Walking the Path With William Wordsworth

By George M. Young

Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Young, George M. "Walking the Path With William Wordsworth." Quest  96.6 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2008):213-216.

George Young

THE FIRST TIME I READ MORE THAN A FEW lines of Wordsworth, it was because I had to, for sophomore college English. I liked some of the short poems, the "Lucy" series, and some of the memorable lines and verses from the longer poems, but overall I thought he was pretty boring—after Shakespeare and Milton, a bit trite. Why did he deserve such a thick green book? All the way through The Prelude, I kept flipping to the end to see how many pages were left.

Now, forty years later, he is, for quiet, personal reading, my favorite English poet. And I am not the only one. C. S. Lewis wrote that he was not much impressed with Wordsworth as a young man, but came back to him after fifty years and was surprised by the joys he had been missing. Wordsworth is one of those masters who will wait for us until we are ready.

Born into comfortable but not particularly prominent circumstances in 1770 in the scenic Lake District in the north of England, the area now known as Wordsworth Country, he attended Cambridge University, took summer walking tours through the Alps, and in 1791 visited revolutionary France. He was caught up in the ferment of the new republic and fell in love with a Frenchwoman, with whom he fathered a child. As the Reign of Terror began and tensions with England mounted, Wordsworth returned to England, and did not see his child and her mother again for many years.

 

He published his first poems in his early twenties, but it was in 1798, in collaboration with his new, but soon-to-be everlasting friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that he published Lyrical Ballads, the work that introduced a new way of seeing and writing, established his reputation as a major poet, and launched the Romantic movement in English literature. Periodic awards and a modest inheritance allowed him, his sister Dorothy, and later his wife Mary, to devote all their energies and attention to literary activities, writing, conversing, rambling through the countryside, living simply and frugally without need of outside employment. Eventually, he was named poet laureate, and unlike his younger fellow Romantics Keats, Shelley, and Byron, Wordsworth lived a long, outwardly contented life, and from revolutionary beginnings gradually became a symbol of the English literary and political establishment.

 

The critics who chide him for turning away from the real world, for abandoning his youthful radicalism for comfortable, conservative royalism and Anglicanism, who accuse him of looking to nature as an escape, of writing about clouds and daffodils while ignoring the dire poverty and inequality all up and down the very hills and valleys he strolled through—these critics all miss what Wordsworth was really about. They analyze the exoteric to death, and ignore or misread the esoteric.
 
I think he was, and is, for English poetry, along with Blake, Yeats, and Eliot, one of the great voices of theosophy in its root sense of divine wisdom. As other esoteric writers have so often noted, the most difficult thing is to find the right words to communicate not simply the abstract idea, but the living experience of gnosis. What does it actually feel like to be face to face with the divine? How can one share, not just repeat, abstractions—not just toss around the Greek or Hebrew or Sanskrit terminology, but actually share, in ordinary words, extraordinary truths? How can one speak convincingly to mortals about immortality? What could Plato's man who returned to the mythical cave say to those who had never left? This is precisely what Wordsworth was able to do—supremely well.
 
Some academic scholars write about the Lyrical Ballads as if all Wordsworth wanted to do was to make a place for himself in literary history, to create something new and interesting for scholars to write about. And, to be fair, Wordsworth was certainly aware, and keen to make others aware, of what he was contributing to the tradition of English poetry. But to have a place in the literary pantheon was far from his main purpose. Wordsworth turned to nature, to everyday language, and to the lives of simple people not simply in order to do some-thing new in English poetry, but because this would best allow him to express in fresh, accessible, straightforward terms his sense of sat, of whatever is truest and most real. He would put the world's oldest wisdom into the everyday language of his time and place; give the highest truths humble attire, not so much because he wished to exotericize the esoteric, but simply because this seemed to him the natural language and subject for a poet. In Christian England, he was certainly not the first, but was probably the clearest one to state certain ancient truths:



Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!



In a note dictated late in life to his young friend Isabella Fenwick, Wordsworth worried that the "presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence contained in these lines might have misled good and pious people to conclude that I meant to inculcate such a belief." He does not, of course, wish to preach heresy, but goes on to say that although the idea of previous existence is not explicitly Christian, "not advanced in revelation, there is nothing there to contradict it, and the fall of Man presents an analogy in its favor." Furthermore, he adds, "a pre-existent state has entered into the popular creeds of many nations; and, among all persons acquainted with classic literature, is known as an ingredient in Platonic philosophy."
We know that he was familiar with both Plato and Plotinus through the translations of the proto-Theosophist Thomas Taylor. But his best source for preexistence and other ingredients of ancient wisdom was his profound self-knowledge, his acute sense of instinct and early memory, his ability to see the glow of divinity in nature—in dreamlike vividness and splendor. The books of the great philosophers could stimulate and guide, but it was the experience of deep dreaming while awake, the long meditative walks, and the visionary gaze that made the world transparent to him and enabled him to share those intimations with us. He told Miss Fenwick that the "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" began to come to him as he walked away from the abbey ruins, and continued on for two or three days up through the Wye Valley. He had the entire poem in his mind by the time he walked into Bristol, and was able to write it down immediately and publish it soon after without changing a word.
 
His close friend and admirer, the great poet, critic, thinker, and conversationalist Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose best known works include "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan," was also a visionary, but of a different kind. Coleridge sought and found his Gnostic truths in exotic, far-flung places, where great winged birds make breezes blow, sacred rivers run, and caverns are measureless to man. Wordsworth was able to detect the aura of divinity in the small, humble, and near; in cottages among untrodden ways; in hedgerows hardly hedgerows; in little lines of sportive wood run wild; in fountains, meadows, hills, and groves; in fields of daffodils.
 
Wordsworth knows the sadness of innocence lost, but he also knows the serene joy that comes with wisdom and experience. He loves the riot of youth, but also loves the steadfast calm of maturity. Life for Words-worth is a rambling, strolling meditation: a walk along a path with flashes of ecstatic vision, then distraction and gradual loss of that experience, then, as if returning to a mantra, a return and ascent to an even higher level of vision. Nature is the mantra that keeps bringing him—and us with him—back into the real world, into our real selves, and toward God. In "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth senses in his beloved sister, Dorothy, who accompanies him, a living image of the person he himself was when he visited the site five years earlier. He literally senses himself in another person, and senses her in an earlier version of himself. Here, shared experience of nature overcomes the passage of time, turns temporality into eternity, and allows the elimination of the boundaries between two human consciousnesses. This is truly the "I" and "Thou" as one, just as when he wanders "lonely as a cloud," he literally experiences himself in nature and nature in himself. Wordsworth, probably more than any other English poet, allows us to sense our natural kinship with, and refresh our distant memories of, the mineral, vegetable, and animal worlds. He is the poet of both prehuman memories and posthuman intimations, of what we have been and what, through many lives, we may become.



Though nothing can bring back the hour 
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind,
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering . . .

Wordsworth neither ignores human suffering and loss nor morbidly dwells on it, but rather looks forward to the power and serenity that we gain through the pains and struggles that mark our human existences. We grow, develop, and evolve by falling and rising again, by forgetting and then remembering, by wandering off and returning again and again to nature, to God, who is our home. Wordsworth constantly reminds us that who we really are is what some translations of the Bhagavad Gita call the embedded self, the child that is the father of the man, the babe of Nature.

 

Blest the Babe,
Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep
Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul
Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye!
For him, in one dear Presence, there exists
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
Objects through widest intercourse of sense;
No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.

Our connectedness, then, rather than our alienation, is Wordsworth's great theme: the connectedness of man and nature, man and man, God and nature, man and God. For like us, we learn in Book Fifth of The Prelude, nature too has a "self, which is the breath of God." And the theme of the entire Book Eighth is "Love of Nature Leading to the Love of Man." For Wordsworth, who witnessed the events of the French Revolution in person, the key to the brotherhood of mankind was not mass political action, but the man-by-man realization of our inner divine connectedness through nature. Wordsworth knew frustration, disappointment, and depression in his dealings with men and the world, but at the very depths of negativity, he remembers:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence—depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or ought of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse—our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

 

Wordsworth is the bard of a self-mending life, of repairs that go on when we are least aware of them, the healing spots of time. He reminds us again and again in a thousand ways that there is much more to us, and to our lives, than we are aware of. Indeed, the most important things about us may be those for which our conscious intentions can take least credit. In "Tintern Abbey," he lets us see how in times of wearying drudgery, memories of pleasant views—"spots of time"—from past rambles can quietly refresh us. He remembers the little cottages he saw in the valley.

 

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On the best portion of a good man's life,
His little nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

 

This is Wordsworth's sense of karma—every little thing we do matters, even the smallest acts that we do almost without thinking and without remembering that we have done them—everything counts, and all the good little things that a person does naturally add up to a good life, and will come back to us, unbidden, when needed.
 
In the lines that immediately follow, Wordsworth shares his experience of deep meditation, in which the breathing slows, the pulse drops, and something similar to what is sometimes called the third eye opens:

 

That blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

One of the earliest and still one of the most sensitive and appreciative readers of Wordsworth, was the late nineteenth-century English aesthete and critic Walter Pater, who wrote, in an essay from the 1890s:

This sense of a life in natural objects, which in most poetry is but a rhetorical artifice, is with Wordsworth the assertion of what for him is almost literal fact. To him every natural object seemed to possess more or less of a moral or spiritual life, to be capable of a companionship with man, full of expression, of inexplicable affinities and delicacies of intercourse. An emanation, a particular spirit, belonged, not to the moving leaves or water only, but to the distant peak of the hills arising suddenly, by some change of perspective, above the nearer horizon, to the passing space of light across the plain, to the lichened Druidic stone even, for a certain weird fellowship in it with the moods of men. It was like a "survival," in the peculiar intellectual temperament of a man of letters at the end of the eighteenth century, of that primitive condition, which some philosophers have traced in the general history of human culture, wherein all outward objects alike, including even the works of men's hands, were believed to be endowed with animation, and the world was "full of souls"—that mood in which the old Greek gods were first begotten, and which had many strange aftergrowths.

Although he published his works openly and wanted to be widely read, Wordsworth realized that many if not most readers would skim over the deeper levels of his lines. To most, he would be as he seemed to me in my sophomore year, a poet who wrote good descriptions of nature and the simple life. He was called by certain of his contemporaries "Wordswords" and "Worstwords," and the reigning literary tastemaker of the previous generation, Dr. Samuel Johnson, wrote a famous savage parody, not of Wordsworth himself but of the newly popular ballad form, which Wordsworth, who was supposed not to have much of a sense of humor, cheerfully reprinted in the Preface of 1800:

 

I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

But Coleridge, then and now regarded as the best English literary critic of the early nineteenth century, was Wordsworth's ideal and actual best reader. Fellow seer, lifelong friend, collaborator, brother through marriage, avid student of the esoteric, Coleridge was one of the three people (Wordsworth's wife Mary and sister Dorothy the other two) that the poet trusted to grasp every nuance. He addressed The Prelude to Coleridge, referred to through most of the body of the poem as Friend. In the last book of the poem, after showing us the growth of the poet's spiritual awareness from childhood through his schooling and university education, through his time in France during the Revolution, his return to England, his work in London, his travels in Switzerland, and later his moving to the Lake District, each book pyramiding upon the previous, the whole builds at last to a capstone description of an ascent of Mount Snowden. As the poet emerges from the fog he has been climbing through, he finds a clear and glorious view, a summit of outlook and insight, in which he experiences full spiritual love and a power of imagination from which the poet has drawn

Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought
Of human Being, Eternity, and God.

 

In the concluding passages, he addresses Coleridge, at last, by name and acknowledges Coleridge's contribution to the sense of life and body of work called "Wordsworth." "No wonder," Carlos Baker tells us, in his fine introduction to my well-thumbed 1961 edition of the Selected Poems, "that Coleridge, having heard this poem read aloud, rose up at the end to find himself ‘in prayer.'" On that day, for that poet and that listener, the reading of a poem about the growth of spiritual awareness became itself a spiritual experience. Even for us who were or are sophomores in literature, the exo-teric Wordsworth offers much to appreciate. But regardless of how much or little we gain from early exposure to him, the deeper, esoteric Wordsworth will still be there, where he has been for two and a half centuries, steadfast, calm, waiting to speak to us when we are ready.


George M. Young, Ph.D., is a Slavicist who has taught Russian and comparative literature at Grinnell and Dartmouth colleges, although for many years he ran a fine arts and auction business. He is the author of many articles and books on Russian literature and religious philosophy including the translation of Elena Pisareva's journal called The Light of the Russian Soul: A Personal Memoir of Early Russian Theosophy, (Quest Books, 2008). Young currently teaches English literature at the University of New England.