theory; and Morton’s ecology. See “Motion and a Spirit.” There are notable similarities between this dynamic materialism and the contemporary “spirit of capitalism,” defined by a logic of self-organization, delocalization, adaptability, and so on. For more on this, see Malabou, What Should We Do.

8. See Nassar, “Romantic Empiricism”; Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 142–45; Morton, Ecology without Nature, 17; and Morton, “Coexistence and Coexistents.”

9. Nassar, “Romantic Empiricism,” 309.

10. Nassar, “Romantic Empiricism,” 309.

11. Terada, “Racial Grammar,” 277–78. Terada (277) comments on the following ecological thought: “Everything in the universe gets to access everything else, and the way that everything accesses everything is such that nothing is ever exhausted, everything is always completely sparkling with some kind of unfathomable, vivid, bristly reality, you know? And ultimately that’s funny” (Morton, “Conversation”).

12. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 73. Morton claims the notion of the nonidentical for an “ecology without nature”—even though nature is a central category in Adorno’s thought. See Ecology without Nature, 13–14.

13. Malm, “In Defence.”

14. Adorno, Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” 176.

15. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A99; here and throughout, I cite the first Critique using A and B page numbers, which refer respectively to the 1781 and 1787 editions.

16. From the Latin apprehensio; the word is the same in German and in English. For a brief historical overview of the term, see Wilson, Shelley, 13–14, 176–77. See also Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Apprehension.”

17. J. G. Schlosser, Plato’s Briefe nebst einer historischen Einleitung und Anmerkungen (Königsberg, 1795), 182, as quoted in Malabou, Before Tomorrow, 6. On machinery as the model for psychic and social life in the transition to capitalism, see Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 145–46.

18. In fact, the association of knowledge with physical grasping, or manipulation, has a longer history beginning in classical antiquity. See, for instance, Cicero’s account of the Stoic theory of katalêpsis in On Academic Scepticism, 84.

19. Hölderlin, “Being Judgement Possibility,” 191–92.

20. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Preface to the Penultimate Draft of Hyperion,” in Sämtliche Werke, Kritische Textausgabe, ed. D. E. Sattler (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1982), 10:162ff., as quoted in Frank, Philosophical Foundations, 116.

21. See Merchant, Death of Nature, which outlines this precise relation between separation and control: “As European cities grew and forested areas became more remote, as fens were drained and geometric patterns of channels imposed on the landscape, as large powerful waterwheels, furnaces, forges, cranes, and treadmills began increasingly to dominate the work environment, more and more people [from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onward] began to experience nature as altered and manipulated by machine technology” (68).

22. Shelley, Defence of Poetry, 530.

23. Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, 57–58. Buck-Morss presents Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft) as a response to the Haitian Revolution.

24. See Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 97: “In the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource.” See also 18n2. On the structural similarities between unwaged reproductive labor and slave labor, see 100–115. On plantation slavery as “a process that transforms people of African origin into living ore from which metal is extracted,” see Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 40. For a similar claim in Shelley about slavery as the conversion of “human will” into “gold,” see Queen Mab, VIII.172–80.

25. See Marriott, “Rites of Difficulty,” on the challenge of disentangling poetry (even at its most “resistan[t] to the yield of ‘apprehensible truths’” [125]) from the forms of “false communication” characteristic of capitalist society.

26. McGann, Romantic Ideology, 2. McGann’s influential claim is that a “critical view of Romanticism” must come from without (1)—specifically, from the present-day historicist critic.