“Nutting” is a short autobiographical poem of fifty-six lines. It describes a youthful encounter with nature that helped to chasten William Wordsworth’s moral sense and heighten his poetic sensitivity to the life shared between himself and the outer world. In remarks dictated to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth said that the verses, written in Germany in 1798, started out as part of his great autobiographical poem on the growth of the poet’s mind, The Prelude (1850), but were “struck out as not being wanted there.These verses arose out of the remembrance of feelings I had often had when a boy, and particularly in the extensive woods that still stretch from the side of Esthwaite Lake towards Graythwaite.”
The geography of the poem is the magnificent English Lake District, through which Wordsworth’s life and art as a poet of nature have become famous. Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, West Cumberland. After his mother’s death, the eight-year-old Wordsworth went to Hawkshead Grammar School, near the scene of“Nutting,” in the remote rural region that he and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge made the poetic center of a literary revolution in England. Wordsworth and his three brothers boarded in the cottage of Ann Tyson, “the frugal Dame” rearing the boy of “Nutting,” who gave to young Wordsworth simple comfort, ample affection, and freedom to roam the countryside on free days and some nights. These wanderings produced the traumatic experiences of poetic development amid nature documented in this poem and throughout The Prelude.
“Nutting” opens by noting a double consciousness: a speaker’s mature mind discovering the “heavenly” impact on his youthful mind (lines 1-4) of an early encounter with nature. It begins very abruptly to narrate one of those watershed experiences in Wordsworth’s poetic growth. He set out to gather hazelnuts, suitably attired with pack, stick, and secondhand clothes that he had saved at the bidding of Ann Tyson for protection against nature on the way (lines 5-15).
His walk into the woods ends at a solitary bower, the scene of his impending spiritual revelation in nature, where the hazel trees symbolize a sexual and unspoiled life force in their resemblance to male genitals: “Tall and erect, with tempting clusters hung,/ A virgin scene” (lines 16-21). The boy gazes at the hazel trees with a gluttonous, self-satisfied appetite of hunger and sex, as if he were an explorer who had at last discovered an exotic treasure all for himself (lines 21-29).
Refusing to rush into the actual nut-gathering in order to savor his conquest, he rests his cheek against a fleecelike mossy stone. He hears a murmuring stream and seems to begin achieving a joyous communication with nature that is, however, undercut by the mature speaker’s harsh comment on his remembrance of his youthful heart’s response to mere “stock and stones/ Andvacant air” (lines 30-43). The harshness is perhaps explained by an intervening memory in the mature speaker’s mind about the boy’s subsequent cruelty to a virginal nature. The boy proceeds to unleash rape and riot (“merciless ravage”) on the “mutilated bower” of hazel trees and to violate the innocent sexuality of the universal life force that inheres in nature (lines 43-51). As a consequence, guilt rushes into his youthful mind to teach him at that moment and in later years (in the company of his “dearest Maiden”) that “there is a spirit in the woods” at one with individuals who have gentle, sensitive souls (lines 52-56).
Forms and Devices
The apparent simplicity of “Nutting” should not blind readers to the subtleties of its rhetoric and meaning. The poem might be designated a pastoral narrative, because it is a seemingly straightforward story of a rural protagonist in a country setting, pursuing pastoral pleasures that touch on love and sex, despite the absence of conventional items such as shepherds, lutes, and love laments found in ancient bucolic...
(The entire section is 1,032 words.)