A synthesis of Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and “Lines written in early spring” illuminates the author’s understanding of the relationship between nature and mankind. In both his literary criticism and his poetry, Wordsworth asserts nature’s powerful effects on man and illustrates the tragedy of man’s broken relationship with nature. With faith in the abilities of the human mind and the power of nature, Wordsworth finds hope to rekindle this lost connection in the restorative process of poetry and the marrying of reason with spirituality.
One of Wordsworth’s central claims is that nature deeply shapes the human experience. As portrayed in the author’s commentary and poetry, nature stimulates and strengthens the finest qualities of mind and emotion. In Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth explains that when people are closer to the environment, “the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature” (508). Nature inspires and purifies human emotion, giving rise to organic feelings that are “more easily comprehended and more durable,” as Wordsworth writes (508). “Lines written in early spring” demonstrates that this purifying effect on emotion creates an inherent bond between mankind and the natural world. The poem reads, “To her fair works did nature link/ The human soul that through me ran” (5-6). The intrinsic beauty and pleasure in nature directly transforms one’s spiritual core. Emphasizing this influential power, Wordsworth imbues holy significance to man’s relationship with nature. To be inspired and shaped by nature is fundamental in God’s creation of mankind. The speaker of “Lines written in early spring” finds only pleasure and joy in nature. He concludes that his faith in nature’s power is his fate in God’s plan, as in the words, “If I these thoughts may not prevent,/ If such be of my creed the plan” (22-23). Wordsworth reveals the need for a bond with nature, but this relationship is not currently in tact.
“Lines written in early spring” underlines the brokenness of man’s relationship with nature. The poem’s diction illustrates a contrast between the state of mankind and the state of nature. By juxtaposing the two, Wordsworth demonstrates man’s dissonance with the natural world. Every word in the poem that describes nature is positive, while every word that describes the speaker’s thoughts is negative. In this way, the author directly contrasts nature and man. Wordsworth writes in a very essentializing manner, employing unspecific, general terms to explain complex emotions. For example, “pleasant” and “sad” are incredibly broad in the verse, “In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts/ Bring sad thoughts to the mind” (3-4). The importance in the words “pleasant” and “sad” is not in the specificity of their meanings but in their direct opposition to each other. This contrast represents the painful disharmony between nature and man. Sensing beauty and joy in nature, the speaker of the poem grieves over man’s damaged connection to nature’s beneficial influence.
The brokenness of this relationship is also evident in the rhythm and rhyme of the two opening stanzas:
I heard a thousand blended notes
While in a grove I sat reclined
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran,
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man. (1-9)
The first three lines in these stanzas discuss the state of nature. These lines have four stresses, creating a quick, lively rhythm that echoes the joy of springtime. The fourth lines in both stanzas, which disclose the speaker’s thoughts, have only three stresses. The rhythmic change feels slow and heavy. Readers sense the tragic discord between nature and mankind. Additionally, rhymes in the first stanza reveal a disunity between nature and men. The poem is set in an ABAB rhyme scheme, but Wordsworth’s tense rhyming in the opening verses signals that there is not perfect harmony. Line 1, “I heard a thousand blended notes,” just barely rhymes with line 3, “In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts.” This imperfect rhyme illustrates the speaker’s imperfect relationship with nature—his thoughts and nature’s sounds are not completely in tune.
Wordsworth asserts that this broken relationship is a human fault, brought about by man’s actions. The author shows that men could be joyous and bond with nature. Instead, people choose to detach from the natural world, which prevents true pleasure. The repeated verse in “Lines written in early spring” places blame on mankind for their separation from nature. The speaker mourns, “And much it grieved my heart to think/ What man has made of man” (7-8). The brokenness of mankind’s relationship with nature is purely man-made. Union with nature is part of the divine plan, so men sin against God’s will by withdrawing from nature.
Urbanization, city life, and wars are modern phenomena that Wordsworth blames for mankind’s separation from nature. Wordsworth delves into this subject in Preface to Lyrical Ballads:
For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events… and the increasing accumulation of men in cities… (510)
Wordsworth writes this passage at a time of urbanization during Britain’s war with France. This lifestyle prevents intimacy with nature. Without experiencing the benefits of nature’s powerful influence, people lose the inherent capabilities of the mind. The loss of imaginative sympathy, inspired by the world’s beauty, is the real tragedy of man’s broken relationship with nature. This loss is a “reason to lament,” as Wordsworth writes in “Lines written in early spring” (23). Men have become barbarian in their thoughts and emotions, not living up to their God-given potential for the spontaneous perception of profundity in nature.
“Lines written in early spring” seems to leave this grievous situation unresolved, literally ending with a question mark. But by synthesizing the poem with the author’s literary criticism, readers understand Wordsworth’s hope for the revival of mankind’s relationship with nature. He describes in Preface to Lyrical Ballads his faith for the future, rooted in his impression of the “inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind (and likewise of certain powers in the great and powerful objects that act upon it…)” (510). The author’s faith in the capabilities of the mind and the powers of nature supports his hopeful claim.
Wordsworth asserts that the poetic process restores human imagination and its connection to nature by uniting the inherent abilities of man and nature. The natural environment is powerful in affecting and influencing mankind. The human mind is powerful in its creativity and spontaneous imagination. Poetry is a method to harness one’s inspirations from nature into a useful mode of expression. Poetry is a source of pleasure, an antidote to sadness and despair. With pleasure from poetry, the contrast between joyous nature and sorrowful mankind that is depicted in “Lines written in early spring” breaks down. Man is able to experience natural joy. “Poetry is the image of man and nature,” Wordsworth writes in the revised Preface to Lyrical Ballads (538). Through the restorative process of poetry, men make sense of the world’s beauty and kindle a meaningful union with nature.
The inherent powers of the human mind are not only emotional. Wordsworth demonstrates that communion with nature is obtained through a balance of spirituality and reason. “Lines written in early spring” emphasizes the words “think” and “thought,” repeating them six times within the poem’s six short stanzas. The speaker feels sorrowful when recognizing his broken connection with nature, but he is only able to understand these feelings through reason. People must employ rationality in order to comprehend their emotions and perceive beauty in the world. This claim is evident in the poem: “And I must think, do all I can,/ That there was pleasure there” (19-20). Wordsworth illustrates that man must balance spirituality with reason in order to achieve the upmost capabilities of the human mind. Both emotional imagination and rationality enable mankind to be in harmony with nature. With this balance, men can create true poetry as “an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe” and “a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man,” as Wordsworth describes in Preface to Lyrical Ballads (538). Inspiration from nature and the faculties of the mind must be embraced by both spirituality and reason. This observation differs from the typical claim that Romanticism wholly opposes reason. Instead, a synthesis of Wordsworth’s work offers a more nuanced perception of his aim to infuse emotional creativity in man’s rational abilities.
Wordsworth’s literary criticism and poetry illuminate his faith in the power of nature and the power of man. The author demonstrates the profound, overwhelming result when these two forces are in harmony. Mankind can achieve this potential through the pleasure of poetry and the balance of spirituality and reason. While man-made distractions may separate us from the inherent beauty of the universe, the abilities of the human mind and the transformative influence of nature will persevere to repair this God-given connection. Wordsworth instills in us a hope for man’s future relationship with nature and, therefore, a hope for genuine inspiration, creativity, and happiness.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Romantic Poetry with Professor Erik Gray at Columbia University.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written in Early Spring, Preface to Lyrical Ballads.”Romanticism: An Anthology. Edited by Duncan Wu. 4th ed. Malden, MA, U.S.A.: Blackwell Pub., 2012. 382-383, 506-518, 536-538. Print