Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dallying with De Botton

For today's post I'm still processing the insights I gained from Alain De Botton's wee book  The Art of Travel.  In chapter 5, suitably called "On The Country and the City" he tours The Lake District (Cumbria) in the company of the quintessential nature poet - Romantic poet - William Wordsworth (1770-1850).  I found this chapter least satisfying in this book, probably because in the last 25 years or so I have steadily gone off Wordsworth, whom I have progressively found far too sugary and saccharine for my delicate constitution.  Likewise, I found his life story singularly unriveting, probably because I became so interested in his partner in crime - Samuel Taylor Coleridge whom I found fascinating because of his unorthodoxy in all the areas of his life and a great poet as well.  Therefore, I am singularly biased and admit this prejudice before I start this contribution.

However, De Botton regales us with interesting facts.  Here's a hard fact on demography:  In 1700, 17% of the population of England and Wales lived in a town; in 1850 it was 50%, and by 1900, 75%.  These are important statistics because they represent that great migration from rural to urban setting that was the result of the great Industrial revolution.  Our two friends Wordsworth and Coleridge lived during the height of this migration.  They helped launch the Romantic Age in English literature with their wonderfully new and energetic 1798 joint publication, Lyrical Ballads.

During his journey De Botton immerses himself in reading Wordsworth's famous Prelude which is a semi-autobiographical poem of his early years which the poet revised and expanded a number of times. The work was posthumously titled and published, prior to which it was generally known as the poem "to Coleridge". Wordsworth would become England's Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.  That Wordsworth was the quintessential nature poet goes without saying:

And almost every day, he went on a long walk in the mountains or along the lakeshores.  He was unbothered by the rain, which, as he admitted, tended to fall in The Lake District 'with a vigour and perseverance that may remind the disappointed traveller of those deluges of rain which fall along the Abyssinian mountains for the annual supply of the Nile.'  His acquaintance Thomas de Quincey estimated that Wordsworth had walked 175,000 to 180,000 miles in his life.  (De Botton, 134)

I envy Wordsworth his closeness to nature and indeed his marvellous fitness.  He felt the very pulse of the divine in nature that abounded about him.  He wrote about butterflies, cuckoos, skylarks, daisies, daffodils, celandines, cocks, hens, nightingales, hills, streams, clouds, birds eggs and so on and so forth.  Of these observed facts De Botton tells us that

They were not haphazard articulations of pleasure.  behind them lay a well developed philosophy of nature, which - infusing all of Wordsworth's work - made an original and, in the history of Western thought, hugely influential claim about our requirements for happiness and the origins of our unhappiness.  The poet proposed that Nature, which he took to comprise, among other elements, birds, streams, daffodils and sheep, was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.  (Ibid., 136)

Critics saw this as rather puerile and 'namby-pamby' in the words of the great Lord Byron.  In other terms, sickeningly sentimental or schmaltzy or sugary or saccharine as I have said above.  However, Wordsworth did not despair of the critics as he believed far too much in mother nature.  I remember at college how we used to have discussions as to whether he was a pantheist, that is, a person who believed in nature as if it were God, or whether he might have been a panentheist, a believer in a God who revealed himself quintessentially in and through nature.  These questions were or are, to my mind now, stupid and silly questions that are rather meaningless.  It is enough for me now to know that this wonderful human being believed in the redemptive and healing powers of nature - almost at the modern self-help level to superimpose an anachronism, but I think the reader will catch my meaning.

After 1830 Wordsworth became virtually the guru of poetry and the lauder supreme of nature's wonderful gifts.  His new approach to poetry by writing in the language of the ordinary countryman and woman was definitely a hit with the populace.  In fact, in 1843 he was appointed Poet Laureate, because he was held universally in such high esteem.  By the time of the poet's death in 1850 (by which time as we've pointed out about, half of the population of England and Wales lived in big towns and cities.) serious opinion agreed with his suggestion that regular travel through nature was an antidote to the evils of the city.

I remember reading Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey several times at school and college.  It's a wonderful poem to reflect upon when considering the Wordsworthian creed or belief in the redemptive and healing power of nature.  I shan't quote it here, but I would like to advert to what De Botton calls the nearest Wordsworth came to giving voice to an academic account of his philosophy of Nature:

'A great Poet... ought to a certain degree to rectify men's feelings... to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in short, more consonant with nature.'  (Quoted ibid., 148)

In every natural landscape, Wordsworth found instances of sanity, purity and permanence.  What he would make of the destruction wrought by earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes I don't know.  They did not enter his ken, alas.  His world was possibly, too Romantic, to admit of too much evil or evil of too great or deep or horrific a degree.

However, one thing is sure and that is that Wordsworth taught whole generations to see nature with new eyes, with new depths, with a new and renewing vision.

If his poems can be accused of being 'namby-pamby' and to insult the machismo of Lord Byron and many other critics since, to modern humankind they can prove to be a veritable force for good, for healing the heart and soul of modern humankind by opening our eyes to the healing and renovating powers of nature.  They can bring us to a depth often lacking in this often sadly too superficial world.  That there may be sugar on the surface of the pie in no way takes away from its sustenance for the soul if not the body.

Above I have uploaded one of the many portraits of William Wordsworth. Unfortunately I failed to find out its author.

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