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Wordsworth:Poet or Philosopher?


 

Wordsworth: Poet or Philosopher?

 

            The poetry of William Wordsworth reflects a journey of one man’s existence, and indeed, whether intentional or not, provides us with a keen insight into his life.  Wordsworth’s poetry means different things to different people. As a result, he wears many “hats”, as artist (artist in the sense of what he thought the purpose of art,) poet, and philosopher.  Depending on the period of his life that one might focus, his writing identity changes and evolves, sometimes dramatically, sometimes not, but nevertheless, refuses to be pigeon holed or conveniently labeled.  He could write very simple and innocent poems about flowers (The Daffodils), which in turn, enjoyed popularity through the masses, yet, might be discarded as childish and unsophisticated among his peers.  Those same peers who might have easily discarded his earlier work came to understand a deeper Wordsworth who (in the mind of Coleridge), could and should have become a voice of philosophy and reason.

            The problem is that Wordsworth was uncomfortable in the role of philosopher, and though prodded by Coleridge to write even more philosophical poetry as in The Recluse, Wordsworth was more comfortable (or concerned) with understanding himself, and as a byproduct, creating optimism for his readers.  Wordsworth would have preferred to live (and write) within the comfort of his youth, surrounding and glorifying nature.  It was unfortunate that life changes, such as the disillusionment of a young man traveling to London in hopes of triumph as an artist, or with more disillusionment and frustration from experiencing the French Revolution affected his ability to enjoy that which he had created.  Experiencing the death of his brother, children, and of relationships (his affair) served to make him try to recapture a sense of his earlier self that had once found excitement, resilience and hope in the simplest and more beautiful forms of nature.

            It is through this discussion, we will examine Wordsworth’s personal and professional evolution. Using evidence from his work should help illuminate or provide an apt explanation to Wordsworth’s development from child to man.  He was deeply affected by poetry and his poetry deeply affected by his life experience. Wordsworth might provide a prime example for someone like Rorty who would say (Wordsworth) view of life’s reality were as through a mirror.  Wordsworth’s poetry could be seen as an effort to differentiate what is real or meaningful to him and what he might offer as real or meaningful through his work.  What can be immediately determined is that Wordsworth’s own life mirrored that of his poetry and reflected the intrinsic spiritual immortality of human nature. Wordsworth believed poetry should entertain and excite its readers. He thought first as an artist, one who wanted to please his audience, and in achieving that, provided the measure of his worth. There is no doubt of his talent and intellect, but intellect was not foremost to a man whose uniqueness might have resided in the ability to view the simplest works of nature with childlike wonder. So, we shall journey along with Wordsworth and witness a unique timeline representing the man through his poetry.

            Wordsworth’s childhood was cut short by the loss of his mother at the age of eight, and then his father by age of thirteen. He years before these losses were somewhat happy, having his brothers and sister Dorothy to play with.  The family lived by the river Derwent surrounded by valleys and beautiful breathtaking landscape. The children enjoyed the family’s garden and swimming in the river. Dorothy and Wordsworth both shared a unique closeness and love and were kindred spirits in their attraction for the beauty of nature. William would look back to these times for solace, unfettered as yet by the heartbreak of loss and separation that would follow. Immediately after his mother passed he was sent away from Dorothy and his family to a small farming village where he attended Hawkshead grammar school. Most of his friends were the sons of farmers and even though the village was poor, Wordsworth and his friends did enjoy outside activities, for there were rolling hills and a lake nearby.  For the most part he was alone, and his love for nature served to help ease the sadness of loss and solitude.  Wordsworth was an intelligent person and though not immediately motivated by school, he developed an interest in writing and found expression through poetry for which he had a natural talent.  Most of his earlier works were directly influenced by his love of nature, which in fact, represented to him hope and promise, for although he could count on little else, nature was always consistent. Wordsworth realized that his hopes to be successful might have to rely on this talent, for his father left little money for the boy to survive except some for education. Wordsworth used poetry in belief it might heal himself and provide sustenance for others, as noted by Paul Zall in “Literary Criticism of William Wordsworth.

“Wordsworth’s chief concern is with the capability of poetry to restore man’s spiritual powers by bridging the gap between the world about him and the world within. (Zall xiii).”

 

As mentioned, his first writings were very simple and unsophisticated.  He had an uncanny ability to find beauty and wonderment in the simplest of things and like a child that never lost their innocence in that wonder, was able to transfer that excitement into writing.  In his poem “To the Daisy” Wordsworth can take an object as simple as a flower and give it some kind of mystical power to heal, as only he might have noticed and others might only have taken for granted.

            “Sweet flower! for that by name at last, when all my reveries are past,

            I call the, and to that cleave fast, Sweet silent Creature! That breath’st

            With me in sun and air, Do thou as thou art won’t, repair My heart with

            Gladness, and a share Of thy meek nature.”  (40).

 

For Wordsworth, every part of nature lived and breathed. He capitalizes the word creature giving the daisy recognition for being an entity and deserving a sort of respect that would elude most of us. In its “meek nature” the flower can “repair” his heart and heal his soul with happiness.  Wordsworth would focus on the simplest and what should be obvious to most, “creatures” of nature, writing prose about butterflies, and birds. He could also bring life to landscape, making clouds and stones live and breath in our minds as if everything was part of his own family.  Because of the experience of solitude with nature for a prolonged part of his childhood, and then as he grew to understand more about human nature as an adult, Wordsworth would claim this was instrumental in his understanding of life in general. By getting to know one part of nature before the other, (human) he was able to have a keener grasp of the world.

“To the seclusion of his earliest years he traced two benefits. In the first place, for a longer period than most youths, he had enjoyed an experience of the natural world in which the free creative activity of the senses was not impeded or deadline by custom and convention. Secondly, such acquaintance as he had made with man had been so conditioned that the form of man appeared always against a background of what was pure or solemn or sublime. (Garrod  36.)

           

            It is quite an attribute to the young man to have lost his parents at such a young age and still remain unfettered by cynicism.  Wordsworth was able to retain a certain childlike naivete to produce such works as “To the Butterfly” or “To the Daisy”.  It was the strength of his imagination and even more, his memory, that gave him power to connect his inward feelings and outward reactions in making sense of who he was and what the world was and could be. He maintained for the greater part of his life a sense of optimism, for it was nature that made the connection between his thoughts of himself and his perception of other. As nature is in never ending circle of regeneration, so to is mankind, and no matter the sadness or separation, Wordsworth believed the spirit of mankind would forever be rekindled and his thoughts were to infuse that growth with poetry.

            Wordsworth’s initial success would represent a double-edged sword. While the majority of people enjoyed his focus on the simple forms of nature and his popularity grew according to the masses, among his peers he was viewed as less than sophisticated.

He was considered a children’s poet, and probably incapable of writing something important to deal with the philosophy of man. Wordsworth was still in an earlier stage of his growth both as poet and as a man, and would have been quite happy to remain there.

[…] “for it is the wide popularity and familiarity of such apparently innocent poems that lead the sophisticated to neglect Wordsworth, and to regard him as a poet for children or for a very special group of nature-lovers. If the poem records Wordsworth’s love of flowers and the pleasure that gave him, and achieves nothing more, it may be dismissed as innocent, and childlike, but slightly ludicrous.”  (Durrant 124).

 

            Wordsworth left grammar school and with what little money he had he went to Cambridge University.  He was not known for his desire for studies, even in developing his abilities as a writer and grew weary of education.  He did manage to acquire his BA, in spite of the time spent on as many “getaways” to the countryside.  He considered making a living as a tutor or joining the army but found anything but hiking, sightseeing and poetry distasteful.  Wordsworth would go on to settle in London, living some form of bohemian existence, hardly any money, hoping to become a celebrity of his poetry and perhaps earn a living.  What he got was an eye-opening experience into life in the big city, the loneliness and separation from family that ensued and perhaps his first insight into the “huddle of masses” and human nature.  Those concepts were also represented in his works from that period as in “Written in London 1802”.

“O Friend! I know not which I must look For comfort, being as I am, opprest, To think now our life is only drest For Shew; mean handywork of craftsman, cook or Groom! We must run like a Brook In the open sunshine, or we are unblest: No grandeur now in nature or book Delights us.” […]  (10)

 

The beauty that Wordsworth would find was in the poem “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” in a London that was asleep in early hours of morning when “that mighty heart is lying still!”   Wordsworth was as a fish out of water in London. He couldn’t comprehend a place where so many men could reside as strangers, and he, as stranger among men. In “The Prelude Book Seven Residence in London, he describes himself through the boy Whittington, and the feeling of being “changed” in purpose as a result.

                        “A change in purpose of young Whittington, When he is in friendlessness,

a drooping boy, Sate on a stone, and heard the bells ring out Articulate music. Above all, one thought Baffled my understanding, how men lived Even next door neighbors, as we say, yet still Strangers, and knowing not each others names.”  (110).

 

If there was a recurring theme throughout Wordsworth’s life and his poetry, it would be reliance of his memory to transport him back to the happier moments of his childhood.

He lived and breathed within his imagination, a constant refrain that he employed to ease a troubled and world-weary soul.  He was for every practical purpose a simple man who came from simple beginnings and would never adapt to the coldness of London. The city only brought loneliness and sapped his creativity. As K.E. Sullivan points out in “Wordsworth the Eternal Romantic” life was slowly degenerating his dream, and the memory that had once provided support started to blur under the weight of adulthood.

“By 1816 Wordsworth became increasingly unhappy and his work less and less remarkable. He longed for the fresh innocence of his early years, where his innate belief in the beauty of all that surrounded him provided him with unending inspiration and hope.”  (Sullivan 10).

 

            Wordsworth had already embraced social reform through the French revolution and as an impressionable young man fresh out of the university, he completely embraced French idea of revolt against the monarchy.  It was an exciting time and he felt he had found a purpose within human kind, a chance to embrace human nature in a quest for equality and freedom.  The same excitement and feeling of purpose would quickly escape as he witnessed the Terror and defiance turn to aggression.  Wordsworth tried to understand what he thought was the evil of society only to come understand the evil within man.  It was more than difficult for him to find the “silver lining” or reason for optimism when confronted by a more malicious and seedy form of nature-that of mankind.  The French Revolution served to make Wordsworth realize the importance he respected and when confronted with violence he never wavered on his own ideal, as written in “I grieved for Buonaparte”.

“Tis not in battles that from youth we train The governor who must be wise and good, And temper with the sternness of the brain Thoughts motherly, and meek as womanhood.  (10)

 

Wordsworth was like a child whose innocence was shattered.  Man had tainted belief in the inherent goodness of nature.  He sought refuge within himself because he was uncomfortable to live among the reality of society.  He felt no justification to explain only to evade, for he could not relate to this other world.  As Jones states in “The Egotistical Sublime: A History of Wordsworth’s Imagination” he did not have a philosophical answer for society, nor was he searching for one.

Wordsworth did not want a philosophical deus ex machina whereby to explain how the world was made: he was face to face with suffering and love, the vast consequences of will and passion. […] a vague awareness of tension encouraged him in the anti-intellectualism of his early years; and although he had no precise notion of the intellectual issues involved, there is sometimes audible in his poetry a kind of prose voice, insisting on the gulf between creator and created.  (Jones 37).

 

Wordsworth’s idea of philosophy came from his own experience and he constantly relied on the past to explain the present. In a way, he thought he held the answer or at least a good answer for the problems of men.  It was a simple answer, for the in the mind of Wordsworth, he thought that the way to approach the problem were through romantic notion, a return to nature.  Perhaps that is why he chose to write (as he said) in a more common language using rustic figures in his stories.  He felt that “people of the earth” farmers and shepherds, held a more pure understanding of life, something that men who grew up in the hustle and bustle of the city could never comprehend.  There was too much distraction in city life, and to be grounded and at peace with one’s inward and outward self, it was better to look at things in a more natural, unsophisticated light.

            Perhaps it was Wordsworth’s relationship with Coleridge that convinced him his concept of dealing with the world was the proper way.   Coleridge met Wordsworth at the age of twenty-four, yet had already been introduced to the poets works while attending Cambridge.  For Coleridge, Wordsworth embodied some sort of magical ability to express emotions and thoughts that he (Coleridge) could not to readily conjure up. Coleridge was immediately impressed in Wordsworths ability to apply a childlike interpretation to life and equally impressed by the tension in his writing. As Coleridge expresses himself in his book “Biographia Literaria”:

                        “To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to

combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar: […] this is the character and privilege of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish genius from talents.”  (Coleridge  49).

 

Coleridge was immediately able to pinpoint the strengths of Wordsworth’s vision, and while he would become an ardent admirer of Wordsworth, he would also become frustrated in his hopes to direct Wordsworth toward creating a deeper philosophical statement in his work.   Actually, Coleridge eventually moves to a cottage in Stowey to become closer to his friend even though they shared some profound differences in their philosophy concerning the French Revolution.  While Wordsworth had embraced the “Rights of Man” even at the chance of being a political stranger in his own country of England, Coleridge vehemently regarded the uprising of the individual against government as “forfeiting the rights of citizenship.”  Coleridge understood that topics of discussion between Wordsworth and himself were unlikely to include such political belief, as he describes Wordsworth’s interest in such things at that period in time.

“His conversation extended to almost all subjects, except physics and politics with the latter he never troubled himself.”  (Coleridge 102.)

 

Coleridge had already come to the conclusion that his own work might not be able to sustain him, and that he felt he would never enjoy the popularity of a poet in the way of someone like Wordsworth.  Perhaps he saw a chance to be a part or influence through Wordsworth own work, and Coledridge would actually push Wordsworth into the identity of philosopher.  Wordsworth might have already thought of himself as a kind of philosopher, but not of the type Coleridge invisioned. Wordsworth’s “philosophy” was well suited to his own internal experience and nature, but he (Wordsworth) was more likely to have to be pulled “kicking and screaming” to provide commentary on any other subject.  Wordsworth was neither interested nor motivated to be the voice of Coleridge.

That isn’t to say that Wordsworth wasn’t influenced by Coleridge’s discussions of Plato, neo-Platonists and of other Christian philosophical notion. In fact, he was eventually convinced that he could make a unique statement on nature and mankind.  Unfortunately his attempt to write the “one” philosophical statement in the poem “The Recluse” and another in “The Excursion” but neither poem was able to put it all Wordsworth’s “new” philosophy into a stable coherent statement.  Wordsworth has assimilated a lot from Coleridge, and deep within himself he thought he understood the problems within society and their cure, which he hoped to provide, but the truth was that Wordsworth was unprepared to “wield such a mighty sword.”  In the end, The Recluse” was never completed and “The Excursion” failed Coledrige’s expectation as suggested by Coleridge in “The Egotistical Sublime: A History of Wordsworth’s Imagination” by John Jones.

“Coleridge explains that his disappointment with the Excursion is due partly to Wordsworth’s failure to write the Christian poem he had hoped for, and partly to his refusal to strive towards certain philosophical conclusions.  (Jones 40).

 

            Even though the two poets enjoyed one another’s company, and did manage to cooperate on writing together, this was also a period of time when Wordsworth had been reunited with his beloved sister Dorothy. The two were to spend much time together enjoying their common love of nature, and there is no doubt that Dorothy’s calming affect on Wordsworth acted as a healing process for his disillusionment. He was tired of politics; his life and career had taken a different direction away from past disappointment.  It may have been difficult, even with someone as strong an influence as Colderidge must have been, to write such important philosophical statements from the comfort of a country estate in the companionship of Dorothy.  In the end, Coledridge’s declining health and his disinfatuation or disappointment with Wordsworth led to Coledridge leaving Stowey and the two poets relationship declined to the point to which they were to rarely if every maintain contact.  Wordsworth would get married, lose a brother, which deeply affected him, and also the loss of two children would be almost too much for him to bear. In discussion of the “Prelude” and in his book “The Art of Wordsworth.” Larcelles Abercrombie talks about Wordsworth’s mental state at this point of his life.

“He had grown up with the love of nature; he had gone out into the world of affairs and come to grief; he had attended a young man’s fervor upon the French Revolution, and suffered disillusionment; he as tried to work his way out of his sickness by intellectual decisions, and failed; and in the end it took a return to nature of his early days to heal him.”  (Abercrombie  102).

                       

            The same powers that had sustained Wordsworth, giving him joy, a reason to express any type of thing which others might define as a philosophy, were his experiences with nature and his uncanny ability to relive the past.  Wordsworth would find influence from many different sources during his life, and though he would try to employ the lessons learned by Coleridge, and Captain Beaupuy; in the end it was his own conceived ideals that he would hold most rigorously to.  These ideals would form the basis for his life and for the poetry he would create, a constant theme that defined the world of Wordsworth. In “Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787 1814” Geoffrey Hartman echoes this sentiment.

“It is sometime forgotten that Wordsworth’s poetry looks back in order to look forward to the better.  The poet’s great hope lies in the unviolent regeneration, and nature appears to him in the light of a hope which nature itself originally kindled.  (Hartman  290).

 

And as for the influences of the French Revolution and all the other influences of  Wordsworth’s lifetime, he stubbornly would hold on to his own beliefs, open to suggestion, but in the end doggedly refusing to budge from the confidence that he knew what was right for him (and perhaps egotistically, for mankind).  He tried to balance his doctrine of pantheism with that of Christian belief, sometimes effectively, though understanding that it was unorthodox. Yet in the end he would only accept what conclusions he himself had created, in little bit and pieces stitched together on a quilt that utilized both fancy and imagination.  His use of any understanding or philosophy was dependent in regards to its contribution as something worthy to himself, as Zall points out in his “Literary Criticism of William Wordsworth.”

“As in the forms of nature are symbols of some higher order, so Wordsworth displays them, “not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses and to the passions.” 9 In this aspect, nothing in nature exists in absolute singleness, but in the context of past experiences and in the relation to the present state of the mind perceiving it (as dramatically projected in “Tintern Abbey”).  (Zall  xiii).

 

            Wordsworth was a true artist and visionary. His strengths in that respect are due to his ability to appreciate even the smallest details of nature and in his ability to retain the vision, but to approach life while maintaining a sort of childlike interest.  These strengths would begin to fail him in his later years, much the result from loss, mourning and disillusionment with society and the course of mankind.  He would spend the latter part of his life in an effort to rekindle the excitement and wonder of his earlier youth, but the experience of life had left him tired and drained of his once fertile imagination. He would not compose another documented poem in the last forty-five years of his existence.

It could be said of Wordsworth that he was one that was to good for this world, gentle, nonviolent nature that only sought out the beauty of the external only to be richly dressed within his imagination for safekeeping.  He was not so much the philosopher that others would claim, but an artist and poet whose art and poetry’s innocence would be shattered and degenerate over time.  Had Wordsworth remained in some small village near the river Derwent surrounded by deep green valleys and wondrous landscape, or allowed freedom to wander on some continual excursion noting while writing a chronicle championing the importance of common and rustic existence, then his artistry might have flourished over the course of his life.  The reality is that the impatience of youth, to become celebrated or at the least self-sufficient, exposed Wordworth to something far less soul nurturing than the glorification of a flower or butterfly, the nature of mankind.

                       

                       

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Abercrombie, Lascelles. The Art of Wordsworth. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (Edit. Watson, George) Biographia Literaria. London:

J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd., 1975.

Durrant, Geoffrey. Wordsworth and the Great System: A Study of Wordsworth’s Poetic

            Universe. London: Cambridge-at the University Press, 1970.

 

Garrod, H. W. Wordsworth: Lectures and Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.

 

Jones, John. The Egotistical Sublime: A History of Wordsworth’s Imagination. London:

Chatto and Windus, 1954.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814. New Haven and London: Yale

University Press, 1964.

Sullivan, K.E. Wordsworth The Eternal Romantic. London, Brockhampton Press, 1996.

Zall, Paul M. Literary Criticism of William Wordsworth. Lincoln, Nebraska: University

            of  Nebraska Press, 1966.

 

 

 

                        


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