Michael Hartnett’s ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’

This piece of incisive and insightful social commentary, written by the poet himself, describing life in Newcastle West in the 1950’s, first appeared in Magill magazine in December 1977 and later in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, The Annual Observer, in July 1979. Hartnett, the poet, was back in town and the dam burst of memory and nostalgia was beginning, culminating with the bitter sweet Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980.

Christmas in Maiden Street
By Michael Hartnett

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A shouting farmer with a shotgun, a few patch-trousered urchins, soaked, snotty and unrepentant, running across wet fields, arms full of holly. The long walk on the railway tracks, the sleepers treacherous and slimy, the dark station, the lamp posts with their glittering circular rainbows. We stopped at the shops’ red windows to admire toys we could never have. A few drunks waltzed by, happy and moronic. An open lorry went by to jeers and obscenities; the pluckers, shawled and snuff-nosed, on their way to a flea-filled poultry store to pluck turkeys at nine pence a head.

Candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street – they only made the gloom amber. The purloined holly hung on holy pictures. There were no balloons, no paper chains, no Christmas trees. Coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter-pound, and tea by the half-ounce. The country people trotted by on donkey and cart or pony and trap with ‘The Christmas’ stones of sugar, pounds of tea. Women in shawls and second-hand coats from America stood at half-doors, their credit exhausted, while the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch.

Members of Charitable Institutions distributed turf and boots, God Blessing the meagre kitchens, as hated as the rent-man. They stood well-dressed on the stone floors, were sirred and doffed at. They paid their workers slave wages. They looked without pity at the nailed together chairs, the worn oilcloth-topped tables, the dead fires.

Outside, the rain fell and blew along the street. The tinkers fought. Bonfires died out in the drizzle. We were washed and put to bed, happy and under-nourished. The oldest went to Midnight Mass. The Latin was magic, the organ, the big choir. It always seemed like a romantic time to die.

It was a Christmas of tin soldiers, tin aeroplanes and cardboard gimcracks. We were Cisco, Batman, Johnny McBrown all that day. Our presents – ‘purties’ we called them – seldom lasted longer than that day. It never snowed. There was no turkey, no plum-pudding, no mince-pies. The Victorian Christmas was not yet compulsory. The very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit-cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year. I never remember drink being in the house. There were never visitors, nor were we encouraged to visit anyone. If the day had been anyway fine, we were to be found on the footpath or in the puddles, knuckles blue.

The Wren’s Day always brought frost. Small warm heads came from under rough blankets to the sound of flutes and banjos and bodhrans far up the street. We donned boot polish and lipstick and old dresses and went out to follow the Wren, tuneless chancers. We sang and giggled our way to a few bob and a glass of lemonade. The back kitchens of the pubs filled up with musicians, the musicians filled up with porter and their wives filled up with apprehension. In a few hours, winter took over again.

There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God.

 

MichaelHartnett

An Overview of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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(The purpose of these brief notes is to assist you in forming an overview of the poet’s work.  For this reason the material is presented as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they engraved in stone: they should be altered, added to or deleted as you make your own notes. 

Remember, these brief notes are meant to send you back to the poems for further study, to reflect, to reassess, to find supporting quotations and references!).

In the late 1500’s, it was fashionable for English gentlemen authors to write sequences of sonnets.  Some sonnet sequences followed a narrative pattern that was autobiographical in varying degrees.  For this reason, scholars have tried to learn about Shakespeare’s life from his sonnets but with little real success.

Scholars generally do agree, however, that Shakespeare addressed the first 126 sonnets to a young nobleman and that the next 26 concentrate on a woman.  But they have not been able to definitely identify either person.  Also scholars have long debated over the nature of Shakespeare’s relationship with the young man and have come to no general conclusion.  Many scholars believe that Shakespeare had a passionate but somewhat reluctant love affair with the woman.  Because the poems describe the woman as a brunette, she has become known as the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets.

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THE SONNETS DOCUMENT THE VARIOUS STAGES OF A RELATIONSHIP

The sonnets explore falling in love, being in love, and facing reality about the beloved:

  • In Sonnet 18 we see the first fascination and we see the poet beginning to write about love. The sonnet, praising the looks and temperament of the Friend, asserts the power of verse to give immortality.  This novel idea of living on beyond death challenges us but we soon realise that this immortality is achieved, not in procreation, but in the very poem being written, ‘this gives life to thee.’
  • In Sonnet 23 we see that Shakespeare is somewhat tongue-tied and unable to express his feeling of love – the stage fright, the stumbling words, the lack of self-confidence – and by implication, it also transmits something of the intensity of this emotion, which is difficult to express.
  • In Sonnet 30 we see the poet as a moody person when alone but he changes when he remembers his love. He also talks about the pain of separation.  The memory of his Friend restores all the poet’s emotional losses, and sorrow is banished.
  • The sonnets also show the insecurity of the poet – the fear that it will not last; the fear that time will destroy beauty and youth; attempts to cheat time in verse (Sonnet 60). This sonnet deals above all with the ravages of time: time’s inescapable forward motion, its destruction of youth and beauty, and its fearsome ravaging of the very best in humankind and in nature.  It is against this background that Shakespeare sets his poetry, trusting that it will survive the years and so preserve his Friend.
  • In some of the sonnets Shakespeare shows a commitment to the beloved, even when life is getting him down; love is a reason for living, for going on, even when one is depressed and tired of life (Sonnet 73). The theme of loss is probably even more significant in the poem – loss of youth, but also loss of creativity (‘where late the sweet birds sang’) and loss of energy and vitality (‘the glowing of such fire’).  The fire is now reduced to the ‘ashes of his youth’ and ‘consumed with that which it was nourished by.’  And so Shakespeare acknowledges the essential paradox of life: that by living we die.  However, despite this bleak outlook there is a somewhat hopeful assumption that love is constant even in the face of death and while the poet acknowledges that death will separate him from his friend, knowing this strengthens and deepens one’s love for the other.
  • Shakespeare makes attempts to define true love (Sonnet 116). Essentially this sonnet is about ideal love, which the poet feels is a spiritual love or ideal friendship, ‘a marriage of true minds’ that would survive all difficulties and outlast the decline of physical beauty and even the ravages of time.  The poem is an expression of total conviction.  The poet believes in the highest form of love, an ideal, steadfast love.  Maybe there is a hint that his young Friend doesn’t believe this?

SUMMARY

The sonnets, therefore, contain vivid imagery which speak to a universal audience: lofty trees barren of leaves, a summer’s day, an inperfect actor on the stage, the waves making toward the pebbled shore, boughs which shake against the cold, rosy lips and cheeks…..

Shakespeare in these sonnets is serious and meditative; there is no great evidence of lightheartedness or playfulness.  The poet’s serious themes and the reflective mood, though expressed in only fourteen lines, give the reader a sense of having read a much longer poem, so effective is the complexity and compression of thought in a Shakespearean sonnet.

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SONNET THEMES

FEAR OF TIME

  • There are many faces of time revealed through the rich, versatile imagery of the sonnets: time is seen as relentless, cruel, mean; as the Grim Reaper, etc. (see Sonnets 18, 60, 116).
  • Explore the tone of his remarks to Time in Sonnet 60.
  • How confident is he really that time can be resisted? (see Sonnets 60, 116).
  • Note the poet’s attitude to ageing in Sonnet 73.

THE EVER-PRESENT SHADOWY FIGURE OF DEATH

  • The personality of death: as braggart (Sonnet 18), its cruelty (Sonnet 60), easeful death (Sonnet 73).

THE VALUE OF POETRY

  • As communication: how effective is it as a medium for communication? (Sonnet 23)
  • Confers immortality: how confident is the poet that poetry will provide a bulwark against time, that poetry confers immortality and so can defeat time? (Sonnets 18, 60).

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THE PERSONALITY OF THE POET IN THE SONNETS

A great variety of moods is revealed in the poems.  About each of the following you might consider what caused it and how deep an emotion it is:

  • hopeful and confident (Sonnets 18, 116)
  • uncertain, diffident (Sonnet 23)
  • depressed and lacking in self-confidence (Sonnets 30, 73)
  • frightened, afraid of deterioration and death (Sonnet 60)

 

 WHAT ARE THE ATTRACTIONS OF SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS?

Consider the following statements:

  • The sonnets are autobiographical to some degree. We are very much aware that there is real drama involved, real conflict, real emotions and real people.
  • They are very honest poems, going far beyond the conventional. They are critical, incisive, often emotionally naked.
  • Yet they are very well crafted, with precisely structured arguments.
  • The imagery can be startling and unexpected, as well as appropriate to the theme.
  • ‘If Shakespeare had written nothing but his sonnets … he would … have been assigned to the class of cold, artificial writers who have no genuine sense of nature or passion.’ (Hazlitt).

 

 

Sonnet 116

 

 

Tintern Abbey – An Analysis

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The importance of this poem cannot be overstated.  It is, in a way, the Gospel, according to Wordsworth and he is an evangelist for Pantheism – seeing the Divine in Nature.  The poem consists of five sections and these represent his developing relationship with Nature.  The poem, therefore, illustrates better than any other his rather strange relationship with Nature, which was more personal and intense than his relationship with any person.

Tintern Abbey is a reflective ode written in blank verse.  It is set in Tintern Abbey on the banks of the Wye, which Wordsworth had revisited with his sister, Dorothy, after an interval of five years.  As I have said already it is concerned with the revelations of the Divine in Nature (or perhaps the Divinity in Nature).  It is a double revelation; that which he experienced five years previously, and that which he experiences in the present.  He compares the sort of man he was on both occasions.  (Can you detect here a connection with Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole?).

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ANALYSIS BY VERSE PARAGRAPHS

Lines 1 – 22: A Word Picture of the Wye Valley

He describes here the place that was the source of his inspiration simply and with touches that suggest mystery.  This is a formal philosophic statement of the presence of the Divine in Nature.  This verse-paragraph is a painting in words, but at the same time we are kept at a distance, the recollections are only ‘half-remembered’.  The word-picture is very effective in its colour and implied colour, and in the sounds that reflect the images he creates for us, the waters ‘rolling from their mountain springs / With a soft inland murmur’, and the silence of the place emphasised by the sibilants in ‘wild secluded scene impress / Thoughts of more deep seclusion’.  There is a breath-catching pause as he tries to recollect the hedgerows, ‘hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild’.  The final five lines of the paragraph again emphasise the silence with a magnificent use of sibilants.  The repetition of ‘once again’ lends a distancing effect underlining the passage of time.

Lines 23 – 50: Emotion Recollected in Tranquillity

These lines are a perfect example to us of what Wordsworth meant by the phrase, ‘Emotion recollected in tranquillity’ – which he uses in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  He first states his doctrine: the memory of this scene has been not only soothing and healing, but has aroused feelings of pleasure, which have resulted in impulses of kindness and love.  He lists the gifts he has received from this scene in order of their occurrence: ‘tranquil restoration’ – refreshment not only of intellect but also of the soul; the moral benefit; and lastly, ‘the serene and blessed mood’ – the emotions begin the process and then all is left behind and the soul is naked.  Here we get glimpses of this new religion – his Pantheism, in which his love of Nature leads to his love for man – ‘feelings too … of kindness and of love’.  He refers here, too, to poetic inspiration which comes and helps us solve the mysteries of life: ‘While with an eye …. We see into the life of things’.  He sees through the eye, not with it; he has moved into a spiritual world.  He does not explain or defend his doctrines; but merely states it as an experience.

Despite his efforts to speak in the language of ordinary men, his diction here is complicated and he cleverly creates a tension between the heavy, weary and unintelligible world and this serene and blessed mood; between the body and the soul, between the din of the cities and the quiet of harmony.  Although this passage is reflective he uses images for his emotions and the things that give rise to them: ‘as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye (indicating his awareness), ‘In which the affections gently lead us on’ (the notion of a blind person being guided by a good and kindly friend).  There is frequent use of parallelisms (repetition of an idea using different words) so characteristic of his work, ‘slight or trivial’, ‘the burthen’ and ‘the heavy and the weary weight’.

Lines 51 – 59: Apostrophe to the Wye (In Praise of The Wye)

These lines are written in the classical style and are in praise of the Wye.  He praises it as the soother of the tribulations of life.  Again there is the contrast between the fever of the world and the tranquil wanderings of the Wye.  Darkness and joyless daylight are equated.  The alliteration in ‘fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world’ links the ‘fretful’ and ‘fever’ in the notion of a heartsick patient.

Lines 60 – 113: The Three Stages of Response

This section is the central part of the poem in which he goes on to show the stages through which his response to nature has passed: first, ‘the glad animal movements’ with their unthinking animal pleasure; secondly, in youth, the visual delight he took in nature – ‘the sounding cataract’; finally, in maturity, the intense union with nature.  In the first two he accepted nature as a sensation, almost as an appetite.  His recollection is uncertain – ‘half-extinguished thought’, ‘recognition dim and faint’, ‘sad perplexity’.  All these have given way to a new reflective attitude to Nature; an intense and spiritual union with her.

But while he abruptly sweeps away the past with, ‘That time is past’, there is a sense of loss, a nostalgia for the ‘aching joys and dizzy raptures’, the ecstasy of his youthful days.  The past has not really been compensated for by the ‘abundant recompense’.  The words ‘faint’ and ‘murmur’ and ‘mourns’ are stressed; they are emotional and are opposed by the stilted reason of ‘I would believe …’.  The ‘still sad music of humanity’ also suggests a sense of personal loss.  But the loss is not tragic; it is the universal sense of loss when youth passes.  The compensations are in his intellectual response to Nature; the awareness of a religious feeling provoked by, ‘a presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts’.  He still has an affinity with Nature; it merely differs in texture.

Wordsworth was concerned with the unity of the mental and physical worlds (unlike Yeats who tried to sail away from the ugliness of the physical world to the world of Byzantium).  Here he emphasises this unity by listing real and abstract things side by side: ‘the light of setting suns’, ‘the round ocean’, ‘the living air’, ‘the blue sky’, ‘the mind of man’.  Note too the synonyms, ‘a presence’, ‘s scene’, ‘something’, ‘a motion’, ‘a spirit’, and the repetition of ‘all’ – again emphasising this unity.  In this verse paragraph he attempts to bring all his experiences together, perhaps to create for himself a deity to whom he can offer these experiences.  There is no doubting the religious nature of these lines ‘a sense sublime’, ‘a presence’ – a realisation of something of deeper significance.  In the final lines he praises his God in a litany of images, which stress his close relationship with nature.  Nature, for him,  is the ‘anchor of  my purest thoughts’, ‘nurse’, ‘guide’, ‘guardian of my heart’, ‘soul of all my moral being’.

Lines 114 – 162:  Address to Dorothy

These lines are addressed to his sister Dorothy much in the same way as St. Paul sent epistles to the early Christian communities in Rome or Antioch or Corinth!  They advise and admonish her to place her trust in Nature.  This section is another good example of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.  He urges her to rely on Nature in her trials and tribulations.  It is an impassioned appeal and he is very sincere, and his language underlines this.  It is a tribute to Nature as a teacher and as a friend.  Here he returns to his own first relationship with Nature, which he sees in Dorothy’s eyes, and he underlines the religious aspect of his present attitude to Nature by making a prayer to Nature to protect her, and to guide her to his own present state.  But there is a sadness in his wish that she will remember him when she too will return to Tintern Abbey.  He returns again to the contrast between the ‘evil tongues, rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men’ and ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her’.  The sense of loss is here also, as he almost hungrily points to his ‘former pleasures’ reflected in her ‘wild eyes’.  But he also balances against it the ‘sober pleasures’ that will parallel his own ‘sense sublime’; her mind will also be a ‘mansion’ for her memories.  Nature will be a ‘nurse’ to her also with its ‘healing thoughts’.

One feels that Wordsworth has perhaps introduced his sister to this landscape and meditation merely to prolong his own deep feeling and attitudes to Nature.

The movement of the poem is conversational (he uses the rhythms of everyday speech), sometimes to the extent that there is a tendency to run into prose (see last five lines).

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Note: You might also like to read a broader look at Wordsworth’s poetry in ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry’ in the Archives of this blog.

William Wordsworth’s Poetry

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Wordsworth was a poet who had a huge influence, not only on poetry, but on the whole thought of the 19th century and beyond.  His avowed aim was to make poetry out of the commonest experiences of life and in the language of the common man.  The essential part of his poetic work is almost entirely comprised in the period 1797 – 1807.  He believed that his poetry was not an immediate response to the stimulus of beauty, but the welling up of feeling long stored in the heart, and brooded over, resulting in the ‘spirit of a landscape rather than the detail’.  His poems were ‘delayed action’.

(He attempts to explain his theory of poetry and to defend it in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  Below are some extracts from this, but it would be worth your while to read the Preface for yourself to obtain a greater understanding of his work.)

Wordsworth was one of the earliest of the Romantic poets.  He was one of a number of poets who composed in a new way and who treated subjects that had previously been shunned in poetry.  The Romantic poets sought to reject artificiality; they appear to be sincere to themselves and to their readers.  Wordsworth, unlike his predecessors, sought out his subject matter in the simplicity of rustic life, which he had grown to love as a child.

Wordsworth rejected, therefore, the traditions of the Augustan poets that preceded him.  Poets such as Alexander Pope had composed poetry with an emphasis on elegant expression and emotional restraint.  For the Romantic poet, imagination rather than reason, became central in shaping poetry.  Freshness and spontaneity were the new key ‘buzz words’ at the beginning of the 19th. Century

Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798!) marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English poetry.  The work met with critical hostility and so Wordsworth added his famous Preface to the second edition, which was published in 1801.  He intended the Preface as a defense of his unconventional theory on poetry.  The main assertion of the Preface was that the source of poetic truth was in the direct experience of the senses.  This theory went completely against poetry of the day, which was very intellectual in approach and tended to shun personal emotion.  The critics, however, were unconvinced by Wordsworth’s methods, and their opposition to his principles continued until the 1820’s, when his reputation began to grow.

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EXTRACTS FROM PREFACE TO THE LYRICAL BALLADS

  • ‘The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.’  In other words, he does not invent imaginary worlds; rather he directs our attention back to the real world in which we all live.
  • ‘For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, poems to which any value may be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.  For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of our past feelings.’
  • ‘Poetry is the image of man and nature.’  Nature was to him a living soul that reveals herself in the movements of the stars, the yearnings of the heart, the sleep of a great city, or the decay of a flower.  His poetry makes no division between man and the world in which he lives.  He thinks of all created things, human and inanimate, as part of one great whole, filling their appointed place, moving in their established order.  He wanted to open up to the reader the ‘loveliness and the wonders’ of nature and to write poetry that would ‘interest mankind permanently’.  He wanted to encourage people to look at nature, and at themselves, in a new way.
  • ‘I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.  In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.’

To a greater or lesser degree within individual poems, Wordsworth’s subject matter and his style conform to these principles.  Tintern Abbey, for example, certainly justifies the conception of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ a kind of poetry that takes its origin in ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’.  However, there are passages of language in the poem that are nothing like that of ordinary men.  Nonetheless, Tintern Abbey also includes conversational language and phrasing.  If you read the poem aloud you should be able to hear the way his language moves in eddies, as it would in conversation – there are moments of certainty, moments of hesitancy, pauses to reflect or to doubt, backward reflections and forward glances.  These are as much features of conversational language today as they were 200 years ago.

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WILLIAM WORDSWORTH – THE OVERVIEW

Much of Wordsworth’s poetry was composed out of doors.  He often composed while walking, speaking the words aloud, but he rarely wrote as a tourist.  He felt that he belonged to or lived in the places he describes and celebrates in his poetry and his poetry was startlingly original in its day.  ‘Wordsworth was a revolutionary in that his writings ultimately changed the way in which most of us now perceive the natural world’, argues Ronald Sands.  Dorothy Wordsworth, his sister, said of her brother that ‘starlight walks and winter winds are his delight’ and Wordsworth’s love of nature marked a significant change from the preceding age, during which Dr. Samuel Johnson pronounced that, ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’.  For Wordsworth, however, ‘High mountains are a feeling, the hum of cities torture’.

Wordsworth belongs to what is now known as the Romantic Age and the age preceding it was known as the Augustan Age.  In Augustan England people wore wigs and dressed elaborately and social life centred on the city.  The countryside was preferred when eventually it had been tamed, arranged, controlled, ordered; buildings were ornate and landscaped gardens were very popular.  The Augustan poets favoured heroic couplets while Wordsworth frequently wrote in blank verse, as in Tintern Abbey and The Prelude.  The Romantic poets focused on rugged, wild, untamed nature.  They also focused on the imagination and, in Wordsworth’s case, on how in nature we can discover our own nature.  The Augustans, on the other hand, preferred to view nature through their drawing room window!

For Wordsworth, the poet is ‘a man speaking to men’.  He deliberately chose ‘incidents and situations from common life, and wanted to relate or describe them … in a selection of language really used by men.’  and yet Wordsworth is not an ‘easy’ poet by any stretch of the imagination, not even in his language, as he sometimes liked to think.  By and large his poetry can be described as Pastoral, a poetry celebrating the countryside and rural life.  He writes about shepherds, beggars and ordinary people living ordinary lives in a fresh and original way.

In Wordsworth’s poetry we are not only reminded of how nature affords us great pleasure but it also allows us to understand ourselves as creatures living in time and place.  Nature, for him, is the great teacher.  Tintern Abbey documents how his relationship with nature has grown and developed over time.  First there was the physical response and boyish delight, then ‘the aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’ of the young man and finally the combination of the senses and the intellect.  Indeed growth can be said to be a central theme in his poetry and his wife subtitled The Prelude – Growth of a Poet’s Mind.

Wordsworth has also been credited with being the poet of childhood but this description, a view encouraged by the Victorians (late 19th Century), does not do him justice.  He was more interested in the development of the adult mind, the adult moral sense.  Seamus Heaney puts it very well when he points out that Wordsworth, more than any writer before him, established how truly ‘the child is father to the man’ – in other words, our early life often determines how we will live as adults.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) defined the poet as ‘an inventor; an author of fiction; a writer of poems; one who writes in measure’.  Wordsworth’s definition saw the poet as comforter, moral guide, prophet.  He believed that poetic, creative minds ‘build up greatest things / From least suggestions’.  Thus the poet is an observer, a watcher and Wordsworth definitely fits this bill because he was a poet who kept his eyes open and he wanted to hear what people had to tell.  He was, in Robert Woof’s words, ‘a poet who listened’ and he is also a poet who shares with the reader his understandings and insights.

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SAMPLE ANSWER:

 ‘There are many wide-ranging attitudes to nature in Wordsworth’s poetry’.  Discuss.

 

One of the principal concerns in Wordsworth’s poetry is nature.  In reading his poetry, it becomes apparent that he explored nature from a number of different perspectives.  Certainly, he celebrates its beauty; it is often also a source of delight and joy.  In other poems, nature is presented as a great teacher.  He also examines the way in which nature acts as a comforter.  Finally, Wordsworth, in his more mature relationship with nature, sees it as a means of developing his own visionary insight, when nature’s almost divine presence seems to awaken a spiritual wisdom within the poet.

Wordsworth’s love of nature had been nurtured in his early childhood, when he swam in the local rivers and lakes and walked through woods and over hills.  There are numerous sketches and portraits of nature’s beauty in his work.  In To My Sister, the poet celebrates the ‘first mild day of March’ which awakens in him the desire to leave the indoors and immerse himself in nature, to ‘Come forth and feel the sun’.  In Tintern Abbey, the poet sees again those ‘steep and lofty cliffs’ and other ‘beauteous forms’ such as ‘plots of cottage-ground’, ‘orchard tufts’, and ‘sportive wood’.  His account of his escapade on the lakes in Boating includes several very evocative and quite beautiful descriptions of nature, such as the movement of his small boat out onto the lake, ‘Leaving behind her still on either side, / Small circles glittering idly in the moon, / Until they melted all into one track / Of sparkling light.’

In Wordsworth’s poetry, however, nature is not merely a landscape, a background or setting.  It also becomes a source of sustenance and comfort.  In Tintern Abbey, he touches on several aspects of nature and his relationship with it.  He seems convinced in this poem that a communion with nature can restore well-being and provide hope to those who have endured moments of despair and disillusionment.  In the poem he proposes a deeply held conviction that nature and humankind can and should exist in a form of partnership, out of which inner peace and calm may be attained.  While the poem opens with scenes of beautifully visualised landscape, it soon becomes clear that Wordsworth is keen to explore the effect of these surroundings upon his own inner well-being.  The poet reflects on how memories of the scene have comforted him during times of dejection and restored his more tranquil state of mind, when ‘oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet.’  Paradoxically, in his poem about London, Upon Westminster Bridge, the glory of a summer’s morning veils the city with a beauty that fills the poet with awe, and prompts him to remark that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote that ‘Every great poet is a teacher.’  Wordsworth believed that his poetry could be instructive to people.  He is often the solitary thinker, alive to his feelings and thoughts and sincere in his convictions.  However, although the experiences he describes in his work are very local and arise from particular circumstances in his own life, the conclusions he draws from those experiences, feelings and thoughts are intended to have universal significance.  The idea of nature as teacher is quite evident in Tintern Abbey and also in To My Sister.  This poem is an explicit statement of the poet’s belief in the power of feeling over reason as the ultimate source of truth.  In the poem the speaker calls on his sister to forego her chores and her studies.  He encourages her to enjoy the beauty of a spring day, in which, ‘One moment now may give us more / Than years of toiling reason’.

A further development in Wordsworth’s perspective on nature occurs when he avows that the landscape has also shaped his moral development.  One childhood experience that shows the beginning of this development is recalled in his poem The Stolen Boat.  Here, the slightly troubled boy rows from the shore in the stolen boat only to see the mountains loom before him, dark and threatening.  In the boy’s imagination, nature is admonishing him for his theft.  The terrified boy returns the boat to its mooring-place and crosses the meadows towards home ‘in grave / And serious mood’.

Nature as moral guide is very evident in Tintern Abbey.  Here, Wordsworth explains that in gaining pleasure from nature he has been enabled to enter into a ‘serene and blessed’ mood, which culminates in his seeing beyond the superficial and into the ‘life of things’.  Nature has, therefore, facilitated the development of the poet’s understanding of things that previously remained unintelligible.  It is very clear in this poem that nature is not merely an object of love; it has become an inspiration, a provider of moral and spiritual guidance.  The poet seems deeply indebted to nature which has become, ‘The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being’.

In the final section of Tintern Abbey the poet prays to nature to be a similar source of guidance to Dorothy, his sister.  He is confident that nature will bestow on her similar gifts of understanding and trust, ‘Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her’.  (This invocation is very similar to The Memorare, a prayer addressed to Mary, Mother of God, ‘And never was it known that anyone to fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided …. ).  Wordsworth reminds Dorothy of nature’s power: he tells her it can ‘lead from joy to joy’, ‘can so inform the mind’, ‘so impress with quietness and beauty’ and ‘so feed with lofty thoughts’ that she can be assured that even the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’ shall not destroy her ‘cheerful faith’.

Wordsworth, therefore, presents nature from a number of perspectives.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress in the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore mental health.  It can teach us lessons about our humanity, and it can inspire a fellow-feeling for humankind, so that we too might respond with ‘acts / Of kindness and of love’.

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 Note: You might also like to have a look at ‘Tintern Abbey – An Analyis’ in my Archives for a more detailed exploration of that poem.