William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday has been highly anticipated in many circles, with plans for rambles, radio broadcasts and readings everywhere from Cambridge to Cockermouth. Yet it passed on April 7 relatively unremarkably amid the current epidemiological and economic crisis.
The peak of the celebrations was to be the Wordsworth Trust’s reopening of a remodelled Dove Cottage, the poet’s beautifully humble home in the Lake District village of Grasmere. After its delayed launch, this new centre, library and archive will serve as a showcase for tourists, schoolchildren and scholars not just of the poet and his circle, but of Cumbria’s ecological and cultural significance. But it will have to remain unvisited a little longer.
While regrettable, there is nevertheless something fitting to these disappointments in commemorating Wordsworth. One of the most famous passages in his autobiographical epic, The Prelude, is about a much-anticipated mountain climb that ended anticlimactically. Only during his descent does he realise that he had missed out on his planned peak experience after unknowingly crossing the Alps. In a much shorter poem about a Scottish holiday, Wordsworth again chose to focus on how he left the sights and sounds of Yarrow Water “unvisited”.
In these days of universal “missing out”, such Wordsworthian episodes of disappointed expectations can provide some solace. Still, it is appropriate to mark the milestone of 250 years. One of Wordsworth’s most recognised poems, “Tintern Abbey”, is made from a memorial. Its full title is: “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey: On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798”. Its blank verse meditation begins with an important personal anniversary:
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.
The date is significant – the eve of Bastille Day during years shaped by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, events that deeply shaped Wordsworth himself.
After half a decade, his revisiting of the countryside around the majestic ruins of the medieval Cistercian Abbey at the border of Wales and England prompts Wordsworth’s thoughts on his own spiritual and philosophic growth, on what he has lost and gained, and on what remains dear to him amid so much change and uncertainty: namely the consoling voice of Nature and the inspiring vision of his brilliant sister Dorothy.
So, after 250 years (not to mention all those summers and winters), what remains most dear about Wordsworth’s own celebration of nature, community, vocation, democracy, simplicity, childhood, the creative imagination, wonder, and, of course, daffodils? A prominent answer has come in the new literary biography Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who Changed the World by Jonathan Bate, the decorated scholar of Shakespeare, environmental writing and Romanticism. This is a book worth celebrating. The prose of Radical Wordsworth is engaging and fluent, seamlessly moving between roiling personal moments, such as Wordsworth’s split with his jealous friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to the poignant poetic analysis of the soothing sounds of the Derwent from the window of Wordsworth’s boyhood home, described in The Prelude and still audible today.
A thesis governs Bate’s biographical narrative. It is contained in the dual sense of the word “radical” both as “an organic metaphor … fitting for the man who was more rooted in the natural world than any previous poet” and as “a synonym for ‘Jacobinical’, used (pejoratively) to denote an English supporter of the French Revolution.”
For Bate, it is very much the young, introspective Wordsworth – politically and poetically daring – who is worth remembering as rooted and revolutionary. He writes that The Prelude is not about “heroes and gods” or England or “the spiritual story of humankind from Genesis to Revelation”, but a poem about the poet himself that “inaugurated an epoch in the history of the modern self”.
As Bate tells it, the older Wordsworth becomes a conformist, both aesthetically and socially. He loses his intense, world-changing engagement with the psyche, human life and the environment. This picture is not unfamiliar, nor is it untrue. Bate has made vivid the social and political dimensions of Wordsworth’s life and writing that have been detailed in scholarly works such as Nicholas Roe’s recently reissued Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years. Yet this particular set of assumptions can risk obscuring valuable and complex aspects of a writer whose work has endured for a quarter of a millennium.
Wordsworth was “radical” in another sense: he was fascinated by his community’s and country’s spiritual roots in its religious past. Bate is right to say that the poem “Tintern Abbey” is not about the place, Tintern Abbey. It is primarily an autobiographical reflection and not an antiquarian enterprise or theological inquiry. Nevertheless, Wordsworth kept coming back to ruined medieval monasteries, personally and thematically.
In her excellent study Wordsworth’s Monastic Inheritance, Jessica Fay charts 40 monasteries in England and Europe that Wordsworth studied or visited. Furness Abbey, Lancashire’s former Cistercian foundation, may have been the most meaningful sacred site in the poet’s imagination: it was part of his childhood landscape. He learnt more about the monastic way of life and its harmony with the land and the regional community through an eighteenth-century book, The Antiquities of Furness, by a local Jesuit, Thomas West. The young Wordsworth revered Furness as a “holy scene” in The Prelude and in later years admired the railway workers who piously respected the “Sacred ruin” with their silence.
This fascination was more than a historical interest, it was part of the poet’s sense of vocation. When Wordsworth was designing a garden for his patron, Fay has shown that he attempted to recreate a type of monastic space that enabled a community to enter into contemplative harmony with the local landscape. When Wordsworth needed an image to convey how all of his disparate poems fit together, he described his life’s work as a “gothic church.”
Wordsworth’s backward glance was recognized and respected by religious thinkers and writers in his own time, particularly those within the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement. He became a personal friend of Frederick William Faber and, at one point, placed a crucifix at the foot of his bed. While still an Anglican, St John Henry Newman praised Wordsworth’s “philosophical meditation” for rediscovering “high principles and feelings” in the 19th century. “The age is moving towards something,” Newman wrote of Wordsworth and other poets who were part of the Romantic revolution. That something was “awe, mystery, tenderness, reverence, devotedness, and other feelings which may be especially called Catholic.” Newman warned that if the Anglican Church could not meet this reviving emotional and intellectual religious need, more and more converts would be drawn to Roman Catholicism.
Faber and Newman did follow that “something” to Rome, but for Wordsworth there was always a flaming sword before the Tiber. Wordsworth dropped Faber (and the crucifix) after the latter’s conversion, and the poet remained an adamant, even paranoiac, opponent of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, which extended civil and religious rights to Catholics in the British Isles. Nevertheless, amid Wordsworth’s often dry, sometimes anti-Catholic Ecclesiastical Sonnets, he penned “The Virgin,” one of the most treasured Marian tributes in the English language:
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied.
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven’s blue coast;
Thy image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in thee
Of mother’s love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!
This combination of the heavenly with the earthly is quintessentially Wordsworthian and echoes his earlier love poem to his own wife, whom he celebrated as “A Spirit, yet a Woman too!” The incarnate reconciliation of the human and the divine also accords with the Catholic sense of the sacramental; it represents one of the ways that Wordsworth’s imagination was drawing nineteenth-century England, according to Newman, towards something “deeper and truer”.
This sacramental sense of depth and truth is also key to seeing how Wordsworth’s rootedness in nature is not necessarily opposed to supernatural reverence, but rather has often inspired higher devotion. Wordsworth’s religious views are notoriously difficult to pin down, as when “Tintern Abbey” testifies of a powerful and pervasive, but evasively vague, spiritual sense:
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
For such sentiments, the theologically frenetic Coleridge did label the young Wordsworth a “Republican & at least a Semi-atheist”. Yet, by my maths, a semi-atheist poet is also a semi-theist, and many have found a potent and vital theological call coming from the upward-striving half of Wordsworth’s nature poetry. CS Lewis, who numbered The Prelude among his 10 most significant books, took the title of his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy from a Wordsworth sonnet. “For some souls I believe, for my own I remember,” Lewis wrote, “Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence … for the ‘man coming up from below’ the Wordsworthian experience is an advance.”
Or for a woman “coming up from below”. A young, unbelieving Dorothy Day once quipped in a headline that, while working as an impoverished socialist writer in New York, she survived on farina, cheese and Wordsworth. In her autobiography, she later testified to the transformative effects of Wordsworthian contemplation, prompted by her naturalist, common-law husband: “Forster had made the physical world come alive for me and had awakened in my heart a flood of gratitude. The final object of that gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”
For the radical Day, “rooting” in the natural world naturally sent forth shoots heavenwards, seeking the light of transcendent truth and respiring with adoration. Day’s partner never understood her new spiritual growth, and it ultimately split their family. But their diverging views show that the Wordsworthian engagement with the world and the mysterious power of Wordsworth’s art should not be pre-emptively limited. Newman’s sense that Wordsworth’s remarkable poetry represents a loving search for “something” truer still resonates. His home at Grasmere will still be well worth visiting and revisiting. And even at 250, the multiple branches of Wordsworth’s deepening roots can still nourish, providing life and food for future years.
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