High Priest of Nature~I

Source: By Argha Kr Banerjee: The Statesman

Apart from being an innate environmentalist, the leading British Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, was an ardent gardener and a passionate defender of the natural landscape. Through his poetry he not only championed the cause of the environment but advocated the worship of nature as a spiritual refuge and destiny. It is indeed ironical that Nature’s backlash in the form of a pandemic should cast a portentous silhouette on the sestercentennial birth commemoration of William Wordsworth in April this year.

The Poet Laureate who proclaimed himself as a ‘worshipper of Nature’, being ‘unwearied’ in his pilgrimage, is inextricably bound with the picturesque landscape of the Lake District in the UK. For most readers of the subcontinent, senior and junior alike, Wordsworth’s poetry rings synonymously with his ardent love for Nature, with its storehouse of birds, flowers and deep veneration for the pantheistic or mystical vision of nature.

Though Wordsworth’s poetic sensibility was shaped by natural philosophers and thinkers like David Hartley, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin and John Locke among others, he went on to fashion and articulate his unique philosophy of life in his poetry of nature. Shifting the focus and cradle of poetry to Lake District, he fashioned a new poetic identity in one of the most turbulent periods of European socio-political and cultural history.

The poet’s association with the Lake District, along with its picturesque villages of Grasmere, areas around Ullswater, Ambleside, Coniston, Langdales, Rydal, Arnside Knott, Gowbarrow Fell, Hawkshead, Borrowdale, Loughrigg Fell, Keswick, and Cockermouth have given rise to an extraordinary legacy of literary tourism in the lap of the woodlands, open fields, valleys, moraines, drumlins and a rich variety of lakes.

In fact today Wordsworth’s life seems synonymous with the eco-tourism that thrives at the core of the Lake District landscape. A brief survey of the poet’s biography also makes his deep spiritual affinity with the place clear. Wordsworth spent his childhood in Cockermouth in Cumberland with his other five siblings.

In his poem The Prelude, Wordsworth recollects his early explorations of the world of Nature, especially getting wet in the Derwent river, bathing in the sun, or exploring the lithified, laminated, shaly grits and rugged landscape, often in solitude: When rock and hill, / The woods, and distant Skiddaw’s lofty height, / Were bronzed with deepest radiance.

With his lifelong friend and Sister Dorothy, he recounted in The Sparrow’s Nest his shared childhood experience of observing a nest in a privet hedge. Educated at the Hawkshead grammar school, (in a village between Coniston and Esthwaite Water), a pathway signpost even today, commemorates Wordsworth’s stay there as a student from 1778 to 1787.

The Hawkshead Parish church finds mention in the poet’s long autobiographical poem The Prelude: I saw the snow-white church upon her hill, Sit like a throned lady sending out a gracious look all over her domain. The Wordsworth children lost their parents within a gap of five years. When William was only seven years old he lost his mother in 1778, while his father’s demise in 1783 plunged the family in financial distress.

Subsequent to his education at Hawkshead, William went to St John’s College, Cambridge, for higher studies. Dissociation from Cumbria only further strengthened his bonding with the Lake District of his childhood and growing years. Being separated from ‘lovely sights and sounds sublime’ of the Cumberland, he recorded his deep feeling of estrangement and loss in verse: strangeness in the mind,

A feeling that I was not for that hour Nor for that place. He, however, compensated for his loss during his vacations, exploring Dovedale in Derbyshire, the Yorkshire dales, and the earlier unexplored regions of Cumberland. In 1790 young Wordsworth along with his friends set out for the Alps, an experience he more closely narrated in his Descriptive Sketches. In spite of the surrounding political turmoil, revolutionary activities, Wordsworth’s primary reactions in poetry lay in the ‘sights and sounds sublime’ of Nature.

Wordsworth’s visits to France during the revolutionary turmoil, his relationship with Annette Vallon, and the subsequent birth of his daughter Caroline underline the anxieties of the young poet’s mind during this time: I passed fifteen or sixteen months. It was a stirring time. The King was dethroned when I was at Blois, and the massacres of September took place when I was at Orleans… I came home before the execution of the king.

Some of Wordsworth’s best poems were composed at Dove Cottage in the Lake District. In fact between 1795 and 1810 he composed his finest lyrics. In his preface to The Poems of Wordsworth, the Victorian poet Mathew Arnold observes: “Wordsworth composed verses during a space of some sixty years; and it is no exaggeration to say that within one single decade of these years, between 1799 and 1808, almost all his really first rate work was produced.”

However, in tune with Professor Edward Dowden, Wordsworth’s creative output can broadly be classified into three distinct phases. His settlement at Racedown and then at Alfoxden from 1797 to 1808 constitute the first phase, while his brief stay at Allan Bank, along with his early years at Rydal Mount represents the second phase of his creativity, and the final period, Dowden attributes from 1820 till the Italian tour of 1837. At the threshold of the nineteenth century, in 1798, his joint work with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, turned out to be revolutionary in a variety of ways.