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Wordsworth and Nature

One of the greatly generalized characteristics of Romanic era literature is its obsession with and romanticized view of nature. Nature is understood to represent the sublime and fill the viewer with tranquil thoughts and wishes to become one with the earth. It was believed that distance from society soothes the soul. Or does it? Romanticism relies heavily upon expressing the emotions of the speaker of the poem, and generating those emotions in the reader. But emotions are fickle things that can be highly contradictory and are subject to change. This is an idea that William Wordsworth expounds upon in his poems “Lines Written in Early Spring” and “Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree which stands near the lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the shore, yet commanding a beautiful prospect.” In these poems Wordsworth expresses the duality of feelings nature has upon the speaker, the sadness the speaker feels for not being at one with nature, and the peace the speaker wishes to gain from nature but is denied. The stereotypical ideas of peaceful nature bringing joy and rest are deconstructed as Woodsworth’s relationship with nature is complex and full of contradictions.

In the poem “Lines Written in Early Spring,” Wordsworth expresses the ideas of how nature once made the speaker happy but now makes them sad. He composed this poem while sitting by the side of a brook that runs down the comb. Knowing this information, it is hard to distinguish the speaker in the poem form Woodsworth himself. The emotions of joy and sorrow later mix for the speaker in the poem when they are happy and sad at the same time about the peace that nature brings. The speaker sits and tries to find rest in nature, but “in that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts bring sad thoughts to the mind” the speaker is actually sad. Happy memories that the speaker associated with nature have been touched by sadness, and the speaker understands their own melancholy disposition. The beauty of nature which should make their heart rejoice in song, makes them feel sad because the nature is too beautiful and they could never truly be a part of nature. Yet, the speaker remarks that this is a “sweet mood” nonetheless, which is to be interpreted that they are glad they are sad. The narrator is glad to be sad because it shows them that they truly understand just how breathtakingly beautiful pure the idealistic view of nature is and also that they understand the inherent peace that nature brings. But the reality is that nature is not bringing the speaker perfect peace as it is touched with thoughts of sadness.

The speaker then goes on to say “and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.” The speaker is saddened by mortal prison of their own flesh, saddened by the depraved state of human nature, and saddened by what man has done to the beauty of nature through industrialization. Wordsworth wrote this line in reference Burn’s poem “Man was Made to Mourn” in which Burns speaks of the idea that “man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.”  During the late 18th century when these poems were written, the world had been turned upside down and shaken. Revolutions of all types were breaking out around the world, and men were doing terrible things to their fellow man and to nature. The two revolutions that most directly affected William Wordsworth and his writing due to his location were the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The atrocities of the French Revolution propelled the romantic literature view of tranquil nature in direct contrast to the turbulent city, as can be seen in the city of Paris during the Reign of Terror when the streets ran with blood.

The Industrial Revolution had a great impact upon the writers of the romantic period. During this historic event Britain saw a rapid development of industry take place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This new era of industrialization saw improved large-scale production methods and machinery, but the loss of the sublime wilderness that the poets heart longed to be at peace in. The industrial and political revolutions that happened during this time generated a large amount of change, which made Wordsworth and other contemporary writers nostalgic and long for a possibly imagined past and natural peace of mind. This longing for the past is another idea prevalent in romantic era literature and adds to the tension of what nature is in reality verses what nature is imagined to be.

Wordsworth and the speaker attempt to find their peace of mind in nature as can be observed through the poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring.” Wordsworth has the speaker admire nature, “and ’tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.” In this line the speaker not only finds joy in nature but also observes nature finding joy within itself. The speaker finds delight and beauty in the flowers and in the flight of the birds, “But the least motion which they made-it seemed a thrill of pleasure.” Nature unto itself is pleasure, and the speaker attempts to tap into that pleasure. The speaker gains pleasure momentarily, but is then denied it as their emotions contradict one another. 

The speaker tries to remind themselves that there is truly beauty in nature, “and I must think, do all I can, that there was pleasure there.” Despite all of the beauty around them, no, yet rather because of the beauty around them the speaker finds “reason to lament what man has made of man.” The narrator truly wants nature to bring joy and peace to their mind, but the destruction of nature by man distracts them from those ideas. In this poem nature does not bring the speaker rest, but rather distress as they reflect upon what man has done to nature.

In Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” nature calls a weary traveler to rest under a yew-tree, far from any human dwelling. This imagery calls upon the idea that nature brings rest. The traveler is then lulled into a sense of peace, saying, “yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curing waves that break against the shore shall lull they mind.” The imagine of nature quieting the mind and bringing peace is very apparent in this line. This shows the romantic view that stopping to observe and rest in nature is beneficial to the mind and soul.

The poem starts out with the generlized and generic view of nature, but then takes a dark turn. The narrator then says that the traveler spent “many an hour a morbid pleasure” there as he thought about “his own unfruitful life.” In this instance nature is not bringing peace to the traveler. It is in reality doing the exact opposite. The beauty of nature is too much for the traveler, and they feel belittled by its grandeur. Nature is constantly producing such beauty that no human can compare. These lines call into question the generalized view of nature in romanticism and show the duality of feelings that Wordsworth creates in his narratives as nature brings happiness and sorrow to its beholder.

This poem then moves away from the dark mood and takes a lighter turn as the traveler sits and gazes at nature. “On the more distant scene-how lovely ’tis thou seest-and he would gaze.” The traveler is beginning to see nature as something beautiful again, as something that is to be apricated instead of envied. The traveler continues to survey the nature around him “‘til it became far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain the beauty still more beauteous.” He was overwhelmed by the beauty of nature to the point where it consumed him. He started out trying to find rest and peace in nature, but that is not what he got in the end. Instead he found a scene so beautiful it drove him to madness. The travelers stared at the beautiful scene “till his eye streamed with tears. In this deep vale he died, this seat his only monument.” Again, the reader see the tranquil nature driving a person to sorrow rather then peaceful rest.

In these two poems “Lines Written in Early Spring” and “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree” William Wordsworth makes his complex relationship with nature clear. He rallies against the generalization that modern scholars have placed upon Romanic literature and its relationship to nature. Wordsworth freely expresses the duality of nature, and how it bringing rest and distress. Nature is not always joyful, but can also cast a sober tone. Romantic era literature surely has an obsession with nature, but they do not always contain the narrative of a romanticized view.

Nature is generally understood to represent the sublime and fill the viewer with tranquil thoughts and that distance from society soothes the soul. Yet Wordsworth does just the opposite as he shows that the viewer can be filled with sober and distressing thoughts as they survey nature. Wordsworth clearly expresses the duality of feelings nature has upon the speaker. He does not shy away from the sadness the speaker feels. He also shows the peace and rest the speaker wishes to gain from nature, but suggests that this is sometimes denied. The stereotypical ideas of peaceful nature bringing joy and rest are deconstructed as Woodsworth’s relationship with nature is complex and full of contradictions.

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