For several nights during the Christmas season of 1806, William Wordsworth recited a very long new poem in instalments to the company gathered around the fire: his wife, Mary, his sister, Dorothy, his sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson and his old friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whom the poem was dedicated. It was an autobiographical work, telling the Wordsworth story from his boyhood spent in the Lake District, through his entirely undistinguished career as a student at Cambridge, extensive pedestrian travels in Europe during which he witnessed the revolution in France, to his return to the Lakes to settle at Grasmere, all set to realise his literary vocation and produce the great philosophical poem to which the many hundreds of autobiographical lines he was declaiming were merely prefatory. As it happened, the party was nowhere near the Lake District: they were in a farmhouse in Leicestershire lent to the poet by his devoted patron, the connoisseur Sir George Beaumont, who had confidently identified in Wordsworth the genius of the age. Coleridge was no less sure of his friend’s pre-eminence: in a few years’ time he would publish a book in which he made him the third member of a literary triumvirate, the other two being Shakespeare and Milton. That was setting it pretty high, especially since to many reviewers, and most of the influential ones, Wordsworth was ripe for ridicule, someone who wrote about trivial subjects in a puerile way. Who could forget those lines from his poem ‘The Thorn’ describing a pond: ‘I’ve measured it from side to side/’Tis three feet long and two feet wide’?
Wordsworth had originally been inspired to write his philosophical masterwork some years earlier by Coleridge, who had abandoned his own similar ambitions as he became more and more surely convinced of the greater genius of his friend. It was a project with a big message, and he struggled with it unsuccessfully for years before giving it up, but fragments of its wisdom naturally featured in many of his shorter poems, such as ‘Tintern Abbey’, and of course in the autobiographical fragment that he recited during those dark winter evenings. In that work, which Wordsworth himself never published but which appeared posthumously as The Prelude, he invented a new kind of narrative poetry, portraying his life as somehow both exceptional and exemplary, tracing his unique mental growth as a ‘chosen son’ while imparting a lesson of universal currency. It is a vision at once robustly secular and yet full of numinous feeling, portraying the good life, led ‘with high objects, with enduring things,/With life and nature’, and with a disposition to utter what feel like prayers, though they are no longer addressed to God: ‘Ye Presences of Nature in the sky/And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!/And Souls of lonely places!’
The spirit of the thing is comic, though needless to say it is comedy of the most high-minded kind. Obstacles and hindrances – such as the aridity of formal education, the artificiality of the picturesque, the distracting turmoil of revolutionary politics, the abstractions of philosophy – one by one are overcome. The poem ends with Wordsworth looking forward to his destiny alongside Coleridge, ‘Prophets of Nature’ addressing the nation: ‘we to them will speak/A lasting inspiration, sanctified/By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,/Others will love, and we will teach them how’.
To Jonathan Bate, Wordsworth matters principally as a prophet of nature. This may sound like what Basil Fawlty used to call a statement of the bleeding obvious. But in fact, since the Second World War scholars have more often thought about him in other terms: politically, or as a writer about psychological development, or as a central member of the ‘visionary company’ of English Romantics, the watchword for whom was not ‘Nature’ so much as ‘Imagination’. The return of nature to Wordsworthian commentary is a corollary of the environmentalist spirit of the age. The process was largely initiated by Bate himself in a book called Romantic Ecology (1991). This new book resumes the theme, providing a colourfully written celebration (one chapter is entitled ‘Lucy in the Harz with Dorothy’) of Wordsworth’s ‘radical alternative religion of nature’. It does not pretend to offer any discoveries or to follow its subject from cradle to grave: Bate is very firm that Wordsworth went off the boil quite soon after he succumbed to respectability, suffering ‘the longest, dullest decline in literary history’, which is quite a claim. As a result, there aren’t many pages on the ageing bard of Rydal.
The book rather aims to fill a gap that Bate identifies in his opening pages: he wishes it to be something that one could give to ‘students – and indeed to anybody who raises an eyebrow when the poet’s name is mentioned and the only word that comes to mind is “daffodils” – a not overlong and not overspecialised book that would make them excited about Wordsworth’. What is exciting is Wordsworth’s ‘alternative vision for the future in which love of nature and love of humankind are enmeshed in a sacred web’. This sort of writing has a consciously old-fashioned quality, I think, not at all unattractive but rather like the sort of thing members of the Wordsworth Society used to say to one another in the later part of the 19th century, a time when the poet’s credentials as a sage and physician to mankind were at their zenith. ‘His best poems uphold and leave in quiet the spirit of the reader,’ says Bate.
Wordsworth’s contribution to environmental thinking was no doubt profound, and Bate’s reverence is heartfelt, but you do get glimpses of different aspects to his genius. ‘Nature would always offer Wordsworth a sense of wholeness and what he called … a “pleasant exercise of hope and joy”,’ writes Bate, echoing Matthew Arnold’s veneration of Wordsworth as a poet of ‘joy’. But then, when Arnold sought to exemplify Wordsworth’s greatness in a single line, he spontaneously chose one of the saddest lines in English poetry, the description of the heartbroken shepherd Michael returning daily to the sheepfold that he had been building with his son, now irretrievably lost to him: ‘And never lifted up a single stone’. Bate observes on several occasions that Wordsworth’s poetry is often filled with elegiac feeling, and in his depiction of childhood experience he is moved no less by emotions of abandonment, isolation and loss. I am not sure how Wordsworth’s tragic writing sits alongside the divine comedy of his nature religion. Perhaps, as William Empson once observed, to love nature even when she is at her most terrible lends you a kind of strength, but there’s no doubt that Wordsworth could imagine nature being very terrible indeed.