Thursday, 5 July 2012

Wordsworth: Revolution and Nature

 by Bryony Hart

Liberte leading the Revolution
by Eugene Delacroix
The time in which William Wordsworth was writing was one of great political, social and artistic change.  It is easy to mistake Wordsworth for a poet who was closeted away from the social and political strife that was occurring in Britain and in France, pigeon-holing him into a poet who was traditional and obsessed by Nature (the line ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ has a lot to answer for).  Indeed, he was closely connected to the events in France – he had a brief love affair with Annette Vallon, a French Revolutionary, in 1792, the result of which was the birth of his daughter, Caroline, on 15th December 1792.  It was not until 1802 when the French Revolution came to a close that Wordsworth was able to travel to France to meet her.  Wordsworth was initially drawn to the ideology of the Revolution: ‘Liberty, Humanity and Equality’, and when reading his poetry elements of this ideology are apparent.  He travelled to France and saw first-hand the reality of revolution and returned to Britain with a clearer sense of actuality of the war between the two great nations. 

Ullswater by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1795
The text that really defines Wordsworth’s key poetic principles is his collaborative work with Samuel Coleridge, a poet who is renowned for his addition to opium and the creation of some very surreal poetry (read ‘Kubla Khan’ for evidence of this).  They collectively produced ‘The Lyrical Ballads’ in 1797-1798 and A.S. Byatt argues that ‘Coleridge made it possible for Wordsworth to communicate and thus more precisely formulate his solitary thoughts’.  Whereas Coleridge’s style was thrilling and intense, (see ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ‘A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!/ And still it ner’d and ner’d;/ And, an it dodg’d a water sprite,/ It plung’d and tack’d and veer’d./ With throat unslacked, with black lips bak’d/ Ne could we laugh, ne wail:/ Then while thro’ drouth all dumb they stood/ It bit my arm and suck’d the blood/ And cry’d, A sail! A sail!’), Wordsworth’s work was quiet and reflective.  Works such as ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’ typify this style and approach to his subject matter.  Developing on this, Coleridge’s content was often sublime and preternatural – often including images from drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations. Wordsworth’s poetry was never drug-induced (apart from the brushes of Nitrous oxide – laughing gas – formed in Wordsworth’s lab) but he did have a pantheistic concern with his surroundings – the notion that God is in everything – which he communicated implicitly, in most instances.

The ‘Lyrical Ballads’ was a politically driven collection of poetry.  Both poets wanted to convey the thoughts and beliefs of the ‘common people’.  Traditionally, poetic subject matter (and the reading of poetry) was reserved for the elite, the upper class, heroes and heroines of status and historical importance.  Like the French Revolution’s ideological endeavour for equality, Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to write about ‘materials […] which can interest the human mind’.  In the Advertisement they write:

The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favorable to the author's wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.

What both poets strive to achieve is simplicity of language, form, structure and subject matter.  They wanted to communicate everyday experiences from the roots up not from the heavens above, much like poetry of the 18th century. 

It is hard for a modern reader to approach Wordsworth’s poetry without thinking that it is wordy and hard to access.  However, for the readers of the time, Wordsworth’s poetry was ground-breaking in its lack of formal poetic structure and subject matter.  To a generation trained in neo-classical literary theory, namely that poetic diction and subject matter must be dignified and formal, befitting serious subject matter, Wordsworth’s premise that poetic matters should befit an ‘ordinary’ man’s taste, seemed oddly out of place.  He was concerned with everyday occurrences, Nature and its restorative influence on man, as well as men and women from lowly status who were connected with reality. 

Man in nature
Wordsworth’s preoccupation with Nature and its effect on man can not be avoided.  Despite not being the poem being studied for the examination, ‘Tintern Abbey’ epitomises all the Wordsworth tried to communicate about Nature’s restorative effects on the human condition.  In terms of context, Wordsworth was astutely aware of the negative living conditions of men and women in the towns and cities, and touches on this theme in ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’.  Much like William Blake’s depiction of the streets in ‘London’, he reflects that Nature soothes the soul that is subjected to the loneliness and ‘din/ Of towns and cities’.  Wordsworth communicates that he is able to recall moments in Nature from his memory that provide him with ‘tranquil restoration’.  To him, Nature revives him and is ‘the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/ The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ Of all my moral being’.  His language here is unavoidably biblical: ‘nurse’, ‘guide’ and ‘guardian’ reflect this pantheistic view that becomes even more explicit when he reflects that ‘I, so long/ A worshipper of Nature, hither came,/ Unwearied in that service; rather say/ With warmer love, oh! With far deeper zeal/ Of holier love’.  It is clear that Wordsworth’s use of religious imagery reveals the fact that he is a devotee to Nature – these moments bring him a clarity that is so easily clouded in the ‘din’ of cities, which he also explores in ‘Expostulation and Reply’ and ‘Tables Turned’ where Nature is his teacher.  Here he suggests that sitting amongst Nature is far more beneficial to man’s education than reading books and studying: ‘Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:/ Come, hear the woodland linnet,/ How sweet his music! on my life/ There’s more wisdom in it’.  He concludes, much like he does in ‘Tintern Abbey’ that one should ‘come forth into the light of things, /Let Nature be your Teacher’.

Westminster Bridge by Claude Monet, 1871
‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’ implicitly explores the notion that Nature has the ability to heal the atrocities of man’s industrialisation.  Wordsworth captures a fleeting moment in time where London is shrouded in Nature’s cloak thus covering the horrors and reality with beauty.  Wordsworth personifies the city that ‘now doth, like a garment wear,/ The beauty of the morning’.  The ‘beauty’ that he refers to is not the city itself but the effect that Nature has upon the scene.  Man’s ‘ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples’ (all symbols of cultural and society) lie ‘silent, bare’ to the restorative effects of Nature.  Nature almost purifies London, much in the same way that Wordsworth feels purified in ‘Tintern Abbey’.  In the poem ‘The World is too Much with Us’ he explores in an explicit manner the more negative aspects of man and concludes that ‘Little we see in Nature that is ours’.  Despite Nature having the ability to restore the mighty heart of London, man is unable to access this quality because we are obsessed with ‘getting and spending [….] We lay waste our powers’ and, as a result, are the worse for it. 

It is evident that Wordsworth’s main concern is with Nature and the positive effect that it can have on man if man is willing to be receptive.  Underlying all of this is the aim to make poetry accessible to the masses, and to reflect that everyday experiences of everyday people.  This simplicity of subject matter transfers to the simplicity of language, form and structure, which, at the time, would have shocked the reader of Wordsworth’s poetry.  Today, Wordsworth is regarded as a literary ‘great’ and it is hard to envisage his depictions of natural beauty as politically motivated. 

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