Worthy of His Words: Wordsworth 250

It’s the 250th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s birth, and his love for nature continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I learned that April 7th was the 250th birthday of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), I knew we had to tribute his legacy in some way. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wordsworth’s poems?

That’s right: nature.

As we isolate ourselves these days, it’s easy to feel lonely. But it seems that many of us have turned to nature as our saving grace. Nature is known to boost mental health and well-being – and now, when we’re unable to go to public places, a solo walk outdoors can do us a world of good.

William Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Robert Southey professed a profound regard for nature. So what better time to celebrate one of the most famous English writers of all time (and a personal favourite) than now, as we rely on nature to preserve our sanity? The timing of the #Wordsworth250 commemoration may seem unfortunate, but it’s also rather apt. Though events scheduled in the Lake District and northwestern England for the year-long celebration have been cancelled or moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the works of England’s former Poet Laureate.

The Lake District, the region where Wordsworth was born and later lived. Photo: Robert J. Heath

Nature’s offerings are bountiful: fresh air, tranquil scenery, ambient sounds and smells. It’s no wonder humans worship nature, in a sense. In remembering Wordsworth, we can appreciate how eloquently he conveys his love of nature, to which I’m sure many of us can relate. The sense of connection we derive from our shared love of nature provides us with some common ground, as the human experience is an integral element of Romantic poetry.

Interestingly enough, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous work, The Prelude (1799), during a time of intense stress and loneliness while living in Germany. It was intended as part of a larger work titled The Recluse, which was never finished. I think the theme of isolation throughout Wordsworth’s poetry holds some relevance to our current situation, a consoling thought for anyone reading poems alone in their room (ahem, me).

Wordsworth is well-known for his ability to take readers through countryside rambles, using sensory imagery and lines heaving with emotion. His descriptions are vivid but also abstract, allowing us to travel to a site ourselves. Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) does just that. Upon reading, we’re transported to the landscape above the Abbey, taking in the lush scenery and sublime beauty of nature through the experience of the speaker.

Richard Carruthers’ 1818 portrait of William Wordsworth. Collection of The Wordsworth Trust. Photo: Art UK

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), from lines 93-105

Wordsworth lets us witness the scene (and the speaker’s relationship with it) as if we were there too. How does he do this? Through senses and the imagination. Wordsworth saw imagination as a spiritual force. Famous for invoking the power of the sublime – whereby words incite thoughts and emotions beyond the ordinary – Wordsworth confronts the metaphysical, exploring concepts of time, space, knowing, and being. It can therefore reassure us to escape into nature through his words on the page. So even when we can’t walk through the countryside, we can see, smell, and hear it so convincingly as if we are there – through imagination.

William Havell’s painting “Tintern Abbey in a bend of the Wye” (1804). Wordsworth would have walked here a few years before when writing his 1798 poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. Photo: Wikimedia

Why do we love interacting with nature so much, anyway? Here we’re shown how rejuvenated Wordsworth’s speaker feels to be out of doors observing the ruins of Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din,
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too

Wordsworth, lines 22-30

Nature awakens our senses through sights, sounds, smells, and even touch – sitting in the grass, or feeling the wind lift your hair. Wordsworth was a master at evoking these sensations in his poetry, which is why he’s lauded as one of the most iconic British poets of all time – we really do feel his experiences as if they could be our own. In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, the pull of our individual relationships with nature still holds weight with readers worldwide.

I’m an ardent fan of Romantic poetry at the best of times (if you couldn’t already tell). But despite the slant of my own opinion, if you’re feeling cooped up, I encourage you to check out Wordsworth’s poems and marvel at the splendour of nature. Perhaps his works will inspire you to take a solitary walk outdoors, or maybe you’ll go there from the comfort of your living room – but either way, you might just feel transported for a while.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to refresh your mind and soul. In remembering Wordsworth, we can do just that.

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Wordsworth, from lines 134-146
You can read some of Wordsworth’s poetry here, here, and here.
The Prelude (1799)
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798)
For more on isolation, poetry, and the power of the mind to take us elsewhere, check out Adriana Wiszniewska on Emily Dickinson’s solitary lifestyle and its impact on her work.

I Hope It’s a Funny Depression

As the stigma around mental illness lessens, more and more comedies have begun to tackle the subject. We take a look at how humour can be a powerful way to express the inexpressible darkness of depression.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Why are funny people so sad? Sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s a serious question.  Some studies have shown a link between stand-up comedy and depression, with one study suggesting comedians are more likely to have “psychotic traits” associated with schizophrenia and manic depression. There have certainly been a number of high-profile comedians who have struggled with mental illness or succumbed to it. Even putting those cases aside, many comedians find humour in really dark or serious material, pushing the boundary of what’s funny. Is it that naturally funny people are somehow more susceptible to mental illness? Or is there something about dark subject matter that lends itself to comedy?

I can’t speak to the accuracy of those studies and I’m definitely not suggesting that mental illness is a prerequisite to being funny or being an artist. But I can speak to my own experience. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, including most of high school. But if you took a look through my yearbook, you’d see that almost everyone, friend and acquaintance alike, echoed the same thing: I was really funny. That was, apparently, the lasting impression I left on people during one of the darkest periods of my life. So how do we reconcile laughter with loneliness and self-loathing?

There’s a theory of humour which states that humour comes from incongruity. That is, things are funny when they upend our expectations. And what could be more incongruous than a sad clown? A funny person who’s really broken inside?

Maybe it’s that unexpectedness that has led more and more comedies to depict mental illness. One of the best representations of depression I’ve ever seen, in fact, comes from a sitcom. You’re the Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive and, by all standards, awful people who fall in love and attempt to navigate a relationship. In its second season, though, You’re the Worst did something few comedies have tried, let alone in such a nuanced way. Gretchen, we find out, is clinically depressed. Rather than shy away from it, the show explored the reality of depression and of loving someone who can’t be “fixed,” and it did so in a way that was real and heartfelt without sacrificing its humour. That’s an extremely delicate balancing act.

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Gretchen (Aya Cash) day drinks, lashes out, and eventually opens up about being depressed in You’re the Worst. Photo: IMDb

You’re the Worst isn’t the only show to walk that tightrope in recent years. Bojack Horseman, an animated comedy series about a once-celebrated but now-disgraced TV star (who is also horse-man), gets similarly real about mental illness. As does the brilliant musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which mines its protagonist’s mental illness as as source of comedy without ever reducing her to a punchline because of it. Even a blog like Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, published as a book in 2013, used humour and crude MS paint drawings to explore depression. Maybe that’s not enough to qualify as a trend, but I think there’s something potent about the combination of humour and darkness. There’s power in laughing at the things that haunt us.

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Mental illness is nuanced and requires equally nuanced representation (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Photo: Giphy

So why is comedy such an apt vehicle through which to express sadness? I don’t really have an answer. But art is often about connecting with the experiences of others in ways that are transcendent and ineffable. Maybe encountering this particular experience through comedy can help us understand it better or just lessen the burden. Maybe it’s simply about finding light in something unbearably dark.