Many of us are feeling that “The World is Too Much With Us” these days, as a famous sonnet by William Wordsworth puts it. We are downcast by politics gone awry or a general lack of civility in our public discourse. Where can we turn when, as Wordsworth put it in 1798, “. . . [t]he fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart”? As a central figure in the revolutionary English Romantic movement in art and poetry, Wordsworth did more than analyze the ills of a rapidly modernizing society. His beautiful, meditative poetry suggests one possible therapy for sick souls in a frenzied world: communing with Nature.
“Bathing” in Forests: Wordsworth New Again?
If sitting around contemplating the trees sounds silly, old-fashioned, or simplistic, consider that studies are now revealing the positive effects of “Forest Bathing.” See this Washington Post article for more information on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which means to spend time strolling quietly through a natural forest, now shown to aid both physical and mental health. If people are learning anew that spending time with trees is good for you, a fresh look at some old poems celebrating the benefits of nature might reveal a surprisingly fresh message.
This poet writing at the dawn of the nineteenth century seems to have foreseen many of the conditions we are dealing with in the morning of the twenty-first. We’ll see in a moment how the well-known sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us” diagnoses contemporary as well as nineteenth century ills. We’ll also look at two other famous works, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1807) and “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye” (1798). In these poems, Wordsworth examines how a deep relationship with nature can rejuvenate the human spirit and even improve our moral sense.
Nature Is Too Little With Us
If Nature is the good stuff, we’re getting even less of it than people were in 1807, when Wordsworth wrote “The World is Too Much With Us.” (Click the poem title to read it.). According to the Washington Post article about Forest Bathing mentioned above:
“In 2001, a survey sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that, on average, Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in an enclosed vehicle.” — Washington Post
It’s no wonder if “Little we see in Nature that is ours,” (3), since we hardly see any Nature at all. According to Wordsworth, we “lay waste our powers,” that is, our ability to commune creatively with nature, in “getting and spending.” We have “given our hearts away” to things that are “sordid” in comparison to the life-giving forces we can experience through relating to Nature.
Wordsworth suggests that modern industrialized folk view nature as so much dead matter, extraneous to their concerns. This makes them “out of tune” for appreciating the revitalizing glories of Nature. As a longtime lover of Nature, Wordsworth himself longs for a direct, elemental connection to nature that people could form more easily in older times, when simpler “pagan” beliefs prevailed.
Connection to Nature: Creative, not Passive
It’s very interesting that Wordsworth describes this direct connection to Nature not as passive but as mutual and creative. Wordsworth and his fellow poet Coleridge believed that humans relate to Nature not just as observers but almost as fellow creators. The phenomena of Nature impress the human Imagination which responds with new ideas and ways of conceiving of nature, releasing its creative and life-renewing energies. In this poem, Wordsworth longs to make his human imagination part of his experience of natural forces, thus enabling him to envision the Greek gods Proteus and Triton emerging from the powerful and changeable ocean waves. Human Imagination and experience of Nature together can bring relief and delight to the mind:
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn. (11-14)
Field of Daffodils: Happy Company, Beautiful Memory
In the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (read it here), Wordsworth adds another item to the list of benefits we find in Nature: memories to bring joy to our hearts when we can’t actually be out enjoying Nature’s beauty in person. In “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” Wordsworth describes a stunning sight that he and his sister Dorothy, a fellow passionate nature-lover, happened upon while taking a walk one day: a huge field full of blooming yellow daffodils tossing in the breeze. You can read Dorothy’s journal account of their encounter with the daffodils here on the Wordsworth Trust website.
Wordsworth’s poem first describes the breathtaking sight of wave upon wave of blooming daffodils, noting how gleeful they made him feel at the time he first saw them. But the important observation in the poem comes at its end. The effects of having this experience of natural beauty will linger, adding richness and joy to the poet’s mental life long after the original encounter:
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. (17-24)
A Thoughtful Visit to the Wye Valley
Turning now to a longer, more meditative work, we will find this same idea: meaningful experiences with nature are stored up in the memory to become oases of calm and beauty in the midst of harsher environments. But though it was written several years before the first two poems we looked at, we will also find a deeper, more philosophical discussion of the relationship of Mind, Soul, and Spirit to Nature. In “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798,” Wordsworth has returned to this spot of great natural beauty in the company with his sister Dorothy after he first saw it five years before.
The beauty of the Wye Valley on the border of England and Wales made it a favorite spot for tourists, artists, and poets, including Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, William Havell, and J. M. W. Turner. The latter two painted views of the ruins of Tintern Abbey, nestled in the river valley on the Welsh bank of the river. In his poem, Wordsworth is not focused on the Abbey so much as the natural aspects of the scene and the good effects they have on his mind and spirit.
Click here to read “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”
You will notice that this poem is written in “blank verse,” which means each line has 10 syllables of alternating soft and hard accents (iambs) with no rhymes at the ends of any of the lines. That makes the poem sound more meditative and dignified than the other two poems we discussed, both of which rely on rhymes and a quicker tempo for their sounds. When reading “Lines,” try to relax and take it slow, enjoying the lovely descriptions of the natural imagery and the sound of the lines as they roll out, very peaceful and thoughtful.
Sublime Benefits: Does Nature Make Us Kinder?
In the 1798 poem “Lines,” we notice right away the same point Wordsworth will make several years later (1807) in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” A powerful experience of great natural beauty provides the mind with a precious memory one can visit as a respite from the harsh conditions of modern life in an unfriendly world: “But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din / of towns and cities, I have owed to them [that is, to “These beauteous forms”] / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, / felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” (25-28). Later in the poem, he predicts that the same will be true for his sister, now seeing this landscape for the first time. He hopes she will find, as he has through the five years that have passed since he saw this spot, that her own memories will be a mental center of peace during hard times.
However, Wordsworth goes beyond this simple point to ponder the more far-reaching effects this natural wonder has had upon his mind and soul. He has the sense that this pleasurable experience, even some parts that he doesn’t literally remember, have passed “even into my purer mind, / With tranquil restoration,” “such, perhaps, / As have no slight or trivial influence / On that best portion of a good man’s life, /His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love” (29-30; 31-35).
Wordsworth asserts something stunning here: a powerful experience of natural beauty can make us more kind and loving in our daily lives. What is your reaction to that idea? If there is truth in it, I wonder if the opposite is also true: that experience of places of unnatural ugliness makes us meaner and more selfish in our daily lives. Wordsworth does not make that claim, but he does seem to warn that the more time we spend “in cities pent,” “getting and spending,” the more we need sojourns in Nature to renew our spirits and to counteract their depressing effects.
Wordsworth, Mindfulness, and Divine Life Force
Wordsworth goes on to ponder whether this immersion in Nature can bring something even more “sublime” to the modern person who is beat down by life in a tumultuous industrialized society:
. . . That blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:–that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,–
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (37-49)
What is Wordsworth talking about in this passage? To me it sounds similar to the currently much-talked-about practice of “Mindfulness.” Mindfulness is said to bring tranquility to worn and troubled minds as well as tangible benefits to health. To practice “Mindfulness,” we focus on experiencing our surroundings through our senses, in the moment, letting our emotions and thoughts come and then go without judgment. The result is to cultivate a “wise mind” in which we feel at peace, a sense that current problems will come and go, and that life is larger and more meaningful than worries of the moment. Wordsworth describes this experience in even larger terms, as an apprehension of a Divine Spirit or Life Force that “rolls through all things” (102). For Wordsworth, this apprehension can occur not just while in the presence of natural beauty, but even just by focusing intently on the memory of such an experience.
Not a Guru, but a Friend
Wordsworth does not assume the role of preacher or guru in this poem. He does not lecture us, his readers, about what we should be doing to attain enlightenment. In fact, he says that sometimes he himself questions whether this sense of being in touch with the divine is truly real (“If this / Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! How oft. . . / in spirit, have I turned to thee, / O sylvan Wye!”) Wordsworth talks to us as to close friends, sharing all aspects of his experiences with Nature, especially their recurring and lasting power in his own life. He also observes them developing in the life and mind of his younger sister.
For himself, he is “well pleased to recognize / In nature and the language of the sense, / The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being” (107-111). Here we see a recap of an important Wordsworthian idea: Nature and the human senses, including imagination, work together to produce thoughts that enliven and morally purify the human soul.
In Wordsworth’s converse with us, he leaves us free to question and ponder his ideas and experiences. Maybe at last we come on our own to a kindred faith in the divine and healing properties of Nature. In our current world, shouted at and pressed to announce our agreement with ideologues on every side of every question, merely spending a little time with quiet, thoughtful Wordsworth, walking with him through the English and Welsh countryside in our imaginations, provides a wonderful respite. How wonderful if his love for Nature, his faith that “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her,” can lead us to an even larger, renewable source of spiritual refreshment.
Forest Photo on Unsplash.