Last year I had the opportunity to visit Ireland for a study abroad program, and the place which struck me most in all my travels was County Wicklow. Wicklow seems to exist only to inspire Romantic awe in its visitors—but not in the sense of popular culture. Wicklow is the epitome of Romantic in the sense of the literary and intellectual movement which described nature and emotion as the seat of all being and importance. For a traveler coming to Wicklow from Dublin or Belfast, the only possible reaction is a staggering sense of the sublime. Within half an hour you go from dank, crowded city streets to an impossibly open, green land where you can see so far that only the white dots of sheep on distant hills give any sense of scale.
Wicklow seems unreal, like a CGI effect or a meticulously built movie set for a romantic comedy. One of the more depressing phenomenons stemming from modern photography’s ease of execution and sharing finished products is the element of disbelief which colors the experience of a truly wonderful thing. With a mind used to seeing beauty only on a television screen which at the same time knows television is inherently fiction, you look at the Wicklow landscape and feel as if a trick is being played. At any moment you expect the film shoot to drive away and confirm what you already knew: that the scenery is a lie.
The fakest way to see Wicklow is as the background in one of any numerous romantic comedies. Take a day tour and any given guide will try to engage you with observations of where exactly on this hill Leap Year was filmed or which lakes are pictured in P.S. I Love You. As the backdrop for these mainstream romantic films, Wicklow becomes a beautiful spot exploited to elicit some kind of feeling from the audience in the likely case that script, cast, and director fail. But why are romantic movies set in Wicklow? Why do people as a whole associate nature with romance? Roses are the undisputed physical representations of love; couples carve their names into trees; people take honeymoons to so-called pristine locations.
The Romantic poets would see nothing unusual in this idealization of nature, and probably the entire Western concept of the romantic countryside is their doing. In William Wordsworth’s poems, not only is the land important, but any person who lives on it becomes virtuous simply from being rural. In “We Are Seven,” nature is referenced in each description of the poem’s little country girl, whose wild features cast her almost more as a Greek nymph than an actual child met on the moors.