William Wordsworth, an English Romantic and Pantheist poet, was born April 7, 1770, and died April 23, 1850. Near the end of his life he became England’s poet laureate. Three of his poems that I remember from my school days resonate with many experiences of my own life. It seems to me that’s what poetry is all about, to make us feel something.
Wordsworth was the second of five children. He was closest to his sister, Dorothy, also a poet, his companion as well as later his scribe. He attended grammar school in England’s Lake District where his love of Nature seems to have been born and nurtured, then went on to earn a degree from Cambridge University. During those college years, he took a summer walking tour of France, becoming a Republican sympathizer after the fall of the Bastille, and after graduation, returned to France, meeting Annette Vallon, with whom he had a daughter, though he didn’t actually meet his child for 9 years. He then went on to marry an old English friend, Mary Hutchinson, and they had their own large family of five children. Wordsworth went through dark periods in his life, becoming almost penniless at one point, but eventually he was reunited with his sister, with whom he lived the rest of his life, and also met poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two of them developed a close friendship and poetic partnership, which led to Lyrical Ballads, an important volume essentially launching the Romantic period of poetry in general and specifically transforming Wordsworth’s long, darker, more socially activist-type poetry that he had been writing to those nature poems and other ballads many of us are more familiar with. His long autobiographical poem The Prelude, which is considered his masterpiece, was eventually published by his wife, Mary, after his death. Wordsworth’s poetry did, though, also reflect the periods of isolation, loss, and loneliness he intermittently went through, what it meant to be human, including his strained friendship with Coleridge, the drowning death of one of his brothers, the deaths of three of his children.
Yet, one cannot think of Wordsworth without thinking of Nature, one of the major themes of his poems, the pleasure he found outdoors, the joy and peace it gave him, its impact on his spirituality. I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud (also known as Daffodils) was inspired by a journal entry written by his sister, Dorothy. It may not necessarily have always been critically acclaimed (in fact, much is available to read about critiques of all his poetry by scholars and fellow Romantic poets alike), but nevertheless, probably his most well-known poem, read by schoolchildren everywhere and certainly possessing a pantheistic flavor. It isn’t just a pretty picture about flowers and trees beside a lake, but also reveals another theme of Wordsworth’s poetry, memory. He reminds us of the hopeful and healing power Nature brings through remembering such sights as that field of daffodils even when we’re far removed from them. It’s especially meaningful to me because I had my own experience with a field of daffodils (or jonquils as I call them) years ago that I’ve never forgotten and that periodically comes to my mind’s eye, bringing me great pleasure. Originally written in 1804, the version shared here was revised by Wordsworth himself in 1815.
I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not be but gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
Another theme in Wordsworth’s poetry centers around spirituality and immortality. Ode on Intimations of Immortality resonated with me when I was a teenager, years before I embraced pantheism, during a time I was beginning to struggle with my own spirituality. Wordsworth addresses the sense of loss (or maybe it’s distance or detachment that we experience as we age) of the pure joy and excitement of being alive we feel as children, that closeness to our home, the place we come from, that tends to dim as we grow farther in time from it.
Yet, Nature has a way of sparking that remembrance of our roots, of our childhood abandonment, enthusiasm, and curiosity with which we embraced life, “trailing clouds of glory…from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” Since I was a child, I’ve had brief but intense flashes of pure joy and connection that are unexplainable; I want to hold onto them longer, but I can’t. It’s like a memory I’m “feeling” instead of remembering in my mind, and they have happened less frequently as I’ve aged. Then I also think back to what Christmas and other holidays were like then, how it was to play outside all day in the summer, the eagerness to feel sunshine on bare legs, to walk without shoes through the grass. It came effortlessly, almost like magic, life bathed in a kind of shiny newness around every corner. “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, the earth, and every common sight, to me did seem appareled in celestial light.” Is it inevitable that this “celestial light” must disappear and give way to the sadness and sense of loss as we grow older? Although sometimes it seems I have to work harder to experience it, it still does appear, like this morning, looking out the kitchen window and seeing the bright red cardinal sitting in the pear tree. For that minute, I felt the contentment Nature gives us, that Wordsworth knew and felt, too. And how often nowadays do we hear that we’re stardust? Intellectually, I know that, but inwardly I believe it, too, when I look up at the sky full of stars; it’s a feeling of looking homeward, where I came from, where I’m going to; not necessarily God in the traditional sense, but God nonetheless to me.
From “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” we also read these excerpts:
“But there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look’d upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
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;”
“Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
Pantheists differ on the matters of soul, the afterlife, the “before life” that Wordsworth speaks of here, and heaven. Some pantheists believe in a soul separate from the body and the brain that lived before our physical birth and continues to exist after our body has turned to dust; others find more appealing the belief in a collective universal consciousness we will join when we die; yet I would venture that most pantheists look at the afterlife in more material and scientific terms, elements scattered, alive only in the memories of others, things we have done in our lives, children we have had. Words like God and soul and heaven can be interpreted in different ways, yet giving each of us a kind of spiritual satisfaction and comfort. If one believes that God is Nature, then still we can agree with Wordsworth that God is, indeed, “home,” our beginning and our end, and at the end of this physical life, we will still be a part of the Universe in one form or another, be it as an identifiable soul or dust nurturing other life forms. That is immortality.
From what I’ve read, Wordsworth has been called a pantheist by some, a Christian pantheist, and a humanist. He was described as “at least a semi-atheist” by his friend Coleridge in a “13 May 1796 letter to the atheist John Thelwall” (The Christian Wordsworth by William Ulmer), yet it seems he never completely turned his back on the more traditional Christian upbringing of his childhood. “Wordsworth’s youthful political radicalism, unlike Coleridge’s, never led him to rebel against his religious upbringing. He remarked in 1812 that he was willing to shed his blood for the established Church of England, reflected in his Ecclesiastical Sketches of 1822. This religious conservatism also colours The Excursion” (Wikipedia). So, even though I can’t say definitively he was a pantheist in the sense of identifying God with Nature from what I’ve read about him or from his own words, he certainly seemed to experience the presence of God most strongly in Nature, writing about it in a way that appeals to many pantheists, inspiring us and reminding us of what we love about Nature, making us want to claim him as one of our own. But does the label really matter? What seems important is his perception of and passion and reverence for Nature and its importance throughout all his life, seeing it through a poet’s eyes, simple things really that he shares with each of us so eloquently. No matter our age, the world is or still can be that exciting place full of mystery and beauty, bathed in the light of the universe, and we can make the spiritual interpretations for ourselves. Whether or not we ever put words to paper or rhyme, we, too, can walk among mountains and trees, gazing upon birds, flowers, and streams through the eyes of a poet, knowing we are home, always. We live in Nature, but Nature also lives in us, in all things, deep in our very cells, ever alive in our memory, and therein lies respite from sadness and loss, therein lies hope. It doesn’t get much more pantheistic than that.
Finally in closing, here we once again see Wordsworth’s emphasis on the memory of Nature and its effects on even the aging man or the unhappy one, bittersweet, realistic, sad on the one hand, but hopeful on the other.
From Lines Written (or Composed) a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798:
“I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—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 nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.”
(an edited version appears in Pantheist Vision)