Themes and Meanings

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“Nutting” is a poem about the possibilities and problems of communion between humans and nature; it involves the irony that the boy’s revelation of communication between himself and nature occurs by means of his violation of nature. Wordsworth’s The Prelude, arguably the greatest nineteenth century poem in the Western world, terms such revelations of nature’s presence “spots of time” and narrates similar moments of the poet’s spiritual development through youthful violations of nature in episodes of boat stealing and woodcock snaring. “Nutting” was originally designed to be part of these traumatic experiences of poetic growth in Book I of The Prelude.

Excerpted from the longer poem, “Nutting” is a beautifully complete poem in its own right that was published in the 1800 edition of the groundbreaking Lyrical Ballads, which contains an influential literary manifesto in the preface authored by Wordsworth under Coleridge’s inspiration. The poetic principles of the preface find embodiment in “Nutting.” The typically Wordsworthian theme of the poem focuses on a semimystical experience of a young man’s joyous, if fitful, apprehension of the spirit of life in the universe, the meaning of which is probed in the mature mind of the narrator remembering an early time of mindless pleasure in nature. The poem shows that moments of spiritual apprehension are not easy to come by, to preserve with the same initial pleasure, or to interpret clearly. At the outset, the mature narrator has to point out the special significance of his boyhood adventure in nature (“One of those heavenly days that cannot die”), because the ensuing narrative begins stressing a contrary message of civilized resistance to, rather than communion with, the countryside. The boy’s overdressing and weapon-wielding are a defensive posture, almost a gesture of belligerence against the pristine bower of hazel trees that in his insensitive mind represents only a feast to devour and, implicitly, a male sex organ to rape and mutilate.

Not until line 33, where he pauses from undertaking the nut gathering, does he first hear the sounds of nature and let his imagination transform surface reality into deeper fantastic insights of oneness with the woods (“fairy” water-breaks of a flowing stream murmuring to the boy; mossy stones that are not simply rocks but, through simile in the creative imagination, become “like a flock of sheep”). These insights cause momentary “pleasure” and “joy” within the communing heart of the boy and create later recollection and spiritual solace in the mind of the mature narrator, who must combat the inevitable disillusionments of life springing from the aging process. An intervening memory of the boy’s ensuing rape of the bower, however, sullies the remembrance of those joyous insights for the mature narrator (lines 41-48). The narrator ends by recollecting the boy’s second communication with nature, which is no longer a heartfelt enjoyment of the rural scene but becomes the guilt-ridden recognition of being discovered in wrongdoing under “the intruding sky” for having devastated the now “silent” hazel trees (lines 48-53).

In the company of an unspecified “dearest Maiden,” the mature narrator affirms the lesson he has learned—that, despite all human devastation, there is an unconquerable spirit in the woods ready to be in sympathy with a humanity of humble and open hearts. So ends a poem that is beautifully representative of the Romantic movement in European literature.

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