William Wordsworth as a Nature Poet
Table of Contents
Wordsworth is the high priest of Nature. It goes to his credit that he propounded a new and original philosophy of Nature, and expounded a new and individual view of Nature. The love of Nature is to be found in all the English poets, from Chaucer downwards. In Wordsworth’s own day both Byron and Shelley were writing poems thoroughly imbued with the love of Nature. But there is something in Wordsworth’s treatment of Nature which differs from the poetry of his predecessors as well as his contemporaries. It may be said that Wordsworth differs from all other poets in the stress he puts upon the moral influences of Nature.
For Wordsworth, Nature is endowed with personality–“the mighty Being.” He declares that Nature is a teacher whose wisdom we can learn if we will, and without which any human life is vain and incomplete. He teaches us that between man and Nature there is mutual consciousness and mystic relationship. It is not for nothing God has set man in this world of sound and vision: it is in the power of Nature to penetrate his spirit, to reveal him to himself, to communicate to him Divine instructions, to lift him into spiritual life and ecstasy. Above all, the originality of Wordsworth is that he never thinks of Nature in any other way than as a Mighty Presence, before whom he stands silent, like a faithful high-priest, who waits in solemn expectation for the whisper of enlightenment and wisdom
Wordsworth’s treatment of Nature
In his early poems such as ‘Evening Walk‘, or ‘Descriptive Sketches‘, his attitude is one akin to that of the precursors of Romanticism– Gray, Collins and Cowper. The second stage is reached in the ‘Lyrical, Ballads,’ where Wordsworth begins to present his idea of nature as something alive. In some poems such as ‘Nutting‘ it is yet vague. But in other pieces, he refers to the pleasure or joy felt by nature, and in some, as in ‘Tintern Abbey‘ he speaks of an all-pervading presence in nature as much as in the thinking mind, thus rising to the conception of a unity between the subject and the object. Here his pantheism becomes a distinct element.
In his later poetry, he frequently speaks of this living soul in nature as entity distinct, definite and independent, existing irrespective of the thinking mind of man. With this soul thus conceived it is possible for the soul of man to bring about, according to Wordsworth, a close intimate relationship. Then communion between the two becomes possible, and these two independent souls are viewed as the unfolding or expression of the divine. As, in God, there was a harmony between these two, there is the presence of God in nature and man, the possibility of the restoration of this harmony. Just as in the case of man, the poet thinks of each individual soul of humanity, similarly in the case of nature, he thinks of each individual object of nature as possessing its distinct soul, as also of the pervasive soul of nature viewed as a unity. The note that Wordsworth strikes in this connection is sometimes the mystic note in which the soul to soul communion ends in a sort of transfusion giving rise to the poet’s attitude of adoration with a feeling of blessed joy.
Two things stand out prominent in Wordsworth in connection with nature viz. its spiritual life, and ethical influence and the influence nature exerts as a moral teacher on man.
Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets
A comparison of Wordsworth’s attitude to nature with the views of other Romantic poets may be of advantage. Both Shelley and Wordsworth believed in nature as an independent living existence, but Shelley does not care for its ethical influence. He does not, like Wordsworth, brood over nature, but in passionate and emotional ardour he plunges himself into the very existence of nature.
In Byron, nature is not always alive as in Shelley or Wordsworth. Sometimes Byron looks upon nature as animated, but when he does so, he is mainly concerned with the vigour of nature. The energy, power and strength of nature appeals to his imagination and he finds it in conflict with man one trying to be supreme over the other. In Byron’s poetry, nature is never a healing power, neither a moral force nor revelation of the Divine.
In Coleridge’s early nature poetry the moralizing and melancholy mood of Gray and Cowper are clearly visible. But the second group of his poems shows Wordsworth’s influence as well as the influence of German philosophy. In 1795, Coleridge came in contact with Wordsworth, whose influence he most readily received. What Wordsworth taught him was a more strong and confident acceptance of the faith in the joyousness and joy-evoking power of nature. Rebuking the conventional melancholy of the nightingale literature, Coleridge wrote in ‘The Nightingale’:
“A melancholy bird ! oh! die thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.”
Coleridge seems to owe all his intellectual life to those ‘lakes and mountains, hills and quiet dales of England’ and it is now that the soothing power of nature and contemplative brooding over it appears in his poetry for the first time. But even in these poems he preserves his own stamp of character by a mystical note in them. This mysticism appears in ‘Kubla Khan‘, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ and in ‘Religious Musings.’ Coleridge does not conceive nature to be dead, but makes human ego the centre of all existence, But Wordsworth makes nature’s existence independent of human ego. Sometimes, Coleridge speaks of the mysterious presence of God as nature’s essence, mind and energy: so we find in ‘Religious Musings’:
“And blest are they
Adore with steadfast unpresuming gaze
Him Nature’ essence, mind and energy.”
At others, Coleridge speaks of nature living in our life and giving back to man what she receives:
“O Lady! we receive but what we give
And in our life alone does nature live,”
Classification of Wordsworth’s Nature Poetry
Wordsworth’s Nature-poetry may be grouped under three heads:
(1) Some poems of “The Lyrical Ballads’ describe nature as a young, joyful and vigorous entity corresponding to the young mind of the poet.
(2) Another group of poems present Nature as severe, substantial and full of moral influence. The poet turns to Nature for consolation and lives in her friendship. The influence of Rousseau is very strong in the poems of this group.
(3) The third group of poems represent Nature as a spiritual entity. Here we find the influence of German Transcendental philosophy on Wordsworth. ‘The Prelude’ and ‘The Excursion’ illustrate this aspect of Nature, and so do poems like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in the ‘Lyrical Ballads’.
Three stages in Wordsworth’s treatment of Nature
In the first stage we see that nature’s sights and sounds make their appeal to the heart and imagination of the poet. The love of Nature in this stage of poetic life has been described by the poet as ‘dizzy rapture’ or ‘aching joys’ in ‘Tintern Abbey‘: In ‘The Prelude‘, too, the poet refers to this simple physical delight in Nature:
“I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
The Prelude, Book I
“The passion yet
Was in its birth, sustained as might befall
By nourishment that come unsought.”
The Prelude, Book II
In the second stage, when the poet came in contact with humanity during his residence at Cambridge, a human element crept into his idea about nature. He had loved rocks and brooks and stars, but now other new human feelings and emotions were connected with them, and a pensive shade crept over nature. Constant brooding over the sorrow ‘barricaded ever more within the walls of cities’ sickened him. Nature was not what it was in his boyhood, but something kindlier and more humane: it had now an inner touch of love, sympathy and hope, and he turned to Nature for solace and consolation. His human soul, awakened by life among men, began to wed.
In the third stage, Wordsworth viewed Nature as a philosopher. Imbued with the transcendental ideas of the German philosophers he found a divine presence in nature, and his mind stooped before this living presence in mystic adoration of worship. Wordsworth felt in nature:
“…a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused…
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all abjects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
and Nature became for him:
“The anchor of my puseset thoughts, the nurse
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.”
Nature and Man
The influence of nature on man is the fundamental theme of Wordsworth’s poetry. Nature is seen in many aspects in Wordsworth’ work. At its deepest, in ‘The Prelude’, ‘Tintern Abbey’ and the ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality‘, nature is seen as being inextricably related to man by the ultimate unity and integration of the universe; as possessing a definite mystical bond with man’s spirit, which is loosened by maturity; as a moral guide and guardian, developing and extending the human being’s moral awareness (and, therefore, educative also). ‘My Heart Leaps Up’, and similar poems, show how nature, by acting upon memory and imagination can effectively bind times together, making life and experience coherent.
Nature in its Moral Aspects
Nature in its moral aspects is seen perhaps most clearly in poems such as ‘Tintern Abbey’. ‘Nutting’, and especially the Prelude. It is, however, the aspect of unity which should be most closely kept in mind by the reader; the mystical sense of a universe in some way totally interrelated and held together by a common bond, so that man, stars, lakes, flowers, animals, all organic beings, are part of a total order. Part of man’s problem is his spiritual separation from this total order, as is made clear in the great ‘Intimations of Immortality’ Ode and to a lesser extent in ‘Tintern Abbey’.
Joy in Nature
Wordsworth finds joy in Nature. The feeling of pessimism does not oppress the heart of the poet when he is in the presence of the beautiful and joyful aspects of nature. The personal dealing with nature in all her moods ‘produces a joy a plenteousness of delight and all readers of Wordsworth’s nature poems feel that sense of exultation and joy which the poet himself had experienced in his life.’ In the words of W. H. Hudson, “Wordsworth finds a never failing principle of joy.” The hare runs races in her mirth, the flowers enjoy the air they breathe and the waves dance beside the daffodils:
“The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare.
Waters on a starry night
And beautiful and fair.”
The heart of the poet leaps up with delight when he beholds the rainbow in the sky. The least motion that the linnets make gives a thrill of pleasure, and when he recalls the daffodils “his heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils.”
Wordsworth’s representations of nature’s mystical and spiritual aspects are quite graphic, vivid and colourful. He can give delicate and subtle expression to the “sheer sensuous delight of the world of Nature.” He can feel elemental joy of spring:
“It was an April morning, fresh and clear,
The revulet, delighting in its strength
Ran with a young man’s speed.”
Wordsworth- the poet of the ear
In the presentation of nature Wordsworth is fascinated by the sound in the objects of nature, just as Shelley was fascinated by the colour in the spectacles of nature. This point has been brought out nicely by Compton-Rickett when he points out, “Wordsworth is the poet of the ear just as Shelley is the poet of the eye”. The following lines exhibit the poet’s enthusiasm for sound in Nature:
“A voice so thrilling never was heard
In spring time from the cuckoo bird
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.”
Fidelity of his Nature descriptions
One effect of his ardent love of Nature in Wordsworth is that he excels all other poets in the fidelity of his descriptions, the minute accuracy of his observation of natural beauty. His eye for nature is always fresh and true, and what he sees he describes with an admirable realism. His sense of form and colour is also perfect, and in nothing is he so great an artist as in his power of conveying in a phrase the exact truth of the things he sees. When he speaks of the voice of the stock-dove as “buried among trees”, he uses the only, word that could completely convey to us the idea of seclusion, the remote depth of greenwood in which the dove loves to hide herself. The star-shaped shadow of the daisy cast upon the stone is noted also with the same loving accuracy, and can only be the result of direct observation. Nothing escaped his vigilance, and his sense of sound was as perfect as his power of vision. The wild wind-swept summit of a mountain-pass could hardly be better painted than in this word-picture:
“The single sheep, and that one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that old stone wall.”
Criticism of Wordsworth’s Nature poetry
It is one of the peculiar features of Wordsworth’s nature poetry that all the attention of the poet is directed to the representation of calm and tranquil sights and scenes of nature. He never presents nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Aldous Huxley in his essay Wordsworth in the Tropics draws our attention to this fact that “Wordsworth’s conception of nature is one sided. He deals only with the trim and well-dressed nature as it is in the Lake Districts, but he has not one word to say about the malevolent aspect of nature-nature ‘red in tooth and claw’”.
“Byron being Byron saw nature in the tumult of revolt“, says W. H. Hudson, “Wordsworth found in nature what he sought, the peace that was in his soul.”
Throughout his life Wordsworth remained a true interpreter of nature to humanity. “Nature not only gave him the nature,” says Matthew Arnold, “but wrote his poems for him.” He became the worshipper of nature, her true priest and a revealer of her harmonies to humanity. His essential attitude toward nature remained that of a devout worshipper prostrating before the sights and scenes of nature in the spirit of supplication, reverence and worship. He considered Nature as the external garb of God.