I’ve often felt there’s an undercurrent of half-hidden doubts and conflicts associated with viewing the outdoors: ‘Do I really think this view is beautiful, or do I just say so because it’s expected of me?’ ‘There’s been a change to this landscape - am I cool about that, or should I be objecting?’ ‘I’ve finally got to my destination, and actually I’m rather disappointed’; and so on.
In Britain especially, our views have been significantly influenced by one man, William Wordsworth, whose attitudes as expressed both in his poetry and prose have seeped into our national way of looking at the outdoors. In particular, his views were influential on the setting up of national parks, and also inspired the creation of the National Trust.
Until recently I tended to think that Wordsworth’s dogmas were part of the problem when it came to the uneasiness we may feel in relation to the countryside. But reading him more closely in the last couple of years, I’ve come to realise that he’s much more ‘on our side’ than I previously imagined.
This perhaps all sounds quite abstract so far, so I should explain that this post is in part intended as a reference point, to give me something to refer back to from future posts on specific poems.
The reason I thought Wordsworth was ‘part of the problem’ is that he sometimes writes as though the mere act of seeing a natural object such as a rainbow or a wild flower automatically brings joy. And because of Wordsworth’s prestige, one might be inclined to feel apologetic or even inadequate if one doesn’t react in the same way. Personally I’ve always been sceptical about such sweeping claims about nature, which to me beg many questions, including: If natural objects are so powerful, why not just go straight to them rather than reading poems about them? Do all natural objects tend to create joy (a bee, an acorn, a slug...)? What about being in low spirits - don’t nature’s beauties tend to mock one’s own unhappiness rather than alleviating it? And, in general, just why should an object’s merely being natural cause joy in a person?
However, closer inspection of Wordsworth’s works show that he is often more down-to-earth and realistic than famous poems such as ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ might suggest. To take one example: sapling Scots pines are entirely natural objects, yet Wordsworth in his prose Guide to the Lakes is firmly critical: ‘The young Scotch fir', he writes, 'is less attractive during its youth than any other plant.' (He does add that it can grow into a ‘noble tree’ if given room to spread its arms.) Many examples can be given where Wordsworth applies critical or aesthetic judgements to natural objects and scenes, and does not just accept them as beautiful and inspirational simply because they’re natural.
Although so far I’ve used ‘natural’ in the sense of ‘not created by humans’, we often use the word nature more loosely to mean ‘the non-urban outdoors’, including traditional farmscapes as well as untouched wildernesses. Wordsworth was keenly interested in nature in this broader sense, and about the positive contributions that human activities can make to the landscape. He is a great poet of place and places - a subject which many of us have just as deep feelings about as we do about ‘nature’ in the abstract. In his later poems especially, he has many acute things to say about the psychology of sightseeing (and Wordsworth was a great traveller throughout his long life). Topics he deals with include: our possibly overvaluing a sight because we come across it by surprise, or after travelling through dull country; the disadvantages of visiting somewhere in a large group; the slight guilt we may feel about ignoring places on our doorstep; our tendency to speculate about natural phenomena without coming to any conclusions; and so on.
A final tentative thought for now about Wordsworth’s ‘development’ as a poet. In his earlier and better-known poems he tends to treat nature as a single mystical entity or ‘Power’ (one of Wordsworth’s favourite words, usually capitalised). This view tends to be less visible in his later poems, with more emphasis being given to different varieties of experience in the context of real sightseeing tours. People have often suggested that Wordsworth’s poetic powers declined in later years. Personally I don’t see that, unless perhaps it’s ‘power to believe certain things’. Perhaps the older Wordsworth simply no longer believed so strongly in the validity of a mystical approach to nature; it may also have smacked too much of animism or pantheism to be compatible with the orthodox Church of England religion that he increasingly gave at least lip-service to. In any case, whatever the exact truth, I believe there’s plenty to interest and even amuse in his later poetry, and I hope to explore some of its richness in future posts.