William Wordsworth as A Didactic Poet or Moral Teacher

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      Introduction: Wordsworth once wrote to his friend Sir George Beaumont: “Every great poet is a teacher: I wish either to be considered as a teacher or as nothing.” His aim in writing poetry was to “Console the afflicted”, make the happy happier, and to teach the people “to think and feel, and therefore, to become more actively and securely virtuous.” He said that his poems had purpose—they were aimed at directing the attention to “some more sentiment, or to some general principle of law of thought, or of our intellectual constitution.” In other words, the function of the poet was to teach—of course, in a poetic manner, by presenting a vision of life and aspect of Truth.

      Wordsworth as a Teacher in All his Poems: From the time of Tintern Abbey, when he first fully realized his poetic power, to the end of his life, there is an ethical element in his work, implied or explicit. His most spontaneous outburst of joy has some relation to moral questions. Throughout his life, he strove to appeal to feelings which were “sane, pure and permanent.”

      Moral Values are Presented in Wordsworth’s Poems: As we read his poems, we are aware of his strong moral and philosophical tendency. An analysis of the poems shows us that a kind of broad philosophical system can be discerned in Wordsworth’s poetry.

      Wordsworth’s poetry is characterized by a restrained yet undaunted optimism. He holds that life, despite its manifold evils is yet good and worth living. The evils themselves are stepping-stones to good. Our virtues are developed through suffering. Man is not alone in the world, nor alone in his suffering, because God is always and everywhere present to protect and support him. Man can rise above his suffering by calling
to his aid his own moral strength and the resources of Divine Providence. Faith in God, and faith in a glorious human destiny—this is the solution of the problem of earthly life. It is a creed full of lofty spiritualism and Wordsworth could justifiably claim that his poetry would cooperate with the benign tendencies in human nature in making man nobler, purer and better.

      Nature is a Source of Moral Wisdom: In his Lucy Poems especially, we are told that Nature is the best teacher of uncorrupted youth. In Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower, we read how Nature took the education of Lucy in her own hands, and became both her “law and impulse”. Lucy under the influence of Nature would develop, not only beauty of looks and figure, but a moral sense and wisdom. The child is capable of feeling the spirit of divinity shining from everything surrounding him. He finds a peculiar joy and peace in meadow, grove and hills, indeed in all the commonest of things, says Wordsworth in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. But as he grows up, the corrupting influences of material considerations draw him away from Nature and God, and he can no longer find that joy. But by recollecting childhood experiences, he understands the immortality of the soul. In Tintern Abbey, three different attitudes to Nature are traced, each with its own special formative influence on the character of man. The poet tells his sister and, by implication, the reader:

Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.

      Nature’s Spiritual Power to Heal and Evoke Lofty thoughts in Man’s Mind is celebrated by Wordsworth in all his poems. In Tintern Abbey the poet tells us how, in moments oppressed by the “fretful stir and fever of the world” he has got relief by thinking of the scene near Tintern Abbey. Nature for Wordsworth held a spiritual significance: he personally experienced spiritual exaltation, when his senses and corporeal being seemed to fade away and he became a living soul in close communion with Nature. He communicates this experience in Tintern Abbey”. In The Simplon Pass, we are given his experience of how the crags, rocks, brook, waterfalls, the blue sky—the tumult and peace of Nature—led him to discern the presence of a divine spirit. Natural objects are symbols and signs of eternity. In Tintern Abbey he speaks of the “presence that disturbs me with elevated thoughts”—a “motion and a spirit that impels” everything and “rolls through all things”. He tries to communicate in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality how the most trivial of natural objects is fraught with moral significance:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

      Nature can Guide us in Our behavior: People have become thoughtless and arrogant, hostile and unfeeling to one another. The wretched woman beside the mound in The Thorn is faced with the hostility of the villagers who believe her to be a child-murderer. They have no pity for her miserable situation, her isolation and sorrow. But Nature saves her from the villagers’ hostility, and consoles her solitary unhappiness. We should learn from Nature the resilience and fortitude of the old grey thorn-tree and the muddy pond, and appreciate the fresh and lively innocence of the child (symbolized by the mossy-green mound covered with flowers) even if we cannot regain it.

      Man should Regain Simplicity and Plainness of Living is Wordsworth’s belief and message in his poetry. He went to the peasants and humble folk as fit subject for poetry because he saw them as symbolic of simplicity and strength born out of humanity and close contact with Nature. In these people the elementary feelings and the essential passions of the heart are pure and simple. Men in cities had lost the capacity to feel. Indeed, in his sonnet To Milton, he laments that the people of England have degenerated morally and spiritually; they were living in a “fen of stagnant waters”. Sordid materialism had corrupted man’s soul. Men considered themselves above “life’s common way” and low duties, which Milton in his greatness had cheerfully taken on. Wordsworth prays for manners, virtue, and love of freedom for the English people. The criticism has its own moral lesson to offer.

      It is people in close contact with Nature who know how to live in the true sense of the term. The leech-gatherer in Resolution and Independence is one such character. In his hardy and wearisome job, he has always been close to nature. He has developed fortitude, courage, resolution of will and independence of mind as he paces his lonely silent way across the vast, weary moors. His words teach the poet a lesson which the poet communicates to the reader.

      Wordsworth is not a Facile Optimist: He is fully aware of the “still sad music of humanity”, as he says in Tintern Abbey. As he grew up, he had seen the sufferings of mankind, and he has learned, not merely to appreciate the outward appearances of Nature, but her true inner significance. The decaying forests never decay completely and finish off; tumult and peace co-exist; joy and suffering are part of life, for behind everything is the eternal spirit which animated the rocks and crags, the setting sun and the rolling ocean. Nature endures and can teach man fortitude and resilience—like the thorn tree. The leech-gatherer had learned such patience. The poet has learned that the beauty of Nature merely takes on a more significant note because he has “kept watch o’er man’s mortality”. Wordsworth is fully aware of the suffering of mankind—as the description of the deserted and seduced Martha Ray in The Thorn shows, or the description of the old leech-gatherer, old, bent double and earning a very hard livelihood indicates. Wordsworth is fully aware that the stormy sea painted by George Beaumont has greater significance than the calm smooth glassy sea that he himself might have painted as a young man:

The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream

      Is realized by Wordsworth to be a youthful fancy. So often mistaken for a dictum on the nature of Romantic poetry, these lines, in fact, indicate the illusion of fancy experienced by youth. Truth is embodied in the “sea in anger, and that dismal shore...the rueful sky, that pageantry of fear”—which teach man “fortitude and patient cheer”, the capacity to break out of an airy dream of well-being which is “blind”, and the strength to bear suffering, as he says in Elegiac Stanzas, for:

Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

      It is not by being blind to sorrow and suffering that we can hope to achieve happiness; it is only after suffering that we can gain true hope and happiness, for then we gain an insight into the truth of the universe.

      Wordsworth A Teacher or Nothing: He once said, “Every great poet is a teacher. I wish either to be considered as a teacher, or as nothing.” It appears therefore that Wordsworth wrote poetry more in order to teach than to answer the urgency of his poetic soul. But this is only one side of the truth about the poetical work of Wordsworth. Though his aim was to teach, yet he was pre-eminently a poet. He combines, as every poet does, the functions of a poet and a teacher. How does a poet teach? He teaches not by giving out moral precepts and maxims, as a moralist or a theologian does; he teaches by presenting before the world a new vision of life. He sees beyond the surface things, and the truth which he perceives and realizes, he expresses in his own way. Every great poet reveals a new aspect of truth, which his contact with life has revealed to him. He finds something which no body else has found before; he discovers a new beauty, a new wonder in the common facts of life; he beholds it with joy and communicates it to the world. This new vision that the poet discloses is not only beautiful and glorious, but provides to us a new angle from which to look at life. It is like clearing our blurred sight and exciting our dull minds. And because the poet speaks in the language of feeling, his poetry penetrates deep into our hearts, and refines our feeling. He does not educate the mind so much as he elevates the soul. He does not teach as the school-master does, but moves the springs of feeling and emotion and thus raises the moral and spiritual level of mankind. Where Wordsworth consciously and deliberately teaches, his poetry flags and becomes dull and prosaic; where he presents his vision of life, his teaching is merged in his poetry, which thrills and inspires.

      Conclusion: What Wordsworth said regarding his wife in She was a Phantom of Delight can be regarded as his ideal for human beings as a whole-firm in reason, temperate in will, endurance, foresight, strength and skill, who can command, comfort and warn, yet having “something of an angel light”. Wordsworth’s poetry reaches beyond the restlessness of life to the depths of peace and enduring joy. It communicates to the reader a spirit of fortitude born out of the tenderness of “the human heart by which we live” at the sight of suffering. As Herford says, “two convictions penetrate Wordsworth’s work: the dignity of man in himself, and the moral and intellectual strength which comes to him in communion with Nature.” His poems are “a series of moral analyses of rich intrinsic value, discreetly guided by an edifying and utilitarian purpose”, as Legouis points out. His poetry can assuage, reconcile, fortify, and “give us quietness”, as John Morley remarks.

University Questions

“Every great poet is a teacher.” How far does Wordsworth’s poetry bear out this statement? Discuss with special reference to the poems prescribed for your study.
Consider Wordsworth as a didactic poet, illustrating your discussion from the poems prescribed for study.
Wordsworth claimed that he was “either a teacher or nothing”. Justify or refute this claim with reference to the poems you have studied.
Wordsworth “has the skill to lead us.....to touch the depth and the tumult of the soul, to give us quietness, strength, stead-fastness, and purpose, whether to do or to endure.” Elucidate with reference to the poems you have read.

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