On the 7thApril the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth was born in the small Cumbrian market town of Cockermouth 250 years ago. The second of five children Wordsworth spent his childhood in the English Lake District, episodes of which he recounts famously as “spots of time” in arguably his most famous piece ‘The Prelude’, an autobiographical poem which he spent his life revising yet never finished.
Wordsworth left the Lake District for Cambridge in 1787 and following several years of financial uncertainty residing in temporary accommodation with his sister Dorothy, Wordsworth would eventually return to the Lake District taking a cottage with his sister in Grasmere, his wife Mary joining them after their marriage. This residency in Grasmere has made Wordsworth synonymous with the Lake District as has the clichés of daffodils and wandering clouds from his famous poem alluding to both which helps to attract thousands of tourists to Grasmere and Dove Cottage every year. However, it is important to remember that Wordsworth was truly something of a radical; inspired by a visit to France in 1790 as the Revolution was beginning, Wordsworth found an affinity with the central principles of the movement and this would influence both his choice of subject and poetic form which he espouses upon in the preface to his most famous publication Lyrical Ballads.
First published in 1798, Lyrical Ballads is considered to mark the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature and was a dual endeavour between Wordsworth and Coleridge to raise funds for an extended trip to Germany. It is within the preface, which Wordsworth revised over several editions, where subject and form are discussed. Wordsworth reveals that the poems within the publication should be treated as “experiments” and the principal object “was to make the incidents of common life interesting” and as such low and “rustic life was generally chosen” because it is here where passion is to be seen free from the trappings of convention and artifice, but above all else Wordsworth believed that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Seeking to effectively represent the everyday person with common language and situations with an emphasis on emotion may not appear radical or revolutionary today, but contextually the Enlightenment and its focus on reason, individuality and science was unappealing and unattainable to many, disenfranchising the working classes so when Revolution came to France, radical reform in literary subject and form gave a voice to those without. Furthermore, by utilising the ballad, which is traditionally arranged into quatrains with an ABAB rhyming scheme, Wordsworth and Coleridge were seeking to simplify the poetic form, so it was representative of all and available to all. 250 years on and Wordsworth I believe, is as relevant, radical and representative as ever and his emphasis on ‘powerful feelings’, especially felt through the human affinity with the natural world offers hope, consistency and a sense of belonging in a world full of turmoil, uncertainty and chaos and this can be seen in his poem ‘Lines written in early spring’.
Appearing in Lyrical Ballads in 1798 the poem reads:
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran:
And much it griev’d my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose-tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trail’d its wreathes;
And ‘tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopp’d and play’d:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If I these thoughts may not prevent,
If such be of my creed the plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
The initial stanza is both joyous and melancholy as the speaker of the poem tells us that they are sat reclined, alone in a grove and they can hear ‘a thousand blended notes’. As we know this is springtime this invokes the possibility of a joyous choir of birdsong, insects chirping and the rustle of wind through tall grass, emerging flowers and leaves on trees. However, we leave the stanza on a melancholy note as the ‘sweet mood’ of the speaker gives way to ‘sad thoughts’. In the second quatrain the speaker makes a clear and distinct link between the human soul and the natural world and it is this which grieves the speaker’s heart as they contemplate ‘What man has made of man’ as this link does not extend from one human to another. No doubt Wordsworth’s reference is to the tragic outcome of the French Revolution but it is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1798 when we contemplate the wrongs humans continue to commit against one another and against the natural world, often forgetting we are part of nature, not separate from it. The third and fourth stanzas bring nature to life for the speaker and the reader. The flowers grow and are vibrant colours whilst the birds hop and play, a stark contrast to the stationary speaker. The fifth and sixth stanzas reinforce the link between the human soul and nature as the speaker contemplates the scene from the grove and laments once more ‘What man has made of man?’, finishing the poem on a sad note, but the poem does offer hope. Spring is representative of new life and new beginnings suggesting that the pain humans inflict upon one another can be prevented and the human soul can be renewed just as nature is as the seasons move from one to another. The emphasis on spring also offers a sense of continuity and power in the natural world as the cyclical nature of seasons will continue regardless of human endeavours, another reminder that humans are part of and not separate from the natural world. Wordsworth’s focus on common language, situations, the connection with nature and emphasis on emotion as seen in this poem represents a universality relevant to the twenty-first century as we navigate climate change, solistalgia and currently a world-wide pandemic.
The anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth is an important reminder of his place within the literary canon aside from his appropriation as patron of the Lake District, and of the radical revolutionary that heralded in the beginning of the Romantic movement.