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William Wordsworth and Coleridge are the two pioneers of the English Romantic Movement who changed the dry, sterile rationalism in English poetry in a new era by establishing the primacy and sovereignty of insight and imaginative vision in literature and in life. William Wordsworth has an amazing capacity for expressing personal beliefs and thoughts.
According to the Romantics, imagination is the only way of perceiving and realizing the one in the many, the abiding behind the flux, the infinite behind the finite, the eternal behind ephemeral, and the transcendent behind the immanent. Romantic vision is on the basis of the ultimate priority and superiority of imagination over the logical and speculative reason of the human mind while it does not deny or belittle the limited values and utility of the latter in human life. It appreciates the view that the realms of experience are so high that cannot be explored and comprehended by finite human reason. And it is only the imagination which can offer fleeting flashes of profound and penetrating insight into the heart of the reality. Imagination based on direct intuitive insight or flashes of immediate awareness is a faculty that transcends but does not reject the reason and intellect of man (Barker 5). Wordsworth emphasizes the great importance and power of imagination when he very perceptibly says:
“â€¦..Imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And reason in her most exalted mood.”
(Prelude, Book IV)
While reason divides, disrupts and dissociates things, imagination links, unifies and binds them together. Thus in sharp contrast to the Cartesian metaphysics of Descartes which maintains a dichotomy between matter and spirit, microcosm (man) and macrocosm (universe), the Romantic imagination finds in the entire universe – between the sentient living beings as well as inanimate objects, a bond of all-embracing unity, solidarity and fellowship. Another distinctive feature of the Romantic imagination is the experience of owe, wonder, ecstasy or rapture and reverence aroused in the perceiver’s mind when it contemplates and communes with the things of the universe. Such awe inspiring or rapturous supernatural (or numinous) experience is a vital factor in Romantic experience and the prime source of its vitality and intensity.
William Wordsworth is one of the greatest imaginative Romantic poets whose style and poems are always distinguished from other Romantic poets because of his illumined spiritual vision as a mystic. Romantic imagination reached to its climax, its crowning revelation and consummation in the Wordsworth’s mysticism. Mysticism could be considered as the quintessence of Wordsworth’s poetry and the supreme source of its inspiration (Mackay 110).
Mysticism, broadly defined, is a state of sublime imaginative and spiritual experience in which one has direct, immediate and intuitive perception of an all-embracing infinite and eternal reality – the immanent-transcendent Absolute Being underlying and pervading but also transcending the sensible material universe. It is the sense of “God in all” and “all in God.” It is this sense of one ultimate Divine principle permeating all things and all life of the universe as well as guiding, cherishing and sustaining them that inspires the mystic to conceive the vision of the ultimate divine unity of the universe, of all life. Mystic imagination sees a living relationship between the soul of man and the soul of the universe – a vision of cosmic unity, fraternity and fellowship.
The mysticism of Wordsworth is something unique in its kind, though there are some characteristics that can be seen in all modes of mysticism. It is a type of Nature-mysticism. Wordsworth mystical experiences are mainly depicted in the context of his treatment of nature. He had never limited his poems within the confined boundaries of the sights, sounds, odors, and movements of various elements of nature. His aim was to attain something ultra-earthly and divine and leaving the traces of his mystical experiences in nature and human life in his poetry. So his poetry is not simply just talking about the lovely and tranquil aspects of nature but it also covers his mystical experiences.
Though it is consist of a certain degree of affinity to Spinozistic pantheism, it is not absolutely the same thing because it does not consider Nature as the be-all and end-all of the universe or equate and identify it with the Supreme Divine Spirit. Wordsworth’s mysticism also differs from the Neoplatonic mysticism of Plotinus or the Christian mysticism of St. John of the Cross and St. Augustine. But it has something of the sublime beatific vision of Blake or the glowing paradisal vision of Dante. Like all true mystics Wordsworth believes that human life has a divine origin and divine destiny (Wyman 517). As he said in his “Ode on Intimations of Immortality”:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From Gold, who is our home”
Man is introduced as an essentially divine and immortal spirit in wordsworth poems as we repeatedly see such phrases like the “Pilgrim of Eternity” or the “Child of Immortality” which proves his fervent and glowing faith as the most genuine mystic poet of all ages. It is evident that he believes so deeply in “infinity” as he says: “Our destiny, our being’s heart and home, I Is with infinitude, and only there”; and that “the great thought by which we live” is “infinity and God.”
Wordsworth’s love of Nature and the way Nature is glorified, worshiped and divinized is apparent in his verse. Wordswoth’s attitude towards Nature is somehow different from other Romantic poets of his age. For instance, although Shelley shares some common characteristics with Wordsworth’s viewpoint on Nature but he also attempts to intellectualize and conceptualize Nature – transforming the object of Nature into some dogmatic socio-political doctrine, ideology or an abstract idea, as in “Ode to the West Wind”, while Wordsworth’s vision of Nature is constantly and consistently spiritual.
For Wordsworth, the vision of Nature always represents the vision of the Divine spirit, the vision of that Cosmic Being. So Shelley on the basis of a Wordsworthian spirit describs in his illuminating and soul-stirring lines:
“That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly move
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst: …..”
(Lament for Adonais)
Wordsworth’s worship and adoration of Nature was never inspired by passion for aesthetic beauty, elegance and splendor. All forms and objects, aspects and appearances of Nature whether graceful, lovely and magnificent or somber, awe inspiring and forbidding – alike stirred and stimulated his visionary imagination, for they all of them were to him equally the living emblems and images of the Divine spirit, the hieroglyphics of divinity. How even the dreary, appalling and awesome spectacles of Nature could bring intimations of the Divine Reality and profoundly impress on his mind its sublimity, majesty and grandeur is vividly revealed in one of the celebrated passages of “Prelude” in the description of a scene on the Alps:
“Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light-
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.”
(prelude, Book VI)
This passage is a representative of a profoundly moving and glowing description of one of the most memorable mystic experiences of Wordsworth.
The essential features of Wordsworth’s mystic vision is also greatly depicted in those impressive lines of his, where he says:
“One interior life
In which all beings live with God, themselves
Are God, existing in the mighty whole,
As indistinguishable as the cloudless east
Is from the cloudless West, when all
The hemisphere is one cerulean blue.”
– From a fragment found in a
Ms. notebook containing Peter Bell
or when he refers to
“â€¦..the sentiment of Being spread
O’er all that moves and all that seemeth still;
O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought
And human knowledge, to the human eye
Invisible, yet liveth to the heart;
O’er all that leaps and runs; and shouts and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air; O’er all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself,
And mighty depth of waters.”
(Prelude, Book II)
All objects, high or low, sentient or insentient are to him mixed with the presence of the Divine and instinct with life and feeling and even with consciousness and their own will. This is interestingly expressed in the following memorable lines:
“To every natural form, rock, fruit or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”
(Prelude, Book III)
Wordsworth’s perception of “One interior life” in all leads to evoking his vision and fill him with lofty and elevated thoughts which is derived from ordinary and apparently trivial things of Nature. “Trances of thought and mountings of the mind” kindling him to the sublimely reverent and profoundly mystic contemplation of the Divine immanent in all creation.
“To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
(Ode on Intimations of Immortality)
And he says that even the tiniest things of Nature seemed provoked and illuminated with a heavenly splendor and sublimity.
“The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light.”
Since Nature brought a profound vision of the Deity or the “Wisdom and Spirit of the universe” in Wordsworth’s mind as he calls it in his “Prelude”, he regarded it as the source of his poetic inspiration and of moral and spiritual enlightenment and vision. He appreciates Nature as he says:
“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.
(Tintern Abbey Re-visited)
All objects and units of Nature had for him some sublime and enigmatic moral and spiritual message to convey:
“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good.
Than all the sages can.”
(The Tables Turned)
It is the crucial faith of a mystic that “the heart of light is the silence.” In the true spirit of a mystic, Wordsworth arranged a supreme value on silence and contemplative stillness or, as he called it, “wise passiveness” and “meditative peace” and was aware of its deep and huge spiritual potentialities for bringing him divine revelation and for enabling him to penetrate into the ultimate cosmic mysteries. Among his visions of Nature, there came moments of such profound and hallowed stillness of “transcendent peace and silence” as Wordsworth called it that through his imagination Wordsworth attained the highest peak of his mystic vision gaining insight into the heart of reality (Jarvis 4). It was in moments of “that peace which passeth understanding” that Wordsworth says:
“â€¦â€¦Gently did my soul
Put off her veil, and self-transmuted, stood
Naked, as in the presence of her Got”
(Prelude, Book IV)
In moments of such holy tranquil and peace, his mind was transported to a state of sublime ecstasy, a trance-like consciousness.
“Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream:
A prospect in the mind”
(Prelude, Book V)
Emphasizing those moments of sublime stillness and serenity and their inestimable value and significance, Wordsworth in an illuminating passage in “Tintern Abbey Re-visited” says:
…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.”
and also in “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” he states:
“Hence, in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither.”
Wordsworth’s mysticism is different and remarkable for its contemplative mood and pantheistic conception of nature. It is structured based on the belief that nature is a living being and the dwelling place of god. Nature is the means through which a man comes into contact with god. Wordsworth claims that a divine spirit can be seen through all the objects of nature. As a true pantheist he also says that all is God and God is all. This notion is particularly depicted in Tintern Abbey.
He also finds the existence of god in the mind of man. Wordsworth claims that there is a pre-arranged harmony between the mind of man and the spirit of nature, which enables man to relate or communice with nature. The relationship is materialized when the mind of man forms a kinship with the thoughts of nature. And it is this cordial and intellectual junction between man and nature that helped to shape his belief that nature has the power to teach and educate human beings. Man reaches perfection and practical knowledge through the education he obtains from nature. He believes that the person who doesn’t receive education from nature is worthless and his life is not successful. The poet believes that nature is the nurse and the protector of the mankind (Gill 163).
In Wordsworth’s viewpoint, nature has the ability to alleviate the damaged mind of man. The beautiful and frolicsome aspects of nature are an infinite source for healing power. The material life sometimes becomes so painful that human beings loose the aspiration for living. When life becomes such unbearable then the sweet and affectionate contact with nature can easily drive away the cloud of cynicism from the mind of the viewer of nature. The noise and disturbance of the town or city life may make human life intolerable but even the recollections of nature in some lonely room can eliminate the burden of desolation, anxiety and suffocation.
Wordsworth honors even the simplest and the most ordinary objects of nature and human life. For him nothing is mean or low, since everything that is present in the universe is touched by divine life. To conclude we ought to say that Wordsworth never looked at nature like the way we do. With great devotion and enthusiasm, he sought to read the profoundest meaning of human life in nature. In the way of doing so he forged himself as a great poet of nature with a true mystical vision.
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