Wordsworth: 200 Years On

WORDSWORTH: BEHIND THE LINES

WORDSWORTH might be best remembered for his ‘Daffodils’, (or ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’), the revised version of which was published 200 years ago, but the man behind the lines was once inspired by revolution and fervour, quite apart from the seeming ‘tranquil’ subjects of his later verse.

Wordsworth was part of the so-called Romantic tradition of poetry, that branch of poetry which reacted against the formalism of the Augustan (Georgian) period, and which put man, nature and the imagination, the very watchword of the Romantics, at the heart of poetry.

Wordsworth was one of the first tranche of the so-called Big Six Romantics: Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge in the first tranche, followed by Shelley, Keats and Byron, all literary geniuses.

The curious essence of nature and man’s relationship to it lie at the heart of the Romantic tradition with man and the ‘self’, and man’s reactions to the power of nature at the centre of expression.

The later 1700s were very different to today and revolution was very much in the air  - and atomic science was still in its infancy.

Augustinism, the artistic term which covered much of the Georgian period, had expressed itself via formality, the grand palaces of the landed gentry, and the very formal garden designs of Capability Brown and the like.

Its poets such as Alexander Pope and co looked back to the classical forms of the Roman period – and architecture found expression in the form of the neo-Classical, extending to gardens and formal layouts. A form of manicured Nature as it were, against which the Romantics baulked.

The English government under which Blake and Wordsworth lived was either embroiled in continental warfare – or obsessed with repressing dissent, both internally and abroad.

But the London and country of the last decade of the 18thC  - a city and state in which the traditional English liberties of a free press, free speech and the right of assembly were frequently denied  - began to experience the kind of social unrest  that had already overthrown the French social order, and which would also be manifest in the American revolution.

The English elite could only react by reinforcing their long held traditions of re-enforcing land, estate, church and the social hierarchy - not all that far removed from the inheritances of the feudal system of the medieval period which had God, the court, and the aristocracy at the top of a hierarchical pyramid of society.

The revolutions of France and America not only threatened to break a particular tier in that pyramid – whether one still believed in its existence or not (some still maintain it has never gone away) – but to actually shatter the whole pyramid – formal gardens, grand palaces et al altogether.

The so-called Enlightenment had been gathering pace.  Broadly, thanks to discoveries in science – principally the theories of Newton and others – and in social structure – the thoughts of Rousseau and Thomas Paine - people began for the first time to question the dominance of God, the crown, and associated dogma.

Galileo had started the scientific process in observing the moons of Jupiter, questioning the idea of man (in God’s image at that) being at the centre of everything.

Thomas Paine’s highly influential The Rights of Man (1791), was a direct reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine has previously been in America where he had encouraged the colonists to push for independence and to break free from the yolk of English rule. It didn’t take long.

His Age of Reason in 1793 was an attack on Christianity and the Bible and led him to being burned in effigy in England. He settled in France where he was warmly received by liberal minded quarters, though narrowly escaping the guillotine. 

It was against this background that the Romantic tradition emerged, across the arts.

The Romantics saw and felt things ‘brilliantly afresh’ and virtually reinvented certain landscapes in the minds of their readers – The English Lakes, the bays of Italy, and the Alps.

Wordsworth himself was no stranger to revolution. As a young man he graduated from Cambridge after living for some time in a large, if slightly repressive mansion, his father being the legal representative to the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, James Lowther.

In November 1791 Wordsworth visited Revolutionary France and became enthralled with the Republican movement.

He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, who in 1792 gave birth to their child, Caroline.

Because of lack of money and Britain's tensions with France he returned alone to England the next year

The circumstances of his return and his subsequent behaviour  - he was wracked by guilt and anxiety - raised doubts as to his declared wish to marry Annette, but he supported her and his daughter as best he could in later life. The Reign of Terror estranged him from Republican France, and war between France and Britain prevented him from seeing Annette and Caroline again for several years. 

But critics have suggested that it may have been his experiences in France, combined with the formality of his very youthful days, which might have initiated the first spark of a Romantic sensibility.

In some circles in the 20th and 21C, Wordworth’s poems have attracted what one might call something of a ‘twee’ reputation.  

But this is quite removed from the style and intention of much of his poetry.

His magnum opus, The Prelude (first published 1805), a long poem which has as its central conceit the notion of the literally awesome power of nature (and in fact the universe) is exemplified by the majesty of the Lakes, for example.

It is a work which essentially examines the relationship between man and Nature, the insignificance of the former in relation to such, but also, to man’s credit, his ability to ‘feel’ and express the power of such through his emotions and perceptions of such, and through the force of imagination of the poet’s mind.

Shakespeare and Milton had already expressed such to a degree in the Renaissance period of the 16th C but the Romantics took the notion to heightened levels – indeed they believed in a thing called the ‘Romantic sublime’.

The ‘sublime’ in a literary sense marked a movement away from the stark and often visually marbled neo-Classicism of the early 18thC, towards an appreciation of the power, solitude, and vastness of nature – and often a quite terrifying one, which was set in relief by subtle shades of light.

Unlike some precursors who realised they were not alone in the universe but shared it with ‘God’ and man, Wordsworth finds himself essentially alone in such, confronted by the majesty of nature.

He describes, in The Prelude, being alone in a rowing boat on a large lake, and then being confronted by peaks which themselves are overshadowed by a dark, threatening mountain which looms over everything, almost in a menacing form.

‘And growing still in stature the grim shape/ Towered up between me and the stars, and still, / For so it seemed, with purpose of its own/ And measured motion like a living thing/Strode after me.’

Wordsworth’s early poems are not especially Christian in outlook, though closer to such perhaps than any other writer of his time; his particular trinity seems to have been one of nature, the imagination and an unnamed third presence – the ‘mystery’ in essence.

Before the empiricism of chemical science and with a limited knowledge of the chemical elements, how else might man react to the greatness of Nature (with a capital N) we might ask, other than to embody ‘it’ with some sort of transcendental life force, rather than just a conglomeration of atoms?

In his earlier pastoral poem Michael, he describes the dignity of a shepherd, a ‘natural’ man, one uncorrupted by urban society; describing in effect a covenant between Michael and Nature and Michael and his son.

It was the suggestion that man should look to nature for the true beauty or (perhaps) solution to the mystery of life - far away from city, parliament and pulpit -  that permeated his poetry throughout his life.

Some have suggested that before Wordsworth poetry had a ‘subject’; after Wordsworth, the subject was the poet’s own subjectivity –a trend which would lead on to the inner focussed modernism of later years.

Later on in life Wordsworth was viewed by some as becoming a ‘lost leader’ of the Romantic tradition.

Coming into a significant inheritance in later years, after his ‘Great Decade’ (1797-1807), he later went into something of a decline, though perhaps in the most benign sense. To others he simply ‘froze’.

He settled in 1799 at Grasmere with Dorothy and married in 1802, with Coleridge, his great friend,  not far away.

But sorrows began to shadow him. His brother John drowned in 1805 when his ship  - the Earl of Abergavenny - went down; and his friendship with Coleridge was threatened by a dreadful quarrel in 1810 – though the pair would later tour the Rheinland together.

Two of his children died in 1812; he became outwardly well off and a political champion of the established order and the orthodoxy of the Church of England.

Whether he ‘sold out’ or not is open to interpretation and argument. After being made Poet Laureate, he was awarded a government pension. He died in 1850; his verse writing had already come to a standstill after the death of his daughter Dora in 1847.

But the power of his poetry still remains - with the power of man, nature and the imagination, and the power of the self at its heart; in the literary canon at least, the reverberation of the quiet revolution he and his contemporaries started is still being felt.   

MH

·         The poem was inspired by an event on 15 April 1802, in which Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy came across a "long belt" of daffodils. Written between 1804 and 1807 it was first published in 1807 in Poems in Two Volumes, and a revised version was published in 1815.

 

          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.

 

          Continuous as the stars that shine

           And twinkle on the milky way,

           They stretched in never-ending line

           Along the margin of a bay:

           Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

           Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 

          The waves beside them danced; but they

           Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

           A poet could not but be gay,

           In such a jocund company:

           I gazed--and gazed--but little thought

           What wealth the show to me had brought:

 

     

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.

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