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Wordsworth's environmental ethics.


William Wordsworth posits a link between nature and ethics that is an important part of an environmental education. According to Wordsworth, solitary experiences in nature can engender a sense of fear and beauty that, properly remembered and analyzed, can lead to a fuller awareness of the harmony and beauty of nature and ultimately to a reinforced moral sense. By examining their own environmental experiences in Wordsworthian terms, students and readers today can gain a fuller understanding both of Wordsworth's philosophy and of themselves.


Thoreau insisted many times on the ethical and moral value of solitude in nature, and in more recent times, Aldo Leopold postulated a connection between experience in nature and the inculcation of what he called "wildlife ethics." [1] Most devotees of environmental literature have felt that some connection exists. The process by which one cart obtain such ethical instruction in nature remains vague, however, and especially elusive to today's students. An environmental reading of William Wordsworth's poetry can provide some possible help.

To read Wordsworth closely is, in many respects, to follow a master who allows indeed, demands--ethical self-discovery from his students. Even as he is recounting his private experiences, sympathetic readers will recollect their own experiences of the real world, a region generally out of doors, where one can feel the kinesthetic influences of sun, wind, rain, and physical stress. Readers who wish to follow Wordsworth's lead should experience solitude, or at least think about those solitary experiences they have bad, and should ideally have experienced some of that solitude in situations of mild physical stress in the open air, exposed to the forces of wind or rain. Most important of all, readers of Wordsworth should abstract from their own past experiences those times of stressful solitude during which they learned to exercise ethical self restraint in the context of life beyond themselves.

Readers of Wordsworth need to be aware, first of all, of the nature of solitude and its psychological and human ecological effects: not only the solitude and pregnant silence of an empty church or deserted building, but solitude in the midst of wind or rain or the movement of nature. Readers in tune with Wordsworth will sense the relationship between kinesthetic stress in such activities as walking, riding, canoeing, or skiing, and a suddenly awakened perception of beauty during a moment of repose. Those who have ever reached the top of a mountain know the feeling. Second, Wordsworth, like any good teacher, encourages his readers by example to analyze the effects of some of their own solitary moments of ethical stress. They come to know what Wordsworth means by fear, and, more important still, they begin to analyze the conditions that promote Wordsworthian fear and the extent to which that kind of solitary uneasiness can lead to self restraint. Finally, readers of Wordsworth can experience at first hand how meditation on past experiences and analysis of their ethical effects can actually recreate the original emotions imaginatively. In short, a reader who is following Wordsworth the environmental teacher will be encouraged actually to undergo the Wordsworthian experience.

In one of his better-known poems, for instance, Wordsworth claims that "One impulse from a vernal wood/May teach you more of man,/Of moral evil and of good,/Than all the sages can." All too often scholars treat that "impulse" as evidence of animism, pantheism, or sensationalist philosophy on the part of the poet. Others shake their heads at the poet's naivete in positing a causal connection between something as vague as an impulse from a wood and a moral knowledge of mankind. More often, readers simply dismiss the connection as playful poetic license, and, in truth, it is a playful poem. Too seldom, however, do readers consider the impulse itself that hushed and fragrant breath of coolness that most of us have actually felt to emanate from summer woods and its effect on a sensitive human observer. Unless readers can identify and imaginatively reconstruct such stimuli, they will be unlikely to show much patience with the poet's subsequent moral or ethical applications of the experience. To begin at the beginning, then, is to begin with Wordsworth's kinesthetics: physical sensations or experiences actually felt by a person alone, on foot, in the open air.

Wordsworth was a dedicated walker, and he typically first experienced the raw material for his poetry while walking out of doors, alone in spirit if not in fact. Often he actually composed while walking. At other times the felt experience of his walk lay dormant, to be re created with greater intensity at a later date. His poetry, in any case, is full of solitary experiences and praise of solitude. In addition, many of the truly memorable scenes in Wordsworth's poetry describe a sudden awareness of beauty, life, or motion outside the poet, perceived immediately after the physical stress of skating, walking, or climbing: a startling change in orientation from inward to outward, from numb, blank concentration on climbing, for instance, to the breathtaking awareness that the moon is shining on a sea of clouds and the islands of distant mountain peaks (Prelude, XIV, 1 62), or from a cloud like, ethereal loneliness detached from the life of the earth to an awareness of and ultimately a participation in the earth bound life and motion of a host of wind tossed daffodils beside the dancing waves of a lake ("I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud").

The truly memorable experiences Wordsworth describes the daffodils, the "female and her garments vexed and tossed/ By the strong wind" (Prelude, XII, 260 261), or the ascent of Snowdon were fortuitous conjunctions of scenes and a mind receptive to such scenes; but Wordsworth also sought to promote such experience. That is, he sought an environment conducive to such experience. He took long walking tours up the Wye Valley, through the Alps, Scotland, and the Peak District, and he regularly walked or climbed long distances in wind, rain, and bad weather. He rejoiced in the "bleak season ... turbulent and wild" and in the "frosty wind" as he traveled to take possession of Dove Cottage for the first time. He remembered the sweet song of the wren at Furness Abbey, even though (or perhaps because) "the earth was comfortless, and touched by faint/Internal breezes" (Prelude, II, 121 122). He recalled the time when, back home for his summer vacation, he had left the house on a bleak evening after sundown when the air was "cold and raw ... and untuned," conditions conducive, apparently, to his sought experience: "Gently did my soul/Put off her veil, and, self muted, stood/Naked, as in the presence of her God" (Prelude, IV, 145 152). Dorothy claimed, in fact, that Wordsworth actually delighted in winter winds, for "his mind I think is often more fertile in this season than any other" (Letters, I, 547).

Wordsworth's love of raw, inclement, "untuned" weather intimately relates to his love for silence, solitude, and loneliness, and all are involved with what he calls "The Ministry of Fear": not blind terror, to be sure, but a beautiful if chastening awe. [2] In The Prelude, Wordsworth proposes a kind of aesthetic and moral progression: fear and beauty leading to a "Love of Nature," leading in turn to a "Love of Man"--the necessary condition for experiencing what Karl Kroeber has called "ecological holiness" or a sense of wholeness and harmony in all of Nature (132). Fear may, in fact, have caused the first inkling of a moral sense: a perception, perhaps, of a careless human intrusion into something holy, or of a thoughtless violation of a life not ours. We might call it conscience, except that its effect, out of doors in the wind or rain and amidst the ever present movement of nature, is not of guilt but fear. In the woodcock episode of Book I, for example, the boy has stolen someone else's bird. In the context of solitude, darkness, and guilt, the effect is chastening, for the boy senses that, in breaching his own ethics, he has also offended that life beyond himself: "and when the deed was done/I heard among the solitary hills/Low breathings coming after me, and sounds/Of undistinguishable motion." In the episode at the raven's nest, the orientation is somewhat different. Here solitude, combined with the dizzying height and exhilarating sense of danger ("By knots of grass/And half inch fissures in the slippery rock/ But ill sustained"), cause a loss of orientation and sense of precarious isolation in sharp contrast to the monolithic solidity of the crag, the pervasive sense of space, and the power of the wind which seemed almost to suspend the boy and then to blow "with what strange utterance" through his ear. His awareness, more visceral than visual, is of sky and earth and cloud motion the eternal non self.

Wordsworth's third example, the well known episode with the boat, is the logical culmination of the first two, for it combines the guilty sense of trespass in pregnant silence and suggestive darkness of the woodcock scene with an overwhelming awareness of "huge and mighty forms" against an infinite sky. The account is powerful and memorable precisely because the ethical movement is both inward and outward. The immediate effect is chastening, though the ultimate result is integrative in the fullest sense. The darkness of the mountain lake is more open, the scene more beautiful and vivid, and the experience more pleasurable than the woodcock episode, but the ethical situation is similar. This time the boy has stolen a boat. He is torn between guilt and pleasure guilt at having deliberately breached his own ethics and pleasure in the immediate aesthetic and kinesthetic experience. It is, as Wordsworth says, "an act of stealth/And troubled pleasure." The boy's mind is troubled, as in the woodcock scene, by small sounds and "mountain echoes" of his progress. His pleasure, on the other hand, is reinforced by a sense of space and the vivid visual scene small circles from his oar strokes "glittering idly in the moon" and melting behind him into "one track/Of sparkling light" and kinesthetic delight as he "lustily" dips his oars and the boat goes "heaving through the water like a swan." He hardly notices the gray and nondescript sky as he moves vigorously out onto the lake. Space, light, beauty, and freedom of movement, in fact, are sufficient to prevent the boy's sense of guilt from closing in and permeating the environment as it had when he stole the woodcock and heard "low breathings" coming after him. Space and light, however, so exhilarating in the scene at the raven's nest and so beautiful and free now, provide here the means and context for chastisement as well: the "huge peak, black and huge" that "upreared its head" over the craggy ridge and into the starry sky. The sense of guilt that had seemed to close in on the boy, to pursue him, and to alienate him from his surroundings in the woodcock scene here simply overwhelms him. The difference is a feeling of space and freedom of movement: space filled initially with vigorous motion but into which the black and huge peak inexorably intrudes.

Wordsworth's own illustrations of the ministry of fear in Book I of The Prelude are various and progressive, and yet each is a solitary experience and involves a violation of some kind against life outside the individual: stealing someone else's woodcock, plundering a raven's nest, or stealthily taking a boat out at night. In two instances, the experience takes place in darkness; in one it takes place in a strong wind on a precarious height. Each episode, in other words, is characterized by kinesthetic novelty, and each takes place during strenuous activity out of doors. The perception of beauty, likewise felt kinesthetically in the open air, also provides an experience essentially religious, though its effect is integrative rather than awesome. In fact, Wordsworth's examples of beauty, like the skating episode, lack only some sense of a violation of life; otherwise they take place in situations and environments remarkably similar to those of fear.

The experiences Wordsworth describes provide lessons best learned in open solitude, in an environment where outside life and movement, by appearing to judge us, cause us to judge ourselves. Alone and out of doors or, as Wordsworth would have it, in the presence of Nature the individual must assume full responsibility for his or her actions. In the classroom I have discovered that students can analyze their own Wordsworthian experiences in Wordsworthian terms. Leading questions from the teacher in close conjunction with Wordsworth's own examples, can prompt and guide them. Have you ever killed something or damaged something or stolen something while all alone? While out of doors? How did you feel? How did the environment--light and shadow, wind and motion, darkness and silence--contribute to your feelings? Imagine if you had been alone in the woods at the time--alone with your own conscience, the rustle of leaves, the play of shadows--in the not quiet silence of the out-of-doors. Imagine it at night or in a large empty building. Did you learn, or confirm, some kind of ethical restraint? Did the guilty knowledge of your power to alter the world, to cause hurt, or to end a life cause you to hold back, to restrain your impulses the next time? Did the experience make you therefore more sensitive to the beauty, harmony, and wholeness of the world and your participation in the life of the world? Might it ultimately have caused you to be a more sensitive and moral member of human society? Conversely, can you see that failure to learn or exercise self-restraint under such circumstances of solitude might brutalize a person and help to render that person asocial or anti-social? (Even Wordsworth's Harry Gill and the farmer of Tilsbury Vale grew up in the presence of nature.) Can you now begin to understand the source of Wordsworth's reverence for life, those "obeisances of tenderness" towards life, that could cause, in the words of the "Intimations Ode," "the meanest flower that blows" to inspire "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears"?

I have been surprised at the eagerness with which students seize the occasion for self-analyses and confessions of all kinds (as I have been amazed at the amount and variety of larceny revealed in those written statements): a boy who tried to catch a garbage-can-raiding opossum in a steel trap and caught a dog instead; a girl who removed four baby rabbits from a nest under the garage (they died within three days); a boy who shot a hole in a metal boat upturned beside a lonely stretch of river; several boys who shot songbirds with air guns; a couple of boys who had stolen bicycles, and a couple who stole money from churches; a girl who tore up an old lady's flowers out of spite. Some examples are Wordsworthian, clearly the result of having read about woodcocks and stolen boats, and some are not. The process of confession seems also to benefit from the fact that the experiences recounted seem remote in time--and therefore safe to tell--to young adults and adults. Many of the experiences, however, can be analyzed in terms of human ecology, in this case the psychological effects of environmental influences. Again, the responses have surprised me with their concrete detail and sensitivity to environmental nuance. Students have remembered (or created--it doesn't make much difference) details of light and shadow, leaf texture and motion, breathing and running, all of which contribute to the effect Wordsworth calls fear. Because they remembered them, students can easily see how such events were also learning experiences.

In short, through self-analysis and a heightened consciousness of environmental influences during moments of physical or emotional stress, students can learn what Wordsworth meant when he called nature a minister. They can appreciate with visceral sensitivity the kinesthetic situation of Wordsworth's encounter with the daffodils. Once aware of environmental effects and the manner in which nature can serve as minister, students are less likely than before to dismiss such Wordsworthian logic as would connect "one impulse from a vernal wood" to a knowledge of moral good and evil. They are more likely to see the poems on daisies and butterflies as devotional poems dealing, not only with daisies and butterflies, but with a community of life. Whether they believe Wordsworth's philosophical analyses or not, and whether they share his faith in the beneficence of nature, they can at least understand the forces which prompted that faith.

End Notes

[1] See Walden throughout, but especially the chapters on "Solitude" (117), "Higher Laws" (179), and the passage on "the tonic of wildness" in "Spring" (267). In Leopold, see especially "Wildlife in American Culture" (211), "The Land Ethic" (237), and "Wilderness" (264).

[2] For an extensive discussion of the ministries of Fear and Beauty in The Prelude, see R. D. Havens, The Mind of a Poet (Baltimore, 1941).

Works Cited

Havens, R. D. The Mind of a Poet. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1941.

Kroeber, Karl. "'Home at Grasmere': Ecological Holiness," PMLA, 89 (Jan., 1974), 132 141.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, with Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford, 1966.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1973.

Wordsworth, Dorothy and William. The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.

Wordsworth, William. Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.

Charles D. Harrington, Indiana University South Bend

Harrington, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English. His specialties are Romantic literature, Australian literature, nature writing, and travel writing.
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Author:Harrington, Charles D.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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