Words worth the wonder
He opened a beautiful world to us, full of unimagined vistas of bright days, warm radiant sun beams on white hill tops, sweet scented breeze, gurgling brooks, cool thickets, and merry daffodils. When it came to describing Mother Earth and her bounteous Nature, William Wordsworth had a magical touch.
Nature was his cradle as William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cumberland, a picturesque countryside in England’s Lake Region. The rolling hills, the crystal clear lakes and the green meadows were the playing fields of his growing up years.
Wordsworth felt a sense of intimacy with Nature right from his childhood. Among his first most significant sonnets is ‘Written in Very Early Youth’
in which he jots: “Calm is all nature as a resting wheel.
The kine are couched upon the dewy grass;
The horse alone, seen dimly as I pass,
Is cropping audibly his later meal:
Dark is the ground; a slumber seems to steal
O`er vale, and mountain, and the starless sky.”
Being orphaned at 17, he was taken under the patronage of his uncles and sent to Cambridge, where he contemplated several careers but couldn’t set his heart on any one. Church did not hold his fascination; he toyed with the idea of military, but feared diseases such as yellow fever would consume him in some far off postings rather than a heroic death on the battlefield. Law, he felt, was out of question.
So undecided, he spent a year in London but kept pining all the while for the lushness of the countryside. He would sometimes spend time in reminiscence of much sunshine and cheer that his thoughts would delight him even in his dullest moments. Perhaps no other piece has so much gaiety packed in it than the one on a sweep of laughing bright yellow ‘Daffodils’:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o`er vales and hills.
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…..
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 his youth, Wordsworth got a chance to travel to Switzerland and France, at a time when the ring of rebellion was reverberating in the country. From the revolution arose the chants of equality and cries for demolishing the bastions of the privileged. Much affected, the young Wordsworth was keen to be a part of the revolution. Prevented by his uncles, he continued to keep a close tab on events in France, but the bloody turn to the revolt left Wordsworth dejected and miserable.
English writer and literary critic William Hazlit writes in his book ‘The Spirit of the Age’ that the Wordsworth school of poetry “had its origin in the French Revolution... It was a time of promise, a renewal of the world — and of letters”. A man does find peace in the embrace of serenity when the war drums have fatigued his senses to the end. Vague as it may sound, but after witnessing politically tumultuous and violent struggles, connecting with Nature may have been Wordsworth’s way of rejuvenation.
This is best reflected in his famous 19 poems called Lyrical Ballads,
which are considered seminal in his oeuvre on Nature and were written jointly with his long term associate and friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poems were first published as ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’:
“Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man`s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man`s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.”
Back in England, Wordsworth reunited with his beloved sister Dorothy and took a home in the Lake Region. A beneficent gift in the form of a legacy from a friend and later a repayment from Lord Lonsdale of an amount owed to his father helped him submit to his first love, poetry, with a free mind. After two years they moved to the scenic Dorsetshire and also spent a winter in Germany.
Wordsworth and his sister then returned back to the Lake Region, where he took up the ‘Dove Cottage’ before moving to a larger residence and getting married to Mary Hutchinson, with whom he had five children. It was this particular area of England, which was not just very beautiful, but also greatly loved by Wordsworth and an inspiration for most of his work on Nature.
It was here that he extensively explored the seasons and the changing hues of the day and night. In the ‘It was an April Morning: Fresh and Clear’
“It was an April morning: fresh and clear
The Rivulet, delighting in its strength,
Ran with a young man`s speed; and yet the voice
Of waters which the winter had supplied
Was softened down into a vernal tone.” Once when the gloaming auburn had darkened into the night, Wordsworth wrote ‘How Beautiful the Queen of Night’:
“How beautiful the Queen of Night, on high
Her way pursuing among scattered clouds,
Where, ever and anon, her head she shrouds
Hidden from view in dense obscurity.
But look, and to the watchful eye
A brightening edge will indicate that soon
We shall behold the struggling Moon
Break forth,--again to walk the clear blue sky.”
Wordsworth is counted among the first of the breed of Romantic writers. What stands out in this genre is a prominently discernable attempt to breakaway from the past. The work of the Romantics has an element of freshness and quality which touches the heart. There is an aspiration of unity with the elements and desire for self fulfillment. This is illustrated in Wordsworth’s ‘Poem lyrics of Influence of Natural Objects’:
“Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul, that art the Eternity of thought!
And giv`st to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! not in vain,
By day or star-light, thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man;
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature”
What is unique about Wordsworth’s relationship with Nature is that it has two dimensions. There is one aspect when we have extensive descriptions of the physical aspects of Nature – like the bright light of morning over valleys, and clear blue skies, to the softly murmuring rivulets, dew on morning grass and pearly beads on colourful petals.
Then there is another facet where he has in some way associated Nature with divinity, besides being a sensitive interpreter and portrayer of her multiple manifestations. Wordsworth is considered among the greatest five or six English poets, who gave spiritualism an expression in poetic stanzas.
As an avid lover of these natural gifts, he may have unknowingly taught us the profound lesson of equality; where the chirping of a little sparrow gives equal thrill as the ripples of a tremulous lake or a song of the ‘Solitary Reaper’.
All protagonists of Mother Nature are equally cherished.
“Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.”
This dimension of an underlying unity in the entire creation helps us to interpret better the play of the divine. It teaches us humility; it helps us see the importance and sublimity of that which we may have dismissed as insignificant. Wordsworth seems, in a way, closer to Indian thought and philosophy wherein we see God in everything around us. Through all his rambling and penning, his communion with Nature may have been his form of prayer to the Lord; his most transcendental expression of his inner feelings…. From ‘Lyrical Ballads’:
“In darkness, and amid the many shapes
Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the wood
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.”
Wordsworth faced several ups and downs in his career and also some personal tragedies like the loss of his sister’s memory and the death of Coleridge. With passing years, he is believed to have abandoned all radical ideas of his youth and become a conservative man. His contribution to poetry and talent were duly recognized and he was conferred the title of poet laureate on the death of his friend and neighbour Robert Southey in 1843, who was the previous laureate.
While in later years, Wordsworth moved away from his near obsession with Nature, she never really ceased to be a part of him. In his deepest thoughts he was well convinced that when his last remains mingle in the soil, and he becomes one with Nature, will he really find real lasting peace and joy….. From ‘Lyrical Ballads’:
“Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten`d:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul.”
William Wordsworth died in 1850 at the age of eighty. But in his lifetime itself he brought for us, through his poetry on Nature, heaven a little closer…. (William Wordsworth’s death anniversary is on April 23, a day after Earth Day)