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