This is a version of a mini-essay I did for an online course designed by Lancaster University on FutureLearn. My late father was a Wordsworth enthusiast so this is partly a tribute to him. I have a few of his books on Wordsworth and have enjoyed reading my father’s many annotations he made in pencil.
Although Wordsworth became an orthodox Anglican in his later years this should not be held against him or detract from his championing of the ‘indwelling spirit’ throughout his life but especially in his younger years. He is not as radical as William Blake but, nevertheless, there are passages in The Prelude where he is preoccupied with a mystical view of reality and that necessary inner spiritual transformation of the individual.
We are all familiar with his ‘nature-worship’ which goes by the term ‘pantheism.’ Perhaps this is epitomised in his Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, and especially in the lines:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
[. . . ] A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things . . .
However, we should not limit Wordsworth’s beliefs to nature-worship alone. I would argue his broader views have a lot in common with Blake (“to see heaven in a wild flower”), the English Mystics, St John of the Cross, and even Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism. As with all mystical traditions, a universal ‘Love’ is at the centre of his worldview. In common with Blake, he also elevates “Imagination” to a position where it is co-joined with selfless Love.
Here is a passage from Book 14 of The Prelude (significantly, the 1850 version is not much altered from the 1805 version):
Imagination having been our theme,
So also hath that intellectual Love,
For they are each in each, and cannot stand
Dividually. — Here must thou be, O Man!
Power to thyself; no Helper hast thou here;
Here keepest thou in singleness thy state:
No other can divide with thee this work:
No secondary hand can intervene
To fashion this ability; ’tis thine,
The prime and vital principle is thine
In the recesses of thy nature, far
From any reach of outward fellowship,
Else is not thine at all. But joy to him,
Oh, joy to him who here hath sown, hath laid
Here, the foundation of his future years!
For all that friendship, all that love can do,
All that a darling countenance can look
Or dear voice utter, to complete the man,
Perfect him, made imperfect in himself,
All shall be his: and he whose soul hath risen
Up to the height of feeling intellect
Shall want no humbler tenderness; his heart
Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart;
Of female softness shall his life be full,
Of humble cares and delicate desires,
Mild interests and gentlest sympathies.
The independence of the individual is unambiguous here and has something of the broad sweep of Walt Whitman.
“Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart” has an exact parallel in a Buddhist scripture which reads as follows:
Even as a mother protects with her life
her child, her only child
so with a boundless heart
should one cherish all living beings;
radiating kindness over the entire world;
freed from hatred and ill-will.
[part of the ‘loving-kindness verse’]
Book 14 is a fitting climax to Wordsworth’s Opus Magnum and achieves philosophical and psychological heights which not only illustrate the prospectus of Romanticism, but recapitulate his earlier ideas rather like the last movement of a symphony. I am in awe of The Prelude and look forward to comparing the three versions in the Norton Edition. I recommend it to anyone who has not read it in its entirety!
3 thoughts on “Wordsworth’s Mysticism”
I suppose that the notion of ‘feeling intellect’ comes closest to the concept ‘mysticism’ – ‘feeling’ & ‘intellect’ are generally assumed to be separate ‘entities’ – for want of a better word, except that they are not ‘entities’ but merely abstractions.
Richard Jefferies was always struggling/stuttering to find words to give expression to what he called ‘soul-life’ whereas Wordsworth often seems too bold perhaps to put his vision into ordinary words which tend to muddy the original soul-drive. Best maybe to go along with ‘vague longing’, ‘circumspection, infinite delay’… (End of Intro to The Prelude!)
I think his best moments of ‘satori’ or ;self-remembering’ (these for me are the practical behavioural manifestations of the abstraction ‘mysticism’.) For example, the stolen boat episode & the ‘grim shape’ towering up… (lines 357 – 400 Prelude Book First) and especially, I think, the icy ‘self-remembering’ of the skating episode (lines 425 – 480-ish) – as with the Tintern Abbey quotation you started with – being wrapped in earth’s ‘diurnal round’ has always seemed to me to be the pinnacle of mysticism (where did that phrase come from…? What a rubbish one!)
Thanks for making me think this drear morning, Eric
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It is recognised that Wordsworth became ultra-conservative (and with a captital C) in his later years and in his Intimations of Immortality he ends by writing ‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more.’ However,I hope that even in old age he felt sure that his epiphanies of youth were ‘the real thing.’
I have finished reading Hunter Davies’ excellent biog of Wordsworth and never fully appreciated how much and how often Wordsworth and co travelled – both in Britain and abroad. He was travelling well into his 60s and 70s.