The Mysticism Of Wordsworth
IN using a poet as a religious teacher, we must remember that the object of poetry is beauty, not truth or edification, and that to forget this leads to bad criticism. As William Watson says : --
" Forget not, brother singer, that though Prose
Still, our generation has chosen to go to the poets for moral teaching, even more than to its professional instructors ; and I do not know that it is mistaken. What Horace says of Homer is true of most great poets
" Quid sit pulcrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non,
And, besides, less violence is done to a poet in seeking in him for a mystical interpretation of life, than for a scheme of morality. For if it is the essence of mysticism to believe that everything, in being what it is, is symbolic of something higher and deeper than itself, mysticism is, on one side, the poetry of life. For poetry also consists in finding resemblances ; to be good at metaphors is, as Aristotle says, the most important part of poetic diction. Poetry also universalises the particulars with which it deals ; it treats the particular thing as a microcosm, an image in little of "what God and man is." From the matter-of-fact point of view, " all poetry," like all mysticism, "is misrepresentation "— a dictum of Jeremy Bentham. So Shakespeare makes Audrey talk to Touchstone about poetry. " I do not know what 'poetical' is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?" Yes, we may answer, it is a true thing ; but poetry has its own canons of truthfulness, which are not those of science, nor of the matter-of-fact world. It is not the primary object of the poet to give us information, nor to preach to us.
But though we have had quite enough essays on this and that poet " as a religious teacher," no apology is needed for treating Wordsworth in this way. He wished to be treated in this way. " I wish either to be considered as a teacher," he said, " or as nothing." Moreover, his worth as a moralist has been proved. We take him down from the shelf sometimes when we are in trouble—a compliment which is paid to very few of the great classics. Why is this ? Because Wordsworth has a definite philosophy of life, and an ethical system which is capable of being made a principle of conduct. He is a practical counsellor. If we will take him as our guide, he will show us a path which he at least followed to the end, and reached his goal. It may not suit everybody, but it has been proved to suit some people.
The phrase "natural religion," or "the religion of nature," has been used to cover many different phases of religious belief. The recognition of a divine revelation in all phenomena was a very early form of religion. But in its earlier forms it offered an extremely crude and summary solution of the problem of evil—by denying its existence. In primitive Oriental pantheism all is equally divine. God is "as full, as perfect, in a hair as heart," as Pope puts it. We shall see that Wordsworth rises above this superficial view. He has also hardly anything in common with the "natural" evidential theology of which Paley is the best known exponent, a type of apologetics on which we may surely pass sentence in Bacon's words, that "it suffices to confute atheism, but not to inform religion." The weakness of this school, besides its police-court method of weighing evidences, is its extreme anthropocentric bias — humanity is made the centre round which the whole universe revolves ; which seems not to be true.
Nor can we find Wordsworth's true pre-cursors in the Platonists, who regarded natural beauty, including that of the human form, as the chief heirophant of the heavenly mysteries. Plato represents true beauty not as earthly, perishable, and sensuous, but as heavenly, immortal, and spiritual. Dwelling in the nature of God, it imparts grace by emanations and gleams of loveliness to all that is beautiful in this lower world ; and it is by communion with this spiritual essence revealing itself in forms of earthly beauty to pure and loving hearts and chaste imaginations, that the mind of man is cleansed and sanctified and spiritualised, and has visions of God and the eternal " world of ideas."
"The perfection of beauty," says Winckelmann, a devout disciple of Plato, "exists only in God, and human beauty is elevated in proportion as it approaches the idea of God. This idea of beauty is a spiritual quintessence extracted from created substances, as it were, by an alchemy of fire, and is produced by the imagination endeavouring to conceive what is human as existing as a prototype in the mind of God." This is pure Platonism, as first expounded by Plato in the Phaedrus. We find it again in some of our great poets : in Spenser, for example, whom I quoted in my first Lecture as a nature-mystic of the Platonic school.
In Shelley the same note is struck, but with greater impatience for the transit from the many to the One, from the visible to the invisible beauty.
We do not catch the true Wordsworthian tone in Plato or his numerous disciples. It is not the beauty of nature which Wordsworth finds most elevating. Not the sense of beauty, but of eternal and ubiquitous life—of an universe animated throughout, and obeying one law — this thought, which is rather Stoical than Platonic, is most prominent in Wordsworth. It will be one of the chief subjects of this Lecture to examine what are the moral and religious conclusions which follow from this way of regarding and contemplating the natural world.
The line of thought which must now occupy us is obviously very near what is called pantheism. There is, however, this great difference, that in pantheistic mysticism God is really everything ; while in ordinary pantheism everything is God. This sentence is from Rothe, who adds quite truly that "the pantheism of the Middle Ages was a movement of moral contemplation in opposition to the purely religious : we find in it a dawning consciousness of the really Divine nature of ordinary created existence." There was, in fact, at the Renaissance, a revival of the doctrine of pan-psychism, which had slumbered since the Neoplatonists. It appears in Bruno, and in Campanella, from whom I quote a stanza in Symonds' translation:
"Deem you that only you have thought and sense,
During the ascendency of the mechanical philosophy this doctrine passed under a cloud, from which it has now emerged. We need not call it pantheism, for a useful distinction has been expressed by the word " panentheism," or universal Divine immanence, in contrast with pantheism, or identity of the universe with God. True pantheism is, or must be while it is consistent, non - ethical ; for if everything is equally Divine, or as Divine as its nature permits it to be, there can be no distinction between what is and what ought to be. Non-ethical pantheism tends on the whole to be pessimistic, not because an unbiassed outlook on the world really leads to pessimism, but because it is an imperfect and partly false view of reality, and, as such, fails to satisfy the wants of the human heart. It is only a few buoyant natures, such as Emerson, who have found the thought stimulating. We may compare his ---
"They reckon ill who leave me out;
" Ne suis-je pas un faux accord
"Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
" Je suis la plaie et le couteau !
This kind of pantheism has found many adherents among those who think that the trend of natural science is towards a rigid determinism. It may take a theistic colour. The irresistible Power which, on this theory, determines all our actions, may be called God, as by the Stoics, and may be the object of worship. This kind of pantheistic determinism is represented, among our poets, by Shelley, not by Wordsworth. Shelley says : "We live and move and think ; but we are not the creators of our own origin and existence. We are not the arbiters of every motion of our complicated nature ; we are not the masters of our awn imagination and moods of mental being. There is a Power by which we are surrounded, like the atmosphere in which some motionless lyre is suspended, which visits with its breath our silent chords at will. Our most imperial qualities are the passive slaves of some higher and more omnipotent Power. That Power is God ; and those who have seen God have, in the period of their purer and more perfect nature, been harmonised by heir own will to so exquisite a consentaneity of power as to give forth divinest melody when the breath of universal Being sweeps over their frame." Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in an early poem, expresses the same view, and uses the same metaphor, in verse : ---
"And what if all of animated nature
Wordsworth, as we shall see, believes in law, but in spiritual law ; and spiritual law, though it acts uniformly, does not exclude, but expressly includes, the ideas of will and purpose.
I have said that the poet and the mystic seek to pass from the particular to the universal in much the same manner. Tennyson, in a familiar and often quoted stanza, says that if we could understand a tiny flower, peeping out of a cranny in a wall, we should know what God and man is. So Blake speaks of the aspiration :---
" To see a world in a grain of sand,
Wordsworth himself quotes, with fond approbation, some beautiful lines of Wither, which are nearer to his own mind than those just cited from Blake: --
" By the murmur of a spring,
"Or a shady bush or tree—
" She," it must be explained, is Wither's muse, not his mistress.
But what are the lessons which these ambitious lines refer to as capable of being drawn from the smallest natural object or the most transitory of nature's effects ? We can only answer that men have found them almost infinitely diverse. Perhaps the earliest feelings inspired by nature were those of awe and fear, as of some mysterious and probably malevolent power. Others have drawn only the lesson )f man's impotence and nature's ruthless destructiveness. Lucretius describes a Roman fleet, sailing from harbour in all the pomp and splendour of war, bearing on board mighty legions ; and then how a storm arises, and how the general prays for help : "in vain, for all none the less are carried down into the waters of death."
"Nequiquam, quoniam violento turbine saepe
At other times in human history a sort of passionate sympathy with the seasons—with the destroying and renewing forces of nature —has determined the character of a religion. All those are far from Wordsworth's mind. Nor does his teaching consist of a mere stock-taking of nature's picturesque effects. It has been said with much truth that there is no scenery in Wordsworth. His stage is bare of scenery, and contains only actors. We had had picturesque description before Words-worth, in James Thomson's Seasons, and perhaps, as Wordsworth himself thought, in Sir Walter Scott, who observed nature with pencil and notebook in his hand. "Nature,' said Wordsworth, in criticising this method, "does not permit an inventory to be made of her charms." The attitude of Words worth towards nature was neither a quest of picturesque effects, nor mere admiring admiration, nor a wish to find a background to the expression of human love and sorrow. All these ways of approaching nature had been trodden before him. Wordsworth's inspiration was something more original ; something which came direct to him ; a revelation of the unseen through natural objects, whereby he was granted the power to "see into the life of things." (Observe that it is the life, not the beauty of things, which becomes plain to him.) His poetry is, I think, the best example in literature of a revelation through impersonal external nature. Love, in the sense which the word bears in Browning's poetry, contributed little or nothing to his religious insight.
But there is one fact about Wordsworth's inspiration which cannot be emphasised too strongly. I t came to him, in the sense that he did not borrow it but it did not come unsought. It was prepared for and earned by a severe course of moral training. Let those who think that nature will yield her secrets to the holiday-maker who seeks rest, not from honest labour but from the busy idleness of London society, ponder these words of Novalis, another mystic, who has something in common with Wordsworth. " Let him who would arrive at the knowledge of nature- train his moral sense ; let him act and conceive in accordance with the noble essence of his soul ; and as if of herself nature will become open to him. Moral action is that great and only experiment in which all riddles, of the most manifold appearances, explain themselves." Wordsworth acted throughout on this principle. No poet was ever less of a dreamer. Volition and self-government are everywhere apparent in his life. He was almost penurious in husbanding his emotions. He shunned and repressed all wasteful excitement, and this, as has been truly said, was one of his most remarkable distinctions among poets, who in spiritual things are often prodigals and spend-thrifts. The contrast with Shelley is here very complete. Wordsworth's own account of the self-culture, or rather self-discipline, which he considered necessary for the development of character, is most characteristic and valuable.
After speaking of the sympathetic melancholy which is roused in a boy's mind as he watches the fitful dying glow of a candle-wick whose flame he has extinguished, he goes on : "Let us accompany the same boy to the period between youth and manhood, when a solicitude may be awakened to the moral life of himself. Are there any powers by which he could call to mind the same image, and hang over it with an equal interest as a visible type of his own perishing spirit? Oh, surely, if the being of the individual be under his own care ; if it be his first care ; if duty begin from the point of accountableness to our conscience, and, through that, to God and human nature ; if, without such primary sense of duty, all secondary care of teacher, of friend or parent, must be baseless and fruitless if, lastly, the motions of the soul transcend in worth those of the animal functions, nay, give to them their sole value—then truly there are such powers ; and the image of the dying taper may be recalled . . . with a melancholy in the soul, a sinking inward into ourselves from thought to thought, a steady remonstrance, and a high resolve. Let, then, the youth go back, as occasion will permit, to nature and to solitude. . . A world of fresh sensations will gradually open upon him, as, instead of being propelled restlessly towards others in admiration, or too hasty love, he makes it his prime business to understand himself." If any of my hearers have been doubting whether I ought to have claimed Wordsworth as a mystic, this description of his own mental methods may perhaps convince them that I was right.
Wordsworth was no dreamer, but an ascetic of an unfamiliar type. His life was one of tense mental discipline, involving continual self-denial, not only by imposing self-chosen limitations in many directions, but in forgoing voluntarily the recognition which a little concession to popular taste would have secured for him before his old age. He knew that he should not be understood : what else could happen "when I think of the pure, absolute, honest ignorance in which worldlings of every rank and situation must be enveloped, with respect to the thoughts, feelings, and images on which the life of my poems depends. The things that I have taken, whether from within or without, what have they to do with routs, dinners, morning calls? What have they to do with endless talking about things that nobody cares anything for, except as far as their own vanity is concerned, and with persons they care nothing for, but as their vanity or selfishness are concerned? What have they to do (to say all at once) with a life without love? It is an awful truth that there neither is nor can be any genuine enjoyment of poetry among nineteen out of twenty of these persons. who live, or wish to live, in the broad light of the world—among those who either are, or are striving to make themselves, people of consideration in society. This is a truth and an awful one, because to be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without Iove of human nature and reverence for God." There are not many instances on record of such a calm and confident setting aside of the world's standards, such an unshrinking conviction, displayed not in word only but in practice, that a man's life consisteth not in the super-abundance of the things that he possesseth, and that it is "a very small thing" to be judged by man's judgment.
In order to live the life that he had chosen under the most favourable conditions, Words-worth chose a home in that lovely district which has ever since been associated with his name. Of that district it has been truly said that " there is no corner without a meaning and a charm. All agencies have conspired for loveliness, and ruin itself has been benign." It is, moreover, a district which has proved itself favourable to human character. The Cumbrian peasants are not isolated from each other by almost impassable barriers, like the inhabitants of some Swiss valleys. " They have given an example of substantial comfort strenuously won ; of home affections intensified by independent strength ; of isolation without ignorance, and of a shrewd simplicity ; of an hereditary virtue which needs no support from fanaticism, and to which honour is more than law."
It is a real spiritual privilege to live in such a country. Many people have echoed the words of the Psalmist ; " I will left up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." As repentance, forgiveness, and purification are brought home to us by watching the sea — the great waters never resting from their "priest-like task "—so the larger life of enlightenment, aspiration, and worship becomes ours for a time, when we stand upon a mountain-top, and cast our eyes around and below us. "Our Lord Himself was evidently affected by mountain scenery. He loved mountains : the Gospels would be much poorer if the mountain scenes were cut out. And many saintly characters, whose work has been assigned them among the busy haunts of men, have found their best refreshment, for soul as well as body, among the Alps or other mountainous districts. They have found, in the awful grandeur and sublime desolation of snow - peak and precipice, a bracing tonic after the distracting and unresttful life of the town. The English mountains are picturesque rather than grand ; but Words-worth maintained that nothing is lost by the small size of the Cumberland hills. Three thousand feet, he thought, is enough to produce the effect of magnificence. To live in a place has a different effect upon the mind from that which is produced by taking a holiday there. Long familiarity, in Wordsworth's case, only made his love more discriminating and his admiration more fervent. Still, a price has to be paid for living alone with Nature for many hours every day. Words-worth's conception of human character was exceedingly simple. His human material was a small number of unworldly friends, belonging to his own class, and a very good type of peasant. He saw very little of the deeper and more complex struggles or. tragedies of human life. And, for better or worse, his interest in humanity was very impersonal. His dreamy little romance about the Highland girl, whose traits, as he naïvely confesses, he afterwards transferred to his wife, is an illustration of this. The processes of his mind are laid bare in a little poem of uncertain date, published towards the end of his life :---
"Yes! thou art fair, yet be not moved
"Be pleased that nature made thee fit
Taught too early, as he admits himself, to feel the self-sufficing power of solitude, he found little in his manner of life to remedy a certain hardness and rigidity of mind which were natural to him.
"There was a hardness in his cheek,
There is some excuse in Mr Hazlitt's remark that "had there been no other being in the universe, Mr Wordsworth's poetry would have been just what it is." " The note of the cuckoo sounds in his ear like the voice of other years ; the daisy spreads its leaves in the rays of boyish delight that stream from his thoughtful eyes ; the rainbow lifts its proud arch in heaven but to mark his progress from infancy to manhood ; an old thorn is buried, bowed down under the mass of associations he has wound about it ; and to him, as he himself beautifully says,
"The meanest flower that grows can give
This somewhat malicious criticism perhaps only fails to hit the mark because Dorothy Wordsworth was by her brother's side when he wrote much of his best poetry. He owns his debt to her in no stinted language, and his obligation seems to have been just what he says that it was. Within the family circle, at any rate, his affections were warm and steadfast. In this he differs from many contemplative mystics, who have been positively afraid of human affection. "Desire to be familiar only with God and the angels, and fly the acquaintance, of men," says Thomas à Kempis. "I was afraid of all company," says George Fox, "for I saw perfectly where they were, through the love of God which let me see myself." Wordsworth was afraid of passionate love, which is a wasteful emotion, but he desired, a little too self-consciously, to make the most of quiet affection. But enough has been said to show that it is not in the revelation of human character that we shall find Wordsworth's peculiar message. It is easier, says a French proverb, to know man in general than a man in particular ; and Wordsworth seldom particularised men.
But what a message he has left us! In the sphere of practical ethics our generation might learn from him what it needs more than anything else. It is the lesson which has been taught in the prose of Ruskin not less eloquently than in the poetry of Words-worth. " True-heartedness and graciousness, and undisturbed trust and requited love, and the sight of the peace of others, and the ministry of their pain ; these, and the blue sky above you, and the sweet waters and flowers of the earth beneath, and mysteries and presences innumerable of living beings—these may yet be here your riches, untormenting and divine, serviceable for the life that now is, nor, it may be, without promise of that which is to come." "We need examples of people who, leaving heaven to decide whether they are to rise in the world, decide for them-selves that they will be happy in it, and have resolved to seek, not greater wealth but simpler pleasure, not higher fortune but deeper felicity, making the first of possessions self-possession, and honouring themselves in the harmless pride and calm pursuits of peace." This rational valuation of external goods, which we call Greek because for very shame we cannot call it Christian while we are Christians, is combined with a horror of lawless force which is equally Greek. The anti-Napoleonic sonnets supply many examples of this feeling. The insane wickedness of such a career was palpably evident to one who had discovered that all the best gifts of God are lavishly bestowed on all who will take them :
"The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
If during the period of our youth, when permanent associations are formed, we have been happy enough to delight in such things, connecting them with the sublime and beautiful in nature, the sight of them afterwards will recall pure and noble sentiments. This is Wordsworth's theory of the religious use of nature, and it is confirmed by experience.
One other application of the principle of spiritual frugality must be mentioned. Most poets have indulged moods of plaintive melancholy ; some have railed at the injustice of things. Wordsworth teaches us how we may transmute and turn to account nearly all our troubles. The Happy Warrior has learned to
" Exercise a power
It is a noble doctrine, and, once more, it works. We do take down our Wordsworth, sometimes, when the world goes hardly with us.
But we have not yet justified our inclusion of Wordsworth among the mystics. To do this, we must show that he derived from the contemplation of natural objects a vision of the Divine behind phenomena, of the invisible reality which is hidden behind the world of appearance. There is no lack of evidence that this experience was enjoyed by him frequently. Even in early youth, he tells us :
"Other pleasures have been mine, and joys
"Those first-born affinities "—this is just what the mystic longs to seize.
"What if earth
But often Wordsworth experienced that blank trance which, be its explanation what it may, Is a real thing to mystics of all times. He speaks of occasions,
"When the light of sense
"Oft in such moments such a holy calm
These sacred moments reveal the underlying unity in things, and make us contemptuous of
"That false secondary power
The psychology of mysticism is briefly comprehended in some lines from the same poem, The Prelude : --
"For feeling has to him imparted power
Quite in the Neoplatonic vein, dear to Shelley, is his mention of
"Incumbencies more awful, visitings
The poet, however, is careful to tell us that his mode of enjoying nature changed as he grew older. This calm and scrupulous care in registering his own emotions, which some have called egoistical, has a real scientific value, and adds greatly to his usefulness as an ethical guide. There was a time when nature was all in all to him, when
"The tall rock,
Then, in full manhood, a less ecstatic but deeper emotion was his. " The still, sad music of humanity," mingled with the rustling of the leaves and the roaring of the torrent ; and sometimes
"I have felt
The time came when he acknowledged, with equal candour, that the vision had left him the light
"Full early lost, and fruitlessly deplored;
In truth, the poems which have in them the magic of immediate inspiration were nearly all written in twenty years of the poet's life —between 1798 and 1818.
The notion that nature is animated through-out, which, under the name of Pan-psychism, is an element in some of the best modern philosophy, is clearly recognised by Wordsworth.
" With bliss ineffable
He "gave a moral life" to every natural form, even the loose stones that cover the highway : "the great mass lay bedded in a quickening soul." It follows that some kind of duty and consideration may be due from us even to trees and plants, as he hints in the fine poem called Nutting.
A few words must be said about the famous Ode upon the Intimations of Immortality. Some critics have said that the idea of this wonderful poem is borrowed from Henry Vaughan, the "Silurist"; but Vaughan gives only a hint of the doctrine which Wordsworth elaborates, and the credit of originality must not be withheld from the later poet. The theme of the poem—the dignity and sacredness of our childish instincts, is not bound up with any theory of pre-existence or Platonic anamnesis-theories which Wordsworth himself certainly did not hold in any definite form. The subject is one of surpassing interest, because ,modern psychological science ascribes great importance to the racial consciousness as a factor in individual character, and is quite at one with Wordsworth in treating the child-nature with the utmost respect. Words-worth, it may be conjectured, would not have been a disciple of Darwin ; he would have been "on the side of the angels " ; but on the main point they were agreed. Man has instincts which do not arise from his own experience in his present life. And, the poet would add, those instincts, which appear to have a longer history than our individual life-time, have a peculiar sacredness, and should be cherished with especial reverence. Further than this we shall perhaps be unwilling to follow him. There seems to be no reason why, as we get older, we should recede further from knowledge of Divine truth. The natural exhilaration of spirits, which in the child is stimulated by fresh air and fine weather, is in most cases hardly worthy to be called a splendid vision ; and the light of common day into which it is said to fade is after all the light of mature intelligence and ripe experience. The glories of poetic imagination, which, as we have seen, only shone with their full effulgence for about twenty years of Wordsworth's life, are an abnormal gift, and we need not suppose that ordinary experience follows the same laws.
What, then, are the lessons which the contemplation of nature has to teach us? " Unworldliness" would not be a bad answer. Principal Shairp says very truly : "You will never find the mere man of the world, who takes his tone from society, really care for Wordsworth's poetry." Wordsworth schooled himself not to "feel contempt for any living thing"; but there was one pardonable exception : he had the heartiest contempt for the mere man and woman of fashion ; "convinced at heart, how vain a correspondence with the talking world proves to the most." Converse with nature opens our eyes ; we cannot any longer mistake artificialities for real substance. We, may call Wordsworth's attitude truly democratic or truly aristocratic, whichever we please ; the two ideals are not far apart, though their corruptions are poles asunder. The extremely simple diction which he cultivated is both aristocratic and democratic. What Bagehot called "a dressy literature, an exaggerated literature -- the curse of our times," is the product of an age which is neither aristocratic nor democratic, but vulgar. Wordsworth bids us
"bend in reverence
" Obeisance paid where it is due "—such is the proud and humble attitude of Nature's priest when in the presence of his fellow-men. And in the presence of God, he will not, like some scientific investigators, stop short at the revelation of law and order which is impressed upon the visible world (the recognition of which Plotinus rightly insisted on as a valuable though early lesson in the spiritual course), but will under-stand the true and eternal significance of the Greek Logos-theology which is just now so unhappily disparaged by Continental thinkers. I will conclude this Lecture by a quotation from Athanasius, which is not far from Words-worth's own, theological attitude. " The all-powerful, all-perfect, and all-holy Word of the Father, descending upon all things, and every-where extending His own energy, and bringing to light all things, whether visible or invisible, knits and welds them into His own being, leaving nothing destitute of His operation. And a certain marvellous and Divine harmony is thus veritably brought to pass by Him."
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Studies of English Mystics:
On The Psychology Of Mysticism
The Ancren Riwle And Julian Of Norwich
Mystical Phenomena With Walter Hylton
William Law On English Mystics
The Mysticism Of Wordsworth
The Mysticism Of Robert Browning