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Chapter 10. Natural Religion.
It will have been obvious from the preceding pages, as well as from the tone of other criticisms on Wordsworth, that his exponents are not content to treat his poems on Nature simply as graceful descriptive pieces, but speak of him in terms usually reserved for the originators of some great religious movement. “The very image of Wordsworth,” says De Quincey, for instance, “as I prefigured it to my own planet-struck eye, crushed my faculties as before Elijah or St. Paul.” How was it that poems so simple in outward form that the reviewers of the day classed them with the Song of Sixpence, or at best with the Babes in the Wood, could affect a critic like De Quincey,—I do not say with admiration, but with this exceptional sense of revelation and awe?

The explanation of this anomaly lies, as is well known, in something new and individual in the way in which Wordsworth regarded Nature; something more or less discernible in most of his works, and redeeming even some of the slightest of them from insignificance, while conferring on the more serious and sustained pieces an importance of a different order from that which attaches to even the most brilliant productions of his contemporaries. To define with exactness, however, what was this new element imported by our poet into man’s view of Nature is far from easy, and requires some brief consideration of the attitude in this respect of his predecessors.

There is so much in the external world which is terrible or unfriendly to man, that the first impression made on him by Nature as a whole, even in temperate climates, is usually that of awfulness; his admiration being reserved for the fragments of her which he has utilized for his own purposes, or adorned with his own handiwork. When Homer tells us of a place

Where even a god might gaze, and stand apart,

And feel a wondering rapture at the heart,

it is of no prospect of sea or mountain that he is speaking, but of a garden where everything is planted in rows, and there is a never-ending succession of pears and figs. These gentler aspects of Nature will have their minor deities to represent them; but the men, of whatever race they be, whose minds are most absorbed in the problems of man’s position and destiny will tend for the most part to some sterner and more overwhelming conception of the sum of things. “Lord, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?” is the cry of Hebrew piety as well as of modern science; and the “majestas cognita rerum,”—the recognized majesty of the universe—teaches Lucretius only the indifference of gods and the misery of men.

But in a well-known passage, in which Lucretius is honoured as he deserves, we find nevertheless a different view hinted, with an impressiveness which it had hardly acquired till then. We find Virgil implying that scientific knowledge of Nature may not be the only way of arriving at the truth about her; that her loveliness is also a revelation, and that the soul which is in unison with her is justified by its own peace. This is the very substance of The Poet’s Epitaph also; of the poem in which Wordsworth at the beginning of his career describes himself as he continued till its close,—the poet who “murmurs near the running brooks a music sweeter than their own,”—who scorns the man of science “who would peep and botanize upon his mother’s grave.”

The outward shows of sky and earth,

Of hill and valley, he has viewed;

And impulses of deeper birth

Have come to him in solitude.

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart,—

The harvest of a quiet eye

That broods and sleeps on his own heart.

But he is weak, both man and boy,

Hath been an idler in the land;

Contented if he might enjoy

The things which others understand.

Like much else in the literature of imperial Rome, the passage in the second Georgic to which I have referred is in its essence more modern than the Middle Ages. Mediaeval Christianity involved a divorce from the nature around us, as well as from the nature within. With the rise of the modern spirit delight in the external world returns; and from Chaucer downwards through the whole course of English poetry are scattered indications of a mood which draws from visible things an intuition of things not seen. When Wither, in words which Wordsworth has fondly quoted, says of his muse,—

By the murmur of a spring,

Or the least bough’s rustelling;

By a daisy whose leaves spread,

Shut when Titan goes to bed;

Or a shady bush or tree,—

She could more infuse in me

Than all Nature’s beauties can

In some other wiser man,—

he felt already, as Wordsworth after him, that Nature is no mere collection of phenomena, but infuses into her least approaches some sense of her mysterious whole.

Passages like this, however, must not he too closely pressed. The mystic element in English literature has run for the most part into other channels; and when, after Pope’s reign of artificiality and convention, attention was redirected to the phenomena of Nature by Collins, Beattie, Thomson, Crabbe, Cowper, Burns, and Scott, it was in a spirit of admiring observation rather than of an intimate worship. Sometimes, as for the most part in Thomson, we have mere picturesqueness,—a reproduction of Nature for the mere pleasure of reproducing her,—a kind of stock-taking of her habitual effects. Or sometimes, as in Burns, we have a glowing spirit which looks on Nature with a side glance, and uses her as an accessory to the expression of human love and woe. Cowper sometimes contemplated her as a whole, but only as affording a proof of the wisdom and goodness of a personal Creator.

To express what is characteristic in Wordsworth we must recur to a more generalized conception of the relations between the natural and the spiritual worlds. We must say with Plato—the lawgiver of all subsequent idealists—that the unknown realities around us, which the philosopher apprehends by the contemplation of abstract truth, become in various ways obscurely perceptible to men under the influence of a “divine madness,”—of an enthusiasm which is in fact inspiration. And further, giving, as he so often does, a half-fanciful expression to a substance of deep meaning,—Plato distinguishes four kinds of this enthusiasm. There is the prophet’s glow of revelation; and the prevailing prayer which averts the wrath of heaven; and that philosophy which enters, so to say, unawares into the poet through his art, and into the lover through his love. Each of these stimuli may so exalt the inward faculties as to make a man ενθεο? κυι εκφρον,—“bereft of reason but filled with divinity,”—percipient of an intelligence other and larger than his own. To this list Wordsworth has made an important addition. He has shown by his example and writings that the contemplation of Nature may become a stimulus as inspiring as these; may enable us “to see into the life of things”—as far, perhaps, as beatific vision or prophetic rapture can attain. Assertions so impalpable as these must justify themselves by subjective evidence. He who claims to give a message must satisfy us that he has himself received it; and, inasmuch as transcendent things are in themselves inexpressible, he must convey to us in hints and figures the conviction which we need. Prayer may bring the spiritual world near to us; but when the eyes of the kneeling Dominic seem to say “To son venuto a questo,” their look must persuade us that the life of worship has indeed attained the reward of vision. Art, too, may be inspired; but the artist, in whatever field he works, must have “such a mastery of his mystery” that the fabric of his imagination stands visible in its own light before our eyes,—

        Seeing it is built

Of music; therefore never built at all,

And, therefore, built for ever.

Love may open heaven; but when the lover would invite us “thither, where are the eyes of Beatrice,” he must make us feel that his individual passion is indeed part and parcel of that love “which moves the sun and the other stars.”

And so also with Wordsworth. Unless the words which describe the intense and sympathetic gaze with which he contemplates Nature convince us of the reality of “the light which never was on sea or land,”—of the “Presence which disturbs him with the joy of elevated thoughts,”—of the authentic vision of those hours

                            When the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world;—

unless his tone awakes a responsive conviction in ourselves, there is no argument by which he can prove to us that he is offering a new insight to mankind. Yet, on the other hand, it need not be unreasonable to see in his message something more than a mere individual fancy. It seems, at least, to be closely correlated with those other messages of which we have spoken,—those other cases where some original element of our nature is capable of being regarded as an inlet of mystic truth. For in each of these complex aspects of religion we see, perhaps, the modification of a primeval instinct. There is a point of view from which Revelation seems to be but transfigured Sorcery, and Love transfigured Appetite, and Philosophy man’s ordered Wonder, and Prayer his softening Fear. And similarly in the natural religion of Wordsworth we may discern the modified outcome of other human impulses hardly less universal—of those instincts which led our forefathers to people earth and air with deities, or to vivify the whole universe with a single soul. In this view the achievement of Wordsworth was of a kind which most of the moral leaders of the race have in some way or other performed. It was that he turned a theology back again into a religion: that he revived in a higher and purer form those primitive elements of reverence for Nature’s powers which had diffused themselves into speculation, or crystallized into mythology; that for a system of beliefs about Nature, which paganism had allowed to become grotesque,— of rites which had become unmeaning,—he substituted an admiration for Nature so constant, an understanding of her so subtle, a sympathy so profound, that they became a veritable worship. Such worship, I repeat, is not what we commonly imply either by paganism or by pantheism. For in pagan countries, though the gods may have originally represented natural forces, yet the conception of them soon becomes anthropomorphic, and they are reverenced as transcendent men; and, on the other hand, pantheism is generally characterized by an indifference to things in the concrete, to Nature in detail; so that the Whole, or Universe, with which the Stoics (for instance) sought to be in harmony, was approached not by contemplating external objects, but rather by ignoring them.

Yet here I would be understood to speak only in the most general manner. So congruous in all ages are the aspirations and the hopes of men that it would be rash indeed to attempt to assign the moment when any spiritual truth rises for the first time on human consciousness. But thus much, I think, may be fairly said, that the maxims of Wordsworth’s form of natural religion were uttered before Wordsworth only in the sense in which the maxims of Christianity were uttered before Christ. To compare small things with great—or rather, to compare great things with things vastly greater—the essential spirit of the Lines near Tintern Abbey was for practical purposes as new to mankind as the essential spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Not the isolated expression of moral ideas, but their fusion into a whole in one memorable personality, is that which connects them for ever with a single name. Therefore it is that Wordsworth is venerated; because to so many men—indifferent, it may be, to literary or poetical effects, as such—he has shown by the subtle intensity of his own emotion how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency, like Love or Prayer,—an opening, if indeed there be any opening, into the transcendent world.

The prophet with such a message as this will, of course, appeal for the most part to the experience of exceptional moments—those moments when “we see into the life of things;” when the face of Nature sends to us “gleams like the flashing of a shield;”—hours such as those of the Solitary, who, gazing on the lovely distant scene,

                              Would gaze till it became

Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain

The beauty, still more beauteous.

But the idealist, of whatever school, is seldom content to base his appeal to us upon these scattered intuitions alone. There is a whole epoch of our existence whose memories, differing, indeed, immensely in vividness and importance in the minds of different men, are yet sufficiently common to all men to form a favourite basis for philosophical argument. “The child is father of the man;” and through the recollection and observation of early childhood we may hope to trace our ancestry—in heaven above or on the earth beneath— in its most significant manifestation.

It is to the workings of the mind of the child that the philosopher appeals who wishes to prove that knowledge is recollection, and that our recognition of geometrical truths—so prompt as to appear instinctive—depends on our having been actually familiar with them in an earlier world. The Christian mystic invokes with equal confidence his own memories of a state which seemed as yet to know no sin:—

Happy those early days, when I

Shined in my angel infancy!

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race,

Or taught my soul to fancy aught

But a white, celestial thought;

When yet I had not walked above

A mile or two from my first Love,

And looking back at that short space

Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

When on some gilded cloud or flower

My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity;

Before I taught my tongue to wound

My conscience with a sinful sound,

Or had the black art to dispense

A several sin to every sense,

But felt through all this fleshly dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

And Wordsworth, whose recollections were exceptionally vivid, and whose introspection was exceptionally penetrating, has drawn from his own childish memories philosophical lessons which are hard to disentangle in a logical statement, but which will roughly admit of being classed under two heads. For firstly, he has shown an unusual delicacy of analysis in eliciting the “firstborn affinities that fit our new existence to existing things;”—in tracing the first impact of impressions which are destined to give the mind its earliest ply, or even, in unreflecting natures, to determine the permanent modes of thought. And, secondly, from the halo of pure and vivid emotions with which our childish years are surrounded, and the close connexion of this emotion with external nature, which it glorifies and transforms, he infers that the soul has enjoyed elsewhere an existence superior to that of earth, but an existence of which external nature retains for a time the power of reminding her.

The first of these lines of thought may be illustrated by a passage in the Prelude, in which the boy’s mind is represented as passing through precisely the train of emotion which we may imagine to be at the root of the theology of many barbarous peoples. He is rowing at night alone on Esthwaite Lake, his eyes fixed upon a ridge of crags, above which nothing is visible:—

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And as I rose upon the stroke my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan;—

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again;

And, growing still in stature, the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own,

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow-tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark,

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood. But after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness—call it solitude,

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea, or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly thro’ the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

In the controversy as to the origin of the worship of inanimate objects, or of the powers of Nature, this passage might fairly be cited as an example of the manner in which those objects, or those powers, can impress the mind with that awe which is the foundation of savage creeds, while yet they are not identified with any human intelligence, such as the spirits of ancestors or the like, nor even supposed to operate according to any human, analogy.

Up to this point Wordsworth’s reminiscences may seem simply to illustrate the conclusions which science reaches by other roads. But he is not content with merely recording and analyzing his childish impressions; he implies, or even asserts, that these “fancies from afar are brought”—that the child’s view of the world reveals to him truths which the man with difficulty retains or recovers. This is not the usual teaching of science, yet it would be hard to assert that it is absolutely impossible. The child’s instincts may well be supposed to partake in larger measure of the general instincts of the race, in smaller measure of the special instincts of his own country and century, than is the case with the man. Now the feelings and beliefs of each successive century will probably be, on the whole, superior to those of any previous century. But this is not universally true; the teaching of each generation does not thus sum up the results of the whole past. And thus the child, to whom in a certain sense the past of humanity is present,—who is living through the whole life of the race in little, before he lives the life of his century in large,—may possibly dimly apprehend something more of truth in certain directions than is visible to the adults around him.

But, thus qualified, the intuitions of infancy might seem scarcely worth insisting on. And Wordsworth, as is well known, has followed Plato in advancing for the child a much bolder claim. The child’s soul, in this view, has existed before it entered the body—has existed in a world superior to ours, but connected, by the immanence of the same pervading Spirit, with the material universe before our eyes. The child begins by feeling this material world strange to him. But he sees in it, as it were, what he has been accustomed to see; he discerns in it its kinship with the spiritual world which he dimly remembers; it is to him “an unsubstantial fairy place”—a scene at once brighter and more unreal than it will appear in his eyes when he has become acclimatized to earth. And even when this freshness of insight has passed away, it occasionally happens that sights or sounds of unusual beauty or carrying deep associations—a rainbow, a cuckoo’s cry, a sunset of extraordinary splendour—will renew for a while this sense of vision and nearness to the spiritual world—a sense which never loses its reality, though with advancing years its presence grows briefer and more rare.

Such, then, in prosaic statement is the most characteristic message of Wordsworth. And it is to be noted that though Wordsworth at times presents it as a coherent theory, yet it is not necessarily of the nature of a theory, nor need be accepted or rejected as a whole; but is rather an inlet of illumining emotion in which different minds can share in the measure of their capacities or their need. There are some to whom childhood brought no strange vision of brightness, but who can feel their communion with the Divinity in Nature growing with the growth of their souls. There are others who might be unwilling to acknowledge any spiritual or transcendent source for the elevating joy which the contemplation of Nature can give, but who feel nevertheless that to that joy Wordsworth has been their most effective guide. A striking illustration of this fact may be drawn, from the passage in which John Stuart Mill, a philosopher of a very different school, has recorded the influence exercised over him by Wordsworth’s poems; read in a season of dejection, when there seemed to be no real and substantive joy in life, nothing but the excitement of the struggle with the hardships and injustices of human fates.

“What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of

mind,” he says in his Autobiography, “was that they expressed,

not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought

coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They

seemed to be the very culture of the feelings which I was in

quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward

joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be

shared in by all human beings, which had no connexion

with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by

every improvement in the physical or social condition of

mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the

perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of

life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better

and happier as I came under their influence.”

Words like these, proceeding from a mind so different from the poet’s own, form perhaps as satisfactory a testimony to the value of his work as any writer can obtain. For they imply that Wordsworth has succeeded in giving his own impress to emotions which may become common to all; that he has produced a body of thought which is felt to be both distinctive and coherent, while yet it enlarges the reader’s capacities instead of making demands upon his credence. Whether there be theories, they shall pass; whether there be systems, they shall fail; the true epoch-maker in the history of the human soul is the man who educes from this bewildering universe a new and elevating joy.

I have alluded above to some of the passages, most of them familiar enough, in which Wordsworth’s sense of the mystic relation between the world without us and the world within—the correspondence between the seen and the unseen—is expressed in its most general terms. But it is evident that such a conviction as this, if it contain any truth, cannot be barren of consequences on any level of thought. The communion with Nature which is capable of being at times sublimed to an incommunicable ecstasy must be capable also of explaining Nature to us so far as she can be explained; there must be axiomata media of natural religion; there must be something in the nature of poetic truths, standing midway between mystic intuition and delicate observation.

How rich Wordsworth is in these poetic truths—how illumining is the gaze which he turns on the commonest phenomena—how subtly and variously he shows us the soul’s innate perceptions or inherited memories as it were cooperating with Nature and “half creating” the voice with which she speaks—all this can be learnt by attentive study alone. Only a few scattered samples can be given here; and I will begin with one on whose significance the poet has himself dwelt. This is the poem called The Leech–Gatherer, afterwards more formally named Resolution and Independence.

“I will explain to you,” says Wordsworth, “in prose, my feelings in writing that poem, I describe myself as having been exalted to the highest pitch of delight by the joyousness and beauty of Nature; and then as depressed, even in the midst of those beautiful objects, to the lowest dejection and despair. A young poet in the midst of the happiness of Nature is described as overwhelmed by the thoughts of the miserable reverses which have befallen the happiest of all men, viz. poets. I think of this till I am so deeply impressed with it, that I consider the manner in which I am rescued from my dejection and despair almost as an interposition of Providence. A person reading the poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controlled, expecting something spiritual or supernatural. What is brought forward? A lonely place, ‘a pond, by which an old man was, far from all house or home:’ not stood, nor sat, but was—the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible. The feeling of spirituality or supernaturalness is again referred to as being strong in my mind in this passage. How came he here? thought I, or what can he be doing? I then describe him, whether ill or well is not for me to judge with perfect confidence; but this I can confidently affirm, that though I believe God has given me a strong imagination, I cannot conceive a figure more impressive than that of an old man like this, the survivor of a wife and ten children, travelling alone among the mountains and all lonely places, carrying with him his own............
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