Written by Meghan Elcheson
for Prof. Shalon Noble
In William Wordsworth’s two poems “Michael, a Pastoral Poem” and “Tintern Abbey,” the spirit of nature provides the foundation for a covenant between humanity and the natural world, a covenant gifted through love and experience to guide and protect the self. To Wordsworth, the spirit of nature is ultimately truthful and thus nature becomes authentic in and of itself. Through the contrast of upholding and breaking this covenant, these works impart manifold philosophies centered on authenticity.
The genre of lyrical ballads relays nature as a truthful entity capable of providing a foundation for an ethical education. Through authenticity, a key term discussed in further detail later, the spirit of nature ties humanity and morality to the land through which we are formed, with spontaneity and joy shaping our moral bearings. Wordsworth’s beliefs that nature is ethical and capable of inspiring morality contribute greatly to his convictions that a covenant with the natural world provides a lifetime of benefit. In “Michael, a Pastoral Poem,” the shepherd reflects on
Fields, where with chearful spirits he had breath’d
The common air; the hills, which he so oft
Had climb’d with vigorous steps; which had impress’d
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship skill or courage, joy or fear;
Which like a book preserv’d the memory
Of the dumb animals, whom he had sav’d,
Had fed or shelter’d, linking to such acts,
So grateful in themselves, the certainty
Of honorable gains; these fields, these hills
Which were his living Being. (65-75)
This stanza brings with it the notion that joy and the quiet scenes of nature yield an avenue for reflection on prior acts of justness and responsibility. Michael the shepherd links these acts of goodness to the land by acknowledging a reciprocal relationship between his actions and the land that sustains him and reflects his piety. In this way, the landscape reinforces and rewards these moral actions through the “certainty of honorable gains” and connects humanity and nature as one “living Being,” in which the authentic and the responsible self is mirrored by the land. In linking humanity and nature, nature becomes truthful when humanity is truthful. When viewed through the eyes of experience, the tranquil scenes of the natural world invoke the solitary reflection needed to access these memories of moral formation. In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s recollection of nature similarly implores him to thoughts
Of unremebered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. (32-36)
Wordsworth speaks of nature having the capacity to be “The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being” (110-12). These stanzas cement the importance of a covenant with nature, imparting that through its retention humanity will reminisce on morality and attribute the betterment of the self to this connection with the natural world.
The benefits of upholding a covenant with nature extend beyond the moral and into the existential. Wordsworth’s loyalty to his covenant affords him profound recompense for innocence lost to experience and allows him “To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity” (90-92). In this, he sees humanity permeated throughout nature, approaching a state of transcendence in which the division between the natural world and humanity becomes almost effaceable. This relationship provides an escape or a freedom from the rational confines of human constructs. Freedom, as one of the major themes of existentialism, arises through “the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self in recognition of its responsibilities” (“Existentialism”). In this case, the law is the covenant with nature, which then requires the responsibility of the self to uphold. It is an agreement to retain the spirit of nature and to acknowledge the benefits of this relationship with the natural world. This covenant in turn helps alleviate
the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d (40-42)
and provides a semblance of existential fulfillment through the “power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy” (47-48) as a way to “see into the life of things” (49).
Authenticity, a major component of existentialism, acts as a linchpin in this covenant. Living authentically necessitates moral responsibility and being truthful to the self, thus enabling an alleviation of existential anxiety. Wordsworth’s covenant with nature is a self-imposed truth. Wordsworth conjures the spirit of nature to remain with his sister Dorothy, and in this way hopes to transfer aspects of his authentic self to her through a mutual covenant with the natural world. In sharing this covenant, Wordsworth reinforces his own personal truth, with authenticity arising through the spontaneity of passionate communication and affection, during which he imparts this covenant to his sister through a singular moment of experience. He invokes this covenant for Dorothy “Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” (123-24). It is his creed that in sharing this covenant with his sister, the spirit of nature will stand as a guardian for her against “evil tongues, / Rash judgments, [and] the sneers of selfish men” (129-30) through nature’s “quietness and beauty” (128).
Wordsworth uses a similar covenant in “Michael, a Pastoral Poem” in which Michael prays that his son Luke will remember his childhood home and the innocence and morality it has bestowed on previous generations. Wordsworth uses Luke’s betrayal of this covenant between his father and the natural world to implicate its importance as the sustaining link to an authentic and truthful existence. The homogeneity of the covenants is apparent not only through shared ideals but stylistically as well. The diction used in “Michael, a Pastoral Poem” during the exchange between Luke and his father emulates the diction used between Wordsworth and Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey.” For example, in “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth evokes the covenant to guard against “evil tongues” and “the sneers of selfish men” while Michael conjures it to protect against “evil men” (416). In “Michael, a Pastoral Poem” Wordsworth uses a “Sheep-fold” (334) as a physical representation of the covenant between Luke and his father, to be Luke’s “anchor and […] shield; amid all fear / And all temptation” (418). These lines mimic the diction in “Tintern Abbey” when Wordsworth speaks of nature as “The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being” (110-12).
The exchange of the covenant itself between the two pairs of interlocutors arises in a similar manner. Wordsworth views Dorothy as the younger essence of himself as he expresses that,
in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. (117-20)
Comparably, from Michael’s son
Feelings and emanations, things which were
Light to the sun, and music to the wind,
And that the Old Man’s Heart seem’d born again (210-13)
These “Feelings and emanations” indicate that Michael also sees in Luke his younger self, who exists in sensibility and stirs nostalgia for childhood’s first infatuations with nature. This reflection of the self motivates the sharing of this personal covenant and furnishes a platform for human connection. Michael uses the sheep-fold as an “emblem of the life [his] Fathers liv’d, / Who, being innocent, did for that cause / Bestir them in good deeds” (420-22) to link prior morality and responsibility to the land. As previously mentioned, morality and responsibility are intrinsic components of existentialism which affect the ability to attain a semblance of existential fulfillment. Luke’s father stresses the responsibility of upholding this covenant and keeping the spirit of nature with him when he says, “do thou thy part, / I will do mine” (401-402). While the prospect of existential benefits is not explicitly communicated in “Michael, a Pastoral Poem,” existential repercussions for Luke are apparent with his betrayal of the covenant and the shirking of his moral responsibility, leading him to give himself “To evil courses: ignominy and shame” (454). This forgone commitment affects his ability to live authentically and achieve existential security.
Through the two similar covenants in “Tintern Abbey” and “Michael, a Pastoral Poem,” Wordsworth builds a clear argument for his conviction that retaining the spirit of nature will enable a preservation of morality and deeper feeling of harmony with the world in the face of uncertainty and existential anxiety. Loyalty to a covenant with the natural world implies loyalty to the self. This in turn ascribes deep meaning to the sharing of the covenant with another person, especially one seen as a younger self. Due to the personal nature of this creed, bestowing this covenant on another is an agreement to accept Wordsworth’s convictions about nature, which feature heavily throughout his body of work in Lyrical Ballads. The idea of a covenant with the natural world emphasizes his beliefs in the beneficial and restorative powers of nature. Through this relationship, as long as one is responsible and authentic towards this covenant, nature will never betray one and will act as a loyal guardian and a means of harmonizing and nourishing the soul.
“Existentialism,” by Douglas Burnham, and George Papandreopoulos, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2016.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800, edited by Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter, Broadview, 2008, pp. 142-147.
Wordsworth, William. “Michael, a Pastoral Poem.” Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800, edited by Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter, Broadview, 2008, pp. 386-398.
About the Author:
Meghan Elcheson is a Dawson student in the Biomedical Laboratory Technology program. She is an avid writer, reader, and a compulsive book collector. Acquiring extra shelving to accommodate the books would be, at this point, a practice in futility. Her current literary interests include deconstruction, doubles, Gothic fiction, Romantic poetry, and speculative fiction.