Published December 2, 2020
“I wandered lonely as a cloud.” So begins a famous poem of William Wordsworth’s, one that was often taught to schoolchildren back when memorizing poetry was part of education. The poet comes upon “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” The flowers flutter and dance before him, their petals like “stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way.” And when the poet retires to his couch and solitary reverie, his “heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the daffodils.”
On its own, a little ditty like this does not earn a poet a formidable reputation. But with a body of poetic work about nature both gentle and fearsome, wandering beggars with “a spirit and pulse of good,” stout-hearted leech-gatherers on the lonely moor, the “visionary gleam” of childhood perception that intimates the soul’s immortality, and the poet’s attempt to recover that elusive wonder, Wordsworth won an admiring readership in the early years of the nineteenth century. He was the greatest of the English Romantics, innovative in form and content, yet with a lasting influence on the conservative sensibility in culture and politics. Now he, along with Shakespeare and perhaps John Milton, belongs to the exclusive company of English poets whose names even the minimally educated are almost certain to have heard. Rightly so. Wordsworth perfected an artful use of plain, everyday speech, overturning the tradition of ornate diction in poetry. This vernacular eloquence exercised a tremendous influence on modern poetry, opening up “democratic vistas,” in Walt Whitman’s pregnant phrase. And Wordsworth’s substance was as revelatory as his style. What he said conjoined with how he said it to produce “The still, sad music of humanity.”
William Wordsworth (1770–1850) was born in the small town of Cockermouth, on the northernmost fringe of the Lake District in the northwest of England. His father, John, was the factotum-at-law of the wealthy and powerful Sir James Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, a political potentate as venal and ethically malodorous as a Chicago alderman, described by one who knew him as “truly a Madman, tho’ too Rich to be confin’d.” One can imagine Sir James as rendered by William Hogarth or James Gillray, all unctuous corpulence and toothy smile. When John Wordsworth died in 1784, William and his orphaned siblings were left homeless—various relatives were to take them in—and it transpired that Sir James owed the Wordsworth estate more than £4,500, a very large sum at the time, for expenses John had incurred in conducting his master’s affairs. The lordly wretch refused to pay up. Only after Sir James died in 1802 was the Wordsworths’ claim settled, by a more honorable scion, for more than £10,000. The nobleman’s indifference to fundamental justice and to the plight of his underling’s family blackened young William’s disposition toward the high and mighty.
In the pride of early manhood Wordsworth declared himself “of that odious class of men called democrats,” and his best poetry was steeped in democratic sentiments. The French Revolution, which erupted in 1789, shaped his youthful political understanding more than any other event in public life. When Wordsworth and a friend undertook a walking tour of France in 1790, during the summer vacation from St. John’s College, Cambridge, he was ripe for radicalization. The Revolution allured him; it would be some time before he realized that it had beguiled him. He memorialized his infatuation in some of his most excited poetry: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”
Wordsworth was sufficiently in thrall to the French “dawn” that he returned in 1792 for another look. This second interlude filled out and refined his sentimental education. Taking French lessons from Annette Vallon, a woman four years older than he who was the daughter of a royalist family, he fell in love with his comely tutor and fathered a child by her. He was in no position to marry the young lady, and he was out of the picture when their little girl was born. Wordsworth did not meet his daughter until 1801, when he visited France with his beloved sister, Dorothy, not long before he married Mary Hutchinson. His poetry discreetly avoids mention of his illicit love and its consequences. Lord Byron or Percy Bysshe Shelley would have been honest enough, and ruthless enough, to put such experience to artistic use. But then, being known as rotters was essential to their cachet, whereas Wordsworth set great store by his reputation for decency.
Yet he could be daring, too, in his way. Lyrical Ballads, the 1798 volume written by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” was the first poem in the book), inaugurated a new era in poetry. In “We Are Seven,” an adult questioning an eight-year-old girl cannot budge her from her insistence that she belongs to a family of seven children, although there are only five still living. The poem illustrates a child’s perdurable love, which will not acknowledge death’s separation; she is counting cherished souls rather than bodies. “The Idiot Boy” tells of a youth with intellectual disabilities who is sent by his mother one night to fetch the doctor for a sick neighbor; the boy gets lost, to the mother’s consternation, and is then found, to her joy. That’s about all that happens in a narrative of 450 lines, and the poem is less remarkable for its quality than for its choice of subject: One can hear Wordsworth declaring, “Attention must be paid, for these apparently inconsequential lives are in fact very precious.”
Here are the early stirrings of the democratic ethos in English poetry, the beating of the compassionate heart that feels all human sorrows. “The Female Vagrant” continues in this vein, as a tramp on a moor speaks of her descent from prosperity, which was undone in stages, first by a local magnate’s grasping oppression, then by the obsolescence of artisanal cottage industry; her desperate emigration to America and the loss there of husband and child to war and disease; her return to England, half-dead herself; her taking up with thieves and subsequent revulsion from that life; and her weeping despair over not knowing where the next day will find her. Wordsworth endows with full moral weight the life of a homeless woman to whom most passersby would not give even a fleeting thought.
In the astonishing vignette “Old Man Travelling: Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch,” Wordsworth describes another seemingly ordinary man, on his way to see his dying son, who has been wounded in a naval battle. But the man is in fact extraordinary, for he has reached the point at which moral effort to master his pain has given way to acceptance of whatever comes, his soul so refined by suffering that it is past the need for fortitude:
The little hedge-row birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought—He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten, one to whom
Long patience has such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing, of which
He hath no need.
John Keble, an Anglican theologian prominent in the Oxford Movement and one of the most popular English poets of the nineteenth century, praised Wordsworth as “one who alone among poets has set the manners, the pursuits, and the feelings, religious and traditional, of the poor not merely in a good but . . . even in a celestial light.” The poor, the damaged, even the wretched can be heroes and heroines of the spirit in literature as they are in life. Their excellence resides not in magnificence or magniloquence, but rather in resignation to a hard lot and the plainspoken wisdom that comes of long trial. These are democratic virtues forged in Christian teaching, and their exemplars frequently demonstrate an unconscious godliness.
Wordsworth’s soul overflows with praise for the natural world, which he considers one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind. Hosannas and hallelujahs ring throughout his rapturous descriptions of the English landscape as he walks the hills and valleys of the Lake District and the West Country. Gratitude for Nature’s perfection and joy in the simple fact of being are his habitual emotional responses to this wondrous beauty. And every detail in the picture, down to the stones on the path, bears a far-reaching significance to his active mind and heart: He sees through Nature to apprehend its animating principle, to “receive / Deeply the lesson deep of love.”
This perception may not be as Christian as it sounds, however. Coleridge, the closest friend Wordsworth ever had, on first inspection adjudged his companion “at least a Semi-Atheist.” After Coleridge got to know Wordsworth better, he moderated his criticism but still did not find him as orthodox as he would have liked. To another friend he wrote that he and Wordsworth remained “habitually silent” on one subject for which they “found [their] data dissimilar.” To Coleridge’s dismay, Wordsworth exhibited Christian sentiments without being a true believer: “He loves & venerates Christ & Christianity—I wish, he did more.”
Wordsworth is often spoken of as a pantheist, a Nature-worshipper for whom the divine was immanent in the material world. Whereas Wordsworth felt his way into pantheism, others reasoned their way in—most famously the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch Jew who was expelled from the synagogue for heresy. With daunting rigor, Spinoza constructed an argument to prove that Nature was not created but is eternal, that God is the only conceivable substance, and that consequently all that exists must be in God—in other words, that the only God is Nature. Deus sive Natura was Spinoza’s byword, God or Nature, in which or means “identical with.” The biographer Jonathan Bate suggests that Wordsworth must have learned of Spinoza from the erudite and voluble Coleridge, but that he probably never read the Ethics himself. Spinoza’s austere ratiocination is a world away from Wordsworth’s rhapsodic sensuousness, and it seems doubtful that Wordsworth would have thought his way into pantheism, though the philosopher’s reasoning at second hand might have given the poet a nudge in the direction he was inclined to take.
Insofar as Wordsworth was a pantheist, however, his belief in God or Nature differed essentially from Spinoza’s. Spinoza denied that Nature has an intelligible order, that good and evil are meaningful moral categories, that man has a privileged place in the universe: “And because those who do not understand the nature of things, but only imagine them, affirm nothing concerning things, and take the imagination for the intellect, they firmly believe, in their ignorance of things and of their own nature, that there is an order in things. . . . Men have been so mad as to believe that God is pleased by harmony.” Wordsworth, for his part, was so mad as to believe that Nature and the human mind were attuned in perfect harmony, as he declared in The Recluse, the unfinished poem that was meant to be his epic masterpiece:
How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too—
Theme this but little heard of among men—
The external world is fitted to the Mind;
And the creation (by no lower name
Can it be called) which they with blended might
Accomplish:—this is our high argument.
The “high argument” winds throughout his work, among moods that range from despondency over his own inadequate response to natural marvels to the most exultant transports at Creation’s blazing glory. In his most famous sonnet, “The world is too much with us,” that world is inhabited by the dismal creatures of political economy, the acids of modernity have so eroded belief that there are no gods still standing, and the need for renewed enchantment is urgent enough that the parched soul grabs at it wherever it can:
Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
A more characteristic note of bounding joy rings out in response to the divine presence in simple natural beauty:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
This simplicity didn’t impress the critical class. One of the grand panjandrums of his day scoffed at Wordsworth’s “nursery rhymes.” But the poet’s response would be that the critic and his ilk are dead to the soul’s elemental need for daily sustenance, which begins in childhood and remains undiminished over the course of a lifetime. In any case, this supposed nursery rhyme conceals a subtle sting in its artful simplicity. Whether or not the rainbow will always retain its magic is the vital question, which this poem leaves unsettled: Wordsworth “could wish” it so, but wishing does not make it so. Reverence is the characteristic feature of his own nature; but natural piety can be elusive, can come and go, and his longing is evidently for a permanent state of soul.
Wordsworth’s concern for men’s souls dovetailed with his earnest political passions. The Reign of Terror, followed by Napoleon’s seizure of power, assumption of an imperial crown, and indefatigable war-making—in particular his invasion of democratic Switzerland—finished off any vestiges of love Wordsworth felt for the Revolution. He came out of the wars with France a genuine English patriot who saw clearly the flaws in his beloved native country and longed for the rekindling of seventeenth-century republican virtue, as in his brooding and remonstrative sonnets of high public import, such as “Great men have been among us” and “London, 1802”:
Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Unimpressed by Wordsworth’s grave moderation, or simply despising it as reactionary claptrap, younger poets of high distinction who had been ambivalent toward him or even admiring became brazen in their contempt. Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had earlier tried to convince his friend Byron of Wordsworth’s rare powers, wrote a lacerating parody of Wordsworth’s “Ode, 1815,” which honored Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. In Shelley’s view, Wordsworth was composing “odes to the Devil,” worshipping “Carnage and Slaughter,” “Rapine and Famine,” “Death and Damnation, / And Consternation.” Byron more succinctly dismissed the new enemy of human progress as “Turdsworth.”
Wordsworth found heavy going as he strove to win critical success. His most prized offerings were often summarily demolished by any number of influential critics. Writing in the estimable Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey, nemesis of universal compassion, Lake District pastoral, simple poetic diction, and most other things Wordsworth, began his long piece on The Excursion, “This will never do”—and another, on The White Doe of Rylstone, “This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume.” Wordsworth outlasted some of his most sadistic critics, of course, but even as Romanticism became conventional and the fame of Wordsworth’s youthful work spread, the Muse forsook him. Already by middle age his lyric gifts had faded. When he was offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1843, he declined at first, protesting he had nothing left in him; only when he was told that nothing would be required of him did he accept the post. The honors proliferated as Wordsworth was enshrined as a Victorian cultural institution. He finally received the recognition he deserved, and then he died.
What can we expect from Wordsworth today? Does he have an importance for our culture beyond antiquarian interest? Poetry has never before been so little regarded—name three contemporary poets, or two, or one, whose books you rush to read as soon as they appear—yet those who take poetry seriously still demand more from it than all but the wisest poets might ever be able to deliver. This burden of significance has increased in bulk and unwieldiness since the days when Matthew Arnold suffered from the conflict between his intense need to believe and his equally intense unbelief—this dilemma already a common affliction among the so-called “Victorian sages” and assorted lesser intellectuals. Here is the opening of Arnold’s “The Study of Poetry” (1880): “The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. . . . The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.”
For Arnold, the facts on which religion was founded had become unbelievable, and the responsibility for constituting a spiritual life devolved onto poetry, in which an idea with its attendant emotion replaced, or became, the crucial fact. So, he continues, poetry would assume a greater importance than it had ever had, providing consolation and sustenance as the successor to religion and philosophy, as well as becoming an invaluable adjunct to science: “For finely and truly does Wordsworth call poetry ‘the impassioned expression which is the countenance of all science’; and what is a countenance without its expression? Again, Wordsworth finely and truly calls poetry ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’: our religion, parading evidences such as those on which the popular mind relies now; our philosophy, pluming itself on its reasonings about causation and finite and infinite being; what are they but the shadows and dreams and false shows of knowledge?” In time, Arnold predicts, we will come to disdain these simulacra and find our spiritual bearings with the guidance of such poets as Wordsworth, whom in another essay he calls, after Shakespeare and Milton, “undoubtedly the most considerable [poet] in our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time.”
Arnold’s judgment of Wordsworth remains viable, but his prophecy has fallen short of realization by a vast distance. The number of people for whom poetry is their souls’ principal nourishment lags far behind the number of regular churchgoers whose engagement with poetry begins and ends with the best-known Psalms. But in Arnold’s estimation, these orthodox believers are the vulgar, content with the dubious satisfactions afforded “the popular mind.” And these faithful are outdone in vulgarity by the ever-growing ranks of those who believe in nothing and live accordingly. Neither Arnold nor Wordsworth finds his ideal readership among the sorry likes of them. Arnold imagines as his proper descendants an officer corps of spiritual devotees who are also dedicated intellectuals, and who presumably share his own divided mind where divinity is concerned—sufferers from the concussions of modern life whose pain will be the matrix of a new, richer understanding of the Christian God, or perhaps another God altogether, if such a Being should survive the ministrations of the poets to come.
Wordsworth, however, was a man and poet very different from Arnold. He represented a faith still living and potent, whereas Arnold observed in himself and others Christianity’s terminal agitation. That is not to say Wordsworth was a foursquare Christian soldier and apologist for sanctified political authority. He would never have thought of proclaiming, with the poetic master of an earlier generation, Alexander Pope, “One truth is clear, ‘Whatever is, is RIGHT.” Too much of whatever was, Wordsworth saw feelingly, was clearly wrong. Wordsworth’s friend William Hazlitt, who was his most perceptive contemporary commentator, wrote, “Wordsworth’s genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age.” The Age was rocked by political upheavals, the French Revolution and the consequent Napoleonic wars most momentous among them, and Wordsworth’s sensitive instrument responded to every violent jolt, sympathetically at first, then with increasing fear, anger, and revulsion.
Yet Hazlitt was only partially right when he wrote, “[Wordsworth’s] Muse (it cannot be denied, and without this we cannot explain its character at all) is a levelling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality, and strives to reduce all things to the same standard. It is distinguished by a proud humility.” Wordsworth in fact does not cut anyone or anything down to hyper-egalitarian size. Instead, the humblest men and women who populate Wordsworth’s poems display the finest human qualities; they endure privations and grievous losses with the dignity and fortitude that earlier poets would have ascribed exclusively to the towering figures of high tragedy. Rather than bring down the nobly born or naturally gifted, Wordsworth’s levelling elevates persons commonly considered beneath notice to a befitting moral significance.
Wordsworth’s choicest subject, however, was himself. His autobiographical epic, The Prelude; or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind, records an intelligence hungry for truth and examining every remembered sensation, impulse, motive, hope, failure, anxiety, and exaltation it has ever known, trying to determine the best life possible for a soul such as his. Apparently unaware of The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Wordsworth wrote of his poem to a friend in 1805 that it was “a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.” The Prelude is now considered his masterpiece, but it was published only after his death in 1850. He labored over it for decades, composing some brief fragments by 1799, a version in thirteen books in 1805, and the final product in fourteen books nobody knows exactly when. His greatest conception, an even longer, philosophically more ambitious poem, The Recluse, never approached completion; and because Wordsworth thought of The Prelude as merely “portico” to this magnificent castle in the air, he refused to let it see print while he lived.
One of the most telling episodes in The Prelude details a roadside encounter, during his tramp through France, with an impoverished young girl, truly one of les misérables. His companion is Captain Michel-Armand Beaupuy, a young aristocrat descended from Montaigne on his mother’s side, devoted to justice for the poor:
And when we chanced
One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl
Who crept along, fitting her languid self
Unto a heifer’s motion—by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the girl with her two hands
Was busy knitting in a heartless mood
Of solitude—and at the sight my friend
In agitation said, “’Tis against that
Which we are fighting,” I with him believed
Devoutly that a spirit was abroad
Which could not be withstood, that poverty,
At least like this, would in a little time
Be found no more, that we should see the earth
Unthwarted in her wish to recompense
The industrious, and the lowly child of toil . . .
This passage seems at once to possess the supple, eloquent ease of excellent prose and to suggest the inspired, flowing utterance of an uncontrollable force speaking through Wordsworth: the Spirit of the Age.
At times, Wordsworth cannot help comprehending public upheavals within his personal experience. Politics often dominates his account of his time in France, particularly as the indiscriminate slaughter of the Reign of Terror turned him from enthusiastic celebrant of the beautiful secular faith to horrified apostate:
Domestic carnage now filled the whole year
With feast-days; old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the bosom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field—all perished, all—
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall.
The accelerating cascade and studied jumble of the verse perfectly evoke the unending procession of victims, the severed heads tumbling one after another into a basket full to the brim.
But it is the “growth of the poet’s mind” (the subtitle of the poem) that matters most. A passage in book VI speaks to Wordsworth’s deepest spiritual desires and indicates where the permanence he failed to find in natural piety, as well as the idealism the Revolution inspired and then crushed, might be discovered. As Wordsworth and his traveling companion near the renowned Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartreuse high in the French Alps, “a place / Of soul-affecting solitude,” the hot-blooded tumult of the revolutionary moment menaces the perfect peace of the cloister:
. . . our eyes had seen,
As toward the sacred mansion we advanced,
Arms flashing, and a military glare
Of riotous men commissioned to expel
The blameless inmates, and belike subvert
That frame of social being, which so long
Had bodied forth the ghostliness of things
In silence visible and perpetual calm.
—“Stay, stay your sacrilegious hands!”—The
Was Nature’s, uttered from her Alpine throne;
I heard it then and seem to hear it now—
“Your impious work forbear, perish what may,
Let this one temple last, be this one spot
Of earth devoted to eternity!”
Wordsworth’s heart responds and extols the revolutionary zeal for liberty and justice, which will purge with righteous fire “the loftiest towers of Pride” and fulfill the decree of “angry Providence.” But the poet implores that the monastery and its monks be spared, for one result of their severe religious discipline is “to equalise in God’s pure sight / Monarch and peasant.” Thus the cloistered life attains the egalitarian perfection that the Revolution can but dimly approach. The Revolution is commonly no respecter of the truths of Christianity, which it associates with oppression, but the contemplative seclusion Wordsworth describes is of unexceptionable purity, undertaken “for the sake / Of conquest over sense, hourly achieved / Through faith and meditative reason, resting / Upon the word of heaven-imparted truth, / Calmly triumphant.” Here is a faith richer and more durable than natural piety, though the voice of Nature authorizes it. It relies upon reason and recognizes the authority of biblical revelation and partakes of eternity. This is not typical Wordsworth, but the rapt serenity of this form of worship appears to answer his soul’s true need more nearly than some of his more customary enthusiasms. It seems he found something better here than his own soul was capable of.
This is not to slight the Wordsworth more casual readers know and love: the author of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” and “Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”—the rare spirit who felt “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.” He was the poet who knew that “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.” This Wordsworth, “Nature’s Priest,” is truly magnificent.
Among Wordsworth’s contemporaries, however, some poets of genius took stern exception to his vision. John Keats averred in a letter that “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” is a different thing altogether from the genuine “Poetical Character,” whose exemplars have “no Identity,” and which Keats believed himself to embody. Keats was quite wrong about himself, and half-right at best about Wordsworth, who did fashion his poetic world out of his own feelings and was incapable of disinterested creation, but who also knew “That we have all of us one human heart.” William Blake for his part, writing in his copy of Wordsworth’s poems, annotated with savage scorn Wordsworth’s wish for lifelong natural piety: “There is no such Thing as Natural Piety Because The Natural Man is at Enmity with God”; and elsewhere in the margins of the book Blake calls Wordsworth “No Poet but a Heathen Philosopher at Enmity against all true Poetry or Inspiration.” Blake’s theology is unique to him and thoroughly bizarre, but one can see how a devout Christian might well take issue with Wordsworth’s enthusiasm for Nature or God (to set the objects of his worship in their proper order).
Yet to fault Wordsworth for doctrinal unsoundness is to pick a quarrel with a flower, or a sunset, or the living air. Better to be grateful for a genius like his, as he was grateful for the immemorial hills and waters of his beloved Lake District. The natural world lived vividly for him as it has for but a few down the ages. He felt the joys and sorrows of other men as he did his own. His was a natural beatitude that, whatever our convictions about man’s final end, cannot but inspire.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor of the New Atlantis.