The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."


Wordsworth the Humanist .

By Felix Asher.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 161-173

[This is likely Felix William Asher (1869-1922), B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity); Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brighton, 1898-1917; later Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Lenton, 1917-1922. He also wrote "Evolution and the Incarnation."]

Part 1

The word humanist in our title may seem to demand explanation. You are of course aware that this word has a technical meaning in relation to a clearly marked movement in the past history of Europe -- a movement which, under new forms, is alive today. Historically, the humanists, such as Petrarch, Pica della Mirandola, Erasmus, and Sir Thomas More, were men who in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries had felt the peculiar and powerful stimulus which comes from human learning. In order to see what this stimulus is we must refer to its opposite -- Divine learning. It would be out of place here to attempt to speak explicitly on the ultimate distinction between the Divine and the human, the Eternal and the secular, the spirit of the Ages and the spirit of the age. Employing only general terms we may say that Divine learning has taught man that he is related to, and dependent on, awful laws, chiefly those of conduct, to which obedience is due at whatever cost. In its severer form it teaches that humanity can have no completely rounded joy within itself. It has introduced into human life, and by suffering has maintained that austere and perturbing spirit, the secret of suffering, as it is the secret of perfection, whereby man becomes first tinged, then troubled, at last transformed by the Divine. On the other hand, there have been prophets arising from time to time who have felt that human nature though closely related and subordinate to Divine authority, had within itself its own pleasures, rights, and duties. Harassed and wearied by the claims of the Church, these prophets of the human have asserted that we can be infidels to Adam as well as to God; that it is even possible to lavish on heaven the treasures which should have been spent on earth. It is true that in Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this movement of the human spirit towards conscious freedom and the deeper enjoyment of life produced little ultimate good. In our own country, with its slower pulse and less keen perception of the beautiful, this longing of the human spirit in its desire to attain an ordered freedom has a remarkable and as yet unwritten history. In the translucent depths of such men as Sir Thomas More, in the awful mind of Newton, "for ever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone," in the profound insights and cultivated sympathies of Thomas Gray, we see clearly registered, the movement of men's minds among the things that pertain wholly to man, and though haunted, it is unfettered by that larger life which broods for ever over the fluctuations of mortality.

This, then, the delicate characteristic of the English humanist; he has learned to feel the distinctness of the human life -- its sorrows, its yearnings, its wild joys. In another place we may well think of those deeper issues of life, those awful powers which shape the growing life of the widening world, we may rise perhaps to the contemplation of that white radiance of Eternity into which even the purity of color seems to introduce a stain, but here and now, we concentrate our attention on one of those noble prophets of humanity who have looked upon our human nature as the prism which breaks into varied color of white light which streams from heaven.

The true humanist unbars the human soul and reveals sources of definite human joy. There are, of course, higher powers than this in him, but to these our attention is not now directed. He has no quarrel with the saint; all he asks is that he may be allowed to be for a time unconscious of his existence. As the scientist lives by thinking and the saint by suffering, so the humanist lives by admiration and joy. Such a humanist is Wordsworth. He has broken the numbing power of blind reason. He has entered anew into the unwritten tradition of human hearts. He has given dignity to man's senses. He has revealed the outlines and imparted the spirit of the world nearest to man -- the world of Nature.

We take Wordsworth as teacher, humanist, poet. A poet, we may say, is one whose soul vibrates more rapidly, and therefore more consciously, than the souls of his fellows, in response to some deep and dominant influence of his day, and who strives by labour of verse to give expression to this feeling, in order to bring relief to his sensitive spirit, and to excite in others the mood which has been all in all to him. Wordsworth comes before us as a man who exhibited both these characteristics which go to make up the poet.

It is of little use to spend much time in tracing the outward growth of unique men; we may not seize the secret of a man's life by meditating on the circumstances which accompanied it. The physical life, the mental life of his soul, the depth and variety of his feelings may be recorded, but they are in no sense the cause of the deepest part of himself which finds expression in his true life-work. As well attempt to gain the secret of a scholar's mind by a catalogue of his library, or the cunning of the artist's hand by a scrutiny of his palette, as to fathom the depths of a poet's mind by the analysis of his surroundings or the mere facts of his life. Our purpose in this lecture will not be to deal with, although we may refer to, the outer events of his life.

Every great man, especially every great teacher of men, passes through three distinct phases; in the first, he grows into and participates in the ordinary life of his generation, becomes tinged with its spirit, limited by its outlook, perturbed by its hopes. In this first stage he passes through the school to the university with his contemporaries, learns from their teachers, has bred into him the manners of his day.

Then for the finer soul, comes the second stage, when the desire rises in him, not to be spent with the, even the crowd at its best, and he reshapes the spirit, the ideas, and even the manners of the generation from which he sprang. Whether he works as poet, as artist, as preacher, as prophet, he is distinguished by this mysterious faculty of changing what he touches by the alchemy of a new and vivid life. Of this important stage, which terminates, not with physical death, but with the decay of the creative spirit, the unerring record -- which we cannot too closely scrutinize in love -- is to be found in the finished verses, the painted picture, the recorded utterance.

The third stage is the one in which the worker takes his place among the men, not of his own age but of all ages, and, as the children of light live permanently in no other region than the unfolding minds of those for whom they worked and suffered, we mark the growth of the teacher's life, not by years, as in the first stage, not by the volume or even the power of his productions, as in the second stage, but solely by the enduring influence of his favorite ideas over the generations which succeed him.

There are many books to tell you when and where Wordsworth's body and mind were born and educated, the date of his productions, and their first impressions upon his early contemporaries. Let us, today, see his relative brightness and magnitude as he shines in the vast firmament which involves the noble and brave of all ages, and takes his place in the constellation of the "friends and aiders of those who would live in the spirit."

I propose first of all to consider his teaching on some of the greatest experiences of human life -- what death is, and at what stage of human life do we most clearly discover its meaning -- what is the source of the moods which we feel in contact and communion with the mystery of Nature -- does the source lie in us or in her -- what value is to be given to the simple unnoticed life that lives itself out in secret shade -- what are the limitations within which the restless, all-devouring all-explaining intellect of man must work – what is the value in life of the human heart by which we live -- does it go even deeper than the intellect -- how comes the soul to be haunted and yet healed by the dim consciousness of its own immortality? Then I will endeavour to elucidate the central meaning of a few of his greatest poems, and last of all, to strive to feel that the scattered rays of teaching that we have extracted from separate poems, together with the shafts of light which are given to us in his masterpieces, proceed all from one living source, which we may endeavour to describe as the permanent centre of the influence of Wordsworth on human life.

I. In approaching the subject of Death, in the poem entitled "We are Seven," we are stuck with the thought that Wordsworth looks at it through the medium of a child's mind; he seems to teach that we can know a thing by being unconscious of it. Feeling its life in every limb, the child goes to the green churchyard and sings her song to the sister and brother whose bodies lie hidden in God's earth and refuses to believe that the completeness of the family circle has been broken because one segment of it has been rendered invisible. Is there not a deep hint here that life, by its very intensity, renders harmless the dark insinuation of death? In another poem, the famous ode on "Childhood's Intimations of Immortality," he takes the thought a stage further and asks why it is that child, on whose head rest those truths which are toiling in self-consciousness to make our own, should, by its very activity hasten to grow out of the early heaven of childhood into the light of common day? The answer is this: There remains a deeper experience than the child's. Even the tyranny of the light of common day passes from us -- Death is now faced, not ignored, or feared. The years may bring the power that sees through death, and vanquishes it by living in the light of the vision which lies on the farther side.

On the subject of the relationship between Man and Nature, we must endeavour to see clearly what Wordsworth does not, and does teach us. He does not say that it is we who make Nature and fling out of our own souls the light which reveals or the sadness which shrouds. He does not use the beauties of Nature as material for even ideal pictures; he does not feel the presence of a vague spirit disconnected from the myriad influences of the varied earth. No, he has given to the world a perfectly unique revelation of Nature in relation to man. She is his companion -- a Presence prior to and more real than himself, not to be put by -- she speaks to him and changes his mood -- she looks at him in silence and deep joy -- she accompanies him through all the grades of life, and like a wiser, older friend, leads him through the stages of fear and awe into that perfect love, in which, fear having done its work of teaching reverence, dies.

In Book I. of "The Excursion," he says of The Wanderer -- describing his own early days --

     "So the foundations of his mind were laid,
     In such communion, not from terror free,
     While yet a child, and long before his time,
     Had he perceived the presence and the power
     Of greatness: and deep feelings had impressed
     So vividly great objects that they lay
     Upon his mind like substances, whose presence
     Perplexed the bodily sense."

It was at this time that we see him, the boyish scholar, making his way to the lonely school,

          "That stood
     Sole building on a mountain's dreary edge,"
     * * * * *
          "From that bleak tenement
     He, many an evening, to his distant home
     In solitude returning saw the hills
     Grow larger in the darkness; all alone
     Beheld the stars come out above his head,
     And travelled through the wood, with no one near
     To whom he might confess the things he saw."

The point here is the awe and self-distrust which are, as it were, the impress left by greatness. There is no reading into Nature the feelings which were first in himself, for how could a child do this? We have in these two passages and in many others in "The Prelude," the picture of a young soul becoming penetrated through and through with a sense of grandeur of its dread companion. The world, if not realised was yet adored; the boyish spirit, though in other circumstances full of spontaneous freaks of early life, is subdued, shrinks into a consciousness of its own littleness, passes through the impressive discipline of fear.

Let us now see the movement out of fear into love. The passage already quoted is followed by these words --

          "In his heart,
     Where Fear sat thus, a cherished visitant,
     Was waiting yet the pure delight of love
     By sound diffused, or by the breathing air,
     Or by the silent looks of happy things,
     Or flowing from the universal face
     Of earth and sky. But he had felt the power
     Of nature, and already was prepared,
     By his intense conceptions, to receive
     Deeply the lesson deep of love which he,
     Whom Nature, by whatever means, has taught
     To feel intensely, cannot but receive.
     Such was the Boy -- but for the growing Youth
     What soul was his, when, from the naked top
     Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
     Rise up and bathe the world in light! He looked--
     Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
     And ocean's liquid mass in gladness lay
     Beneath him: -- Far and wide the clouds were touched,
     And in their silent faces could he read
     Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
     Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
     The spectacle: sensation, soul, and form,
     All melted into him; they swallowed up
     His animal being; in them did he live,
     And by them did he live; they were his life.
     In such access of mind, in such high hour
     Of visitation from the living God,
     Thought was not; an enjoyment it expired.
     No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request;
     Rapt into still communion that transcends
     The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
     His mind was a thanksgiving to the power
     That made him; it was blessedness and love!"

Passing thus through the sense of the awfulness of Nature into the knowledge of her love, we find him everywhere haunted by the mystery of this presence. The narrative goes on--

     "Accumulated feelings pressed his heart
     With still increasing weight; he was o'erpowered
     By Nature; by the turbulence subdued
     Of his own mind; by mystery and hope,
     And the first version passion of the soul
     Communing with the glorious universe.
     Full often wished he that the winds might rage
     When they were silent; far more fondly now.
     Then in his earliest season did he love.
     Temptatious nights--the conflict and the sounds
     That live in darkness."

He has learned--

     "To look on Nature with a humble heart,
     Self-questioned where it did not understand,
     And with a superstitious eye of love."

We now touch upon an important phase of Wordsworth's teaching. We can hardly call the man a humanist whose mind is holy occupied with the grandeur or the tenderness of that world of nature which seems after all alien to the thoughts and hopes of toiling men. We shall see that Wordsworth's love for mankind grows out of this calm and deep feeling which nature has taught him.

In the 8th Book of "The Prelude," speaking of man's life and labour, he says that, as a rambling schoolboy, he had felt a dim unconscious reverence for the shepherd, stalking up the trackless hills, but this reverence was an unconscious one. Gradually, the sacredness of human life breaks through the faces and the gestures of toiling men and women. Every face is a volume that he may read, every occupation seems to have its place in the noble world of work. The two worlds of nature and of men seem to be governed throughout by one and the same mysterious spirit.

     "Nature for all conditions wants not power
     To consecrate, if we have eyes to see,
     The outside of her creatures, and to breathe
     Grandeur upon the very humblest face
     Of human life."

It is the peculiar decision of Wordsworth, as a poet and teacher, that he brings to bear upon the facts of human life, a spirit which is a true continuation of that love which Nature aroused in him as a child. Living in a world where the child-heart is so soon lost, we find it somewhat difficult to enter into the spirit of a teacher who says in one of his representative poems, "The Child is Father of the Man." Since his day, the instinct towards progress has made us look upon the child-consciousness as something very interesting, but to be forever left behind. Now Wordsworth is continually turning a childlike spirit to bear upon life's problems. Lest this should sound feeble, remember that the child-spirit which he feels within him is a kind of resurrection-life. The child dies, to live again permanently humble and receptive, passionately meek. He has moved about in the world of men, he has felt, in his most impressionable days, the wild hopes of the French Revolution, and suffered bitterly in their defeat; and he has come ultimately to feel that the oneness and the wholeness of life is to be obtained only by the spirit of the child. All wild social schemes, all movements of man's devouring intellect, all the fluctuations of feeling, all ambitious plans of self-advancement are meaningless to the teacher whose highest hope is to be for ever under the kindly influence of Nature, to catch her spirit in work, and breathe something of her harmony. If unity be strength, how much more strong is the man whose powers are united by this mysterious "Admiration, Hope, aand Love," which are the characteristics of the new-born child-spirit, than the man who has allowed his ambition or his intellect to wreck the unity for some private end. Here is a sonnet which he wrote when oppressed by the false show and ostentation of his day.

     "O Friend! I know not which way I must look
     For comfort, being, as I am opprest,
     To think that now our life is only drest
     For show; mean handy-work of craftsmen, cook,
     Or groom! We must run glittering like a brook
     In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
     The wealthiest man among us is the best:
     No grandeur now in nature or in book
     Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
     This is idolatry; and these we adore:
     Plain living and high thinking are no more:
     The homely beauty of the good old cause
     Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
     And pure religion breathing household laws."

Indeed, we may say that his view of the poet's office is that he keeps alive the child-heart, by virtue of which he sees a new world for ever being born. This made him the singer of simple truths and simple sounds. In "A Poet's Epitaph," he writes:--

     "But who is He, with modest looks,
     And clad in homely russet brown?
     He murmurs near the running brooks
     A music sweeter than their own.

     He is retired as noontide dew,
     Or fountain in a noon-day grove;
     And you must love him, ere to you
     He will seem worthy of your love.

     The outward shows of sky and earth,
     Of hill and valley, he has viewed;
     And impulses of deeper birth
     ave come to him in solitude.

     In common things that round us lie
     Some random truths he can impart,--
     The harvest of a quiet eye
     That broods and sleeps on his own heart.

     But he is weak; both Man and Boy,
     Hath been an idler in the land;
     Contented if he might enjoy
     The things which others understand."

We have already hinted that Wordsworth came to the study of men with the calmness and the tenderness that Nature had awakened in him. However difficult it may be for us, as townspeople, to realise the truth he seems to teach, this is his secret. There is one spirit, common to both Nature and man, which refuses to be broken up and viewed as two separate lives. Wherever Being exists, there is this spirit; whether in the inanimate presence of Nature or the animate world of man.

In Book IX of "The Excursion," we have this important passage;--

     "To every Form of being is assigned
     An active Principle; howe'er removed
     From sense and observation, it subsists
     In all things, in all natures; in the stars
     Of azure heaven, the unenduring clouds,
     In flower and tree, in every pebbly stone
     That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,
     The moving waters, and the invisible air.

     Whate'er exists hath properties that spread
     Beyond itself, communicating good,
     A simple blessing, or with evil mixed;
     Spirit that knows no insulated spot,
     No chasm, no solitude; from link to link
     It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds.

     This is the freedom of the universe;
     Unfolded still the more, more visible,
     The more we know; and yet is reverenced least,
     And least respected in the human Mind
     Its most apparent home."

It is from such a passage as this that we discern the deep basis of Wordsworth's view of man. He seems to be like the literary student, who is so penetrated with the sense of the sacredness of the passage before him that he discovers the hidden meaning which is suggested by, and depends upon, the apparently unimportant words in the sentence. It needs no very keen eye of love to detect the colour and the warmth of the epithets and substantives in classic passages; it needs a close student to find the exact part which is played by the simple prepositions and conjunctions. Wordsworth, looking upon the human life as one great whole, says little about the more obvious exponents of its spirit, but sings the praises of the lowly hidden lives which bear, in their own particular way, their part of the actual burden of life. With this sense of the oneness of all life, he sees the increased suggestiveness of common things. He can construct the whole history of a lonely cynic from a yew tree, waving its dark arms near the lake of Esthwaite; from the ruins of an unfinished sheep-fold, "beside the boisterous brook of Greenhead Ghyll" he unfolds all the sadness of Michael's story; from the memory of the light which gleamed on his eyes as a child, he builds his solemn hopes of immortality; from the lonely cottage, with its "brotherhood of lofty elms," he tells the story of Margaret, "one by sorrow laid asleep." It may seem that the world in which we live has its own sorrows and cares and that we need no poet to reconstruct for us the sadness of the past which had best be forgotten. But surely his aim is to give us nobler loves and nobler cares. He wishes to purify us by the contemplation of true suffering. Suffering is to him as much a part of the world of man as silent gladness is of nature, and in the same heart that understands the feebleness of the old huntsman, Simon Lee, lives the memory of the dancing daffodils.

Wordsworth is never tired of pointing out the effect which the development of the intellect has had upon the growing knowledge of man. Exactly one hundred years ago, he saw quite plainly the tendencies towards undue analysis and subdivision which have resulted from the nineteenth century intellect. He seemed to see the intellectual man, losing his sense of the unity of the world, in order to establish the validity of certain distinctions which were, after all, of value only for his own mind. It would have been as absurd for him to parcel out and divide this universe, and to reckon such divisions as final, as to pick flowers from the hedges and arrange them, not according to their forms and colours, which is the human instinct, but according to some botanical laws, the obedience to which might give pleasure to the naked intellect of the botanist, but could not touch the soul. What this age is longing for to-day is "an eye made quiet by the power of harmony" to "see into the life of things." Science, no doubt, has done useful work, but it has killed many of the beauties it has explained. The tragedy which has entered into the lives of so many nineteenth century men has turned upon this fact -- they have taken the world to pieces and they cannot put it back together again; they have lost in peace what they have gained in power; and science, alone, has led man to that perilous attitude -- or shall we call it that place in the abyss? -- where it has come to view all the facts "in disconnection dead and spiritless," and in its depths, conscious of nothing but its own relentless power. Here comes in Wordsworth's doctrine of the "human heart by which we live." Spite of the endless agitation of the sons of men, the wild fluctuations of nature, the sadness and the failure of our own lot, there is yet possible a restoration of the soul of man into harmony with itself, with nature, and with GOD. Just as the inland child puts to his ear a smooth-lipped shell and hears in it the echoes of the far-off sea whence it came, so the humble mind of man, putting the ear of faith to the great globe itself, can hear, as at twilight, the subtler murmurings of the whole world of nature and of man, and through them, become conscious of that central peace in which these agitations die away.

     "I have seen
     A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
     Of inland ground, applying to his hear
     The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
     To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
     Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
     Brightened with joy; from whom within were heard
     Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
     Mysterious union with its native sea.
     Even such a shell the universe itself
     Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
     I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
     Authentic tidings of invisible things;
     Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
     And central peace, subsisting at the heart
     Of endless agitation.

We now come to Wordsworth's teaching on the subject of Immortality. We shall see how closely connected his teaching is here with what has already gone before. He does not analyse the soul, as Plato does, to assert its indestructibility or its separateness from the body; he does not argue as an evolutionist might be supposed to do, from the ground that progress in the past indicates endless progress in the future; what he does is this: he shows that, when children, the cloud of infancy is wrapped around us, in order that the Divine spirit may hold undisturbed communion with the dawning mind. It is because of this unconscious communion with the divine that the mysterious glory and gleam are seen in early days. As conscious life develops, this little unity within the life is broken up, and the man, on finding his various powers developing, becomes distracted, divided, led here and there by different objects of desire. Then comes the real work of life; to win once more a harmony for the soul. Slowly and surely, meditated action binds together the scattered parts of a man and brings him consciously, and with pain, to feel anew, and with humbler hope, the happy harmony which he had cast away -- the deeper for its loss. Wordsworth's intimations of immortality therefore, are derived, not from argument, not from any quality which belongs to his more developed life, but simply from the recollection of the unconscious heaven of childhood, "which having been must ever be." You will notice that there is a profound assumption in this that we are to live on, not by virtue of any special development of power here which distinguishes us from our fellows, but only in so far as we are able to keep or regain the spirit of the child's undivided life, and we seem to hear in Wordsworth's teaching on this head, which gives, one might almost say, the humanist's view of immortality, a grand reverberation of that eternal truth, "Except ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

(To be continued.)

Typed by Primeperiwinkle, March, 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023