The Greatness of William Wordsworth
Romanticism, awakening experiences, and the evolution of consciousness.
Posted Apr 17, 2020
Two hundred and fifty years ago, on April 7, 1770, the English poet William Wordsworth was born. We are also close to the anniversary of his death, which occurred 80 years later on April 23, 1850. Wordsworth's intense sensitivity to the beauty and power of the natural world made him the archetypal Romantic poet, and the most influential poet of the 19th century.
He spent most of his life in one of the most beautiful areas of England, the Lake District, and his poems are full of detailed descriptions of the sublime, awe-inspiring landscapes of the region. One of the most famous poems in the English language—particularly in the UK, where every child reads it at school—is "The Daffodils," a simple lyric in which Wordsworth describes his joy at the blazing beauty of thousands of daffodils fluttering along the side of a lake.
Wordsworth is a massively significant figure for a number of reasons. First of all, he originated a new kind of poetry. Whereas previous poets had mainly dealt with political and moral issues (often in a satirical and whimsical way), Wordsworth believed that poetry should be subjective, an expression of the inner life of the author, or a lyrical description of the beauty of the natural world. He defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." In other words, poems arise when we feel powerful emotions, such as moments of great joy and deep sadness. They are a way of capturing powerful feelings and transmitting them to the reader. To us nowadays, it seems obvious to describe poetry in this way, but at the end of the 18th century, this was revolutionary.
Wordsworth's major work is a massive autobiographical poem called The Prelude, which explored "the growth of a poet's mind." The only previous poems of a similar length had been epics like Paradise Lost or The Fairie Queen, which told long and convoluted stories. But over hundreds of pages of blank verse, Wordsworth describes his childhood and youth in intricate detail, describing all of his formative experiences—most notably, all of his significant encounters with nature. Some of Wordsworth's contemporaries accused him of gross egotism, but the poem (and Wordsworth's work in general) was really just the expression of a new kind of subjectivity. It was almost as if he had discovered a whole new dimension of human beings' inner life, a kind of terra incognita which he had decided to explore and depict in as much detail as possible. As the literary critics Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling put it, "Before Wordsworth, poetry had a subject. After Wordsworth, its prevalent subject was the poet's own subjectivity… and so a new poetry was born."
Wordsworth's Awakening Experiences
This brings me to the second way in which Wordsworth is so significant. This is because of the spiritual aspects of his poetry. Earlier European poets had written about spiritual experiences, but always in the context of religion. Wordsworth was the first poet to write about spiritual experiences in a secular way, without explaining them in religious terms.
I call such experiences "awakening experiences" and have spent many years studying them from a psychological perspective. They are moments when our awareness becomes more intense and expansive. Our perception becomes more intense so that the world becomes more vivid and beautiful. We feel a sense of connection to nature, to other human beings and animals, and to a deeper part of our own being. All things seem to be interconnected, too, as if they are expressions of an underlying oneness. There is a sense of meaning to life and a sense of harmony in ourselves and in the world.
Wordsworth's poetry is full of descriptions of such experiences. He has many passages where he describes his awareness of a spirit-force pervading the natural world, some of which come very close to descriptions of the all-pervading presence of brahman (or Spirit) in the Indian Upanishads (which Wordsworth almost certainly never read). For example, in one of his most beautiful and profound poems, "Tintern Abbey," he writes:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
In another of his most beautiful poems, "Intimations of Immortality," Wordsworth describes how children's fresh, intense perception enables them to see a world "apparell'd in celestial light" with "the glory and freshness of a dream." However, as we become adults, we move away from the "heaven" of our infancy. "Shades of the prison-house begin to close," and the glorious vision of childhood fades "into the light of common day."
The Romantic Movement
The Romantic movement that began with Wordsworth became a major cultural phenomenon during the 19th century and was the expression of a collective psychological or even spiritual change. There were three main aspects to romanticism, two of which I've mentioned already in connection to Wordsworth: a new attitude to nature—a sense of connection to nature, and a sense of the beauty and purity of the natural world—and the exploration and expression of inner feelings. The third aspect was social and political idealism. The romantics rebelled against injustice and oppression, and against traditions such as Christianity and the feudal system. They were idealists who believed in a better and fairer world.
In my view, the romantic movement represented the emergence of a new state of being and a new kind of consciousness. As I suggest in my book The Leap, evolution has an inner dimension, as well as an outer physical one. At the same time as being a process by which life forms become divergent and physically complex, it is a process by which life forms become more conscious—that is, they develop a more intense awareness of their environment and increased sentience and subjectivity.
The reason why the romantic movement was so important was that it was part of the evolution of consciousness. The romantics had a more intense awareness than previous human beings. Their awareness was more intense in that they felt a strong sense of connection with nature, a strong sense of empathy and compassion (which gave rise to their social idealism), and also an intense subjective awareness. As I suggest in The Leap, before the second half of the 18th century, the standard human mode was an intensified sense of ego, with a strong sense of separation from nature, from other human beings, and from the body itself. But from the second half of the 18th century, this separation began to fade away. There was a new sense of connection and compassion.
Wordsworth was so important because he expressed these aspects of romanticism more than any other author. Although he became a conservative in his later life, as a youth, he had many radical ideas. In his early 20s, for example, he traveled through France and supported the revolutionary forces.
Shades of the Prison House
Although I've long been familiar with Wordsworth's poetry, I didn't know much about his life until a couple of years ago, when I read a book called Wordsworth: A Life in Letters. I was sad to learn that Wordsworth's life was tragically blighted by bereavement—in particular, the death of his children. In 1812 (at a time when he was distraught by the death of his brother a few years earlier), two of Wordsworth's five children died. First, it was his daughter Catherine (who had suffered from ill-health since birth and wasn't expected to survive into adulthood) and then his 6-year-old son Thomas, who died of pneumonia after contracting measles. (The three other children became seriously ill with measles, and their lives hung in the balance for days.)
Both Wordsworth and his wife were in a deep state of grief for years afterward. As he wrote movingly to a friend after the death of his son, "I dare not say in what state of mind I am; I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me—yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it." Three years later, he wrote a beautiful short poem called "Surprised by Joy" about the "most grievous loss" of his daughter and the pain of knowing that "my heart's best treasure was no more" and that nothing "could to my sight that heavenly face restore."
One of the puzzling things about Wordsworth is that although he lived till the age of 80 and wrote hundreds of poems, all of his best poetry was written before the age of 40. Critics generally agree that he wrote little of any real merit after this and have often puzzled over the dramatic decline in the quality of his work. His later poems lack so much of the freshness and insight of his earlier work that they seem to come from a different author. I think it's likely that this was the result of his grief, beginning with the loss of his brother and later with the loss of his children. Bloom and Trilling remark that it is almost as if Wordsworth "iced over," and this was probably due to the trauma of his bereavements.
However, it is refreshing to know that, even during his difficult later years, what he called "the visionary gleam" did not disappear entirely. Even at the age of 74, Wordsworth was still able to write a poem like "So Fair, So Sweet, Withal So Sensitive," where the intricate beauty of nature amazes him and enables him to "Converse with Nature in pure sympathy":
So fair, so sweet, withal so sensitive,
Would that the little Flowers were born to live,
Conscious of half the pleasure which they give;
That to this mountain-daisy's self were known
The beauty of its star-shaped shadow, thrown
On the smooth surface of this naked stone!