so true was this,
That sometimes his religion seemed to me
Self-taught, as of a dreamer in the woods,
Who to the model of his own pure heart
Framed his belief, as grace divine inspired
Or human reason dictated with aw.
William Wordsworth, The Excursion, I (1814), 438-443
Job 1, 20-21
Misery was thickly woven into the fabric of Wordsworth's life. Like so many others afflicted by calamity, he drew support from faith that comforted him and gave peace of mind. As dramatic episodes multiplied, his faith grew sturdier.
Wordsworth had lost both his parents by the age of eleven. His mother died when he was eight, his father three years later. In 1805, his favourite brother John drowned in a shipping disaster off the English south coast. In a letter to his patron Sir George Beaumont, he desperately wondered whether 'however inferior we may be to the great Cause and ruler of all things, we have more of love in our Nature than he has'. It was a blasphemous and monstrous thought, he wrote, 'and yet how to get rid of it except upon the supposition of another and better world, I do not see'.
In 1812, Wordsworth lost his three year old daughter Catherine, probably from polio. Six months later, her brother Thomas, aged 6, died of measles. A day after his son's funeral, Wordsworth wrote in a letter to a family member: 'Nothing can sustain us under our affliction but reliance in God's goodness.' In the same year, he confided to a friend that he felt sympathy for the orthodox believer, who, aware of his own shortcomings, seeks refuge in a saviour. But he himself, as he said, did not need such a saviour.
The similarities - but also the differences - between Wordsworth and the solitary of The Excursion are clear. Before the solitary retreated into solitude, he had also lost two children. Then his wife - even more affected than Wordsworth's own - succumbed to grief.
These personal dramas aside, there was another fact that knocked the poet and his literary alter ego completely out of balance. Both had been ardent supporters of the French revolution. When this uprise was smothered in the blood of innocent civilians from 1793 onwards, they became - like many change-minded English intellectuals - deeply disillusioned. Their political ideal and hope for a peaceful revolution in England, following the example of France, went up in smoke.
Faith was not foremost in the young Wordsworth's life. Some in his environment even considered him an atheist or pantheist who equated God with nature. From the age of thirty-five he increasingly turned into a practicing Anglican, but then a constantly doubting Anglican with his own interpretation of the Christian faith. He could not understand the idea that an infinitely pure being like God can find satisfaction in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and accept it as a remedy for our sins. As late as 1836, a friend wrote about him that his faith would not be approved of by either believer or non-believer. Wordsworth was sixty-six years old at the time.
Eleven years later, in 1847, it pleased the Lord again to take. In the summer of that year, Wordsworth's daughter Dora, with whom he had a close relationship, died of tuberculosis. She was forty-three years old. Her death cast Wordsworth into a deep depression that lasted over a year.
Wordsworth's religious development can be traced in the successive editions of his work. All his life, he continued to tinker with The Excursion and The Prelude, trying to erase lines that too explicitly reflected his former One Life thoughts. But despite these attempts at obfuscation, in the later poems, his 'pantheism' kept smouldering under the surface.
On Christmas Eve 1842, when Wordsworth was seventy-two, he wrote a sonnet that he considered one of his best poems. In this he addresses the Wansfell, a mountain on the other side of the Vale of Rydale, which he looked upon from his window. He and his housemates feel privileged, it says,
To watch while Morn first crowns thee with her rays,
Or when along thy breast serenely float
Evening's angelic clouds.
Wordsworth blames himself for never having dedicated a poem to Wansfell, never praising the mountain
For all that thou, as if from heaven, has brought
Of glory lavished on our quiet days.
He wishes that if he and his people are no longer alive - 'as soon we shall be' - his words will continue to testify to how they rejoiced in the mountain's majestic light and found peace in its 'pensive glooms'.
Bountiful son of Earth! when we are gone
From every object dear to mortal sight,
As soon we shall be, may these words attest
How oft, to elevate our spirits, shone
Thy visionary majesties of light,
How in thy pensive glooms our hearts found rest.
In a language the believer uses to praise his God, Wordsworth here sings a hymn of praise on a mountain that appears 'as if from heaven', with 'evening's angelic clouds' serenely floating along her breast. Here it is not God, but nature that exalts the mind. Here the heart does not rest in faith, but in the contemplation of an eternally changing mountain landscape. ►