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Confounding the religionist and sceptic alike

by
03 April 2020

William Wordsworth drew on the natural world to articulate a spiritual dimension to life, says Andrew Wordsworth

ALAMY

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) by Samuel Crosthwaite, oil on canvas, 1844

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) by Samuel Crosthwaite, oil on canvas, 1844

“THERE is little I hope in my poetry that does not breathe more or less in a religious atmosphere,” William Wordsworth wrote in a letter in 1842. Indeed, his great autobiographical poem The Prelude begins with a benediction — “Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze” — and ends, some 9000 lines later, by invoking a state of grace in which the human mind becomes “Of substance and of fabric more divine.”

In most of his verse, however, religious thinking is only implicit, and its vocabulary is muted, so that it is hard to know exactly what his beliefs were — to the point where his friend Henry Crabb Robinson said that Wordsworth’s religion “would not satisfy either a religionist or a sceptic”.

Wordsworth’s reluctance to define his attitude towards traditional Christian beliefs was shared by many artists and intellectuals of his time, as scientific discoveries made inroads into the basic assumptions underlying religious faith. His understanding of science was that of a layman, but it is clear that he took an interest in it. He read Newton’s Opticks in his teens, and had a lifelong admiration for the great physicist, whose writings about the laws governing the universe were clearly at odds with orthodox Christian doctrine.

Wordsworth’s abiding concern, however, was with man’s relation to nature, and his great desire was to understand the order in the universe as it expressed itself everywhere in nature. It is significant that, in 1798, the year in which Wordsworth first truly found his poetic voice, he read Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia. In it, Erasmus, grandfather of the more famous Charles, reflected on theories of evolution and postulated the existence of life “perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind”.

The idea that the natural world could be the result of a process rather than the revelation of a divine mystery was unsettling — but it formed part of the intellectual landscape in which Wordsworth was formed.

 

WORDSWORTH’s vision, however, was essentially empirical: he had little interest in theories, and his poetry drew its inspiration from all that he experienced in person. As a boy, roaming freely among the lakes and mountains of the Lake District, he had absorbed the sense that in nature there was a force and power that transcended human lives. The scale and the beauty of that landscape were vital in forming and shaping this intuitive awareness, and in nurturing a sense of religion in him.

At the same time, he learned to give equal value to all of God’s creation. If there was an order in nature, it could be felt anywhere and everywhere. Following the example of Christ, who in the Sermon on the Mount equated the lilies of the field with Solomon in all his glory, Wordsworth was happy to write poems about small flowers such as the violet, the daisy, and the celandine — modest examples of the same life-giving mystery as lay behind the vast ocean or the overarching rainbow.

The natural wilderness of the Lake District may have been Wordsworth’s model and paradigm, but he wanted his vision to be universal. Indeed, the poem in which he most happily expressed his sense of the divine in nature, “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”, was not composed in Westmorland.

Tintern Abbey is in Somerset, and it was during a walking tour in the West Country (in 1798) that he found his way towards expressing his belief in
 

. . . 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.

(lines 96-100)
 

He went on to define this creative force as,
 

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.

(lines 101-3)
 

The synthesis that Wordsworth created in “Tintern Abbey” between nature and the mind of man, both animated by the same life-giving force, is crucial to understanding his thinking on religion (the language, it is worth noting, is not far from that used by Erasmus Darwin, who wrote in Zoonomia that, “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE FIRST GREAT CAUSE endued with animality”).

In Wordsworth’s eyes, nature and God together gave order to the universe: their interaction constituted “a mighty mind”, a macrocosmic force that found its microcosmic equivalent in the mind of individual human beings.

The best expression of this complex and nebulous idea comes at the end of The Prelude, when Wordsworth, standing on the summit of Mount Snowdon, admires the magnificent landscape as being
 

The perfect image of a mighty mind,
Of one that feeds upon infinity,
That is exalted by an underpresence,
The sense of God, or whatsoe’er is dim
Or vast in its own being.

(Book XIII, lines 69-73)

 

IN 1812, Wordsworth suffered the loss of two of his children: Catherine, aged three, died in June, and six year-old Thomas died in December. There is no sense that a belief in God helped Wordsworth to come to terms with these losses; instead, his response echoed the thinking of the “Lucy” poems written more than a decade earlier.

In those poems, he developed the idea that a child who dies young returns to nature intact, without having experienced any of the alienating effects of adult life and human society. Likewise, in a letter written the day after Thomas died, Wordsworth spoke of his “firm belief that it is for our Good, as we cannot doubt it was for his, that he should be removed from this sinful and troublesome world. He was too good for us; we did not deserve such a blessing.”

Wordsworth was fatalistic in his attitude to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”: he believed that misfortune and loss were an integral part of life, and did not try to convince himself that a divine will existed that made sense of human suffering.

That said, his poetry did move towards traditional Christian values and beliefs as he got older, even as he became a fairly regular churchgoer; and, in 1821, he set about composing a series of sonnets on the history of the Church of England. By the time he finished, there were 132 Ecclesiastical Sonnets, which narrated the story of Christianity in Britain from Roman times to the present day.

With one or two exceptions, the poems are not enjoyable or inspiring; but the fact that Wordsworth wrote them is significant. They form part of the vigorous assertion of an English identity, which, from 1802 and the crisis of the Napoleonic Wars, permeated all that he wrote for the rest of his life.

In a religious context, Englishness for Wordsworth implied opposition to Roman Catholicism: his views on the papacy were worthy of the Tudor Protestants (with whom he openly sympathised); and, throughout the 1820s, he spoke out against the presence of Roman Catholics in public life in England, and objected strongly to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

There is a striking disparity between the rigidity and dogmatism of Wordsworth’s statements about established religion, and the generous and open-minded sentiments that he expressed when meditating intimately on all that was divine, mysterious, or inexplicable in nature and in human experience.

This dichotomy, though, was typical of Wordsworth: for reasons that are too complicated to deal with in a short article, we find that there were essentially two Wordsworths — one public and the other private — in many areas of his life. Invariably, it is the private Wordsworth that is the more interesting and in whom the true poetic voice can be heard.

 

AT HIS best, Wordsworth navigated the contradictions and doubts that were characteristic of his age, and used his intensely personal experience of the natural world to articulate the spiritual dimension of life in a fresh and original way.

In so doing, he also moved beyond the parameters of Christian thought. His “Ode: Intimations of immortality” proposed that the human soul continues to live after an individual’s death, and is passed on to the next generation. In his portrait of a pedlar from 1798 (actually a form of self-portrait), he observes:
 

He had a world about him — ‘twas his own,
He made it — for it only lived to him
And to the God who looked into his mind.
 

God has no definite article in Christian thought, while the gods of Greek, Roman, or oriental cultures have no capital “G”. Wordsworth’s God (and gods) is (or are) alive and well, but remain(s) elusive and hard to define.

 

Andrew Wordsworth, a great-great-great-great nephew of William Wordsworth, lives in Tuscany, where he works as a sculptor. His new book, Well-Kept Secrets: The story of William Wordsworth, will be published on 28 April by Pallas Athene Books at £24.95 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50).

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