William Wordsworth Poetry: British Analysis
When the volume of poetry called the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 was published in a second edition (1800), William Wordsworth wrote a prose preface for the book that is the single most important statement of Romantic ideology. It provides a useful introduction to his poetry.
Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads displays the idea of primitivism as the basis of the Romantic position. Primitivism is the belief that there is some primary, intrinsically good “state of nature” from which adult, educated, civilized humankind has fallen into a false or wicked state of existence. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau began The Social Contract (1762) with the assertion that “Man was born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains,” he concisely expressed the primitivist point of view. The American and French revolutions were both predicated on Romantic primitivism, the idea that humanity was once naturally free, but that corrupt kings, churches, and social customs held it enslaved. The Romantic typically sees rebellion and breaking free from false restraint to regain a state of nature as highly desirable; Wordsworth’s preface shows him deeply committed to this revolutionary ideology. He says that he is going to take the subjects of his poems from “humble and rustic life” because in that condition humankind is “less under restraint” and the “elementary feelings” of life exist in a state of simplicity.
Many writers feel that serious literature can be written only about great and powerful men, such as kings and generals. Some writers apparently believe that wounding a king is tragic, while beating a slave is merely funny. Wordsworth’s preface firmly rejects such ideas. He turns to simple, common, poor people as the topic of his poetry because they are nearer a “state of nature” than the powerful, educated, and sophisticated men who have been corrupted by false customs of society. Many writers feel that they must live in the centers of civilization, London or Paris, for example, to be conversant with new ideas and the latest fashions. Wordsworth turns away from the cities to the rural scene. He himself lived in the remote Lake District most of his life, and he wrote about simple shepherds, farmers, and villagers. He explains that he chooses for his topicshumble and rustic life . . . because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently may be more accurately contemplated.
He sees a correspondence between the unspoiled nature of humankind and the naturalness of the environment. Romantic ideology of this sort underlies much of the contemporary environmentalist movement: the feeling that humans ought to be in harmony with their environment, that nature is beneficent, that people ought to live simply so that the essential part of their human nature may conform to the grand pattern of nature balanced in the whole universe.
The use of the words “passion” and “restraint” in Wordsworth’s quotation above is significant. English neoclassical writers such as Alexander Pope tended to be suspicious of human passions, arguing that anger and lust lead people into error unless such passions are restrained by right reason. For Pope, it is necessary to exercise the restraint of reason over passion for people to be morally good. “Restraint” is good; “passion” bad. Wordsworth reverses this set of values. Humans’ natural primitive feelings are the source of goodness and morality; the false restraints of custom and education are what lead people astray from their natural goodness. In his preface, Wordsworth seems to be following the line of thought developed by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) in his An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1709). Shaftesbury asks his readers to imagine a “creature who, wanting reason and being unable to reflect, has notwithstanding many good qualities and affections,—as love to his kind, courage, gratitude or pity.” Shaftesbury probably is thinking of creatures such as a faithful dog or a child too young to reason well. In such cases, one would have to say that the creature shows good qualities, even though he or she lacks reasoning power. For Shaftesbury, then, to reason means merely to recognize the already existing good impulses or feelings naturally arising in such a creature. Morality arises from natural feeling, evidently present in creatures with little reasoning power.
Wordsworth’s preface is heavily influenced by Shaftesbury’s argument. He turns to simple characters for his poems because they exhibit the natural, primary, unspoiled states of feeling that are the ultimate basis of morality. Wordsworth’s characters are sentimental heroes, chosen because their feelings are unspoiled by restraints of education and reason: children, simple shepherds and villagers, the old Cumberland Beggar, Alice Fell, and so on. While William Shakespeare often puts a nobleman at the center of his plays and relegates the poor people to the role of rustic clowns, Wordsworth takes the feelings of the poor as the most precious subject of serious literature.
The preface displays two kinds of primitivism. Social primitivism is the belief that humankind’s state of nature is good and that it is possible to imagine a social setting in which humans’ naturally good impulses will flourish. Social primitivism leads to the celebration of the “noble savage,” perhaps an American Indian or a Black African tribesman, who is supposed to be morally superior to the sophisticated European who has been corrupted by the false restraints of his own society. Social primitivism was, of course, one of the driving forces behind the French Revolution. The lower classes rose up against the repression of politically powerful kings and destroyed laws and restraints so that their natural goodness could flourish. Unfortunately, the French Revolution did not produce a morally perfect new human being once the corrupt restraints had been destroyed. Instead, the French Revolution produced the Reign of Terror, the rise of Napoleon to military dictatorship, and the French wars of aggression against relatively democratic states such as the Swiss Republic. With unspeakable shock, Wordsworth and the other Romantics saw the theory of social primitivism fail in France. The decline of Wordsworth’s poetic power as he grew older is often explained in part as the result of his disillusionment with revolutionary France.
A second kind of primitivism in the preface is psychological. Psychological primitivism is the belief that there is some level in the mind that is primary, more certain than everyday consciousness. In the preface, Wordsworth says that humble life displays “the primary laws of our nature; chiefly, as far as the manner in which we associate ideas.” Here Wordsworth refers to a very important Romantic idea, associational psychology, which developed from the tradition of British empirical philosophy—from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and especially David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749).
When Wordsworth speaks in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads about tracing in his poems the “manner in which we associate ideas,” he is endorsing the line of thought of the associational psychologists. Poems trace the process by which the mind works. They help people to understand the origins of their own feelings about what is good and bad by demonstrating the way impressions from nature strike the mind and by showing how the mind associates these simple experiences, forming complex attitudes about what proper conduct is, what fidelity and love are, what the good and the true are. In The Prelude, one of Wordsworth’s main motives is to trace the history of the development of his own mind from its most elementary feelings through the process of association of ideas until his imagination constructs his complex, adult consciousness.
Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads set out a series of ideas that are central to the revolutionary Romantic movement, including both social and psychological primitivism, the state of nature, the “noble savage,” the sentimental hero, the power of the imagination, and the association of ideas. These concepts are basic to understanding his poetry.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (hereafter called simply “Tintern Abbey”) was composed on July 13, 1798, and published that same year. It is one of the best-known works of the English Romantic movement. Its poetic form is blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, in the tradition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). In reading any poem, it is important to define its dramatic situation and to consider the text as if it were a scene from a play or drama and determine who is speaking, to whom, and under what circumstances. Wordsworth is very precise in telling the reader when and where these lines are spoken. Tintern Abbey exists, and the poet Wordsworth really visited it during a tour on July 13, 1798. Because the poem is set at a real point in history rather than once upon a time, and in a real place rather than in a kingdom far away, it is said to exhibit “topographic realism.” The speaker of the poem reveals that this is his second visit to this spot; he had been there five years earlier. At line 23, he reveals that he has been away from this pleasant place for a long time and, at lines 50-56, that while he was away in the “fretful stir” of the world he was unhappy. When he was depressed, his thoughts turned to his memory of this natural scene, and he felt comforted. Now, as the poem begins, he has come again to this beautiful site with his beloved younger sister, whom he names directly at line 121. The dramatic situation involves a speaker, or persona, who tells the reader his thoughts and feelings as if he were addressing his younger sister, who is “on stage” as his dramatic audience. Although the poem is autobiographical, so that the speaker resembles Wordsworth himself and the sister resembles Dorothy Wordsworth, it is better to think of the speaker and his listener as two invented characters in a little play. When William Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks to Ophelia in his play, the audience knows that Hamlet is not the same as Shakespeare although he surely must express some of Shakespeare’s feelings and ideas. So, too, the reader imagines that the speaker in “Tintern Abbey” speaks for Wordsworth, but is not exactly the same as the poet himself.
The poem displays many of the ideas stated in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. It begins with a description of a remote rural scene, rather than speaking about the latest news from London. In this rustic setting, the speaker discovers some essential truths about himself. The first twenty-two lines describe the natural scene: the cliffs, orchards, and farms. This is a romantic return to nature, the search for the beautiful and permanent forms that incorporate primitive human goodness. The speaker not only describes the scene, but also tells the reader how it generates feelings and sensations in him. In lines 23-56, the speaker says that his memory of this pure, natural place had been of comfort to him when he was far away. Lines 66-90 trace the speaker’s memory of his process of growing up: When he first came among these hills as a boy, he was like a wild animal. He was filled with feelings of joy or fear by wild nature. As a boy, nature was to him “a feeling and a love” that required no thought on his part. That childish harmony with nature is now lost. His childish “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” are “gone by.” As he fell away from his unthinking harmony with nature, his power of thought developed. This power is “abundant recompense” for the childish joys of “thoughtless youth.” Now he understands nature in a new way. He hears in nature “The still sad music of humanity.” At line 95, he explains that his intellect grasps the purpose and direction of nature, whereas his childish experience was more intense and joyous but incomplete. Now, as an adult, he returns to this natural scene and understands what he had only felt as a child, that nature is the source of moral goodness, “the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being.”
At line 110, he turns to his younger sister and sees in her wild eyes his own natural state of mind in childhood. He foresees that she will go through the same loss that he experienced. She too will grow up and lose her unthinking harmony with the natural and the wild. He takes comfort in the hope that nature will protect her, as it has helped him, and in the knowledge that the memory of this visit will be with her when she is far away in future years. Their experience of this pastoral landscape is therefore dear to the speaker for its own sake, and also because he has shared it with his sister. He has come back from the adult world and glimpsed primitive natural goodness both in the scene and in his sister.
The poem employs social and psychological primitivism. The rural scene is an imagined state of primitive nature where human goodness can exist in the child, like Adam in the garden of Eden before the Fall of Man. The poem shows how the primitive feelings of the boy are generated by the forms of nature and then form more and more complex ideas until his whole adult sense of good and bad, right and wrong, can be traced back to his elementary childish experiences of nature. Reason is not what makes beauty or goodness possible; natural feelings are the origin of the good and the beautiful. Reason merely recognizes what the child knows directly from his feelings.
Critics of Wordsworth point out that the “natural” scene described in the opening lines is, in fact, not at all “natural.” Nature in this scene has been tamed by man into orchards, hedged fields, and cottage farms. What, critics ask, would Wordsworth have written if he had imagined nature as the struggling jungle in the Congo where individual plants and animals fight for survival in their environmental niche and whole species are brought to extinction by the force of nature “red in tooth and claw”? If Wordsworth’s idea of nature is not true, then his idea of human nature will likewise be false. While he expects the French Revolution to lead to a state of nature in joy and harmony, in fact it led to the Reign of Terror and the bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars. Critics of Romantic ideology argue that when the Romantics imagine nature as a “kindly nurse,” they unthinkingly accept a false anthropomorphism. Nature is not like a kindly human being; it is an indifferent or neutral force. They charge that Wordsworth projects his own feelings into the natural scene, and thus his view of the human condition becomes dangerously confused.
“Michael: A Pastoral Poem” was composed between October 11 and December 9, 1800, and published that same year. It is typical of Wordsworth’s poetry about humble and rustic characters in which the sentiments or feelings of human beings in a state of nature are of central importance. The poem is written in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, again the meter employed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s poem explores the biblical story of the fall of Adam from the Garden of Eden. Michael’s destruction in Wordsworth’s poem shows a general similarity to the tragedy of Adam in Paradise Lost. Both Michael and Adam begin in a natural paradise where they are happy and good. Evil creeps into each garden, and through the weakness of a beloved family member, both Adam and Michael fall from happiness to misery.
The poem “Michael” has two parts: the narrative frame and the tale of Michael. The frame occupies lines 1-39 and lines 475 to the end, the beginning and ending of the text. It relates the circumstances under which the story of Michael is told. The tale occupies lines 40-475, the central part of the text, and it tells the history of the shepherd Michael; his wife, Isabel; and their son Luke. The frame of the poem occurs in the fictive present time, about 1800, whereas the tale occurs a generation earlier. The disintegration of Michael’s family and the destruction of their cottage has already happened years before the poem begins. The frame establishes that the poem is set in the English Lake District and introduces the reader to the “I-persona” or speaker of the poem. He tells the story of Michael and knows the geography and history of the district. A “You-character” who does not know the region is the dramatic audience addressed by the “I-persona.” In the frame, “I” tells “You” that there is a hidden valley up in the mountains. In that valley, there is a pile of rocks, which would hardly be noticed by a stranger; but there is a story behind that heap of stones. “I” then tells “You” the story of the shepherd Michael.
Michael is one of the humble and rustic characters whose feelings are exemplary of the natural or primitive state of human beings. He has lived all his life in the mountains, in communion with nature, and his own nature has been shaped by his natural environment. He is a good and kindly man. He has a wife, Isabel, and a child of his old age named Luke. The family works from morning until far into the night, tending their sheep and spinning wool. They live in a cottage far up on the mountainside, and they have a lamp that burns late every evening as they sit at their work. They have become proverbial in the valley for their industry, so that their cottage has become known as the cottage of the evening star because its window glimmers steadily every night. These simple, hardworking people are “neither gay perhaps, nor cheerful, yet with objects and with hopes, living a life of eager industry.” The boy is Michael’s delight. From his birth, the old man had helped to tend the child and, as Luke grew, his father worked with him always at his side. He made him a perfect shepherd’s staff and gave it to his son as a gift. Now the boy has reached his eighteenth year and the “old man’s heart seemed born again” with hope and happiness in his son.
Unfortunately, Michael suffers a reversal of his good fortune, for news comes that a distant relative has suffered an unforeseen business failure, and Michael has to pay a grievous penalty “in surety for his brother’s son.” The old man is sorely troubled. He cannot bear to sell his land. He suggests that Luke should go from the family for a time to work in the city and earn enough to pay the forfeiture. Before his beloved son leaves, Michael takes him to a place on the farm where he has collected a heap of stones. He tells Luke that he plans to build a new sheepfold there and asks Luke to lay the cornerstone. This will be a covenant or solemn agreement between the father and son: The boy will work in the city, and meanwhile the father will build a new barn so that it will be there for the boy’s return. Weeping, the boy puts the first stone in place and leaves the next day for his work far away. At first, the old couple get a good report about his work, but after a time Luke “in the dissolute city gave himself to evil courses; ignominy and shame fell on him, so that he was driven at last to seek a hiding-place beyond the sea.” After the loss of his son, Michael still goes to the dell where the pile of building stones lies, but he often simply sits the whole day merely staring at them, until he dies. Some three years later, Isabel also dies, and the land is sold to a stranger. The cottage of the evening star is torn down and nothing remains of the poor family’s hopes except the straggling pile of stones that are the remains of the still unfinished sheepfold. This is the story that the “I-persona,” who knows the district, tells to the “You-audience,” who is unacquainted with the local history and geography.
The poem “Michael” embodies the ideas proposed in Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads. He takes a family of simple, rural people as the main characters in a tragedy. Michael is a sentimental hero whose unspoiled contact with nature has refined his human nature and made him a good man. Nature has imprinted experiences on his mind that his imagination has built into more and more complex feelings about what is right and wrong. The dissolute city, on the other hand, is confusing, and there Luke goes astray. From the city and the world of banking and finance, the grievous forfeiture intrudes into the rural valley where Michael was living in a state of nature, like a noble savage or like Adam before his fall.
The poem argues that nature is not a neutral commodity to be bought and sold. It is man’s home. It embodies values. The poem demands that the reader consider nature as a living force and demonstrates that once one knows the story of Luke, one never again can look on a pile of rocks in the mountains as worthless. That pile of rocks was a solemn promise of father and son. It signified a whole way of life, now lost. It was gathered for a human purpose, and one must regret that the covenant was broken and the sheepfold never completed. Likewise, all nature is a covenant, an environment, filled with human promise and capable of guiding human feelings in a pure, simple, dignified, and moral way. The function of poetry (like the “I-persona’s” story of Michael) is to make the reader see that nature is not neutral. The “I-persona” attaches the history of Michael to what otherwise might be merely a pile of rocks and so makes the “You-audience” feel differently about that place. Likewise, the poem as a whole makes the reader feel differently about nature.
“Tintern Abbey” and “Michael” both explore the important question of how human moral nature develops. What makes humans good, virtuous, or proper? If, as the preface argues, people are morally best when most natural, uncorrupted by false custom and education, then the normal process of growing up in the modern world must be a kind of falling away from natural grace.
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (hereafter called “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”) is also concerned with the process of growing up and its ethical and emotional consequences. The poem is written in eleven stanzas of irregular length, composed of lines of varying length with line-end rhyme. The core of the poem is stanza 5, beginning “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Here the poet discusses three stages of growth: the infant, the boy, and the man. The infant at birth comes from God, and at the moment when life begins the infant is still close to its divine origin. For this reason, the newborn infant is not utterly naked or forgetful, “but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God.” The infant is near to divinity; “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” but each day leads it farther and farther from its initial, completely natural state. As consciousness awakens, “Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy.” In other words, the natural feelings of the infant begin to become constrained as man falls into consciousness. A boy is still near to nature, but each day he travels farther from the initial source of his natural joy and goodness. The youth is like a priest who travels away from his Eastern holy land, each day farther from the origin of his faith, but still carrying with him the memory of the holy places. When a man is fully grown, he senses that the natural joy of childish union with nature dies away, leaving him only the drab ordinary “light of common day” unilluminated by inspiration. This process of movement from the unthinking infant in communion with nature, through the stage of youth filled with joy and natural inspiration, to the drab adult is summarized in stanza 7, from the “child among his new-born blisses” as he or she grows up playing a series of roles “down to palsied Age.”
The poem as a whole rehearses this progression from natural infant to adulthood. Stanzas 1 and 2 tell how the speaker as a child saw nature as glorious and exciting. “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream . . . to me did seem apparelled in celestial light.” Now the speaker is grown up and the heavenly light of the natural world has lost its glory. Even so, in stanza 3, his sadness at his lost childhood joys is changed to joy when he sees springtime and thinks of shepherd boys. Springtime demonstrates the eternal rebirth of the world, when everything is refreshed and begins to grow naturally again. The shepherd boys shouting in the springtime are doubly blessed, for they are rural characters, and moreover, they are young, near the fountainhead of birth. In stanza 4, the adult speaker can look on the springtime or on rural children and feel happy again because they signify the experience he has had of natural joy. Even though, as he says in stanza 10, “nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,” the adult can understand with his “philosophic mind” the overall design of the natural world and grasp that it is good.
The Prelude is Wordsworth’s longest and probably his most important work. It is an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young man. He was never satisfied with the work and repeatedly rewrote and revised it, leaving it uncompleted at his death. He had a fairly refined draft in 1805-1806 for his friend Coleridge to read, and the version he left at his death in 1850 is, of course, the chronologically final version. In between the 1805 and 1850 versions, there are numerous drafts and sketches, some of them of the whole poem, while others are short passages or merely a few lines. When a reader speaks of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, therefore, he is referring not so much to a single text as to a shifting, dynamic set of sometimes contradictory texts and fragments. The best edition of The Prelude is by Ernest de Selincourt, second edition revised by Helen Darbishire (Oxford University Press, 1959), which provides on facing pages the 1805-1806 text and the 1850 text. The reader can open the de Selincourt/Darbishire edition and see side by side the earliest and the latest version of every passage, while the editors’ annotations indicate all significant intermediate steps.
The 1805 version is divided into thirteen books, while the 1850 version has fourteen. Book 1, “Introduction, Childhood and Schooltime,” rehearses how the poet undertook to write this work. He reviews the topics treated in famous epic poems, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), and other works. He concludes that the proper subject for his poem should be the process of his own development. He therefore begins at line 305 of the 1805 version to relate his earliest experiences, following the ideas explored above in “Tintern Abbey” and his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” He traces the earliest impressions on his mind, which is like the tabula rasa of the associational psychologists. “Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up/ Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear.” He tells of his childhood in the lakes and mountains, of stealing birds from other hunters’ traps, of scaling cliffs, and especially a famous episode concerning a stolen boat. At line 372, he tells how he once stole a boat and rowed at night out onto a lake. As he rowed away from the shore facing the stern of the boat, it appeared that a dark mountain rose up in his line of vision as if in pursuit. He was struck with fear and returned with feelings of guilt to the shore. Experiences like this “trace/ How Nature by extrinsic passion first peopled my mind.” In other words, impressions of nature, associated with pleasure and pain, provide the basic ideas that the imagination of the poet uses to create more and more complex attitudes until he arrives at his adult view of the world. The process described in the stolen boat episode is sometimes called the “discipline of fear.”
Book 2 concerns “School-Time.” It corresponds to the three stages of life outlined in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”: infant, youth, and adult. As in “Tintern Abbey,” in The Prelude, book 2, Wordsworth explains that his early experiences of nature sustained him when he grew older and felt a falling off of the infant’s joyful harmony with the created universe. Book 3 deals with his “Residence at Cambridge University,” which is like a dream world to the youth from the rural lakes: “I was a Dreamer, they the dream; I roamed/ Delighted through the motley spectacle.” He talks of his reading and his activities as a student at St. John’s College, concluding that his story so far has been indeed a heroic argument, as important as the stories of the ancient epics, tracing the development of his mind up to an eminence, a high point of his experience.
Book 4 recounts his summer vacation after his first year of college, as he returns to the mountains and lakes of his youth, a situation comparable to the return of the persona in “Tintern Abbey” to the rural scene he had previously known. He notes the “inner falling-off” or loss of joy and innocence that seems to accompany growing up. Yet at line 344, he tells of a vision of the sun rising as he walked homeward after a night of gaiety and mirth at a country dance, which caused him to consider himself a “dedicated spirit,” someone who has a sacred duty to write poetry. Later in this book, he recounts his meeting with a tattered soldier returned from military service in the tropics and how he helped him find shelter in a cottage nearby. Book 5 is simply titled “Books” and examines the role of literature in the poet’s development. This book contains the famous passage, beginning at line 389, “There was a boy, ye knew him well, ye Cliffs/ And Islands of Winander.” There was a youth among the cliffs of the Lake District who could whistle so that the owls would answer him. Once when he was calling to them the cliffs echoed so that he was struck with surprise and wonder. This boy died while he was yet a child and the poet has stood “Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies.” Another recollection concerns the appearance of a drowned man’s body from the lake.
Book 6, “Cambridge and the Alps,” treats his second year at college and the following summer’s walking tour of France and Switzerland. When the poet first arrived at Calais, it was the anniversary of the French Revolution’s federal day. The young man finds the revolutionary spirit with “benevolence and blessedness/ spread like a fragrance everywhere, like Spring/ that leaves no corner of the land untouched.” Frenchmen welcome the young Englishman as brothers in the struggle for freedom and liberty and they join in a common celebration. The Alps were a formidable barrier in the nineteenth century, seeming to separate the Germanic culture of northern Europe from the Mediterranean. Crossing the Alps meant passing from one culture to a totally different one. Ironically, the poet records his errant climb, lost in the fog and mist, as he approached Italy, so that the English travelers cross the Alps without even knowing what they had done. Perhaps the crossing of the Alps unaware is like his observation of the French Revolution. The poet sees more than he understands. Book 7 treats of the poet’s residence in London. As one would expect, the city is unnatural and filled with all kinds of deformed and perverted customs, epitomized at the Bartholomew Fair, “a hell/ For eyes and ears! what anarchy and din/ Barbarian and infernal! ’tis a dream/ Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound.”
Book 8, “Retrospect—Love of Nature Leading to a Love of Mankind,” is in contrast to book 7. Opposed to the blank confusion of the city, book 8 returns to the peaceful, decent rural scenes of the Lake District. It contrasts a wholesome country fair with the freak shows of London. Nature’s primitive gift to the shepherds is beauty and harmony, which the poet first experienced there. Such “noble savages,” primitive men educated by nature alone, are celebrated as truly heroic.
Book 9 tells of the poet’s second visit to France and residence in the Loire Valley. It suppresses, however, all the real biographical details concerning Wordsworth’s affair with Annette Vallon and his illegitimate daughter. As he passes through Paris, the poet sees “the revolutionary power/ Toss like a ship at anchor, rock’d by storms.” He arrives at his more permanent home in the Loire Valley and makes friends with a group of French military officers there. One day as he wanders with his new friends in the countryside, he comes across a hunger-bitten peasant girl, so downtrodden that she resembles the cattle she is tending. His French companion comments, “’Tis against that which we are fighting,” against the brutalization of humankind by the monarchical system. In later versions, at the conclusion of this book, Wordsworth inserts the story of “Vaudracour and Julia.” This love story seems to stand in place of Wordsworth’s real-life encounter with Vallon. Book 10 continues his discussion of his visit to France, including a second visit to Paris while the Reign of Terror is in full cry and the denunciation of Maximilien Robespierre takes place. This book also traces his return to England and the declaration of war by England against France, which caused the young Wordsworth deep grief. The French Revolution was probably the most important political event in the poet’s life. His initial hopes for the French cause were overshadowed by the outrages of the Reign of Terror. His beloved England, on the other hand, joined in armed opposition to the cause of liberty. In the numerous reworkings of this part of his autobiography, Wordsworth steadily became more conservative in his opinions as he grew older. Book 10 in the 1805 text is split into books 10 and 11 in the 1850 version. In this section, he explains that at the beginning of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven.” Yet the course of the revolution, running first to despotic terror and ending with the rise of Napoleon, brought Wordsworth to a state of discouragement and desolation.
Book 11 in the 1805 text (book 12 in the 1850 version) considers how one may rise from spiritual desolation: Having lost the innocent joy of primitive youth and having lost faith in the political aims of the French Revolution, where can the soul be restored? At line 74, the poet tells how “strangely he did war against himself,” but nature has a powerful restorative force. At line 258, he enters the famous “Spots of time” argument, in which he maintains that there are remembered experiences that “with distinct preeminence retain/ A vivifying Virtue” so that they can nourish one’s depleted spirits. Much as in “Tintern Abbey,” a remembered experience of nature can excite the imagination to produce a fresh vitality. Book 12 in the 1805 version (book 13 in the 1850) begins with a summary of nature’s power to shape man’s imagination and taste:
From nature doth emotion come, and moodsof calmness equally are nature’s gift,This is her glory; these two attributesAre sister horns that constitute her strength.
The concluding book tells of the poet’s vision on Mount Snowdon in Wales. On the lonely mountain, under the full moon, a sea of mist shrouds all the countryside except the highest peaks. The wanderer looks over the scene and has a sense of the presence of divinity. Nature has such a sublime aspect “That men, least sensitive, see, hear, perceive,/ And cannot choose but feel” the intimation of divine power. In this way, Nature feeds the imagination, and a love of nature leads to a sense of humankind’s place in the created universe and a love for all humankind. The poem ends with an address to the poet’s friend Coleridge about their mutual struggle to keep faith as true prophets of nature.
It is often said that Wordsworth’s The Prelude, written in Miltonic blank verse, is the Romantic epic comparable to Paradise Lost of Milton. Other critics point to a similarity between The Prelude and the bildungsroman, or novel of development. The Prelude is subtitled “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind” and bears considerable resemblance to such classic stories as Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), in which the author traces the development of the hero, Julien Sorel, as he grows up. Finally, most readers find an important pastoral element in The Prelude. The “pastoral” occurs whenever an author and an audience belonging to a privileged and sophisticated society imagine a more simple life and admire it. For example, sophisticated courtiers might imagine the life of simple shepherds and shepherdesses to be very attractive compared to their own round of courtly duties. They would then imagine a pastoral world in which shepherdesses with frilly bows on their shepherds’ crooks and dainty fruits to eat would dally in the shade by fountains on some peaceful mountainside. Such a vision is termed pastoral because it contrasts unfavorably the life of the real author and audience with the imagined life of a shepherd. The Prelude makes such pastoral contrasts frequently: for example, in the depiction of rural shepherds in the Lake District compared with urban workers; in the comparison of the life of a simple child with that of the adult; and in the comparison of the working classes of France and England with their masters. The pastoral elements in The Prelude are a natural consequence of the primitivism in the poem’s ideology.
Wordsworth is one of the recognized giants of English literature, and his importance is nearly equal to Milton’s or Shakespeare’s. Even so, his work has been the subject of sharp controversy from its first publication until the present. William Hazlitt in his Lectures on the English Poets (1818) argues that Wordsworth is afflicted with a false optimism and that his idea of nature is merely a reflection of the human observer’s feelings. Aldous Huxley in “Wordsworth in the Tropics” in Holy Face and Other Essays (1929) attacks the unnaturalness of Wordsworth’s view of nature. John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography (1873), on the other hand, discusses the restorative power of Romantic poetry and the capacity of Wordsworth to relieve the sterility of a too “scientific” orientation. Later critics have continued the controversy.
The apparent decline of Wordsworth’s poetic powers in his later years has occasioned much debate. Was he disillusioned with the course of the French Revolution so that he could no longer bear to praise humankind’s primitive nature? Was he so filled with remorse over his affair with Annette Vallon that his inspiration failed? Was he a living demonstration of his own theory of the development of man from infant, to boyhood, to adult: that as man grows older he becomes more and more remote from the primitive feelings of the infant who comes into this world trailing clouds of glory, so that old men can never be effective poets? In any case, the young Wordsworth writing in the 1790’s and the first decade of the nineteenth century was a voice calling out that life can be joyful and meaningful, that humankind’s nature is good, and that people are not alone in an alien world, but in their proper home.