In a series of posts I am exploring the competing visions of nature in the work of William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin (find the full series here). Many reported being “converted” to a Wordsworthian view of the world after reading him. Most striking of many similar reactions was the unequivocally spiritual response reported by William Hale White, whose (thinly concealed) autobiographical novel of 1881 focused on its author’s triumph over his former religious doubts.1 White claimed that the experience of Wordsworth’s work gave him the strength to go on living in a world in which the old verities had come under ever heavier attack from the sciences of geology, astronomy, and biology via Darwin’s Origin of Species.
An “Actual Fact” Before His Eyes
He likened his reading of Wordsworth to the experience of St. Paul on the road to Damascus because Wordsworth provided him with a new form of revealed religion. Although Wordsworth had not advanced any new doctrine, it was, White explains, as if the poet had announced to him a new God of the Hills, “a new living spirit for the old deity.” Forsaking his old religion of dogma, discipline, and denial, as he puts it, White’s new God was suddenly no longer remote and notional, but had finally descended from the invisible realm to take up a new abode in Nature itself. He now appeared as an “actual fact” before White’s very eyes. God was now at last a presence he could, to borrow a Wordsworthian phrase, feel upon his pulses.
The heartfelt moment of metanoia (or re-conversion) experienced by White (through the pseudonym of “Mark Rutherford”) deserves to be cited in extenso because it is expressed in plain terms ungarnished by attempts at literary virtuosity:
During the first two years at college my life was entirely external. My heart was altogether untouched by anything I heard, read or did, although I myself supposed that I took an interest in them. But one day in my third year, a day I remember as well as Paul must have remembered afterwards the day on which he went to Damascus, I happened to find amongst a parcel of books a volume of books in paper boards. It was called “Lyrical Ballads” and I read first one and then the whole book. It conveyed to me no new doctrine, and yet the change it wrought in me could only be compared with that which is said to have been wrought in Paul himself by the Divine apparition. Looking over the “Lyrical Ballads” again, as I have looked over it a dozen times since then, I can hardly see what it was which stirred me so powerfully, not do I believe that it communicated much to me which could be put in words. But it excited a movement and a growth which went on till, by degrees, all the systems which enveloped me like a body gradually decayed from me and fell away into nothing (…) There is, of course, a definite explanation to be given of one effect produced by the “Lyrical Ballads.” God is nowhere formally deposed, and Wordsworth would have been the last man to say that he had lost faith in the God of his fathers. But his real God is not the God of the Church, but the God of the hills, the abstraction Nature, and to this my reverence was transferred. Instead of an object of worship which was altogether artificial, remote, never coming into genuine contact with me, I had now one which I thought to be real, one in which literally I could live and move and have my being, an actual fact present before my eyes.2
An Unanticipated Epiphany
The account of the unanticipated epiphany experienced by White/Rutherford would appear to give unsolicited endorsement to the poet Shelley’s estimation of Wordsworth as “the hierophant of an unapprehended inspiration.”
Next, “Wordsworth: The Sage of the Lakes.”
- William Hale White, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Dissenting Minister  edited with an Introduction by William S. Peterson (Oxford: OUP, 1990).
- White, Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, pp. 21-2.