William Wordsworth’s Poetry and Philosophy

Hongkyu A. Choe [1]

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 62-71)



The influence of the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke on modes of thinking far exceeds his fame.  His point of view coincides completely with that of the ordinary intelligent man.  Informed by a passion for truth, Locke believed that a mind was capable of finding truth only when trained specifically to think; he conceived of education as a discipline of this intellect.  His primary epistemological thesis was that the ways in which we perceive the world, including ourselves, are determined by the ways in which we experience the world.  Locke’s theory of the mind as a tabula rasa was an emblem of the mind in its natural state.


Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished?  Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless Fancy of Man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety?[2]


In Locke’s epistemology, simple ideas are sense impressions; complex ideas are combinations of simple ideas by the voluntary intellect of man.  Wordsworth makes a similar progression from simple to complex.  Upon simpler ideas the mind exercises an active power of making combinations.  Once furnished with simple ideas, it can put them together in several compositions, and make a variety of complex ideas.  ‘Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but a man, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply.’[3]

       Wordsworth’s ‘The Tables Turned’ is a didactic poem.  The statement it makes about nature and art are meant to be taken at their face value as general truths about life.


And hark!  How blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your Teacher.


She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless—

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.





One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.[4]


To understand the poem fully, we need to know something of the background of political and aesthetic thought in the last decade of the eighteenth century.  There was at this time a revolt against formal education and the influence of books in favour of a return to the direct perception of nature.  He professed at this time a blind and almost mystic belief in the power of nature to educate the mind and edify the soul.  That he came later to abandon this belief does not affect the ardour with which he held and expressed it in the poems of this period

       Wordsworth respected private experience and his modernity lies primarily in this interest in himself.  He was alarmed at the prospect of writing a long poem all about himself.  One of the peculiarly modern gifts of Wordsworth is unparalleled insight into the nature of consciousness.  In The Prelude Wordsworth inclusively registered with extraordinary delicacy and acuteness the rhythms of consciousness itself:


                             From early days

Beginning not long after that first time

In which, a Babe, by intercourse of touch

I held mute dialogues with my Mother’s heart,

I have endeavoured to display the means

Whereby this infant sensibility,

Great birthright of our being, was in me

Augmented and sustained.

                                                                                    (The Prelude, II, 265)[5]


       Considered with reference to their origin, ideas come to the mind either by way of sensation or reflection, or a combination of the two.  From sensations, the mind gets ideas of the primary qualities of objects. The notion of substance causes Locke great perplexity and distress.  Having surveyed ideas with reference to their origin, Locke turns to a consideration of the nature and degrees of human knowledge.  The mind itself is defined in terms of its capacity for experience.  The mind comes to be furnished with ideas only through experience: that is, through the action of external objects on the body, especially the eye and other sense organs.


                             Therefore am I still




A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear—both what they half create,

And what perceive

                                         (‘Tintern Abbey’, 102-108)[6]


This links up with the striking Romantic principle that the highest function of the poet and the supreme function of the imagination is to arrive at a plane of understanding above that of ordinary rationality.  It is as though mind has become an entity beyond the self, and the poet raises his verse to a rhetorical level in describing the experience.

       The narrator in ‘Simon Lee’ draws the reader’s attention to an important fact of life, which is that all living things are subject to decay, which is well illustrated in the case of Simon Lee.  In the first part of the poem, the narrator casually lists Simon Lee’s illnesses and sufferings by referring to his physical appearance, and contrasts them to the life led in his youth, as in the following lines:


And he is lean and he is sick;

His body, dwindled and awry,

Rests upon ankles swoln and thick;

His legs are thin and dry.

One prop he has, and only one,

His wife, an aged woman,

Lives with him, near the waterfall,

Upon the village Common.

                                         (‘Simon Lee’, 33-40)[7]


In those lines the narrator introduces Simon Lee to the reader, and by doing so he draws a contrastive picture of Simon Lee’s old age and youth.  The lines do not arouse sympathetic reactions from the reader because they are neutral and detached.  ‘The image has Lockean affiliations, but more interesting from a rhetorical viewpoint is the way that nature’s imprinting is humanized.’[8]

       ‘In The Prelude Wordsworth repeatedly attempts to contain his hyperbolic interpretation of the revolution or its aftermath, much as he attempts to refigure errancy in the biography of the pedlar or the Snowdon episode, here in Book 12 he embraces it without apology.’[9]  Wordsworth, taking for granted that an elementary poetics of culture has already been formulated, plays off its basic forms, disfigures its constitutive terms.  And he indicated the influence of important aspects of eighteenth century anthropological thought: its interest in language as a key to reconstructing human origins.




       ‘Tintern Abbey’, which is composed in the personal mode, emphasises the presence of the represented speaker in the poem in order to establish the concreteness of both the landscape and speaker.


The day is come when I again repose

Here, under this dark sycamore, and view

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,

Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,

Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves

‘Mid groves and copses.

(‘Tintern Abbey’, 9-14) [10]


The demonstratives ‘here’, ‘this’, and ‘these’ give the poem an element of concreteness and invite the reader to look at the scene through the poet’s eyes.  In ‘Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth compares himself with what he was in his youth, when visiting the place for the first time.  ‘The ‘I’ that occurs in the middle of the poem and refers to the poet’s younger self is distinct from the ‘I’ that occurs in the opening passage of the poem and narrates the poet’s personal experience.’[11]

       Wordsworth believed that it might be possible to recover from such mystic and philosophical writers clues concerning the nature of the universe which would bear a relation to the more mysterious discoveries of contemporary science and perhaps resolve ‘the dilemma created by the mechanistic theories of Newton and Locke’.[12]

       Wordsworth also emphasizes physical experience.  The sheer delight of intense feeling is described in ‘Tintern Abbey’ in the period characterized by the ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’ derived from the forms, colours and sounds of nature:


An appetite; a feeling and a love,

That had no need of remoter charm,

By thought supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.

(‘Tintern Abbey’, 80-83)[13]


Wordsworth was essentially a rational thinker, whose chief tenets rest on a naturalistic interpretation of phenomena. His theory of poetics rests on the assumption that thought originates in experience, and that out of the product of sensation or experience, ideas and the more complex forms of mentality are developed.  His deepest allegiance is to a mystical philosophy.  In his early intellectual environment Wordsworth was disposed towards a philosophy of




naturalism and elements of the school of Locke.  Hartley provided him with the rationale.  ‘I leave it to naturalists to reason, and to other men to believe as they please upon it’.[14]  Locke and Wordsworth provide a largely consistent theory of the figural dynamic of archaic culture.

       Uncertainty preoccupies him in the first book of The Prelude.  He presents himself as casting around for a subject.  He tries to settle on a theme, but is put off by the vastness of the various subjects that present themselves.  Almost imperceptibly, he starts talking about childhood, about what it was like to be a five-year-old child bathing naked in the sunshine in the little mill-race that he lived near.  This sensuous, physiological appreciation of life and of his own subjective mind is very modern and very different from any of the poets who came before.  In the passage about snaring woodcocks, the sensuous delight becomes mixed with an intensifying anxiety:


With the store of springes o’er my shoulder hung

To range the open heights where woodcocks fan

Along the smooth green turf.  Through half the night,

Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied

That anxious visitation:

                                                                        (The Prelude, I, 310-314)[15]


       The Romantic poet must make his own efficacious symbols.  God having been pushed back to the beginning of things, one could only create a sense of duration from the endless series of separate instants by associative memories.  Wordsworth’s time consciousness was something richer and subtler than any philosophical scheme he might have absorbed from Coleridge, and certainly richer that any scheme a reader may extrapolate from his work.  Whether his beliefs are actually the same or not, Coleridge certainly shared, or thought he shared at a certain period of his life, a profound harmony of view with Wordsworth.  As time went on, differences of temperament tended to make them believe occasionally that they had differences in theory, but one profound belief they certainly had in common was their faith in the remedial and efficacious power of the natural world.

       Wordsworth’s stress on common cultural values guards us against any possible misunderstanding of self-realization or implying an isolated or self-sufficient attitude on the part of individual.  He reminds us that man’s higher or spiritual nature is essentially social and that the social is an expression of man’s rational or spiritual nature.  The individual can realize his full potentialities only as a member of the human family, participating in and enhancing the cultural values that are the common possession of all mankind.  In affirming the real existence of spiritual values, their eternal nature, their universality, empiricism enriches literary works and leads us to give due weight




to it.  The following passage is related to the ancient genre known as the ‘character, a term which long ago passed out of the active vocabulary of criticism’.[16]


                                         With new delight,

This chiefly, did I note my grey-haired Dame;

Saw her go forth to church or other work

Of state, equipped in monumental trim;

Short velvet cloak (her bonnet of the like)

A mantle such as Spanish Cavaliers

Wore in old time.  Her smooth domestic life,

Affectionate without disquietude,

Her talk, her business, pleased me; and no less

Her clear though shallow stream of piety

That ran on Sabbath days a fresher course;

                             (The Prelude, IV,  218-228)[17]


Much of the philosophical part of Wordsworth’s poetry is an attempt to find a rational justification for the importance which his feelings and his experience told him that nature held for man.  His assertions about what nature is and his theories as to her fostering meekness, democracy, orderly thinking, and the love of man, are of value only for the light they throw on his mind.


The idealized passages in The Prelude are doubtless those that the modern reader, conditioned as he is by a century and a half of increasingly realistic techniques in the novel, find most difficult to accept.[18]


       Like most visionary experiences invaded by divine power, the flight into the sun constitutes the consummation of being as well as a destruction.  To the simultaneity of act and object can be added the conjunction of divine and natural worlds.  ‘Faced by a river’s fluid permanence, its forceful evocation at any point of its impelling past and summoning future, Wordsworth’s language sometimes asks questions which no language can answer.  The conventional lucidity which thinks it sees clearly because it distinguishes may see only a dead, isolated thing and so be blind to all that exists in a world of dynamic interdependence.’[19]

       A theme such as the sense of community between a sheltered individual and a mass of unknown people less fortunate than himself could easily produce sentimentality; for the commonest source of sentimentality is the feeling of pity for abstract humanity:




I met a little cottage Girl:

She was eight years old, she said;

Her hair was thick with many a curl

That clustered round her head.


She had a rustic, woodland air,

And she was wildly clad;

Her eyes were fair, and very fair;

Her beauty made me glad.[20]


Sentimentality is one of the commonest of human weaknesses, and it is an important theme in Romanticism.

       The spatial and the temporal are often to a certain extent equated.  Ghostly visitation in Wordsworth’s poems of haunting is evidence of a persistent personal relationship that defies mutability, resulting in a moment of transcendence which effects a closure of the temporal cleavage between past and present.


O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood

Upon our side, we who were strong in love!

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven!  O times,

In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

Of custom, law, and statue, took at once

The attraction of a country in romance!

                                         (The Prelude, XI, 105-112)[21]


       Wordsworth states the discovery about the effect of growing up on experience, using for his purpose the most striking imagery he can draw from recollections of childhood.  He might have gone on to say that the poet is he who preserves the strength of childhood sensibility without going mad, and his poems are the result.


         But there’s a Tree, of many, one,

And single field which I have looked upon

Both of them speak of something that is gone;

         The Pansy at my feet

         Doth the same tale repeat;

Whither is fled the visionary gleam

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?[22]


‘The core of the experience was an intense consciousness of nature passing




through his senses to his mind; and the growth of that consciousness, its action and reaction upon his inner life, is the central theme of The Prelude.  The experience was peculiar simply in its intensity.  So pure and strong was the life his senses led that it passed on a tide of feeling, into the life of his spirit.’[23]  Wordsworth associated emotion with imagination; only natures of deep feeling are capable of imaginative activity.  Coleridge thought of imagination as relating to poetry and as a conscious activity of the mind, but Wordsworth usually conceived of it as the transformation wrought within the mind rather than any expression of such a transformation in a work of art. ‘Yet it is Locke who supplies the concepts of memory and association through which Wordsworth can give psychological substantiation to his experience of his own mind as light or music.’[24]

       The Locke-Hume tradition had firmly established a concept of the universe as a great mechanism operating according to fixed and ascertainable laws, and of the mind as a comparable mechanism passively accepting what was given to it through the senses and forming ideas by association.  Poetry was decorative and ornamental, and figurative language was a way of dressing up objects not intrinsically pleasing enough to be poetic.  Wordsworth left none of this untouched.  Strongly imbued with a sense of a living, active universe, familiar by experience with the power of the mind to act upon reality, Wordsworth tended to think of consciousness as being born of the marriage of the mind with the universe.


Man, though he have great variety of Thoughts, and such, from which others, as well as himself, might receive Profit and Delight; yet they are all within his own Breast, invisible, and hidden from others, nor can of themselves be made appear.  The Comfort, and Advantage of Society, not being to be had without Communication of Thoughts, it was necessary, that Man should find out some external sensible Signs, whereby those invisible Ideas, which his thoughts are made up of, might be made known to others.[25]


       Wordsworth’s philosophy of man and nature is intricate, and as long as his poetry arouses the emotions and stimulates the minds of his readers there will be a variety of emphases and interpretations. ‘The Prelude is not so much to show shepherds as they are but rather to bring forward an image of human greatness to express faith in the perfectibility of mankind once institutions and hierarchies are removed and we are free, unfranchised, and in an unmediated, unalienated relationship with nature’.[26]

       In The Prelude Wordsworth idealized the growth of a poet’s mind and his




youth.  His environment was more complicated and worldly than the poem would indicate:


‘The modern poet tends to represent the external world “as it is”—spontaneously perceived, unspoiled by the intrusion of abstract thought.  Wordsworth, on the other hand, represents the external world only in order to get beyond it; if he lets his intellectualising self intrude, the intrusion seems to follow so naturally from the concretely perceived premise with which he started that the reader is scarcely aware he has crossed the border which commonly separates the simple idea from the complex, the empirical realm from the transcendental.’[27]


       The Prelude is a system of philosophy and an expression of poetic experience.  It records the growth of the poetic consciousness; it shows how emotional egotism becomes a form of poetic energy that seeks its milieu, its means of expansion and expression, in surrounding nature.


Thy subtle speculations, toils abstruse

Among the schoolmen, and Platonic forms

Of wild ideal pageantry, shaped out

From things well-matched or ill, and words for things,

The self-created sustenance of a mind

Debarred from Nature’s living images,

Compelled to be a life unto herself,

And unrelentingly possessed by thirst

Of greatness, love, and beauty.

                                                            (The Prelude, VI, 297-305)[28]


       ‘In Wordsworth’s scheme we are not encouraged to resort to mysticism as if it were a stupefying drug, for the reverence for the human mind that these moments necessarily inspire includes reverence for the mind’s capacity for “right reason”, which naturally directs us to the business of living in the present world’.[29]


I had been taught to reverence a Power

That is the visible quality and shape

And image of right reason; that matures

Her processes by steadfast laws: gives birth

To no impatient or fallacious hopes,

No heat of passion or excessive zeal,

No vain conceits; provokes to no quick turns

Of self-applauding intellect; but trains




To meekness, and exalts by humble faith;

Holds up before the mind intoxicate

With present objects, and the busy dance

Of things that pass away, a temperate show

Of objects that endure

                             (The Prelude, XIII, 20-32)[30]


       The real strength and power of Wordsworth’s metaphors and similes emerges not from any single image or any single poem but from the entire body of his poetry. ‘It is admitted that Locke is in the background, that language and the ways of knowing, or epistemology, are intimately related, and that these problems were among the first concerns of eighteenth-century thought. With reliance on an old tradition created in the nineteenth century for its own ends, it is believed that this philosophy made the mind entirely passive, whereas the essence of mind and knowing for the Romantics was activity.’[31]

Poetry inheres in the kind of language that symbolizes a concrete totality; it also inheres in things seen as concrete totalities. ‘In Locke’s system words stand primarily for ideas and only secondarily for things, and he was aware that this view gave language a precarious purchase on the material world.’[32]  What Locke did for philosophy in the seventeenth century, Wordsworth did for poetry in the nineteenth century. No modern philosopher, except Kant, has had a wider influence than Locke, and Kant was himself deeply indebted to his celebrated predecessor. Wordsworth was to become the greatest poet since Milton. These two giants established the intellectual underpinnings of the modern world.


© Contributor 2003-2006


[1]          Department of English Language and Literature, Chung Ang University in Seoul, South Korea. This paper was written with the support of an overseas research grant from Chung Ang University in 2002.

[2]          John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. by Peter H. Nidditch, (Clarendon Press, 1975), p.104.

[3]          William Wordsworth, Poems, ed. by John O. Hayden, 2 vols (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977), I, 871.

[4]          Ibid., p. 357.

[5]          William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. by Jonathan Wordsworth and others, (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 81.  All quotations from The Prelude are from the 1850 text of this Norton edition.

[6]          Wordsworth, Poems, I, 360.

[7]          Wordsworth, Poems, I, 301.

[8]          J. Douglas Keale, Monumental Writing (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), p. 86.

[9]          David Collings, Wordsworthian Errancies (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p. 235.

[10]        Wordsworth, Poems, I, 358.

[11]        Antony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 129.

[12]        John Beer, Wordsworth in Time (London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 55.

[13]        Wordsworth, Poems, I, 360.

[14]        Locke, p. 334.

[15]        Wordsworth, Prelude, p. 45.

[16]        Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth’s Prelude (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 17.

[17]        Wordsworth, Prelude,  p. 137.

[18]        Lindenberger, p. 21.

[19]        David B. Pirie, The Poetry of Grandeur and of Tenderness (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 18.

[20]        Wordsworth, Poems, I, 298.

[21]        Wordsworth, Prelude, p. 397.

[22]        Wordsworth, Poems, I, 525.

[23]        Wordsworth: The Prelude, ed. by W.J. Harvey and Richard Gravil (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 83-84.

[24]        Ibid., p. 224.

[25]        Locke, pp. 404-405.

[26]        Jonathan Bate. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and Environmental Tradition (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 29.

[27]        Lindenberger, p. 96.

[28]        Ibid., p. 203.

[29]        Baker, p. 150.

[30] Wordsworth, Prelude, p. 439.

[31] Aarsleff, p. 372.

[32] British Romanticism, ed. by Stuart Curran (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 99.