William Wordsworth

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Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her.1

The name William Wordsworth is almost synonymous with 'nature poet' (and with the landscape of the English Lake District); paradoxically,

Wordsworth is also the 'poet of the self' (of the inner landscape). Indeed, when Wordsworth writes, 'Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her', we see him draw together his sense of external nature both as a ministering agent, one ministering 'to' the self, and as a patient recipient of the responses of the 'heart', receiving 'from' the inner landscape of the 'self' the promise of both their futures.2 Here is not the science but the experience of ecology.

Wordsworth's external and internal 'natures', while literally as old as the hills (and the Lakes of his native District), were startlingly new and paradoxical ones too. His reinvention of ancient nature worship or pantheism, for example, was both a challenge to and easily reconcilable with Christian humanism, Enlightenment individualism, the heady power and energy of the industrial age, and rural Toryism.

Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in West Cumberland, just outside the English Lake District. He grew up in the Lake District in Hawkshead near Esthwaite Lake; attended St John's College, Cambridge (1787-91); spent time in France during the early part of the French Revolution; came back to England and endured an emotional crisis of some five years' duration, precipitated by severed personal relationships, confused national loyalties, and a growing disillusionment with the progress of the French Revolution; lived in Racedown, Dorsetshire with his sister Dorothy, whose own mind and writing reveal a startlingly original though usually neglected contribution to environmental thought; and then moved with Dorothy to Alfoxden, Somersetshire (1797), to be near their new friend S.T.Coleridge. There, according to one traditional account, Wordsworth recovered, in his growing sense of a personal relationship to the natural rhythms and agency of the pastoral Somersetshire landscape, his sense of purpose.

Donald Worster writes, 'The Romantic approach to nature was fundamentally ecological; that is, it was concerned with relation, interdependence and holism.'3 For Wordsworth, these three concepts are as much psychological as ecological, a key correspondence in Wordsworth's most significant contribution to environmental thought: his steps to an ecology of mind and feeling. Indeed, in Somersetshire, his sense of the organic wholeness of nature appears to have grown out of his sense of a need for personal wholeness (whole=hale=health). However, as some critics suggest, Wordsworth's recovery was rather an escape from awkward political and personal responsibilities than an affirmation of an intrinsic wholeness in nature itself.4 Nonetheless, rather than undermining the centrality of Wordsworth to modern environmental philosophy, such controversy has served to keep him at its centre.

In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. To speak boldly, this book instituted a Copernican-like shift in poetry and in how we think about the relationship of our inner nature to (our?) outer nature. Copernicus replaced the geocentric (and human-centred) model of the solar system with a heliocentric model. While no such absolute shift is made in Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge seek in their early poetry to replace the anthropocentric model of experience with what today we would call a biocentric one: indeed, in this new view, 'experience' is a general biological category not just a human one. In 'Lines Written in Early Spring', from Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes,

The budding twigs spread out their fan

To catch the breezy air;

And I must think, do all I can,

That there is pleasure there. 4

If I these thoughts may not prevent,

If such be of my creed the plan,

Have I not reason to lament

What man has made of man? 8

Here, in a key biocentric image, 'the twigs' experience pleasure! This is, of course, a far cry from the mechanistic view of René Descartes (1596— 1650), who believed that animal cries are merely the organic equivalent of the squeaking gears of machines. However, even for Wordsworth, separating himself from Descartes' belief in the essential separation of matter and spirit (of 'pleasure' from 'twigs') is no easy task. When Wordsworth writes of the 'twigs' that he 'must think' (emphasis added [line 3]) '[t]hat there is pleasure there' (line 4), such a conclusion, he tells us in the same poem, is only after he does all he can ('do all I can' [line 3]) to prevent such an irrational thought. In dramatizing his own struggle to accept the biocentric view of experience, in using the words 'must think', Wordsworth implies that his thoughts are somehow beyond his control. In philosophical terms, he dramatizes his discovery that his thoughts are not, as in the Cartesian tradition, self-evident or immediately knowable. For Wordsworth, the mind is not fully present to itself but is always only to be understood as an encounter with the living agency of nature, an agency that Wordsworth later in Lyrical Ballads calls 'One impulse from a vernal wood'. As Charles S.Peirce (1839-1914) asserts, 'that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign'.5 Wordsworth's locating the agency of his own thoughts in part outside himself (that is, within his environment) represents a displacement of consciousness from the presumed internal locus of the rational Cartesian mind.6 Here is a key sense in which Lyrical Ballads represents a Copernican-like displacement.

Later, in Book IX of the long philosophical poem The Excursion (1814), Wordsworth presents us with a more developed image of his 'environmental mind'. The existence of such a mind entails something more than merely thinking about the environment. Wordsworth writes,

Whate'er exists hath properties that spread

Beyond itself, communicating good,

A simple blessing, or with evil mixed;

Spirit that knows no insulated spot,

No chasm, no solitude; from link to link, 5

It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds.

This is the freedom of the universe;

Unfolded still the more, more visible,

The more we know; and yet is reverenced least,

And least respected in the human Mind, 10

Its most apparent home.

While the 'human Mind' is a key node (or 'home' [line 11]) in this great web of being, 'being' always spreads beyond itself: 'I think; therefore, you are (or he, she, or it is)'. For Wordsworth, as for present-day ecologists and semioticians, a thing, a person, or an idea is always, in addition to itself, something other than or supplementary to itself. Therefore, as environmental scientist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1973: 'We can never do merely one thing'.7 Note in Wordsworth's passage above that the 'Spirit' (line 4) that circulates 'from link to link' (line 5), while not energy flowing through the links of a food chain, represents a spiritual recycling along a food chain of signification (or meaning). Here, then, Wordsworth offers us a precise psychological equivalent of a modern ecological process. Indeed, he offers us the psychology or experience of ecology before the science of ecology.

Today we understand that women, minorities and children suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution and other environmental degradations. It is thus no coincidence that the poems in Lyrical Ballads are not only about the tenets of an emerging 'environmental' manner of knowing or being but about female vagrants, displaced pastoralists, mad women, cold and hungry people, and even an 'Idiot Boy', in other words, the dispossessed and the voiceless. Another great central insight dramatized by Lyrical Ballads, then, is that environmental and social issues are inseparably linked, and thus Wordsworth has further reason to lament 'what man has made of man'.

Wordsworth settled at Grasmere, in the Lake District, with Dorothy in 1799, a move that marked a permanent return to the region, and married Mary Hutchinson (1802). Wordsworth became Poet Laureate in 1843. His places of residence and the literary landscape that he created in the Lake District became tourist attractions—the man and the place are now understood as inseparable.

The central drama of Wordsworth's poetry is the mutual creation of Being through the reciprocal relationship between an active 'self and an active 'nature', a relationship Wordsworth calls 'interchange' in The Prelude (1805 [1933]; 1850):

From Nature doth emotion come, and moods

Of calmness equally are Nature's gift:

Hence Genius, born to thrive by interchange

Of peace and excitation, finds in her

His best and purest friend.

Thus, nature is not just dead matter but a 'being', our 'best and purest friend', and, in other poems, a 'Power', a 'Presence', and a 'spirit': 'Touch—for there is spirit in the woods', writes Wordsworth in 'Nutting'.

Wordsworth, in 'Nutting' and elsewhere, takes what was for the ancient pantheist a spirit's individual embodiment in a particular object and transfers that individuality from the object itself to each human subject's (potential) individual response to that object. Wordsworth's great achievement, then, is to transform an outmoded pantheistic (spectator-spectacle) ontology of being into a modern (participant-observer) one:

the spirit indwells in the mutually constituting relationship between nature and human beings—not in the trees themselves. This is a view that while finding some sympathy in Enlightenment sensibility anticipates twentieth-century phenomenology, the philosophy of experience.

In 'Nutting', following a boy's 'savage treatment' of a 'shady nook of hazels', those trees 'patiently g[i]ve up/Their quiet being'. But as the boy says, 'Ere from the mutilated bower I turned', 'I felt a sense of pain when I beheld/The silent trees'. For Wordsworth, as for the present-day phenomenologist Drew Leder, 'the universal or the "spiritual" need not be conceived of as something opposed to the flesh and blood. The body itself proclaims spirit in our lives, that is, transcendence, mystery, and interconnection.'8 The body of the boy in 'Nutting' makes this proclamation. His 'pain' draws his attention to what was his own previously 'absent' body: when we do not hurt, our bodies often are in the background of our awareness. (Indeed, as Aldo Leopold later demonstrated, the hurts or 'wounds' of the body of the natural world are for many people below the threshold of their awareness.) The boy's new awareness of his own body (emerging out of the background of his self) parallels his awareness of the bodies of the trees (emerging out of the background of nature); these trees, once only a romantic 'nook' or 'bower', have become individuals. One body (the inner body of the boy) 'calls out' the other (the outer bodies of the trees), and vice versa. Importantly, the boy's inner body, his viscera, the gut from whence his pain comes, is as much a mystery to him and as outside his own control as the life forces of the 'body' of the external natural world, the 'shady nook of hazels'.9 Wordsworth's great achievement here is that two awarenesses (the two bodies, the two mysteries) become one for the boy. Thus the boy himself concludes the poem as if nature had a 'body' sensitive to touch: 'Then, dearest maiden, move along these shades/In gentleness of heart; with gentle hands/Touch'. Wordsworth helps us to embody the earth in our experience of it.

In the context of intellectual history, Wordsworth dramatizes in 'Nutting' and elsewhere what French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61) codifies more than a century later. As David Abram tells us, 'Merleau-Ponty sensed (1) that there was a unity to the visible-invisible world that had not yet been described in philosophy, that there was a unique ontological structure, a topology of Being that was waiting to be realized, and (2) that whatever this unrealized Being is, we are in its depths, and of it, like a fish in the sea, and that therefore it must be disclosed from inside'10—which in fact it was for the boy of 'Nutting'. From this perspective, to be put off by Wordsworth's 'egotistical sublime', as his poetic and personal (supposedly self-centred) orientation to outer nature was called in his time, is to fail to understand a great insight of Wordsworth's: environment cannot be conceived of as distinct from a unique individual and the uniqueness (and the unity and diversity) of that environment is only revealed through a parallel revelation of the uniqueness (and the unity and diversity) of the individual.

In today's parlance, Wordsworth's central interest in nature as agent and in the mutually constitutive or reciprocal relationship between the 'self' and 'nature' both anticipates and parallels the new interest on the part of nineteenth-century natural scientists in the analysis of reciprocal relations between 'organism' and 'environment'. For example, in the theory of ecological succession, plants are understood both to be fitted to particular environments and ultimately to change those environments so as to make them, ironically, more hospitable to the plants' competitors of the next generation. Living things are agents of environmental change—not merely passive objects. In ecological succession, too, all's well that ends well, as the process culminates in the creation of a climax or mature natural community: a place (a forest or field) of stability, protection, and quality—measured in part in the diversity of mutually interdependent plant and animal species and homes (habitats).11 Wordsworth, who invented the psychology of ecology before the invention of ecological science, writes similarly, in 'Tintern Abbey' (from Lyrical Ballads) and in The Prelude, about the growth (or personal succession) of his mind from the 'glad animal movements' of youth to the 'Abundant recompense' of a more thoughtful maturity in which 'the still, sad music of humanity' becomes Wordsworth's image for his renewed love of human nature when that nature is seen as a part of (not apart from) natural life.

Again, in terms that represent both a psychology and biology of 'becoming' (succession) over 'being', Wordsworth writes, 'Praise to the end! Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ' in his mind's development. Continuing in the tradition of a Wordsworthian or Romantic ecology, American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-63) picks up on Wordsworth's 'Praise to the end!' (exclamation point and all) for the title of a volume of poetry (1951) and for the eponymous poem in that volume, one that develops the implications of Wordsworth's ecology of mind (of his concern with the growth or succession of a poet's mind from stage to stage, in part through its reciprocity with an active nature) within the Darwinian tradition, 'the end!' being for Roethke and Darwin the goal-directedness (though not necessarily goal intention) of evolution. For the Wordsworthian Roethke, then, we not only succeed to the climax of our own mature self from youth (as for Wordsworth) but we see our individual lives as a climactic recapitulation of the youth of the world—which is our own. As Wordsworth writes about this active agent 'nature' and its goal-directedness, 'nature' is 'the nurse,/ The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul' ('Tintern Abbey'). Also, Wordsworth's continuous personal recreation and its emphasis on 'becoming' parallels and then presages Lamarck's and Darwin's models of continuous creation at the species level.

Wordsworth not only envisions a personal climax or maturity in his steps to an ecology of mind. He also envisions a community climax, a mature community of minds. In his pastoral poem 'Michael' and in his A Guide Through the District of the Lakes (1835, 5th edn), he describes the natural and cultural histories of the vale and the people of Grasmere. Wordsworth desired to preserve, as 'a sort of national property', the mature, interdependent natural and human communities of the 'Lake District', what he calls 'a perfect equality, a community of shepherds and agriculturalists'. This community, the product of a long succession of generations (as Wordsworth also details in the Guide), reflects in its social organization the old growth or climax values of stability, protection, and quality, aspects of its ecological organization. In a kind of paradigm for tensions in political ecology today, these ecological or conservation-oriented values may also be seen as conservative and elitist. Tim Fulford, for example, recently asks: '[C]an we derive a political lesson about the importance of ecological consciousness from a Wordsworth whose rural Toryism is included in the account?'12 Fulford refers in part to Wordsworth's desire—expressed in his Guide and in two letters to the Editor of the Morning Post (1844-5)—to protect (and preserve) the Lake District from vacationing industrial workers and the certain commercialization that would follow. This desire may be seen either as a significant anticipation of the British National Trust and Park System, as Jonathan Bate argues,13 or as a selfish elitism, a charge often levelled at upper-(middle-)class environmentalists today. More broadly, Wordsworth's politics of nature in the nineteenth century raise the important question for the twenty-first century of the extent to which political 'conservativism' and environmental 'conservation' (etymologically rooted as they are) are or should be ideologically aligned.

Wordsworth has recently been 'upgrade[d]' from nature poet to 'proto-ecologist'.14 However, in the Guide, Wordsworth appears more the ecologist than the proto-ecologist. Wordsworth speaks of 'plants' that are fashioned 'by those that have preceded them', and of a 'tree' that is 'compelled to conform itself to some law imposed upon it by its neighbors'—startling anticipations of the theoretical dimensions of ecological succession in that living things themselves—not just their environments—set their own limits for and act as their own agents of change. In conclusion, Wordsworth is the poet of the ecology of mind because he understood something of real ecology too.


1 'Tintern Abbey', lines 122-3.

2 See Michael Polanyi's 'From-to' structure as described in Drew Leder, The Absent Body, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 15-17, 1990.

3 Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 58, 1994.

4 See, for example, Jerome McGann, 'The Anachronism of George Crabbe', in The Beauty of Inflections, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 310-11, 1985.

5 'Some Consequences of Four Incapacities', in The Essential Peirce, Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, p. 54, 1992.

6 Elizabeth Fay argues, in ways that again help place Wordsworth at the centre of contemporary debates on the role of ecology (and nature generally) in the politics of the person and the state, that Wordsworth's poems perform the act of making their performance appear natural or purely descriptive. Much interest exists today about what is or isn't 'natural' about persons, governments and everything in-between. See Becoming Wordsworthian, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

7 Exploring New Ethics for Survival, London: Pelican, p. 38, 1973.

9 Here I apply to Wordsworth another of Drew Leder's phenomenological insights.

10 'Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth', in Minding Nature, Guilford: The Guilford Press, pp. 98-9, 1996.

11 Eugene Odum, in 'The Strategy of Ecosystem Development', Science, pp. 164, 262-70, 1969, first characterized old growth ecosystems according to these three terms.

12 'Wordsworth's "Yew-Trees": Politics, Ecology, and Imagination', Romanticism, 1 (2), p. 273.

13 Romantic Ecology, London: Routledge, pp. 10, 47ff, 1991.

14 Peter Coates, Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 134, 1998.

See also in this book

Clare, Darwin, Leopold

Wordsworth's major writings

Descriptive Sketches, 1793; ed. Eric Birdsall and Paul M.Zall, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Lyrical Ballads, 1798, with S.T.Coleridge; ed. W.J.B.Owen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lyrical Ballads, with Preface, 1800.

The Excursion, 1814; reprint edn, London: Cassell, Woodstock Books, 1991.

Collected Works, 1815; see The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, London: Macmillan & Co., 1988, on-line edn, July, 1999, Bartleby.com.

A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, 5th edn, 1835; see W.J.B.Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, 3 vols, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

The Prelude; or Growth of a Poet's Mind, 1805, 1850, 1933; see, for example, Jonathan Wordsworth (ed.), The Prelude: A Parallel Text, London: Viking Press, 1996.

The standard scholarly edition is Ernest de Selincourt (ed.), The Poetical Works of

William Wordsworth, 5 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958-65. The standard paperback is Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu (eds), William Wordsworth, Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1994. See also in paperback William Wordsworth: Selected

Poetry, Nicholas Roe (ed.), London: Penguin, 1992.

Further reading

Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Harrison, Robert Pogue, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1992.

Kroeber, Karl, Ecological Literary Criticism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Lacey, Norman, Wordsworth's View of Nature, Hamden, CT: Archon, 1965.

Meeker, Joseph W., The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology, New York: Scribners, 1972.


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  • nasih
    What are the nature gift to William Wordsworth?
    4 years ago
  • Diana
    What is natural environment in wordsworth perspective?
    4 years ago
  • innes
    How does nature mitigate pain in william wordsworth?
    1 year ago

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