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Darwin, Wordsworth, and Natural Theology

Photo: Tintern Abbey, by Saffron Blaze, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

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). Wordsworth’s biographical and spiritual trajectory in life was rather different from that of Darwin. After a brief flirtation in France with Revolutionary ideas1 his permanent abode was the English Lake District, a remote location which gave him ample opportunity to explore the natural world. Poems such as the “Prelude,” “Excursion,” “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” and “Tintern Abbey”2 might almost be read as object lessons to accompany William Paley’s formal expositions of natural theology. For with Wordsworth, as J. R. Watson observed, we encounter “structures in the poetry which are akin to fundamental and primitive patterns of belief.” Watson points to the relevance of Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane as a hermeneutic tool to unlock many of Wordsworth’s meanings.3

For ease of reference I give here a short sample of just one of the passages in “Tintern Abbey” where Wordsworth reports undergoing what might be described as a moment of epiphany as he beholds again the leafy ambience of Tintern in the Wye Valley. In the following lines the poet recalls his treasured memories of the abbey’s sylvan surroundings on the occasion of a return visit there after an absence of five years:

Nor less, I trust,

To them [his memories] I may have owed another gift,

Of aspect more sublime; 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.4

One might imagine that, if Paley were to have sought endorsement for the views he expounded in his Natural Theology, he could hardly have found a better spokesman than Wordsworth. 

Next, “A Wordsworthian Disciple: William Hale White.”


  1. For biographical details see Stephen Gill, Wordsworth. A Life, second edition (Oxford: OUP, 2020).
  2. See William Wordsworth, The Major Works including the Prelude, edited with Introduction and Notes by Stephen Gill, second edition (Oxford: OUP, 2000).
  3. J. R. Watson, Wordsworth’s Vital Soul. The Sacred and Profane in Wordsworth’s Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 2.
  4. Stephen Gill, Wordsworth: The Major Works, p. 132.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



Charles DarwinEnglandepiphanyFranceFrench RevolutionhermeneuticJ. R. WatsonLake DistrictMircea Eliadenatural theologyNatural Theology (book)natureOde on Intimations of ImmortalitysoulspiritualityThe Sacred and the ProfaneTintern AbbeyWilliam PaleyWilliam WordsworthWordsworth versus Darwin (series)Wye Valley