Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in the Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected).

Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Themes


Beneficent Nature

Wordsworth expressed deep connections with nature—a word he personified by capitalizing it—in many of his works. He did not go to nature to find specific, striking impressions for the sake of novelty, as poets of the century before him often did. Nature was not picturesque to him in precise terms, but as a great entity that helped shape and form people's lives.

Nature's influences begin in early childhood, when there are the fewest obstacles to receiving impressions. Readers see this in "My Heart Leaps Up," which tells of the joy brought to a young child at the sight of a rainbow, a joy he will try to recapture and keep in his maturity. The child open to nature in fact is the "father of the Man," as the poem says—one of Wordsworth's most important statements on the power of immediate impression and reaction to nature throughout one's life. The epic poem The Prelude explores in thousands of lines the changing tides of nature upon a person, from youthful exaltation to the adult fears of the loss of powers and alienation from the natural world of God.

Few precise descriptions of the earth itself, or flora and fauna, are found in Wordsworth's poems. The emotions and feelings caused by interaction with nature are his primary emphasis. Furthermore, not all in nature is immediately good or beneficent, as fear is a constant presence in life for him. In the first Book of The Prelude, the poet as a young boy steals a boat but soon falls into terror when the high crags around the lake seem to come to life and pursue him, "like a living thing." The boy is terrified and keeps the image with him into adulthood. Nature has the power to shape and mold a person by such "interventions," as the mature poet calls them.

Ultimately the fears caused from an overpowering nature are transformed into love that is part of divine wisdom. Nature is the great source for replenishing the open Imagination.

The Magic of Childhood

One of Wordsworth's most famous poems is the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." This complex work examines the differences between childhood and mature lives. It posits a clear preference for the time in life when the young self is closest to God and the external world. The child rarely thinks of death, a concept also seen in "We Are Seven." But as a child's unspoiled powers are changed by the demands of an adult life in society with others, the powers fade and may lead to unhappiness.

The "Ode" calls the child "the best philosopher," closest to all that is good in life. But as time must go on, "Nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." So much of the epic poem on Wordsworth's vocation as poet, The Prelude, narrates incidents from childhood that formed the man. While many involve fear and disillusion, ultimately youth is glorified as the state the old can relive in memory to create poetry such as his. Many other children people Wordsworth's lyrics and ballads. Among the sweetest are the blind, the vagrant, and the orphaned, the survivors of trauma, those who sing and tend to the graves of departed siblings, those who face up to dangers, not forgetting them but being instructed by them. They maintain a precious presence in life as proof of divine truth and an order in which children "father" adults to creation. The splendid works to which the poet aspired are not something a child can produce, but the experience and memory of childhood is the essential inspiration to those works.

The Power of Politics

Readers know much about Wordsworth's life. His times included political change and upheaval for much of his 80 years, and it is clear that he was much involved with the general affairs of his time. He did not enter politics or government as such when he was young and most idealistic. Although greatly interested in the conditions of life, he learned the most from extensive travel to foreign countries as well as in Great Britain. He often praised a life of solitude for the bliss of introspection and tranquility, but he was also living fully with others and deeply concerned with conditions of life, including politics.

The poet went to France just at the time of the Revolution after having been there first to climb and explore the Alps. He returned from 1791 to 1792 and made a commitment to the more moderate of the revolutionary parties. For Wordsworth the new sentiments of liberation and human rights being struggled over were of the greatest interest, deepened by the personal relation he established with the mother of his daughter Caroline. But soon enough, his high ideals and excitement about the events were greatly diminished. He strongly disapproved of the violence that erupted, the executions and bloodshed and cruelties. He returned to England when his own finances compelled him to, and when the two countries went to war in 1793 he felt torn in loyalties. He could not return for almost a decade until going back to see his daughter when she was nine.

As Alan Gardiner writes in The Poetry of William Wordsworth, his "emotional commitment to the French Revolution ... left him bewildered and distressed." Wordsworth had deep feelings for rural England as well and feared the effects of the Industrial Revolution that was already changing the face of the land. Many of the poor people suffering in his poems were caught and impoverished by land speculation and development. Gardiner discusses the strong influence on both Wordsworth and Coleridge of William Godwin's philosophical Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin expressed extreme views at the time, calling for the abolition of government in general. An idealistic believer in justice and equality in the extreme sense, Godwin believed all men were good in nature and had been corrupted to the point that all authority needed to be swept away by reason, though how this would happen was never clear.

With no prospect of real change in England's political system, Wordsworth began in the next years his serious collaboration with Coleridge and wrote hundreds of poems, including many of his most famous. He also built an active family existence as the father of five. As he grew older the radical self faded. He moved closer to the political establishment and the accepted religion. He allied himself with members of the nobility in his northern British region and received at age 43 a position in the government in charge of the official revenue stamps that had to be affixed to all documents. It was a type of bureaucratic monopoly that brought him and his family a measure of economic security. He became involved in real estate speculation as well and, for the last decades of his life, a conservative ally of the state. His poetry was viewed as less relevant by changing tastes of the time, even when he was appointed the poet laureate of England in 1843. English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a more radical Romantic figure, denounced him as a "beastly and pitiful wretch" for his mature politics, far more conservative than the youthful idealism he initially expressed and for which Shelley was ready to die.

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