The anonymous 1798 edition carried an ‘advertisement’ to initiate readers to the poems in the volume. It was in 1800 that Wordsworth penned his famous Preface explaining the theory of his poetry: ‘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.’
As the central focus of his verse, Wordsworth chose ‘humble and rustic life’ as he earnestly felt that ‘in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity.’ The description of poetry as a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ recollected in tranquillity proved to be revolutionary in several ways. It not only espoused the democratic spirit of universal expression, but shifted the focus of poetic subject to ‘extraordinary’ among the ‘ordinary’. In the autumn of 1802, the 4th October to be precise, Wordsworth married and settled down with Mary Hutchinson. The subsequent years saw Wordsworth’s poetic genius at its prime.
This was the fertile time that witnessed his celebrated sonnets like Upon Westminster Bridge and London, 1802. Besides The Prelude, he worked on important poems like The Excursion, The Recluse, and later works like The White Doe of Aylstone (1815), Peter Bell (1819), The Waggoner (1819), The River Duddon (1820), Memorials of a Tour on the Continent (1822), Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), Evening Voluntaries (1835) and Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems (1838).
Besides redefining the poetic idiom and subject of the period, Wordsworth also championed the cause of nature through assiduous indulgence in gardening. In fact perhaps among the British Romantic poets, with the exception of John Clare, no other poet was perhaps more actively involved in gardening as William and his sister Dorothy Wordsworth. The poet’s gardens shared the aesthetics that drove his poetic manifesto as embodied in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.
The purpose of gardening, according to Wordsworth implied ‘to assist Nature in moving the affections’. Besides the winter gardens at Coleorton Hall, the Wordsworths worked tirelessly in developing their gardens in and around their residences at the Dove Cottage and the Rydal Mount. While designing his gardens, Wordsworth discarded geometry, opting for natural alignment of space. The Wordsworths grew innumerable flowers that contributed to a riot of colour ~ daffodils, foxfgloves, columbines, daisies, primroses, celandines, marsh marigolds, wild pansies and several others. Flowers inspired his verse too.
Notable among them being poems like To the Small Celandine or To the Same Flower among several others. Other than flowers and fruit trees, the gardens at Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount also provide a good supply of vegetables that include peas, three kinds of beans, radishes, turnips, and broccoli among others. It is interesting to note that Wordsworth dedicated individual poem to individual plants and flowers in his gardens.
These include: To the Small Celandine, To the Same Flower, Primrose, The Waterfall and the Eglantine, The Primrose on the Rock, To the Daisy, To a Snowdrop, Poor Robin among others. Birds and insects also found adequate attention and this paved the way for compositions like To a Butterfly, The Orchard Path, The Redbreast Chasing the Butterfly, A Flower Garden, The Green Linnet, The Kitten and the Falling Leaves, To the Cuckoo and others. In spite of his intense love for nature, Wordsworth was deeply against the introduction of exotic plants in his gardens.
His thrust was on natural greenery and not on introduction of alien seeds and vegetation. Two hundred and fifty years on, the Wordsworthian poetic legacy has never been more relevant to the modern man. In a world characterised by fresh environmental challenges like global warming, climate change, forest fires, extinction of species and endangering of bio-diversity, Wordsworth’s verse underlines the message of venerating the spirit of nature. Contemplating, understanding and communing with the intrinsic spirit in the natural world, according to Wordsworth, stands to empower individuals both physically and spiritually.
It is the poet’s deep conviction in spiritual communion, as manifested in poems like Tintern Abbey, Michael or Immortality Ode that gives the clarion call to the readers to ‘see into the life of things’ and participate in the celebration of the world of nature. Thereby he calls on humanity to treasure the manifold aspects of the variegated natural world in its right perspective and commune with the all pervasive spirit that runs through all things of life. This pantheistic or mystical dimension endears Wordsworth’s verse beyond a celebration of nature.
Like Rabindranath Tagore, more than a century earlier, he too advocated an educational philosophy based on naturalism, encouraging a child to grow, learn and respect through a proper exposure to the world of nature. Commenting on Wordsworth’s verse, Tagore went on to clarify much later: ‘The poetry of Wordsworth arose from the direct touch of the world upon his heart. Hence its simplicity, which is not the same thing as being easy of understanding by the reader. Whenever a poet writes out of a direct response to life, his poetry blooms like the flowers and fruits on a tree.’
(The writer is currently the Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata)