He gave an age his name. His name serves as a code for a reverential attitude towards Nature. An icon then and now, Dove Cottage, Grasmere and the entire Lake District – which he walked endlessly through – associated with his life and work remain high spots of English tourism. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was England’s Poet Laureate, and his association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge would be instrumental in creating an entire movement in English Literature – popularly called ‘Romanticism’.
Today, his poetry about Nature’s beauty may be both an anachronism and a respite in the age of toxic nature, manifest as a virus. When the virus is sublime, crossing borders and cultures, Wordsworth’s focus on flowers, landscapes and mountains could be refreshing, even nostalgic.
The early years saw Wordsworth swayed by the Revolution in France (captured in his lines ‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/but to be young was very heaven’). Wordsworth was opposed to developments such as the arrival of tourism (but may well have invented modern-day tourism, says critic Saeko Yoshikawa) in the Lake District and the Poor Laws which promoted workhouses for the poor. Later in life, he became increasingly conservative and Stephen Gill observes how his commitment to ‘Liberty’ in the early poems changes into a preference for ‘Liberty and Order’.
Like all major poets, Wordsworth is full of contradictions, embedding a worrying politics of poverty, nationalism and Nature. 250 years after his birth, Wordsworth’s poetic oeuvre remains as challenging, interesting, and disturbing as ever.
European theories of aesthetics and wonder informed Wordsworth. The visual arts found their counterpoint in his extensive descriptions of natural scenery and people. Romanticism itself had a considerable amount of transactions with the visual culture of the period, notes Gillen D’Arcy Wood. Parallels may be found between Wordsworth’s interest in rural folk and the countryside and the work of artists like Thomas Gainsborough, who depicted these in Wooded Landscape with a Wagon in the Shade and Peasants Returning from Market.
His interest in the aesthetics of the sublime and the picturesque resonates with the work of painters such as Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg in Stormy Sea and Avalanche in the Alps, Caspar David Friedrich in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and JMW Turner’s Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth – all attempting to invoke horror and astonishment by capturing the terrors of nature.
The Empire and the World
While he is generally seen as a romantic nationalist with a keen interest in and passion for ‘Englishness’ (see James Garrett), Wordsworth was also intensely transnational in his awareness. Among his poetic subjects are the Empire – he is writing in the age of imperial expansion – the diversity of people and cultures, and the arrival of the world in the form of different races and ethnicities in England.
Critics like Alan Bewell detect an Empire-related anxiety in many Wordsworth poems. Bewell calls poems such as ‘The Brothers’ or the Salisbury Plain poems ‘depopulation narratives’ because they depict displacement of people. The world impinges upon English families in other ways: people returning from overseas carrying assorted (non-European) illnesses:
Long were his arms, pallid his hands; his mouth
Looked ghastly in the moonlight — (Prelude Book IV)
Today, Wordsworth’s England, like all First World nations, again experiences the infection from across the seas: the virus respects no borders, and seems to echo the concerns of his time.
Such poems embody a national anxiety over ‘the vagrancy, sickness, broken bodies, and alienation’ accompanying such homecomings, wars and displacement (Bewell):
All perished – all, in one remorseless year,
Husband and children! one by one, by sword
And ravenous plague, all perished — (‘The Female Vagrant’)
Wordsworth portrays England as a much better nation. In ‘Emigrant French Clergy’ (1827), he paints England as a refuge:
More welcome to no land
The fugitives than to the British strand,
while the moral tempest roars
Throughout the Country they have left, our shores
Give to their Faith a fearless resting-place.
He also painted an unpleasant picture of France in ‘The Emigrant Mother’ and’ September 1, 1802’. In the 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth would find the symbol of childish innocence in the ‘Indian’ [Native American] boy:
as if I had been born
On Indian plains, and from my mother’s hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport
A naked savage…
He would also, in ‘Her Eyes are Wild’ and ‘The Complaint of the Forsaken Indian Woman’, present the stereotype of the vulnerable brown/native woman – a stereotype that would, through the 19th century, fuel England’s moral imperialism in the colonies.
This moral imperialism clearly fails in the age when the First World is no longer able to ‘improve’ conditions of sickness in the rest of the world, but the battle against diseases led by First World laboratories and scientists – presented as heroes in countless cultural texts in the 20th century – seems to echo his age’s politics.
Initially fascinated by other countries/cultures, later Wordsworth would be troubled by the influx of people from different races. In Prelude (Book VII) he writes:
What a shock
For eyes and ears! what anarchy and din,
Barbarian and infernal…
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here – Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
All freaks of nature…
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters.
This ‘Parliament of Monsters’ is Wordsworth’s account of multicultural and multiracial Britain, and prefigures the anxiety over migration.
Wordsworthian romanticism locates the poet as a special creature, able to perceive and absorb the ‘spirit’ or ‘a sense sublime’, from Nature, which then gives him his ‘moral being’. Even rocks and geological features inspired Wordsworth, notes Noah Heringman. This interest in local topography, cultural practices and history is part of a romantic nationalism in Wordsworth and novelists like Walter Scott.
But Wordsworth is not entirely eco-romance. Though critics like Jonathan Bate and others discern an environmentalist concern in Wordsworth, Nature is not just a tender, affectionate nurturer: it is also a teacher. In parts of the Prelude, Wordsworth would paint Nature as chastiser. As he rows his stolen boat
from behind the craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head.
In other more troubling poems like ‘Nutting’, the boy damages Nature, and his sister is assigned the task of repairing the harm, seemingly gendering Nature and naturalising the woman’s job of care. While appreciative of the scene around the river Wye, from the vantage point, he looks at ordered farms and cottages. More recent work from Thomas Ford proposes that the semantic scope of the terms ‘atmosphere’ and ‘air’, describing the material object, was expanded to mean ‘mood’ by Wordsworth, in what Ford terms ‘atmospheric romanticism’.
Nature may inspire poetry through an appeal to the Poet’s senses, but the actual verse demands something more.
Recollected in Tranquility
Wordsworth in the famous ‘Preface’ to the volume Lyrical Ballads described poetry as the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Despite this oft-quoted definition, the Preface itself focuses on reflection and the conscious use of language and not just spontaneity. He is often attributed with having equated poetry with emotions, but this is due to a wilful erasure of his stress on recollection, metrical precision and diction – none of which are the effect of just emotional responses to the world. Throughout his own work, the pleasure is not in the emotion at the sight of Nature, but the recollection of emotions experienced.
Wordsworth is always walking – a pedestrian poetics marks his work, so to speak! (Robin Jarvis makes much of the walking Romantics) – away from what he is supposedly happy to see. ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and the famous ‘Daffodils’ both conclude with the reflective moment: experiencing joy at recalling the sights and sounds. Here is ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Crowd’:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
In ‘The Solitary Reaper’ (with its troubling gendered image of the man/speaker standing and staring at the woman-worker) he says ‘Will no one tell me what she sings?’ indicating ignorance of the song’s content. The joy is in his recalling the song, after he walks away from the sight:
as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
In the famous ‘Tintern Abbey poem’ (although the title is not this), greater pleasure seems to accrue from recall:
in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…
Wordsworth’s appreciation of rural life is manifest across his poetry. In ‘Preface’ he would claim that ‘in that situation [rustic life] the essential passions of the heart find a better soil.… speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity’.
This praise of rural England and its poverty often generates a troubling politics. For example, in numerous poems such as ‘The Ruined Cottage’, ‘The Discharged Soldier’, ‘Simon Lee’ or ‘The Female Vagrant’, Wordsworth transforms fragile old men, destitute women, vagrants and hapless families into cultural icons of purity and beauty. In ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, having described a practically ancient beggar wandering through the village even in harsh winters, Wordsworth does not seek welfare and protection for him. Transforming the beggar (who is clearly palsied) into an icon of ‘natural’ preservation and human philanthropy, Wordsworth pleads that he be allowed to continue begging:
Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
The freshness of the valleys;
let his blood Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY,
Make him a captive!
As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let him die!
The poem’s images of surveillance and monitoring, in line with the age’s interest in vagrancy (see the work of Celeste Langan), lend a disquieting air on close reading.
Such readings are of course not new, and Geoffrey Hartman’s work, for instance, has veered away from the traditional ‘poet of Nature’ approach to focus on aspects including the poet’s insistence on the ordinary and the ghostly fragments within them (in Hartman’s remarkable work, The Unremarkable Wordsworth). His unsuspected impact on even scientists like Charles Darwin have now been uncovered (see Charles Morris Lansley). Others like Emily Stanback have mapped an aesthetics of disability in the Wordsworth circle to argue a case for ‘Romantic disability’.
Wordsworth and Romanticism’s much-touted sympathy for the rural, emphasis on consciousness, and stereotypes of the solitary genius poet have been dismantled through the second half of the 20th century. Cynthia Chase, Frances Ferguson, Lucy Newlyn and other critics map an interest in disease (again, relevant to our present contexts), the governance of ‘taste’, the politics of domesticity and home in his work. For more recent critics like Jessica Fay, Wordsworth’s interest in place, ruins and buildings was not about inspirational topoi for the solitary genius but ‘of achieving a sense of trans-historical community’.
Evidently the Wordsworth industry has not even slowed down. Due to this re-covering of Wordsworth it has also, rightly, become difficult to separate his poetic vision from his political commitments and prejudices, his focus on the mind from his interest in matter (ranging from rocks to medicalised bodies).
William Wordsworth walks on.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)