Saturday, 13 July 2013


As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve come to admire Wordsworth for his insights into sightseeing and travelling, where I find him much more down-to-earth than his popular image of solitary ‘communing with nature’ suggests. In his later groups of poems particularly - written in connection with individual tours that he made through Britain and Europe - he packages his reflections into conveniently short poetic modules, mainly sonnets. This post hopes to be one of several that focus on the different things he has to say in these ‘tour’ poems.

First, I should be honest about what I do/don’t get out of reading Wordsworth  Three things I appreciate most about poetry generally (when I can find them) are: its melodious or ‘singing’ quality; its capacity to touch the heart suddenly and unexpectedly; and its frequent wit and humour. I have to say I rarely find  any of these qualities reading Wordsworth! For me, especially with the later poems, it’s the reflective content of what he says that interests me.

In fact, I’d probably be just as happy to read Wordsworth’s travel reflections if they were in prose - indeed, he himself provides many prose reflections in his notes to his own poems. On the other hand, Wordsworth in his later years  had become highly practised at crafting sonnets, which lend themselves to concentrated expression of thought. So since he went to the trouble of writing sonnets, I’m more than happy to read them. . .

Not everyone likes the sonnet as a form, A.E. Housman for example regarding it as 'more often a substitute than a vehicle for poetry’. Wordsworth’s sonnets take after those of John Milton, a leading influence in turning the sonnet from a love-poem  into a form used for general reflection. Wordsworth’s lifelong self-assurance and his lack of humour can give his sonnets a pompous air - that comes with the territory with Wordsworth - but once one gets into the habit of reading them they’re not difficult to understand. Wordsworth is usually saying what he thinks perfectly straightforwardly, without the puzzles and ambiguities that one finds in Shakespeare’s sonnets for example.

So after that preamble, here’s a first sample of his ‘travel’ sonnets, one which surprised me when I first read it a couple of years ago. It comes from a set connected with his tour to the Isle of Man and Western Scotland in 1833, when he was 63. The sonnet focuses on the ‘motions and means’ that were making this tour possible:

Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this, 
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe'er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar 
To the Mind's gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown 
In your harsh feature, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.

Although Wordsworth didn’t use railways on his trip (they were only just getting going in 1833), voyages in steamboats were essential for making it happen, as he recognised. How many of us since Wordsworth’s time have felt an uneasy conflict between loving the great outdoors and fearing that the transport we use helps spoil it? This sonnet boldly offers the consoling argument that steamboats and railways can  be seen as natural because they’re the offspring of something natural (Man) - and moreover, they represent the triumph of one aspect of nature over another.

If this sonnet were by John Donne, one might interpret it as elaborating a deliberately bogus argument for the amusement of readers! However, since it’s by Wordsworth, that seems much less likely, and one must assume that he did mean it seriously at the time.

What I find most interesting is that, although Wordsworth did later oppose the encroachment of railways on his beloved Lake District, he was by no means in blanket opposition to their growth, or to other forms of modern transport, even on aesthetic grounds. A prose note that he wrote for the above poem even celebrates a ‘magnificent viaduct’  thrown over the River Eden near the Lake District as part of the Newcastle to Carlisle Railway.

It’s therefore wrong to imagine that Wordsworth was some kind of Luddite anti-technologist. He was too sensible, and too honest, for that.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely - Wordsworth, just like the rest of us, no luddite but a nimby! Nice article; this may be the first time I've ever felt encouraged to read a sonnet purely for its meaning and not its metre.