June 21 2020

The Enduring Power of Poetry

[My theme today was suggested in part by remarks made on a wireless broadcast recently by Professor Seamus Perry of Balliol College, Oxford, and which I thought might be in tune with our ideas on the Summer Solstice.]

William Wordsworth was born 250 years ago. First among the Lake poets and first among the Romantics, from a very early age William was extraordinarily influenced by the natural world in which he found himself. He quickly came to regard it as moving, strange and powerful in ways he tried to express in his poetry. Every school child is familiar with his nature poems and how he thought the world about him was such a glorious place. And it is particularly appropriate that we should emphasise his devotion to the natural world at this time of the summer solstice.

But Wordsworth wanted to say more about it than just that it was lovely. He wanted to ascribe to it his feelings of divinity and address it almost as his God.

Brought up as an Anglican he possessed an Anglican language of religion which, when he applied it to nature, was somehow inadequate, and made him seem (as his friend and fellow Lake poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it) a semi-atheist.

Wordsworth met Coleridge in Bristol in 1795. At that time Coleridge was writing poetry, but also preaching in Unitarian places of worship. He was a Unitarian for several years and even contemplated becoming a minister himself, but eventually reverted to the Church of England. He was passionately interested in theology and remained so all his life.

The important thing at this early stage of his friendship with Wordsworth was that Coleridge’s Unitarianism provided Wordsworth with a language with which to describe his feelings of divinity and sublimity in nature. Where Wordsworth’s Anglicanism was too formal and rigid to adequately convey his feelings, Coleridge’s Unitarianism was much more fluid and subtle, and therefore capable of expressing the fugitive character of the effects of Wordsworth’s religious experiences.

I would like to quote to you from one poem each from these two writers to illustrate what I mean. This is from Coleridge’s THE EOLIAN HARP written in 1795:

O!  the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul…
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;

Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument…
And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic* and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each, and God of all?

* pliant, formative, creative

So that is an example of Coleridge’s understanding of the natural world expressed in religious terms derived from his Unitarianism: that everything that lives and breathes has a divine life-force blowing through it, just as the breeze brings to life the eolian harp [or the wind harp], and Coleridge does not mean metaphorically, but literally, as Jesus meant it when he was describing God as the “wind which blows where it listeth…” These are not really thoughts an Anglican could comfortably entertain without crossing the strict boundaries of doctrine and dogma.

But having absorbed the way Coleridge thought and could form his ideas, here is an example of Wordsworth giving profound expression to his innermost response to the divine in nature.

This is taken from LINES COMPOSED A FEW MILES ABOVE TINTERN ABBEY … 1798: [three years after meeting Coleridge]

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity…

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

This is both sublime and meaningful. It is no surprise to me that Wordsworth’s poems are often read out during Unitarian services of worship, despite the fact that more orthodox Christians might scoff that we are reading poetry rather than the bible. At this period Wordsworth was writing in a way that any Unitarian could understand, unhampered by the constraints of thinking a doctrinaire faith would impose.

This is a language of religion which describes a state of awareness, rather than a theology. This might be the closest we come to a description of the numinous in nature, so powerfully felt at the very height of summer, here now at the solstice, and of the immanence of God in humanity.

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Coleridge would eventually leave Unitarianism because it was no refuge for sinners. He was looking for salvation himself, feeling the burden of his shortcomings acutely, and begging God for mercy. Wordsworth remained an Anglican, and although he kept writing, he was eventually less inspired.

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