William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is the Romantic poet most often described as a “nature” writer; what the word “nature” meant to Wordsworth is, however, a complex issue. On the one hand, Wordsworth was the quintessential poet as naturalist, always paying close attention to details of the physical environment around him (plants, animals, geography, weather). At the same time, Wordsworth was a self-consciously literary artist who described “the mind of man” as the “main haunt and region of [his] song.” This tension between objective describer of the natural scene and subjective shaper of sensory experience is partly the result of Wordsworth’s view of the mind as “creator and receiver both.” Wordsworth consistently describes his own mind as the recipient of external sensations which are then rendered into its own mental creations. (Shelley made a related claim in “Mont Blanc” when he said that his mind “passively / Now renders and receives, fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around”.) Such an alliance of the inner life with the outer world is at the heart of Wordsworth’s descriptions of nature. Wordsworth’s ideas about memory, the importance of childhood experiences, and the power of the mind to bestow an “auxiliar” light on the objects it beholds all depend on this ability to record experiences carefully at the moment of observation but then to shape those same experiences in the mind over time. We should also recall, however, that he made widespread use of other texts in the production of his Wordsworthian (Keats said “egotistical”) sublime: drafts of poems by Coleridge, his sister Dorothy’s Journals, the works of Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, and countless others. Wordsworthian “nature” emerges as much a product of his widespread reading as of his wanderings amid the affecting landscapes of the Lake District.
Wordsworth, in a famous passage from The Prelude, links a similarly “scientific” form of observation to a pleasure that is essential to the very definition of the poetic. Wordsworth, however, sees this link in much more psychological terms than a poet like Shelley: “To unorganic natures I transferred / My own enjoyments, or, the power of truth / Coming in revelation, I conversed / With things that really are” (1805, II, 410-13).Wordsworth sees this interaction as more than merely a symbolic representation of his inner states in the outer world. Rather, he links feelings of pleasure in himself directly to emotions that he ascribes to the rest of the world: “From Nature and her overflowing soul / I had received so much that all my thoughts / Were steeped in feeling” (II, 416-18). This is not, however, just watered down, Wordsworthian pantheism: his 1805 description of the unity of natural process owe as much to the natural science of the era as it does to his own emerging “theology”:
I felt the sentiment of being spread
O’er all that moves . . .
O’er all that leaps, and runs, and shouts, and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air, o’er all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself
. . . in all things
I saw one life, and felt that it was joy. (II, 420-21, 425-27, 429-30)
A passage like this reflects the natural history of Wordsworth’s time while also connecting his emotional (and poetic) power to similar powers that he attributes to the plants and animals around him. His daffodils are only the most famous example of this recurrent tendency: “A Poet could not but be gay / In such a laughing company” (ll. 9-10) leading to, “And then my heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the Daffodils” (ll. 17-18).
We should recall that Wordsworth’s image derives not only from his own observation, but also from Dorothy Wordsworth‘s journal text. Dorothy’s recollection sounds initially like that of a natural historian: “The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs . . . a few primroses by the roadside, wood-sorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry yellow flower which Mrs. C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side” (109). Then, in an important transitional sentence, Dorothy reveals her “fancy” going to work on these objects of nature: “We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them [the end we did not see (erased)] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road” (109). Only at this moment does Dorothy launch into the poetic possibility that these flowers can be more closely linked to human emotions than we might think, even as she gives up on formal grammar and syntax: “I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing” (109, 15 April 1802).
An earlier passage from Dorothy’s journal reveals a similar connection of wind-caused motion, animation, and the link between human emotion and the natural world. The scene takes place during a winter wind on Grasmere Lake. I quote the passage in its entirely because it so clearly reveals the rhetorical movement from inanimate images (wind on the water), to animate images (“peacock’s tail,” “they made it all alive”), to humanized emotion applied to a flower (“let it live if it can”):
We amused ourselves for a long time in watching the Breezes some as if they came from the bottom of the lake spread in a circle, brushing along the surface of the water, and growing more delicate, as it were thinner and of a paler colour till they died away. Others spread out like a peacock’s tail, and some went right forward this way and that in all directions. The lake was still where these breezes were not, but they made it all alive. I found a strawberry blossom in a rock. The little slender flower had more courage than the green leaves, for they were but half expanded and half grown, but the blossom was spread full out. I uprooted it rashly, and I felt as if I had been committing an outrage, so I planted it again. It will have but a stormy life of it, but let it live if it can” (82-3, 31 January 1802).
Dorothy’s sudden emotional response to a flower here reminds us of her brother’s pantheistic reaction to his own impulsive destruction of nature in “Nutting”: “I felt a sense of pain when I beheld / The silent trees and the intruding sky – / Then, dearest Maiden . . . with gentle hand / Touch, – for there is a Spirit in the woods” (ll. 50-52, 53-54).
A manuscript text from 1798 reveals just how far William is willing to go in linking his own sentiments about the nonhuman world to the natural “science” of his time, a science that could associate all animate and inanimate objects into a naturalistic unity:There is an active principle alive in all things;
In all things, in all natures, in the flowers
And in the trees, in every pebbly stone
That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,
The moving water and the invisible air.
All beings have their properties which spread
Beyond themselves, a power by which they make
Some other being conscious of their life (676).
His poems often present an instant when nature speaks to him and he responds by speaking for nature. The language of nature in such instances is, like the language Wordsworth uses to record such events, often cryptic and enigmatic. The owls in the often-quoted “Boy of Winander” passage of The Prelude hoot to a Wordsworthian child who answers first in their owl-language and then with a poem that records only the mirroring image of an “uncertain heaven,” the dark sky reflected in a still silent lake. Wordsworth longs for a version of nature that will redeem him from the vagaries of passing moments, but he usually records those natural phenomena that promise only the passing of time and the cyclical transience of natural process. “Nutting” holds us up painfully against the ravaging of a pristine and naturally spiritualized bower. The Lucy poems tells us that Lucy is back into nature at her death, but that consolation seems small recompense for the humanized “nature” of the loss. The Prelude wants to keep us in touch with a childhood and subsequent adult identity realized within the natural world; at the same time, however, this autobiographical epic leaves adult readers feeling a long way from the “spots of time” of childhood. Nothing in Wordsworth is simple or singular; like Milton, he is a poet who almost resists the possibility of final or definitive interpretation. His view of nonhuman nature is likewise open-ended. Wordsworth’s “nature” points us away from the closed world of theocentric symbol-making toward the unstable world of postmodern meaning. (Ashton Nichols)
Wordsworth on the natural world (poetry and prose)
Erasmus Darwin in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”
Wordsworth’s Complete Poems (Columbia)