William Wordswoth, Painting by B. Robert Hayden, 1842
Communion With Nature
Many of us, usually in moments of solitude and in the midst of natural surroundings, have experienced a quietening of our external faculties and have felt ourselves in contact with or in the presence of some other being, some other spirit. As this experience deepens, we may feel at times an invisible presence in objects around us — trees, rocks, streams. With a little self-observation, we may also feel something in us which responds to this being, this presence, and establishes an identity with it. For some hours, or even for some days, we are full of this experience — it hovers around us and is in us, and we are moved by it.
The rush of modern life denies to us what nature can contribute to our lives by bringing to us quiet, peace, joy and oneness with the world around us. What we are offered today are packaged tours of scenic natural spots around the world, organized by the tourist industry, which has commercialized this natural relationship between man and nature.
For William Wordsworth, nature was a living reality and it bestowed on him many experiences which contributed to the growth and development of his personality. In his poems, he has been able to present his experiences with such great force and vividness that the reader could well be transported into the same experience.
William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770, at Cockermouth, in the Lake District of Northern England. His father was a law agent. After his mother's death, he was sent to school at Hawkshead, in the heart of the Lake District. It was here
that Nature took a leading role in his education. Here at Hawkshead he was not only in the midst of an unspoilt rural community but could range freely over heights commanding the finest panorama imaginable: the distant sea on one side and a great mountain amphitheatre on the other. Wordsworth spent much of his time in his natural surroundings, — skating by starlight on the lake, fishing in every pool and stream, nutting in hazel woods, galloping over the sands of Furness, poaching for woodcock on frosty nights, hanging from the rocks above the raven s nest. Slowly the glad animal days passed into days of a deeper ecstasy. Soon he learnt to hear "the ghostly language of the ancient earth ", and drank thence "the visionary power". He became conscious of various presences in nature, some fearful, some benign, and he often experienced the "Wisdom and Spirit of the universe". On one occasion, while taking a walk around a lake, transported by beauty and happiness, he seems to have lost his identity in the outer world; for,
such a holy calm
Did overspread my soul, that I forgot
That I had bodily eyes, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in my mind.
In 1787 he went to Cambridge. Here he fell in with the ordinary ways of student life, roaming aimlessly with his friends about town, riding, sailing and going to parties. While there seemed to be a danger that he might be carried away by the common tide of life at Cambridge, his memories of the experiences at Hawkshead made him conscious of a spirit that was greater than the external world. He lived with a feeling that he was "not for that hour, nor for that place".
On examining himself more closely he recognized:
Of the Upholder of the tranquil Soul,
Which underneath all passion lives secure
A steadfast life.
In 1790, Wordsworth undertook a walking tour of France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. He was quite enthused about the hope held out by the French
Revolution. He took another trip to France in 1791. Shortage of funds and the war between England and France necessitated his coming back to England. When the Terror broke out in France, he became disillusioned with the Revolution. In 1795, a friend's legacy helped him to settle down with his sister Dorothy in Dorset. Here, in the depth of the country and in the society of his sister, he recovered his habit of tranquil meditation and recollection as well as "that deep power of joy" that enabled him to see into the life of things. It was here that Wordsworth met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their acquaintance soon ripened into the friendship that has linked their names, together with Dorothy's, in a spiritual partnership unique in literary biography. That partnership produced the Lyrical Ballads first published anonymously in 1798.
At the end of 1799, Wordsworth and Dorothy returned to the Lake District at Grasmere, Westmorland. This spot more than any other is associated with the poet. He had first discovered Grasmere as a boy while on a ramble from Hawkshead and had then thought "what happy fortune were it here to live". In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend.
Critics consider this period of Wordsworth's life (1796-1806) as his greatest. The Lyrical Ballads, the "Lucy" poems, The Prelude and Intimations of Immortalitywere all written during this period. Wordsworth lived on until 1850, during which time he was awarded many honours including Poet Laureate.
The lines selected for the present collection are from The Prelude, begun in 1798 and completed in 1805. Wordsworth described The Prelude as "a long poem upon the formation of my own mind" and dedicated it to Coleridge. His comments on this piece reveal its autobiographical intentions.
Several years ago, when the author retired, to his native mountains with the hope of being enabled to construct a literary work that might live, it was a reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind and examine how far Nature and Education had qualified him for such an employment. As subsidiary to this preparation, he undertook to record in verse the origin and progress of his own powers as far as he was acquainted with them.
Apart from the poetic beauty of Wordsworth's poems, what is of singular significance is the substance of the experiences that are described. These experiences transcend the ordinary limits of the mind. They bring us the message from the Unknown, not through a mere flight of imagination but through an
enlargement of the psychological being. There is a tradition of mystical experience both in the East and in the West which is not sufficiently understood or appreciated by the modern mind because of its excessive inclination towards analysis and abstraction. But Worthworth's poems can very well bring to us an easier access and entry into the world of mystical experience.
As Sri Aurobindo has said,
It is difficult for the modern mind to understand how we can do more than conceive intellectually of the Self or of God; but it may borrow some shadow of this vision, experience and becoming from that inner awakening to Nature which a great English poet has made a reality to the European imagination. If we read the poems in which Wordsworth expressed his realisation of Nature, we may acquire some distant idea of what realisation is. For, first, we see that he had the vision of something in the world which is the very Self of all things that it contains, a conscious force and presence other than its forms, yet cause of its forms and manifested in them. We perceive that he had not only the vision of this and the joy and peace and universality which its presence brings, but the very sense of it, mental, aesthetic, vital, physical; not only this sense and vision of it in its own being but in the nearest flower and simplest man and the immobile rock; and, finally, that he even occasionally attained to that unity, that becoming the object of his dedication, one phase of which is powerfully and profoundly expressed in the poem "A slumber did my spirit seal",1 where he describes himself as become one in his being with earth, "rolled round in its diurnal course, with rocks, and stones, and trees. "2
1. A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees.
2. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, vol. 20,
Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, pp. 292-93.
Painting by Turner
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:
Much favoured in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which erelong
We were transplanted — there were we let loose
For sports of wider range. Ere I had told
Ten birth-days, when among the mountain-slopes
Frost, and the breath of frosty wind, had snapped
The last autumnal crocus, 'twas my joy
With store of springes o'er my shoulder hung
To range the open heights where woodcocks run
Among the smooth green turf. Through half the night,
Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
That anxious visitation; — moon and stars
Were shining o'er my head. I was alone,
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That dwelt among them. Sometimes it befell
In these night wanderings, that a strong desire
O'erpowered my better reason, and the bird
Which was the captive of another's toil
Became my prey; and when the deed was done
I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.
Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Roved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds!
Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e'er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
I Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon's utmost boundary; for above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Norham Castle, Sunrise, Painting by Turner, Tate Gallery, London
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I fumed,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark, —
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought,
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things —
With life and nature — purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.
Nor was this fellowship vouchsafed to me
With stinted kindness. In November days,
When vapours rolling down the valley made
A lonely scene more lonesome, among woods,
At noon and 'mid the calm of summer nights,
When, by the margin of the trembling lake,
Beneath the gloomy hills homeward I went
In solitude, such intercourse was mine; Mine
was it in the fields both day and night,
And by the waters, all the summer long.
And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us — for me I
t was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six,— I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures, — the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain; and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me — even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.
Ye Presences of Nature in the sky
And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when ye employed
Such ministry, when ye through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed upon all forms the characters
Of danger or desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea?
Not uselessly employed,
Might I pursue this theme through every change
Of exercise and play, to which the year
Did summon us in his delightful round.
William Wordsworth, Wordsworth Poetical Works,
ed. Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford, 1984), pp. 498-500.
The Romantic Movement
The Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe can be described as the rebellion of feelings against reason, of instinct against intellect, of the subject against the object, of solitude against society, of imagination against bare reality, of spirituality against science, of mysticism against ritual, of the feminine against the masculine, of romantic love against the marriage of convenience, of Nature against civilization, of youth against authority, of the individual man against the social order and the state.
We have seen how Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a great inspirer of this movement; his books provoked radical changes in education, politics and art. The nineteenth century saw the birth of a group of poets whose body of work was so astounding as to perpetuate the notion that "Romantic" refers directly, even solely, to their poetry. These were Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.
William Wordsworth's "Preface" to his Lyrical Ballads is considered the manifesto of the Romantic movement from a poet's viewpoint. The following extracts are taken from this essay, and describe what Wordsworth, as well as the other poets of the Romantic school, felt good poetry and a good poet should be.
... all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply....
Aristotle, I have been told, has said that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature....
What then does the Poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure; he considers man in his own nature and in his ordinary life as contemplating this with a certain quantity of immediate knowledge, with certain convictions, intuitions, and deductions....
To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which, without any other discipline than that of our daily life, we are fitted to take delight, the Poet principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature as
Country Concert, Painting by Corot (detail), Conde Museum, France
essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure, which accompanies him through the whole course of his studies, converses with general nature, with affections akin to those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of science has raised up in himself, by conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies. The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of science is pleasure; but the knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance.... The Man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science. Emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare hath said of man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of defence for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things
violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favourite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man.1
Seldom has a poet described his early schooling in such moving lines. Yet we look in vain for a conventional "school"; Wordsworth's education took place in the great school of Nature and his teacher was the "Wisdom and Spirit of the universe". The passage included here is from Book First of The Prelude, "Childhood and School-Time". The poet sings the "seed-time" of his soul, the simple events that marked a normal boyhood. He describes wandering half the night trying to snare woodcock — though his success, he says, was all in "thought and wish". Sometimes he would resort to stealing a bird trapped by another hunter, and he recalls the fearful sound of footsteps running after him.
In spring he would climb the hills looking for birds' nests to plunder. His aim, he admits, was inglorious, "yet the end was not ignoble". For in those solitary moments, dangling perilously above some raven's nest, strange winds blew through his ears, and through his soul.
Now Wordsworth switches from a description of events to reflections on the "teacher" who, taking up the many and discordant elements of a human life, makes them move in harmony and thus fashions the mind of the pupil. The "favoured being", he suggests, is specially moulded by the "visitations", gentle and severe, of conscious Nature.
Then he describes another childhood event that marked his life and troubled his dreams long afterwards. Alone by a lake he finds a small shepherd's boat moored in a cave and cannot resist going out for a row on the moonlit water.
He fixes the outline of a crag as a point to steer by. As he approaches that ridge, from behind it a huge cliff rears its head and grows larger, larger ... and "like a living thing, strode after me". The boy quickly returns the boat to its mooring place and hurries homeward "with grave and serious thoughts". Through this "lesson" he had been given a first glimpse of "huge and mighty forms that do not live like living men".
The next part is again addressed to Wordsworth's "teacher", the one soul that is "the eternity of thought", whose guidance from early childhood "didst... intertwine for me the passions that build up our human soul". The method used was often a severe discipline of "both pain and fear", but fear in the sense of profound awe. The result was a purification of feeling and thought, a growing grandeur in the heart.
Wordsworth now describes how, while ice-skating with friends on a wintery night, he would at
1. William Wordsworth, Wordsworth Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford, 1984), pp. 735-38.
Portrait of a boy. Painting by Peter Lely
times leave the circle of boys and skate off alone "to cut across the reflex of a star" reflected in the ice; or, stopping short, he would watch the solitary cliffs continue to wheel round and round him until, at last, "all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep".
In the last stanza Wordsworth sings a paean of praise to his teacher, to the Presences and Visions of Nature, who ministered to him through all his boyish sports, and thus moulded the deep, spiritual soul of the poet.