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William Wordsworth is widely considered one of the most influential English romantic poets. In the preface of his book, Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798, Wordsworth declared that poetry should contain language really used by men. This idea, and many of his others, challenged the old eighteenth-cuntury idea of formal poetry and, therefore, he changed the course of modern poetry (Wordsworth, William DISCovering).
Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, England, to John, a prominent aristocrat, and Anne Wordsworth, but with his mother’s death in 1778, William and his family began to drift apart. William was sent to boarding school in Hawkeshead, and his sister, Dorothy, was sent to live with cousins in Halifax. It was in the rural surroundings of Hawkeshead that William learned his appreciation for nature and the outdoors. Unfortunately, once again, the peacefulness of his life was disturbed by his father’s death in 1783. William was sent from relative to relative, all of whom thought of him only as a burden. It has been pointed out by biographers that Wordsworth’s unhappy early life contrasts with the idealized portrait of childhood that he presents in his writings (Wordsworth, William DISCovering).
Wordsworth went to college at St. John’s College in Cambridge and later wrote that the highlight of those years was his walking tour of France and Switzerland taken with his friend, Robert Jones (Watson 1421). He graduated in 1791 when the French revolution was in its third year, but, even though he had showed no prior interest, he quickly supported the Revolution’s goals. After Wordsworth was forced to flee France he became involved with the studies of philosopher William Godwin; Godwin became one of the most inveterate influences on Wordsworth’s thought (”Wordsworth, William” Compton’s). In 1793 Wordsworth published his first two volumes of poetry, Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk. Written in the traditional manner, the books were not accepted well publicly, but, after the death of a relative Wordsworth became the benefactor of a small inheritance which enabled him to concentrate on writing (”Wordsworth, William” Compton’s).
Feeling that he needed a change of scenery to devote more time to his poetry, William moved in with his sister in Racetown. Dorothy’s devotion to her brother was a tremendous contribution to his success; she encouraged his writing and looked after their daily life (Wordsworth, William DISCovering). The single most influential person in William’s apprenticeship, though, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Critics view their friendship as one of the most remarkable in English literature (Watson 1422). It was when Wordsworth moved to Nether Stowey to be near Coleridge that he began a period of remarkable creativity. Together they published Lyrical Ballads, an anonymously published collection of poems written, for the most part, by Wordsworth, including the illustrious preface. Using the principles that he set in the Preface, Wordsworth focused his poetry on subjects of “humble and rustic life” (Wordsworth, William Compton’s).
In 1802 Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson and Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont expedited the publication of The Poems in 1807. In this book of poems William, once again, demonstrated his fantastic ability to create natural or pastoral settings and to add mysticism to ordinary events. Familiar with human psychology, he pointed out the influence of the childhood memories on adult outlooks, this is seen best in the famous quote, “The child is father of the man (Watson 1423).”
Wordsworth continued to write during his later years, but his career is generally viewed as a decline after 1810 (Watson 1423). In 1814 he wrote The Excursion and The Poems, in 1815, came the three narrative poems: “The White Doe of Rylstone,” “Peter Bell,” and “The Waggoner.” Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems, written in 1835, and The Sonnets of William Wordsworth, written in 1838, were both accepted well publicly and Wordsworth’s sonnets were compared with those of Shakespeare and Milton (Wordsworth, William DISCovering). He was given honorary degrees from the University of Durham and Oxford University, and in 1843, he became poet laureate. He retired to Rydal in 1848 and died in 1850. Today he is considered the most beloved and influential poet of the Romantic era (Watson 1424).
William Wordsworth was simple, true to nature, and descriptive. He is often referred to as the “poet of nature” (Wordsworth, William Compton’s). There are two central themes in the majority of Wordsworth’s poems: childhood and its influence on man, and an attitude of “back to nature.” These themes are seen in the poems “My Heart Leaps Up,” “Anecdote For Fathers,” and “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”
Both themes are seen clearly in “My Heart Leaps Up.” This is a poem that truly expresses the themes of William Wordsworth’s poetry. The speaker is a man stating of his desire to be close to nature everyday of his life. The speaker is saying he will not live a life that isn’t close to nature, and he wishes each and every day of his life to be “bound by natural piety” which means that he wishes everyday to be filled with the piety of nature.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The simplicity of Wordsworth’s writings enable the reader to see clearly his thoughts on children and nature. The paradox seen in, “the Child is father of the Man,” tells the reader that a child’s view of nature is different from that of an adult’s. A child’s innocence enables it to see nature in all of its beauty and splendor, while an adult views the wonders of nature as commonplace. The pastoral setting and “back to nature” theme are clear and distinct in the poem. The first two lines, “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky,” personify Wordsworth’s feelings on nature. His heart “leaps,” which means that he feels a certain joy when he beholds the beauty of nature, and the rainbow symbolizes that beauty. Nature has been with the speaker since “[his] life began” and it still is “now [he is] a man,” and the speaker wants nature to be with him when he “grow[s] old, or let [him] die.” Nature has been a constant throughout the speakers life, as it has been through William’s. The speaker knows that nature will always be there, and should he somehow lose it, he will die. The last line two lines of the poem say all of Wordsworth’s thoughts on nature, The speaker is found wishing that his “days [be] bound each to each by natural piety.” If it were for him to decide, everyday would revert to the day when man lived in harmony with nature. Although, nature is not the only theme seen in this poem, the line most often quoted in Wordsworth’s poetry is, “The Child is father of the Man.” Familiar with human psychology, Wordsworth articulates that a child is able to see nature and all its glory with a newer and brighter perspective, while an adult sees nature only as the environment around him. Wordsworth’s own life exemplifies what is seen in his poetic themes.
Wordsworth’s themes are seen, as well, in my favorite poem, “Anecdote For Fathers.” The poem, “Anecdote For Fathers,” appeared in Wordsworth’s famous collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads and is an archetypal Wordsworth poem (Watson 1423).
I have a boy of five years old;
His face is fair and fresh to see;
His limbs are cast in beauty’s mould
And dearly he loves me
One mourn we strolled on our dry walk,
Our quiet home all full in view,
And held such intermitted talk,
As we are wont to do.
My thoughts on former pleasures ran;
I thought of Kilve’s delightful shore,
Our pleasant home when spring began,
A long, long year before.
A day it was when I could bear
Some fond regrets to entertain;
With so much happiness to spare,
I could not feel a pain.
The green earth echoed to the feet
Of lambs that bounded through the glade
From shade to sunshine, and as fleet
From sunshine back to shade.
Birds warbled round me-and each trace
Of inward sadness had its charm;
Kilve, I thought, is a favoured place,
And so is Liswyn farm.
My boy beside me tripped, so slim
And graceful in his rustic dress!
And, as we talked, I questioned him
In very idleness.
“Now tell me, had you rather be,”
I said, and took him by the arm,
“On Kilve’s smooth shore, by the green sea,
Or here at Liswyn farm?”
In careless mood he looked at me,
While still I held him by the arm,
And said, “At Kilve I’d rather be
Than here at Liswyn farm.”
“Now, little Edward, say why so:
My little Edward tell me why.”-
“I cannot tell I do not know.”-
“Why this is strange,” said I.
“For here are woods, hills smooth and warm:
There surely must some reason be
Why you would change sweet Liswyn farm
For Kilve by the green sea.”
At this, my boy hung down his head,
He blushed with shame nor made reply;
And three times to the child I said,
“Why, Edward, tell me why?”
His head he raised-there was in sight,
It caught his eye, he saw it plain-
Upon the house-top, glittering bright,
A broad and gilded vane.
Then did the boy his tongue unlock,
And eased his mind with this reply:
“At Kilve there was no weathercock;
And that’s the reason why.”
O dearest, dearest boy! my heart
For better lore would seldom yearn,
Could I but teach the hundredth part
Of what from thee I learn.
The poem contains both of his central themes of “The Child is father of the Man,” as well as the “back to nature” outlook on life. When one reads the poem one can see clearly the bucolic setting and lifestyle as well as the influence the child had on the father, who is the speaker in this poem. The simple vocabulary that Wordsworth uses in this poem paints a vivid picture of Liswyn farm and Kilve. The fifth stanza of this poem presents a pictorial description of the setting: “The green earth echoed to the feet of lambs that bounded through the glade, from shade to sunshine, and as fleet from sunshine back to shade.” The words “rustic” and “dry” are also used to emboss in the reader’s mind a beautiful country setting. The modesty of the poem, though, is soon destroyed by the ambiguous ending. Wordsworth uses imagery to make the reader feel the beauty of both homes. It seems the boy wishes to stay in Kilve because, there, he feels closer to nature and didn’t need a weathercock to connect him to it. Whereas at Liswyn farm, even though it, too, is close to nature, the boy felt that his only connection was through the vane. One can also see the simple adjectives used to describe Kilve’s “pleasant” and “delightful” shore, and “favoured” Liswyn Farm. The last stanza of the poem connects to “My Heart Leaps Up” and the concept that “the Child is father of the Man,” The father says, “O dearest, dearest boy! My heart for better lore would seldom years, could I but teach the hundredth part of what from thee I learn.” The father feels like he has been born again through his son and he has learned how his view of nature has been tarnished with years of life. Once again, Wordsworth wrote a poem that effectively expressed his view on nature and the influence of the child. He has simply described the beauty of nature, and he has proven that the Child innocence is truly sometimes father of the Man.
Wordsworth’s “return to nature” theme is seen strongly in the poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (Appendix A). Like the Most Valuable Player on a national championship basketball team, “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” contributed the most to Lyrical Ballads, arguably the greatest work Wordsworth ever published (Wordsworth, William Compton’s). One of his strongest poems, it explores the relationship between nature and eternity. Tintern Abbey is found in Monmouthshire, England, and was founded in 1131 by the Cistercian monks of France. The speaker is a man who has returned to Tintern Abbey and is exploring the relationship between nature and immortality. Wordsworth uses many literary devices to describe the setting of Tintern Abbey and the feelings of the speaker. In lines two through four he uses aural imagery to describe the sound of water, “of five long winters! and again I hear these waters, rolling from their mountain springs with a soft inland murmur.” Words like “rolling,” “soft,” and “murmur” all describe the sounds of water and provide a soothing feeling for the reader. Then, in lines ten through eighteen he uses visual imagery to paint the beauteous (beauteous) picture of a rural scene
Here under this dark sycamore, and view these plots of
cottage-ground, these orchard tufts, with their unripe
fruits, are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves ‘mid
groves and copses. Once again I see these hedgerows,
hardly hedgerows, little lines of sportive wood run will: these
pastoral farms, green to the very door; and wreaths of
smoke sent up in silence, from among the trees!
Wordsworth then a simile to present his thoughts on the setting, “these beauteous forms, through a long absence, have not been to me as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” The blind man is a contrast to the speaker who has seen the beauty of the land and can re-create it in his memory. Lines thiry-six to forty-nine describe the transcendental feeling Wordsworth finds in nature, “of kindness and of love…We see into the life of things.” This poem varies from the first two because it connects nature to the spirit of Man. Wordsworth once said that he hoped the poem’s “transitions” and its “impassioned music of the versification” would make it sound like an ode (Watson 1423). In the poem the speaker, who is Wordsworth himself, is returning to Tintern Abbey after five years, “five summers with five long winters, and he is remembering the beautiful scene. He thinks of how the landscape played an important role in his life for the preceding five years. Then he describes how he spent time playing in nature without really thinking about it. This, of course, is one of Wordsworth’s major themes. Finally, he addresses the poem to his sister Dorothy so as to share the grand sense of nature to which his meditation is an attestation. This poem best expresses Wordsworth’s themes because he is the speaker in the poem and we can directly connect the ideas conveyed in it to him. The country setting so well described in the poem is enough to make anyone crave a life closer to nature. Wordsworth also tells us how he played and lived in this beautiful scene as a child without really knowing what he was experiencing; as a child he simply enjoyed the nature around him.
The three poems discussed above, as well as a majority of Wordsworth’s others, all had certain themes in common: the idea of “back to nature,” and the influence childhood and the child have on the adult. He utilizes his simple diction and splendid use of literary devices to paint pictures of rural scenes; he writes for the unpretentious man. These and his fresh ideas on poetry are what make him the single most influential poet of the English Romantic era and an unforgettable legend.
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