This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Nature and Grace: Wordsworth’s Theological Poetics”, running in the Spring Term 2023 (Apritl to June), and convened by Dr. Anthony Cirilla.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
William Wordsworth’s Christianity seldom receives emphasis, and yet it was certainly one of the chief concerns of his later life, especially in The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, one of his last major poetic projects. The claim is often made that Wordsworth became more Christian as he aged–that gradually he left a sort of relativistic paganism or deism as he became more orthodox. The contention I would prefer to make is rather that Wordsworth became more comfortable at spelling out the connection between his orthodox Anglican faith and the essence of his poetic project as he grew older–that affirmation of the Church of England’s doctrines was a faithful fulfillment of the beliefs about human nature he had been exploring in earlier poetic works.
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is an often read or referenced poem, but one which is overstated in its value for understanding the consolation Wordsworth found in poetry. Here, Wordsworth provides a kind of poetic summary of how he understands the function of imagination.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Sometimes this poem is cited as if this is all Wordsworth thinks the suffering soul needs to be comforted, yet that is clearly an exaggeration when one considers the lines “In vacant or in pensive mood”–this is an image of the function of poetry in relation to the senses and the memory, to show how one experience of beauty in nature can be meditated on profitably. Rather than taking this as a complete theory of human nature, we should take this merely as one account of something Wordsworth’s imagination did with an experience he had.
Wordsworth did not transform into a cloud–the first line can be taken as “I wandered lonely like a cloud,” taking a cloud’s position by walking over valleys and hills by finding himself high on the many hilltops he loved to climb. His singularity is opposed to the crowd of the daffodils, and their movement in the wind is taken as a kind of dancing. The naturalist would find this anthropomorphism unwarranted, but from a Christian perspective it is nothing more than an extension of Isaiah 55:12:
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Is Isaiah simply being poetic? Is he talking about human projection of emotional states onto nature? More likely, it is a vision of nature contrary to that of materialism–it is one which interprets nature in the light of its Creator. Creation, being authored by a personal God, should for that reason be experienced as suffused with personal meaning. Not because we literally have to see the trees as clapping their hands or the mountains and hills as singing, but because we should see all of creation testifying that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. It is far less of a leap of imagination to see daffodils caught in the wind as dancing than it is to imagine a hill singing, and Wordsworth sees exactly the same thing that Isaiah does in the glory of creation: joy. Imagine the jocund company of the daffodils, celebrating the beautiful stars they mirror and the sparkling waves which contain the life-giving water that makes them flourish, and if one should say, “But daffodils do not know they are joyful,” Wordsworth responds, Neither did I: “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought/What wealth the show to me had brought.” We are like daffodils – compassed about by wonders and insensible to them.
Wordsworth does not here make explicit the theological nature of this poem, but it has theological implications, or at least philosophical ones related to theology. By capturing this image of nature’s joy in his imagination, Wordsworth turns to them where they “flash upon that inward eye”–the same faculty of mind that can see joy in flowers and stars and wind and waves captures their images and holds them for the soul to contemplate. Why should such an ordinary memory be so memorable? Well, what exactly is ordinary about flowers, stars, wind and waves, to say nothing of clouds, vales, hills, and the humans which behold them? It is not an ordinary world, and the vacant and pensive moods which may regard nature as “ordinary” simply because we are used to it is one which must learn again to dance with the daffodils. This lesson does not teach explicitly that the joy perceived in nature points to God, but what does it mean to tell someone that the joy seen in nature points to God if they do not see it? That perception of nature as joyful is as much a precondition to seeing that it is filled with God’s glory, as believing in God’s glory is a precondition to believing that nature testifies it.
In a letter to a friend, Wordsworth wrote, “For my part, I have been averse to frequent mention of the mysteries of Christian faith; not from a want of a due sense of their momentous nature, but the contrary.” Wordsworth does not bring God into the discussion of the daffodils not because the relationship between God and daffodils is unimportant but, one might contend, in some sense it is too important. To say that looking on daffodils from a high place makes one like God looking on nature would be presumptuous–and so Wordsworth is like a cloud. But in an image of how God imparts a reflection of His glory in his Creation, Wordsworth imparts experiences unique to personhood to the natural landscape he can see around him. Clouds are, after all, a biblical image of the meeting place between God and man: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14). God “makes the clouds his chariot” (Ps. 104:3), and we will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds (Mt. 24:30), and when our Lord returns it is in the clouds where we will meet him (1 Thess. 4:17). I am not asserting that Wordsworth has these verses in mind specifically, or even that he intends us to think explicitly of cloud imagery as particularly Christian. But certainly, he invites us to see our imaginations as associated with the heavens, and in that association, being able to have a more exalted view of the earth – and so a more correct one. And what he asks us to consider from that vantage point, daffodils, is not that different from what Christ invites us to consider in Matthew 6:28-29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Yes, Christ’s point is that we should not be anxious because God provides–but part of why that anxiety is met is because Christ is pointing out that the lilies, like the daffodils, are beautiful. For all of the charge of Wordsworth’s supposed didacticism, he certainly is less didactic than Christ–he does not use the daffodils to chastise us for worrying or even for ignoring their loveliness. He merely recommends contemplation of their beautiful form as communicating to the senses something more than merely sensory. But surely, with our imaginations awakened to flowers by Wordsworth’s poetry, I think we catch the meaning of Christ’s teaching more fully than if we regard the beauty of lilies and daffodils as unimportant.
I would say that Wordsworth does not recommend that we love nature’s beauty instead of Christian teaching, but rather that a better reading of the Book of the World will yield a richer, more impactful reading of the Book of the Word. In the introductory sonnet to the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, he writes, “I, who accompanied with faithful pace/Cerulean Duddon from its cloud-fed spring,/and loved with spirit ruled by his to sing/Of mountain-quiet and boon nature’s grace/…./Now seek upon the heights of time the source/Of a Holy River, on whose banks are found/Sweet pastoral flowers.” Again, clouds, mountains, and flowers appear as images emblematic of the poetic process, and where Wordsworth’s quote about caution in making Christianity his theme because he holds it so dearly invites us to contemplate how his nature poetry speaks to Christianity, we are then invited to consider how his nature poetry speaks to works where Christianity is explicit. Consider this sonnet, which comes near the end of his Ecclesiastical Sonnets:
Glory to God! and to the Power who came
In filial duty, clothed with love divine,
That made his human tabernacle shine
Like Ocean burning with purpureal flame;
Or like the Alpine Mount, that takes its name
From roseate hues, far kenned at morn and even,
In hours of peace, or when the storm is driven
Along the nether region's rugged frame!
Earth prompts—Heaven urges; let us seek the light,
Studious of that pure intercourse begun
When first our infant brows their lustre won;
So, like the Mountain, may we grow more bright
From unimpeded commerce with the Sun,
At the approach of all-involving night.
The movement of the vantage point mirrors that of Wordsworth’s cloudlike meandering on the mountain side, but here it is Christ moving from a higher heaven to the earthly realm, and where Wordsworth’s poetic vision saw joy in the flowers, Christ’s divine love can make our faces shine like sunlight on the mountainside.
In restoring a more imaginative, poetic response to the beauty of nature, Wordsworth does not recommend paganism but rather a vision of Creation that never loses sight of the Creator it points to. His sonnet, “The Point at Issue,” captures the final end of this revivification of imaginative perceptions of grace through nature – to prepare the heart for true worship:
For what contend the wise? for nothing less
Than that the Soul, freed from the bonds of Sense,
And to her God restored by evidence
Of things not seen, drawn forth from their recess,
Root there, and not in forms, her holiness;
For Faith, which to the Patriarchs did dispense
Sure guidance, ere a ceremonial fence
Was needful round men thirsting to transgress;
For Faith, more perfect still, with which the Lord
Of all, himself a Spirit, in the youth
Of Christian aspiration, deigned to fill
The temples of their hearts who, with his word
Informed, were resolute to do his will,
And worship him in spirit and in truth.
We are told to worship God in the beauty of holiness, but it is through Creation that God teaches us what is beautiful. Only when we learn to see Nature “not as the blind man sees,” as Wordsworth wrote in Tintern Abbey, but to see that Nature itself is not confined to “the bonds of Sense” and testifies “by evidence/Of things not seen, drawn forth from their recess,” can we then truly make temples of our hearts. That is the vision of Wordsworth’s literary project as I understand it, and the one we will explore further in my upcoming Spring 2023 Davenant Hall course, “Nature and Grace: Wordsworth’s Theological Poetics.”
Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons