Nature as Beautiful and Sublime in Wordsworth
The theme of many of William Wordsworth’s most famous works is a return to nature. Nature, as he describes it, has qualities both beautiful, inspiring love and passion, and sublime, inspiring terror and awe. In Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth focuses on the beautiful aspects of nature—describing the return to nature as purely enlightening and lovely. On the contrary, Ode Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood describes nature as having a supremely sublime effect on a person.
In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth returns after five years to a dearly tranquil Nature scene. He reflects upon the location’s impact upon him and its ability to affect him while both physically present and once he had departed it. The Nature, the ‘noumena’ as outlined my Immanuel Kant, yielded deep phenomena in Wordsworth that gave way to “sensations sweet…felt along the heart.’ The beauty of Wordsworth’s surroundings invokes passion that brings “a motion and a spirit that impels/ all thinking thoughts…/ and rolls through all things.” Beauty, defined in this way by Edmund Burke, is not a result of perfection, but rather a thing that, through its imperfection, can influence the beholder toward feelings of love. Wordsworth’s description of nature as beautiful really embraces sentimentalism—that is, the intrinsic human capacity to feel, thus leading a person to truth. Sentimentalism is most important in morality, and Wordsworth says in Tintern Abbey that Nature is the force that most protects and guides his “moral being.”
Imitations Ode similarly discusses a return to nature from a harsh world, but nature is at play in much more scary way—exciting feelings of terror and awe in the beholder, Wordsworth. The ode does begin in stanza one with an acknowledgement that nature was once purely beautiful while still a child, but quickly with age something in Nature begins to incite danger and horror, and those “things which [he had] seen [he could] see no more.” Now, as described in stanza three, “while the birds thus sing a joyous song,/ and while the young lambs bound” he is struck with “a thought of grief.” This mathematical sublime, produced by immensity or infinity and our lack of capacity to overcome it, occurs when Wordsworth cannot view nature without a reminder that the ‘unnatural’ world is so much bigger and darker than it. At the end of the ode, Wordsworth is filled with joy that he can still at least have memory of a time when Nature was simply beautiful, and didn’t awaken any terror or negative thought.
Beauty, as defined in modern day, is at work in both Tintern Abbey and in Imitations Ode. The latter just goes beyond simple beauty and makes contact with something more unsettling. William Wordsworth’s grasp on Nature as a powerful force in a person’s life, whether in beautiful or sublime context, has made these works timeless. Nature will always affect us in different ways, but always in powerful ways.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th Edition. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson, 2012. 429-433. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Ode Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th Edition. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson, 2012. 553-558. Print.