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.

The Darker Side of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem, “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, takes the reader into the emotional turmoil of loss, regret, and death, as they shape the human experience and understanding of the world that surrounds us.  The prose begins with the startling lines, “Before I see another day, Oh let my body die away!”  A clear plea for death, enunciated through a tone of exhaustion.  The prospect of continued existence has become an unbearable burden to the speaker, forcing the exclamation of “Oh” as a preemptive sigh of gratitude for the sweet relief of death that the speaker hopes will come soon as a deliverance.  In common Wordsworthian fashion, the narrative is not complete unless it offers a reverence to the natural surroundings of the poem’s setting:

In sleep I heard the northern gleams;

The stars, they were among my dreams;

In rustling conflict through the skies,

I heard, I saw the flashes drive,

Judging by the description above, the speaker is in the icy regions of the northern latitude, where the famous Northern lights have been documented as making a seemingly “rustling” and crackling noise through the air.  The diction implies that the speaker has been stranded to look at this scenery for some time, and though overwhelmed by the majesty of it, the beauty of the imagery only works to remind the speaker of the blissful state that death would bring, “And yet they are upon my eyes, And yet I am alive.”  The beauty of the northern sky serves as a contrast to the narrators destitute state, which stands in for Wordsworth’s greater message that while we who dwell under Nature’s grace will inevitably fade away, the grace of Nature itself will always be eternally observable in the night sky, no better the fickle state of the observer.

The poem transitions from the sky, back to the individual, as the narrator draws links between natural processes and the human experience:

My fire is dead:  it knew no pain;

Yet it is dead, and I remain:

All stiff with ice the ashes lie;

And they are dead, and I will die.

The speaker understand that once death arrives, she will no longer be in any state to either contemplate the event, or complain about it–in death the fire knows no pain, and neither will any of us.  Watching the ashes that remain from the once flaming campfire focuses the narrator’s mind to recognize the temporary reality of her current pain.

Though the poem appears to have reached a point of serenity for the character involved, the prose quickly takes a turn towards reminiscences of life and regret:

Alas!  ye might have dragged me on

Another day, a single one!

Too soon I yielded to despair;

Why did ye listen to my prayer?

Wordsworth’s poem narrates the story of an American Indian woman left behind by her companion when she decided she could not continue the journey any longer.  The first two lines in the above passage would have the reader assume that this is a tale of callous abandonment, but the last two lines imply that the woman’s companions continued on without her, at her own insistence (hence, the retrospective woe, “Why did ye listen to my prayer?”).  The whole passage is one of  self-scorn for not having persisted against the obstacles faced, for not having chosen life over a defeatist end.  Although the speaker now recognizes that she could have held on further, the recognition comes too late; she now is where she saw herself at when she chose to give up trying.

The narrative then adds another layer of dimension to the emotional turmoil of the poem, with the following lines:

My Child! they gave thee to another,

A woman who was not thy mother.

When from my arms my Babe they took,

On me how strangely did he look!

Through his whole body something ran,

A most strange working did I see;

–As if he strove to be a man,

That he might pull the sledge for me:

And then he stretched his arms, how wild!

Oh mercy! like a helpless child.

The story of loss takes a new turn, as the seemingly abandoned woman now takes on the role of an abondoner.  Wordsworth draws a contrast in the behavior of the child in comparison to his mother; whereas the mother lays down to surrender to the elements, the boy’s demeanor is one of positive life affirmation–a desire to continue forwards at all cost–against whatever may arise in his path.  But the mother recognizes that this positive determination in her child’s eye is futile to help her, and gives the impression that she holds herself responsible for not meeting the boy’s drive and forcing herself to head on.  To be separated from one’s child is a reality all people will eventually face as they shuffle off this mortal coil, but to hand him away to another and then wait remorsefully for death to come is the very zenith of despair.  Perhaps this is the reason for the narrator’s initial unwillingness to muster forward after her premature surrender to the forces of nature, causing her to later muse privately to her gone child, “Then do not weep and grieve for me; I feel I must have died with thee.”

The theme of despair and sorrow is not uncommon in Wordsworth’s poetry, but usually it is told in a sense of pining for Nature’s simplicity, and a romantic plea for greater introspection of the joy’s of life and love.  But in “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, the poet deviated from the format his reader’s are accustomed to.  Here, the tone begins in pain and ends in pain; the reality of Nature’s cruelty is not rationalized away–no apologizes on behalf of Wordsworth’s deified grace of Nature is offered.  As the poem’s ending shows, loss, regret, and death are inseparable components of life, and no retrospective pleas or complaints of one’s past actions will amend this fact:

Young as I am my course is run,

I shall not see another sun;

I cannot lift my limbs to know

If they have any life or no.

My poor forsaken Child, if I

For once could have thee close to me,

With happy heart I then would die,

And my last thought would happy be;

But thou, dear Babe, art far away,

Nor shall I see another day.

Bibliography

Wordsworth, William.  “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” 1798 (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, Cambridge Edition, 1932 reprint).