1770-1855: The Wordsworths and the Cult of Nature

William wordsworth.jpg
A portrait of William Wordsworth. This is apparently an 1873 reproduction of an 1839 watercolor by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887). “Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

From BBC’s History site, by Pamela Woof –

For William Wordsworth, Nature seemed to be at once outside him and to belong permanently in the depths of his soul; for his younger sister Dorothy the external world was brilliant but constantly shifting. What was at the root of their perceptions and why did brother and sister beg to differ?

A sensibility moulded by childhood

William Wordsworth was born in April 1770 – one year before before his sister Dorothy – in Cockermouth, Cumbria. From his earliest infancy he heard the murmuring of the River Derwent as it flowed past the garden of his childhood home. Later, he recorded his gratitude for this, and described how, as a child, its ‘steady cadence’ had given him.

A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm / Which Nature breathes among the hills and groves. (The Prelude 1805, I, 284-5)

Somewhere within him Wordsworth kept that child, knew that possibility of stillness, and he strove to express it in his poetry. As in his description of the great city of London (‘Sonnet: Composed upon Westminster Bridge’) which, astonishingly, could in the early morning ‘lie open unto the fields and to the sky’, achieving thus its own deep calm.

Stillness and an openness to receive were the basic slate of Wordsworth’s being. Dorothy records a day spent on the fells above Rydal, in the Lake District, with her brother and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and tells of how she and Coleridge ‘left William sitting on the stones feasting with silence’ (Grasmere Journal, 23 April 1802).

The Prelude

Inspiring view of rolling hills of the lake district

As Wordsworth grew up, a more dramatic relationship with Nature came to co-exist with this passivity. He began writing the autobiographical poem that he would work on intermittently for the next 40 years. This was eventually published in 1850, under the title The Prelude.

‘Wordsworth knew that Nature had let him ‘drink’ a ‘visionary power’.’

In passages of The Prelude first drafted amid the snows of an isolated winter in Goslar, near the Harz Forest in Germany, in 1798-99, Wordsworth recalled several significant episodes from his schooldays. In one, the young boy, now motherless, took for himself some birds that others had snared, and

heard among the solitary hills / Low breathings coming after me… (The Prelude 1805, I, 329-30)

Here the adult Wordsworth evokes the child’s fear, and his sense that, alone and small amid the great hills and the universe of night, he has angered unknown powers in Nature that are real and far bigger than he is. On another occasion these fearsome powers strode after him for days in his imagination after he ‘stole’ a boat to row out into Ullswater. Nature, in Wordsworth’s word, ‘fostered’ him (ibid., I, 306), using fear in such ways as these.

The fostering involved beauty too. Ice skating at speed, the boy, alone despite the crowd, would stop short and this made it seem that,

The solitary Cliffs / Wheeled by me, even as if the Earth had rolled / With visible motion her diurnal round. (ibid., I, 484-6)

Galloping on horseback with other Hawkshead schoolboys, and exploring the ruined Furness Abbey, the boy listened to an invisible bird that ‘sang to itself’ so sweetly that,

there I could have made / My dwelling place, and lived for ever there / To hear such music. (ibid., II, 133-5)

The wonder of the universe and a sense of timelessness: perceptions like these cut into the boisterous activities of the schoolboy. The eternal was glimpsed. Wordsworth knew that Nature had let him ‘drink’ a ‘visionary power’ (ibid., II, 330). It reminds us that he is perhaps our greatest poet of transcendence, that through Nature he could apprehend the spiritual beyond the immediacy of the material.

At times he became consciously creative and met Nature, as it were, half-way:

An auxiliar light / Came from my mind which on the setting sun / Bestowed new splendour… / and the midnight storm Grew darker in the presence of my eye. (ibid., II, 387-93)

It was intense, solitary, and important. As he worked on The Prelude, sometimes known as the Poem on the Growth of his own Mind, in 1804, Wordsworth gave thanks to the Mountains, Lakes, sounding Cataracts, Mists and Winds ‘that dwell among the hills where I was born’ (ibid., II, 442).

Revolution

photograph of Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey, the subject of Wordsworth’s lyric meditation ©

By 1804 Wordsworth had mingled much with the world, and had been in France in both the heady days of the Constitution and the dark days of blood and violence. He had seen his peaceful hopes for change in society lost in aggression, and he had seen Robespierre tumbled, only to be replaced by grasping Napoleon. He was now living in an England that had grown to fear Revolution, where men of idealism had become disillusioned, and where government was punitive.

Only his relationship with Nature, built up over years, now, in these times of ‘dereliction and dismay’ allowed Wordsworth to ‘Despair not of our nature’ (ibid., II, 458). Indeed, since returning from France in late 1792, Wordsworth had come to see Nature not only in terms of the relationship between himself and the natural world, but also as intimately linked with the problems of society:

For I have learned / To look on Nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity… / (‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey‘, 89-92)

‘Tintern Abbey’ is a lyric meditation, penned in 1798 when Wordsworth was walking in the Wye Valley with his sister. In the poem he recalls his time there five years previously, in 1793, when he still had hope that England’s social structure might change, and when his physical joy in Nature was still uppermost. He tells us in his poem that ‘like a roe’ he ‘bounded o’er the mountains’, that,

the sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion, / that the colours and forms of Nature / were then to me / An appetite: a feeling and a love.. / (ibid., 68-81)

Five years on, however, in 1798, he had suffered political disillusion and personal trauma, and Nature had become inextricably linked with the human.

The sadness of humanity made itself heard in ‘Tintern Abbey’; yet, fused into the context of Nature, that sadness was heard as music, as something beautiful. ‘Tintern Abbey’ is a passionate poem, a poem of faith, hoping and hopeful, that comes at the end of the great joint volume, Lyrical Ballads 1798, containing poetry by Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge.

The poem draws into itself that volume’s many experimental poems about the disregarded outcasts of society: its old, poor, abandoned, unemployed, handicapped. These, added to the depression that Wordsworth felt, which was caused by the French Revolution and England’s continuing war with France, gave significance to his ‘hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity’.

The poet’s doubt

Portrait of William Wordsworth appearing to be deep in thought
William Wordsworth ©

Yet Wordsworth was not a priest of some fixed ‘presence far more deeply interfused’ as ‘Tintern Abbey’ has it; he could not always be certain of the numinous, of the spiritual force dwelling in Nature and in the mind of man. And so, while the poem is indeed an impassioned poem of faith in Nature and its transcendent powers, it is also a poem that allows for doubt: ‘If this be but a vain belief…’ (50-1), ‘If I were not thus taught…’ (113).

These hesitations surface within the belief expressed in the poem, but then sink down, and Wordsworth, sure at least of his own experience of Nature’s beneficial power, was able to end the poem with a strong positive thrust, praying that Nature might bring future consolation to another, his younger sister, as it had to him.

Before turning to Dorothy, it might be worth emphasising that, as ‘Tintern Abbey’ demonstrates, there is a fluidity in Wordsworth. His position was not static; he could not always feel Nature’s transcendent power. At times, and increasingly, he felt loss:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (‘Ode‘, later entitled, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood‘, 56-7)

Wordsworth left the ‘Ode’ unfinished with this question in 1802, answering it two years later in 1804 and almost reversing the earlier balance between Nature and Man.

For Wordsworth, Nature in 1804 was neither so triumphant nor so transcendent a presence as hitherto, and humanity now brought the dominant consolation, and had power even to make Nature meaningful. It was the human heart with its tenderness, joys and fears that gave to the meanest flower, ‘Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’ (‘Ode‘, 206).

That ‘something far more deeply interfused’ of ‘Tintern Abbey’ whose ‘dwelling was the light of setting suns’ in 1798, and in whose presence the poet felt a ‘sense sublime’ and heard oftentimes the music of humanity, is scarcely present in Wordsworth’s writing of this time. It was the human eye ‘that hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality’ that leant a ‘sober colouring’ to the ‘Clouds that gather round the setting sun’. They had no glory from any other source.

So positions in Wordsworth’s poetry are not absolute; attitudes are not forever discarded or forever taken on. In a phase of fancy he could, for example, impose on Nature attitudes learnt from books, could thus provide a Yew tree with a ghost: ‘That took its station there for ornament’ (The Prelude VIII, 529), or turn a black rock, ‘wet with constant springs’ and glistening far off into a ‘burnished shield over a Knight’s tomb suspended’ (ibid., 560-80). Such fancifulness did not last. Wordsworth himself tried in The Prelude to tell the full story of his relationship with Nature, tried to clarify its pattern. But,

who shall parcel out / His intellect, by geometric rule… (ibid., II, 208-9)

It was an impossible task, yet in endeavouring to do it Wordsworth in magnificent poetry has rendered his relationship with Nature rich and significant for his readers at every point.

Dorothy’s story

Photograph showing the inside of Dove Cottage where Dorothy Wordworth lived with her brother William
The interior of Dove Cottage where Dorothy Wordworth lived with her brother William

The story of Dorothy Wordsworth is different. On their mother’s death, when she was six and William was seven, she was sent to Halifax to be brought up. She did not meet her brothers again in all those years, and knew nothing of them or of their life in the Lake District. She then went for a short period to grandparents in Penrith, and ecstatic meetings with her brothers were allowed to take place in the school holidays. Between the ages of 16 and 22 she lived with her uncle William Cookson’s family, in his rectory in Norfolk.

She had had no grammar school education, no Cambridge, no London, no French experience of Revolution. She had no experience of love, and – unlike her brother, who had had to abandon his lover and child in France – no offspring. Wordsworth saw in his sister his own past freshness, as she reacted to the beauty of the Wye in 1798; he saw in her an image of how he himself had been, in his earlier years of high hopes and ‘wild ecstasies’ such as those that Dorothy was now experiencing.

in thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes. (‘Tintern Abbey‘ 117-20)

Engraving of Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth ©

But Dorothy was not a reflection of her brother. Not having had Wordsworth’s intense early inner life in relation to Nature, she tended to see the natural world as something outside herself, as having its own existence in which, as a separate person, she could delight. She enjoyed Nature’s detail – noticed the very differences evident in the wild daffodils by Ullswater, for example, that ‘grew among the mossy stones about & about them’. ‘Some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake…’ (Grasmere Journal, 15 April 1802).

Apart from the resting flowers, even those in the dance have different movements. And, humanised as Dorothy makes them, neither they nor the wind nor the lake had any concern with the observers, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. They were not offering a tutelary lesson in morals or inviting their viewers to a perception of transcendence. They were dancing in wind; they are alive. They had life’s weariness, but more, its joyousness, and Dorothy’s delight in the spectacle is clear from the energy of her language. But the daffodils were not explicitly related to herself.

The daffodils

Photograph showing daffodils sitting amoungest tress

William’s poem ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’ of 1804 was written two years or more after Dorothy’s entry about the daffodils in her journal. In his poem, the daffodils that he and his sister had come upon gradually on the lake shore are a crowd, a host, a unity; they are not differentiated. Here he is not with his sister; he has become for the poem’s purpose a solitary viewer, seeing all the daffodils dramatically, ‘all at once’, as they danced. His interest is less in them than in his individual reaction:

I gazed – and gazed – but little thought / What wealth the shew to me had brought.

‘The permanence of stars as compared with flowers emphasises the permanence of memory for the poet.’

With the passing of time and during moments of solitude – so often the significant moments in Wordsworth’s inner experience – the dancing flowers recurred in his mind. Without his willing their presence, they rose out of his memory like a flash of grace, and then he found that he was not just gazing as he had been in the past; he was a part of the celebration, he too was dancing in his heart.

Revising the poem, Wordsworth inserted a new verse comparing the daffodils to stars,

Continuous as the stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way / They stretched in never-ending line…

The permanence of stars as compared with flowers emphasises the permanence of memory for the poet. The power of the flowers, though he had not known it at the time, was enduring, it was for life; the daffodils lived – when they rose into the poet’s consciousness – not on the shores of Ullswater, but in the mind, infinitely and permanently, like stars.

Dorothy’s wild daffodils grew in a particular place and she saw them and wrote about them on a particular April day in 1802. She caught the celebratory dance of elemental wind and frail mortal flowers, and her Journal evokes it for us. Wordsworth, by contrast, tells us about the memory of a natural scene, and presents the mind’s power to give to that scene, generalised and simplified over time, a permanence and a visionary quality. Dorothy’s relationship with Nature, continually fresh with every passing day, lay within the boundaries of time; Wordsworth’s, at whatever stage of his relationship we examine it, moves, or hopes to move, through and beyond time towards eternity.

 

Find out more

Books

Juliet Barker, Wordsworth: A Life (Viking, 2000)

Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition by Jonathan Bate (1991)

Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Time by A S Byatt (Vintage, 1997)

William Wordsworth: A Life by Stephen Gill (Oxford, 1989)

Dorothy Wordsworth Robert Gittings and Jo Manton (Oxford, 1985)

The Wordsworths and the Daffodils, The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Pamela Woof and Madeline Harley (April, 2002)

William Wordsworth: The Major Works editeded by Stephen Gill, (Oxford World’s Classics, 2000)

Dorothy Wordsworth: The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals edited by Pamela Woof (Oxford World’s Classics, 2002)

Letters of William Wordsworth: A Selection edited by Alan G Hill, (Oxford, 1984)

Letters of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Selection edited by Alan G Hill, (Oxford, 1982)

Places to visit

Dove Cottage above Rydal Water in the Lake District is run by the Wordsworth Trust and open to visitors. Telephone 015394 35544 for details.

About the author

Pamela Woof was a Lecturer in Literature at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where she now lectures part-time on Literature in the Department of Lifelong Learning. Her edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals was published by OUP in 1991. She has lectured frequently on William and Dorothy Wordsworth at conferences in Grasmere and elsewhere, and has published widely in academic journals on authors of the Romantic period. She is a former Trustee, presently a Fellow, of the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, Cumbria.

Published: 2002-05-01

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