William Wordsworth & the Role of Nature to Man

What is Rights of Nature? - The Rights of Nature

Many people will attest how it is in the awe of nature that they find themselves most inspired and most elevated to gain knowledge of the great splendors surrounding life’s beauty. In the world of literature, few articulated this sentiment better than William Wordsworth, who insisted how it is in the very nature of man to rob this same beauty he is seeking to understand of its essence by reducing it to trivial functions and mechanics. William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” (1798) captures this perspective perfectly, as the English poet expresses his discontent with the cold materialism of the Enlightenment tradition, by appealing to the reader’s numinous instincts and pleas for the superiority of observing the world through a romantic lens.

As a poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring,” is written for the salvation of the human soul:  “To her fair works did Nature link the Human soul that through me ran.” Here, Wordsworth is establishing the idea of Nature (always written with an uppercase “N”) as the unifying theme of life, and that the human soul is a cumulative product of its work, whose place lies inseparable from its origin. But he continues, “And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

Whereas the poet begins with the concept of Nature as the creator and preserver of man’s soul, and thereby the ultimate source of his being, he is now introducing the danger that is bound to occur whenever man seeks to define Nature (and his place in it) by his own terms, rather than allowing Nature to define him, because any objective method of analysis demands for him to remove himself from his subject matter.  Hence, in this pursuit of knowledge man will fail utterly by foolishly distancing himself from the thing he is attempting to get closer to. 

According to Wordsworth, this has already happened and is shown in our inability to reflect on Nature through the acknowledgement that our presence is as much a part of her order as any other organism we might scientifically observe: “The birds around me hopped and played, their thoughts I cannot measure: –But the least motion which they made, it seemed a thrill of pleasure ” or, put more succinctly, what the poet probably means to say is how their thoughts he need not measure, because it does nothing to enhance the joyous sight either for himself or for the gleeful birds.  The very fact that the birds themselves are unable to reflect on the science of their pleasure, yet are still aware of the basic principles of great joy without the need to analytically deconstruct, suggests to Wordsworth that the utility of man’s rational approach to seeing Nature is deeply flawed.

The imagery Wordsworth uses is one of finding tranquil solace in simplicity, calling on man to recollect with the true provider of his senses, i.e. Nature.  Wordsworth argues that it is to his great shame that through man’s desire to study the natural world he has positioned himself outside the workings of Nature, observing it as if he is not a central component of her.  Wordsworth illustrates this in his poem by describing the manner by which all the individual parts and players found in the natural world—the flowers, the periwinkle, the birds and trees—while still remaining independent agents, never fancy themselves as being outside the workings of the grand scheme; instead basking in the beautiful harmony of Nature’s order.  Man, on the other hand, is spiritually torn; he instinctively knows that he is a part of Nature, and feels a cosmic urge to better understand her, but the more he interjects his anthropocentric lens to pursue this end the more likely he is to drive a wedge between himself and the true essence of Nature’s work.

In the poem, Wordsworth speaks from a first-person perspective, expressing his veneration for the serene beauty of Nature, and his utter disgust at how man remains oblivious to her all-encompassing presence (note, always referring to Nature in the feminine, and personalized, her). After describing the various parts making up the spirit of the natural world, the poet states, “And I must think, do all I can, that there was pleasure there,” to proclaim his break from the empiricist view of life. It is important to note how he says that he must do all he can to preserve the notion in his mind that all these seemingly harmonious creatures of Nature are indeed infused with pleasure. This is perhaps a subtle reflection by the poet on how, as a man, he is also subject to fall to the same empiricist vice if he neglects to notice his place as a product within the natural order. 

This sort of thinking follows in line well with the Romantic tradition Wordsworth writes in, especially works such as “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” where he explains how “a Poet, is implied nothing different in kind from other men, but only in degrees.” A poet only differs from other men in his ability to reveal the truth (in Wordsworth case, this is to reveal what he perceived as man’s true relation to the spirit of Nature) to his fellow brethren. Moreover, this suggests to the reader that despite the pessimistic slant about the tattered tendency of man expressed in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” there is in Wordsworth eyes still the glimmer of hope for man to reform his follies by embracing the pure emotion Nature has endowed him with, which will enable him to accept his self-evident role as an interdependent piece of a grander scheme of her beauty.

In the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth further describes the poet as “the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.” At first glance this seems to contrast sharply with his closing lines in the poem:

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?” 

But does not this condemnation of man’s perversion of his own place in Nature’s plan also reveal a deeper appeal to man’s dignity?  It is clear that Wordsworth considers man to have deluded himself in his mechanical approach to studying Nature, but does not his stern tone convey sorrow at what we ourselves have done against nature with the greatest gift Nature has bestowed on us: our minds? 
In Wordsworth eyes, the poet knows the great potential of man, and has no choice but to shutter and weep at its foolish squandering, where he neglects his creative spark of emotion for the less spiritually fulfilling cult of Reason (which Wordsworth associates with the Enlightenment that preceded him intellectually just a short generation prior).  And it is the poet’s duty to expose this treachery, not as a condemnation but as a defense of human nature.

In Wordsworth’s work, Nature is god—with a lowercase g.  It is the absolute, the model on which all life is centered around.  Man is sinful in the sense that he has alienated himself from Nature, and will find salvation only by returning to its good graces.  A feat that can only be accomplished by freeing oneself from the baggage of society’s materialism, and return (more so spiritually, than physically) to our proper place within Nature’s own divine plan, as dependent components of its transcendent essence. 

Though Wordsworth was a professing Anglican, his musings on nature cannot be called religious in an orthodox sense of the word, but he is still a deeply religious figure if one takes into account his adherents to the belief that man’s spiritual soul needs to be nourished through the adoration of his creator, the true reason for his existence, i.e. Nature herself.  Wordsworth appears to be realistic about the prospect of man’s recognition of this, and even suggest that man’s very nature prevents him from reaching the ultimate goal of completely submerging into the omnipresence of Nature’s power.  Nonetheless, the fact of man’s spiritual limitations should not prevent him from striving to be as spiritually fulfilled as possible, using the Romantic ideals at his disposal to ascend himself and society to a plane of better understanding his place in the finely detailed workings of the universe. 

The great reflection described by Wordsworth in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” serves the function of giving man a framework on which to build his own mental shrine to the aesthetic beauty that encompasses his surroundings, and pay devotion to Nature’s work. Yes, it is idealistic, and unashamedly so.  Aiming to tell man how to think, rather than what to think; constantly holding a mirror to his face, and firmly reflecting back to him the self-evident truth of his disposition; forever tied in with the essence of what to Wordsworth is his soul’s being: Nature’s eternal spirit.

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