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.

“The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name”

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright known for his unmatched wit and, infamously, for his sexuality, defined what it is to be unapologetically proud.

By Serena Ypelaar

There were no Pride parades in his day, but Oscar Wilde’s openness on the streets of London arguably comprises the Victorian equivalent.

Growing up in Merrion Square in Dublin (which I just visited last month), Wilde moved to London and settled there for much of his life. He’s celebrated as a gay icon, but it’s little known that he was once in love with the woman who would become Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe. Wilde was devastated when she chose to marry Stoker over him. He proposed to two other women before marrying Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. It’s said that Wilde loved Constance, though of course he’s best known to have engaged in relations with numerous men. Today we’d probably call him bisexual, but Wilde considered himself “Socratic” when it came to love.

Oscar Wilde grew up in this house at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Wilde was proud of his identity – and quite open with his sexuality especially by the standards of the time. Yet even he had to hide who he was to avoid persecution in the form of a criminal trial. In 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, a homophobic law in the United Kingdom which made same-sex relations illegal for men.

Wilde wasn’t officially out yet when he toured North America for his lecture series on aestheticism in the early 1880s; but as he dressed himself flamboyantly and tended to push the envelope with his sardonic and witty manner, he had cultivated a considerable reputation. The Marquess of Lorne, 9th Duke of Argyll and fourth Governor General of Canada, even declined to meet Oscar Wilde lest ongoing rumours of his own suspected homosexuality be exacerbated. All the while, Wilde had not a care in the world what people thought of his effeminacy.

In 1882 (aged 27), he watched a lacrosse match from the Lieutenant Governor’s box in Toronto, Canada, and was said to have remarked to the Toronto Globe newspaper on his great appreciation for “a tall, well-built defence man”. While Wilde had no qualms about public displays of same-sex interactions, having once kissed a waiter in a restaurant (and possibly Walt Whitman too), such actions were unforgivable in the formal courts back in England.

Oscar Wilde in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: Wikimedia

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s most famous lover, wrote a poem titled “Two Loves” (1894), which ends with the phrase “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” The line was used against Wilde in his trial when he was charged by Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who suspected the two gentlemen’s romance and abhorred it. Queensberry demanded that Wilde cut ties with Douglas, persisting despite Wilde’s insouciance.

Queensberry: “I do not say that you are [homosexual], but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.”

Wilde: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

An 1894 exchange between The Marquess of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde at Wilde’s residence, 16 Tite Street, London

Unwisely, Wilde pressed charges against Queensberry when the latter left a calling card at Wilde’s club reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Incensed by what he took for a public accusation of sodomy, Wilde sued for libel, but it was this legal action which led to Queensberry’s acquittal and counter-suit against Wilde. Having procured evidence of Wilde’s liaisons with male prostitutes alongside letters to Douglas, Queensberry had cornered Wilde. Douglas’ poem was interpreted as a euphemism for sodomy, which Wilde denied, but evidence was stacking up against him. Out in society, his dandyish reputation and conflicts with Queensberry caused him little harm, but taking the feud to the courtroom proved to be Wilde’s undoing. He was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. His imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 spurred his decline, and in 1900 he died of meningitis in France – but not before being reunited with Douglas for a time.

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas with Oscar Wilde in 1894. Photo: Wikimedia

In continuing to be himself at all costs, Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily brave in the face of so much discrimination. And yet he had to resort to denying his same-sex encounters in the name of self-preservation. He was incarcerated for his defiance of society’s norms, and he fell from public regard. It wasn’t easy to be queer in the 1890s. Society may have taken strides toward equality and respect since, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy now, either.

What does Wilde’s life over 100 years ago tell us about Pride today? Namely that there are still obstacles to freedom, love, and tolerance, but that the LGBTQ2+ community deserves the right to a parade. Not just the organized Pride parades that take place around the world, but the mere act of parading down the street during day-to-day life: open, out, and free, living authentically without retribution. So-called “Straight Pride parades” happen every single day with the simple privilege of going out into the world without discrimination. The LGBTQ2+ Pride parade should happen every day too – because queer individuals have every reason to be proud.

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

One hundred years after the World War I armistice, we continue to remember – and feel – the sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflict. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.

And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?

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Trenches and No-Man’s Land at Flander’s Fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.

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Physician and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.

McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.

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A poppy field in Flanders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.