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Natural Revelation and Natural Selection: Wordsworth versus Darwin

Image: William Wordsworth, by Benjamin Haydon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It has long been recognized that the many hymns to Nature in the poetic works of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) convey an implicit belief in natural theology. That concept was not unfamiliar to Darwin himself in its abstract form following his study of William Paley’s Natural Theology in his university days. There is even some evidence that the younger Darwin’s explorations brought with them a more direct, quasi-Wordsworthian awareness of Nature’s divine disclosures than he could have gotten from reading Paley alone.1

In his mature years, on the other hand, there are fewer indications that he paid much heed to the Wordsworthian injunction to his readers to “Let Nature be your teacher.” At that point the influences of the two poles of, on the one hand, Wordsworth’s nature poetry and, on the other hand, of Darwinian theory ― the 19th century’s two totalizing visions of nature ― seemed destined to enter into an inevitable conflict. Wordsworth’s conception was clearly that of nature as a source of spiritual guidance whilst Darwin presented nature only as a brutal struggle for existence unredeemed by any higher purpose. It is that binary, and the debate in British public life to which it gave rise, which I wish to analyze in a series of posts.

Next, “Darwin, Wordsworth, and Natural Theology.”


  1. On one occasion in his youthful expedition aboard the Beagle he was even moved to describe a primeval forest as “a temple filled with the varied products of the God of Nature. No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” This point was noted by A. D. Martin in his The Religion of Wordsworth (London: Allen and Unwin, 1936), pp. 14-16.

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 DarwinDarwinian theoryGreat BritainHMS Beaglenatural theologyNatural Theology (book)naturespiritualityThe Religion of WordsworthWilliam PaleyWilliam WordsworthWordsworth versus Darwin (series)