William Wordsworth

By Paul Lawson,2014-08-23 21:48
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William Wordsworth



     William Wordsworth was born on April 7th, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England. Young William's parents, John and Ann, died during his boyhood. Raised amid the mountains of Cumberland alongside the River Derwent, Wordworth grew up in a rustic society, and spent a great deal of his time playing outdoors, in what he would later remember as a pure communion with nature. In the early 1790s William lived for a time in France, then in the grip of the violent Revolution; Wordsworth's philosophical sympathies lay with the revolutionaries, but his loyalties lay with England, whose monarchy he was not prepared to see overthrown. While in France, Wordsworth had a long affair with Annette Vallon, with whom he had a daughter, Caroline. A later journey to France to meet Caroline, now a young girl, would inspire the great sonnet "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free." The chaos and bloodshed of the Reign of Terror in Paris drove William to philosophy books; he was deeply troubled by the rationalism he found in the works of thinkers such as William Godwin, which clashed with his own softer, more emotional understanding of the world. In despair, he gave up his pursuit of moral questions. In the mid-1790s, however, Wordsworth's increasing sense of anguish forced him to formulate his own understanding of the world and of the human mind in more concrete terms. The theory he produced, and the poetics he invented to embody it, caused a revolution in English literature. Developed throughout his life, Wordsworth's understanding of the human mind seems simple enough today, what with the advent of psycholanalysis and the general Freudian acceptance of the importance of childhood in the adult psyche. But in Wordsworth's time, in what Seamus Heaney has called "Dr. Johnson's supremely adult eighteenth century," it was shockingly unlike anything that had been proposed before. Wordsworth believed (as he expressed in poems such as the "Intimations of Immortality" Ode) that, upon being born, human beings move from a perfect, idealized realm into the imperfect, un-ideal earth. As children, some memory of the former purity and glory in which they lived remains, best perceived in the solemn and joyous relationship of the child to the beauties of nature. But as children grow older, the memory fades, and the magic of nature dies. Still, the memory of childhood can offer an important solace, which brings with it almost a kind of re-access to the lost purities of the past. And the maturing mind develops the capability to understand nature in human terms, and to see in it metaphors for human life, which compensate for the loss of the direct connection. Freed from financial worries by a legacy left to him in 1795, Wordsworth moved with his sister Dorothy to Racedown,

    and then to Alfoxden in Grasmere, where Wordsworth could be closer to his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge began work on a book

     called Lyrical Ballads, first published in 1798 and reissued with Wordsworth's monumental preface in 1802. The publication of Lyrical Ballads represents a landmark moment for English poetry; it was unlike anything that had come before, and paved the way for everything that has come after. According to the theory that poetry resulted from the "spontaneous overflow" of emotions, as Wordsworth wrote in the preface, Wordsworth and Coleridge made it their task to write in the simple language of common people, telling concrete stories of their lives. According to this theory, poetry originated in "emotion recollected in a state of tranquility"; the poet then surrendered to the emotion, so that the tranquility dissolved, and the emotion remained in the poem. This explicit emphasis on feeling, simplicity, and the pleasure of beauty over rhetoric, ornament, and formality changed the course of English poetry, replacing the elaborate classical forms of Pope and Dryden with a new Romantic sensibility. Wordsworth's most important legacy, besides his lovely, timeless poems, is his launching of the Romantic era, opening the gates for later writers such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in England, and Emerson and Thoreau in America. Following the success of Lyrical Ballads and his subsequent poem The Prelude, a massive autobiography in verse form, Wordsworth moved to the stately house at Rydal Mount where he lived, with Dorothy, his wife Mary, and his children, until his death in 1850. Wordsworth became the dominant force in English poetry while still quite a young man, and he lived to be quite old; his later years were marked by an increasing aristocratic temperament and a general alienation from the younger Romantics whose work he had inspired. Byron--the only important poet to become more popular than Wordsworth during Wordsworth's lifetime--in particular saw him as a kind of sell-out, writing in his sardonic preface to Don Juan that the once-liberal Wordsworth had "turned out a Tory" at last. The last decades of Wordsworth's life, however, were spent as Poet Laureate of England, and until his death he was widely considered the most important author in England.


     Wordsworth??s monumental poetic legacy rests on a large number of important poems, varying in length and weight from the short, simple lyrics of the 1790s to the vast expanses of The Prelude, thirteen books long in its 1808 edition. But the themes that run through Wordsworth??s poetry, and the language and imagery he uses to embody those themes, remain remarkably consistent throughout the Wordsworth canon, adhering largely

     to the tenets Wordsworth set out for himself in the 1802 preface

    to Lyrical Ballads. Here, Wordsworth argues that poetry should be written in the natural language of common speech, rather than in the lofty and elaborate dictions that were then considered ??poetic.?? He argues that poetry should offer access to the emotions contained in memory. And he argues that the first principle of poetry should be pleasure, that the chief duty of poetry is to provide pleasure through a rhythmic and beautiful expression of feeling?ªfor all human sympathy, he claims, is based on a subtle pleasure principle that is ??the naked and native dignity of man.?? Recovering ??the naked and native dignity of man?? makes up a significant part of Wordsworth??s poetic project, and he follows his own advice from the 1802 preface. Wordsworth??s style remains plain-spoken and easy to understand even today, though the rhythms and idioms of common English have changed from those of the early nineteenth century. Many of Wordsworth??s poems (including masterpieces such as ??Tintern Abbey?? and the ??Intimations of Immortality?? ode) deal with the subjects of childhood and the memory of childhood in the mind of the adult in particular, childhood??s lost connection with nature, which can be preserved only in memory. Wordsworth??s images and metaphors mix natural scenery, religious symbolism (as in the sonnet ??It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,?? in which the evening is described as being ??quiet as a nun??), and the relics of the poet??s rustic childhood?ªcottages, hedgerows, orchards, and other places where humanity intersects gently and easily with nature. Wordsworth??s poems initiated the Romantic era by emphasizing feeling, instinct, and pleasure above formality and mannerism. More than any poet before him, Wordsworth gave expression to inchoate human emotion; his lyric ??Strange fits of passion have I known,?? in which the speaker describes an inexplicable fantasy he once had that his lover was dead, could not have been written by any previous poet. Curiously for a poet whose work points so directly toward the future, many of Wordsworth??s important works are preoccupied with the lost glory of the past?ªnot only of the lost dreams of childhood but also of the historical past, as in the powerful sonnet ??London, 1802,?? in which the speaker exhorts the spirit of the centuries-dead poet John Milton to teach the modern world a better way to live.

     Themes The Beneficial Influence of Nature

     Throughout Wordsworth??s work, nature provides the ultimate good influence on the human mind. All manifestations of the natural world?ªfrom the highest mountain to the simplest flower?ªelicit noble, elevated thoughts and passionate emotions in the people who observe these manifestations. Wordsworth repeatedly emphasizes the importance of nature to an individual??s intellectual and spiritual development. A good relationship with nature helps individuals connect to both the spiritual and the social worlds. As Wordsworth explains in The Prelude,

    a love of nature can lead to a love of humankind. In such poems as ??The World Is Too Much with Us?? (1807) and ??London, 1802?? (1807) people become selfish and immoral when they distance themselves from nature by living in cities. Humanity??s innate empathy and nobility of spirit becomes corrupted by artificial social conventions as well as by the squalor of city life. In contrast, people who spend a lot of time in nature, such as laborers and farmers, retain the purity and nobility of their souls.

     The Power of the Human Mind

     Wordsworth praised the power of the human mind. Using memory and imagination, individuals could overcome difficulty and pain. For instance, the speaker in ??Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey?? (1798) relieves his loneliness with memories of nature, while the leech gatherer in ??Resolution and Independence?? (1807) perseveres cheerfully in the face of poverty by the exertion of his own will. The transformative powers of the mind are available to all, regardless of an individual??s class or background. This democratic view emphasizes individuality and uniqueness. Throughout his work, Wordsworth showed strong support for the political, religious, and artistic rights of the individual, including the power of his or her mind. In the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth explained the relationship between the mind and poetry. Poetry is ??emotion recollected in tranquility???ªthat is, the mind transforms the raw emotion of experience into poetry capable of giving pleasure. Later poems, such as ??Ode: Intimations of Immortality?? (1807), imagine nature as the source of the inspiring material that nourishes the active, creative mind.

     The Splendor of Childhood

     In Wordsworth??s poetry, childhood is a magical, magnificent time of innocence. Children form an intense bond with nature, so much so that they appear to be a part of the natural world, rather than a part of the human, social world. Their relationship to nature is passionate and extreme: children feel joy at seeing a rainbow but great terror at seeing desolation or decay. In 1799, Wordsworth wrote several poems about a girl named Lucy who died at a young age. These poems, including ??She dwelt among the untrodden ways?? (1800) and ??Strange fits of passion have I known?? (1800), praise her beauty and lament her untimely death. In death, Lucy retains the innocence and splendor of childhood, unlike the children who grow up, lose their connection to nature, and lead unfulfilling lives. The speaker in ??Ode: Intimations of Immortality?? believes that children delight in nature because they have access to a divine, immortal world. As children age and reach maturity, they lose this connection but gain an ability to feel emotions, both good and bad. Through the power of the human mind, particularly

    memory, adults can recollect the devoted connection to nature of their youth.

     Motifs Wandering and Wanderers

     The speakers of Wordsworth??s poems are inveterate wanderers: they roam solitarily, they travel over the moors, they take private walks through the highlands of Scotland. Active wandering allows the characters to experience and participate in the vastness and beauty of the natural world. Moving from place to place also allows the wanderer to make discoveries about himself. In ??I travelled among unknown men?? (1807), the speaker discovers his patriotism only after he has traveled far from England. While wandering, speakers uncover the visionary powers of the mind and understand the influence of nature, as in ??I wandered lonely as a cloud?? (1807). The speaker of this poem takes comfort in a walk he once took after he has returned to the grit and desolation of city life. Recollecting his wanderings allows him to transcend his present circumstances. Wordsworth??s poetry itself often wanders, roaming from one subject or experience to another, as in The Prelude. In this long poem, the speaker moves from idea to idea through digressions and distractions that mimic the natural progression of thought within the mind.


     Memory allows Wordsworth??s speakers to overcome the harshness of the contemporary world. Recollecting their childhoods gives adults a chance to reconnect with the visionary power and intense relationship they had with nature as children. In turn, these memories encourage adults to re-cultivate as close a relationship with nature as possible as an antidote to sadness, loneliness, and despair. The act of remembering also allows the poet to write: Wordsworth argued in the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads that poetry sprang from the calm remembrance of passionate emotional experiences. Poems cannot be composed at the moment when emotion is first experienced. Instead, the initial emotion must be combined with other thoughts and feelings from the poet??s past experiences using memory and imagination. The poem produced by this time-consuming process will allow the poet to convey the essence of his emotional memory to his readers and will permit the readers to remember similar emotional experiences of their own.

     Vision and Sight

     Throughout his poems, Wordsworth fixates on vision and sight as the vehicles through which individuals are transformed. As speakers move through the world, they see visions of great natural loveliness, which they capture in their memories. Later, in moments of darkness, the speakers recollect these visions, as in ??I wandered lonely as a cloud.?? Here, the speaker daydreams of former jaunts through nature, which ??flash upon that inward eye / which is the bliss of solitude?? (21?C22).

    The power of sight captured by our mind??s eye enables us to find comfort even in our darkest, loneliest moments. Elsewhere, Wordsworth describes the connection between seeing and experiencing emotion, as in ??My heart leaps up?? (1807), in which the speaker feels joy as a result of spying a rainbow across the sky. Detailed images of natural beauty abound in Wordsworth??s poems, including descriptions of daffodils and clouds, which focus on what can be seen, rather than touched, heard, or felt. In Book Fourteenth of The Prelude, climbing to the top of a mountain in Wales allows the speaker to have a prophetic vision of the workings of the mind as it thinks, reasons, and feels.

     Symbols Light

     Light often symbolizes truth and knowledge. In ??The Tables Turned?? (1798), Wordsworth contrasts the barren light of reason available in books with the ??sweet?? (11) and ??freshening?? (6) light of the knowledge nature brings. Sunlight literally helps people see, and sunlight also helps speakers and characters begin to glimpse the wonders of the world. In ??Expostulation and Reply?? (1798), the presence of light, or knowledge, within an individual prevents dullness and helps the individual to see, or experience. Generally, the light in Wordsworth??s poems represents immortal truths that can??t be entirely grasped by human reason. In ??Ode: Imitations of Immortality,?? the speaker remembers looking at a meadow as a child and imagining it gleaming in ??celestial light?? (4). As the speaker grows and matures, the light of his youth fades into the ??light of common day?? (78) of adulthood. But the speaker also imagines his remembrances of the past as a kind of light, which illuminate his soul and give him the strength to live.

     The Leech Gatherer

     In ??Resolution and Independence,?? the ancient leech gatherer who spends his days wandering the moors looking for leeches represents the strong-minded poet who perseveres in the face of poverty, obscurity, and solitude. As the poem begins, a wanderer travels along a moor, feeling elated and taking great pleasure in the sights of nature around him but also remembering that despair is the twin of happiness. Eventually he comes upon an old man looking for leeches, even though the work is dangerous and the leeches have become increasingly hard to find. As the speaker chats with the old man, he realizes the similarities between leech gathering and writing poetry. Like a leech gather, a poet continues to search his or her mind and the landscape of the natural world for poems, even though such intense emotions can damage one??s psyche, the work pays poorly and poverty is dangerous to one??s health, and inspiration sometimes seems increasingly hard to find. The speaker resolves to think of the leech gatherer whenever his enthusiasm for poetry or belief in himself begins to wane.

     ??Tintern Abbey??


     The full title of this poem is ??Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.?? It opens with the speaker??s declaration that five years have passed since he last visited this location, encountered its tranquil, rustic scenery, and heard the murmuring waters of the river. He recites the objects he sees again, and describes their effect upon him: the ??steep and lofty cliffs?? impress upon him ??thoughts of more deep seclusion??; he leans against the dark sycamore tree and looks at the cottage-grounds and the orchard trees, whose fruit is still unripe. He sees the ??wreaths of smoke?? rising up from cottage chimneys between the trees, and imagines that they might rise from ??vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,?? or from the cave of a hermit in the deep forest. The speaker then describes how his memory of these ??beauteous forms?? has worked upon him in his absence from them: when he was alone, or in crowded towns and cities, they provided him with ??sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.?? The memory of the woods and cottages offered ??tranquil restoration?? to his mind, and even affected him when he was not aware of the memory, influencing his deeds of kindness and love. He further credits the memory of the scene with offering him access to that mental and spiritual state in which the burden of the world is lightened, in which he becomes a ??living soul?? with a view into ??the life of things.?? The speaker then says that his belief that the memory of the woods has affected him so strongly may be ??vain???ªbut if it is, he has still turned to the memory often in times of ??fretful stir.?? Even in the present moment, the memory of his past experiences in these surroundings floats over his present view of them, and he feels bittersweet joy in reviving them. He thinks happily, too, that his present experience will provide many happy memories for future years. The speaker acknowledges that he is different now from how he was in those long-ago times, when, as a boy, he ??bounded o??er the mountains?? and through the streams. In those days, he says, nature made up his whole world: waterfalls, mountains, and woods gave shape to his passions, his appetites, and his love. That time is now past, he says, but he does not mourn it, for though he cannot resume his old relationship with nature, he has been amply compensated by a new set of more mature gifts; for instance, he can now ??look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity.?? And he can now sense the presence of something far more subtle, powerful, and fundamental in the light of the setting suns, the ocean, the air itself, and even in the mind

     of man; this energy seems to him ??a motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking thoughts???? / And rolls through all things.?? For that

    reason, he says, he still loves nature, still loves mountains and pastures and woods, for they anchor his purest thoughts and guard the heart and soul of his ??moral being.?? The speaker says that even if he did not feel this way or understand these things, he would still be in good spirits on this day, for he is in the company of his ??dear, dear (d) Sister,?? who is also his ??dear, dear Friend,?? and in whose voice and manner he observes his former self, and beholds ??what I was once.?? He offers a prayer to nature that he might continue to do so for a little while, knowing, as he says, that ??Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her,?? but leads rather ??from joy to joy.?? Nature??s power over the mind that seeks her out is such that it renders that mind impervious to ??evil tongues,?? ??rash judgments,?? and ??the sneers of selfish men,?? instilling instead a ??cheerful faith?? that the world is full of blessings. The speaker then encourages the moon to shine upon his sister, and the wind to blow against her, and he says to her that in later years, when she is sad or fearful, the memory of this experience will help to heal her. And if he himself is dead, she can remember the love with which he worshipped nature. In that case, too, she will remember what the woods meant to the speaker, the way in which, after so many years of absence, they became more dear to him?ªboth for themselves and for the fact that she is in them.


     ??Tintern Abbey?? is composed in blank verse, which is a name used to describe unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter. Its style is therefore very fluid and natural; it reads as easily as if it were a prose piece. But of course the poetic structure is tightly constructed; Wordsworth??s slight variations on the stresses of iambic rhythms is remarkable. Lines such as ??Here, under this dark sycamore, and view?? do not quite conform to the stress-patterns of the meter, but fit into it loosely, helping Wordsworth approximate the sounds of natural speech without grossly breaking his meter. Occasionally, divided lines are used to indicate a kind of paragraph break, when the poet changes subjects or shifts the focus of his discourse.


     The subject of ??Tintern Abbey?? is memory?ªspecifically, childhood memories of communion with natural beauty. Both generally and

     specifically, this subject is hugely important in Wordsworth??s work, reappearing in poems as late as the ??Intimations of Immortality?? ode. ??Tintern Abbey?? is the young Wordsworth??s first great statement of his principle (great) theme: that the memory of pure communion with nature in childhood works upon the mind even in adulthood, when access to that pure communion has been lost, and that the maturity of mind present in adulthood offers compensation for the loss of that communion?ªspecifically, the ability to ??look on nature?? and hear

    ??human music??; that is, to see nature with an eye toward its relationship to human life. In his youth, the poet says, he was thoughtless in his unity with the woods and the river; now, five years since his last viewing of the scene, he is no longer thoughtless, but acutely aware of everything the scene has to offer him. Additionally, the presence of his sister gives him a view of himself as he imagines himself to have been as a youth. Happily, he knows that this current experience will provide both of them with future memories, just as his past experience has provided him with the memories that flicker across his present sight as he travels in the woods. ??Tintern Abbey?? is a monologue, imaginatively spoken by a single speaker to himself, referencing the specific objects of its imaginary scene, and occasionally addressing others?ªonce the spirit of nature, occasionally the speaker??s sister. The language of the poem is striking for its simplicity and forthrightness; the young poet is in no way concerned with ostentation. He is instead concerned with speaking from the heart in a plainspoken manner. The poem??s imagery is largely confined to the natural world in which he moves, though there are some castings-out for metaphors ranging from the nautical (the memory is ??the anchor?? of the poet??s ??purest thought??) to the architectural (the mind is a ??mansion?? of memory). The poem also has a subtle strain of religious sentiment; though the actual form of the Abbey does not appear in the poem, the idea of the abbey?ªof a place consecrated to the spirit?ªsuffuses the scene, as though the forest and the fields were themselves the speaker??s abbey. This idea is reinforced by the speaker??s description of the power he feels in the setting sun and in the mind of man, which consciously links the ideas of God, nature, and the human mind?ªas they will be linked in Wordsworth??s poetry for the rest of his life, from ??It is a beauteous evening, calm and free?? to the great summation of the Immortality Ode.

     ??I wandered lonely as a cloud??


     The speaker says that, wandering like a cloud floating above hills and valleys, he encountered a field of daffodils beside a lake. The dancing, fluttering flowers stretched endlessly along the shore, and though the waves of the lake danced beside the flowers, the daffodils outdid the water in glee. The speaker says that a poet could not help but be happy in such a joyful company of flowers. He says that he stared and stared, but did not realize what wealth the scene would bring him. For now, whenever he feels ??vacant?? or ??pensive,?? the memory flashes upon ??that inward eye / That is the bliss of solitude,?? and his heart fills with pleasure, ??and dances with the daffodils.??


     The four six-line stanzas of this poem follow a quatrain-couplet

    rhyme scheme: ABABCC. Each line is metered in iambic tetrameter.


     This simple poem, one of the loveliest and most famous in the Wordsworth canon, revisits the familiar subjects of nature and memory, this time with a particularly (simple) spare, musical eloquence. The plot is extremely simple, depicting the poet??s wandering and his discovery of a field of daffodils by a lake, the memory of which pleases him and comforts him when he is lonely, bored, or restless. The characterization of the sudden occurrence of a memory?ªthe daffodils ??flash upon the inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude???ªis psychologically acute, but the poem??s main brilliance lies in the reverse personification of its early stanzas. The speaker is metaphorically compared to a natural object, a cloud?ª??I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high??????, and the daffodils are continually personified as human beings, dancing and ??tossing their heads?? in ??a crowd, a host.?? This technique implies an inherent unity between man and nature, making it one of Wordsworth??s most basic and effective methods for instilling in the reader the feeling the poet so often describes himself as experiencing.

     ??The Solitary Reaper??


     The poet orders his listener to behold a ??solitary Highland lass?? reaping and singing by herself in a field. He says that anyone passing by should either stop here, or ??gently pass?? so as not to disturb her. As she ??cuts and binds the grain?? she ??sings a melancholy strain,?? and the valley overflows with the beautiful, sad sound. The speaker says that the sound is more welcome than any chant of the nightingale to weary travelers in the desert, and that the cuckoo-bird in spring never sang with a voice so thrilling. Impatient, the poet asks, ??Will no one tell me what she sings??? He speculates that her song might be about ??old, unhappy, far-off things, / And battles long ago,?? or that it might be humbler, a simple song about ??matter of today.?? Whatever she sings about, he says, he listened ??motionless and still,?? and as he traveled up the hill, he carried her song with him in his heart long after he could no longer hear it.


     The four eight-line stanzas of this poem are written in a tight iambic tetrameter. Each follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD, though in the first and last stanzas the ??A?? rhyme is off (field/self and sang/work).


     Along with ??I wandered lonely as a cloud,?? ??The Solitary Reaper?? is one of Wordsworth??s most famous post-Lyrical Ballads lyrics. In ??Tintern Abbey?? Wordsworth said that he was able to look on nature and hear ??human music??; in this poem, he writes specifically about

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