Source: Wordsworth, William. "The Excursion." 1888.
About the Author: English romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) expressed in his poetry a faith that the experience of the natural environment was essential for the health and wholesomeness of the human spirit. He believed nature was the source of a moral and humane disposition and of sociable behavior. He wrote about his own encounters with the natural world and its invigorating effect upon him as a man and as a poet. He also chronicled the rustic life and the troubles that country people living in England's Lake District experienced during the growth of industrial cities. Along with his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Wordsworth revolutionized English poetry with the publication of "Lyrical Ballads" in 1798. In their poetry, the formal language of eighteenth-century English verse is replaced by the common speech of ordinary people as distilled through the sensibilities of the poets. Wordsworth lived through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and in his youth shared the fervor for revolutionary change that marked the generation of the 1790s. He was moved not only by the call of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, but also by outrage against the degradation of nature and of human values, which he saw resulting from the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
For Wordsworth, the outrage committed against nature was not the result of the advance of industrial knowledge or technology itself but the immorality of "gain," which governed it. When Wordsworth used the word "gain," he meant the force of greed that puts the exploitation of people and nature above a respect for their living spiritual value. He was pained by the desecration of nature and humanity resulting from the way the countryside was despoiled to make factories and the ugly towns that housed people who were stripped of their humanity when they became laborers in the factories. The factories trammeled upon natural beauty, and the workers were excluded from its enjoyment and the beneficial effects that come from living in nature, working in it, and communing with it. However, Wordsworth did not call for the destruction of industry. He hoped, as can be seen in "The Excursion," rather, that people might learn to use industrial knowledge wisely, creating a well-tempered harmony between nature and industry. He hoped that men might be "strengthened, yet not dazzled, by the might" of the new dominion over nature they were acquiring. Eleven years after the optimism expressed in "Steamboats," however, Wordsworth expressed in his sonnet that he was dispirited when he saw a railroad brought into his beloved home country, England's Lake District. He now saw only "blight," "ruthless change," and a "rash assault" against nature and the dreams mankind project onto nature.
Meanwhile, at social Industry's command,
How quick, how vast an increase! From the germ
Of some poor hamlet, rapidly produced
Here a huge town, continuous and compact,
Hiding the face of earth for leagues—and there,
Where not a habitation stood before,
Abodes of men irregularly massed
Like trees in forests,—spread through spacious tracts,
O'er which the smoke of unremitting fires
Hangs permanent, and plentiful as wreaths
Of vapour glittering in the morning sun.
And, wheresoe'er the traveller turns his steps,
He sees the barren wilderness erased,
Or disappearing; triumph that proclaims
How much the mild Directress of the plough
Owes to alliance with these new-born arts!
—Hence is the wide sea peopled,—hence the shores
Of Britain are resorted to by ships
Freighted from every climate of the world
With the world's choicest produce: Hence that sum
Of keels that rest within her crowded ports,
Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays;
That animating spectacle of sails
That, through her inland regions, to and fro
Pass with the respirations of the tide,
… I grieve, when on the darker side
Of this great change I look; and there behold
Such outrage done to nature as compels
The indignant power to justify herself;
Yea, to avenge her violated rights,
For England's bane.—When soothing darkness spreads
O'er hill and vale, "the Wanderer thus expressed
His recollections, "and the punctual stars,
While all things else are gathering to their homes,
Advance, and in the firmament of heaven
Glitter—but undisturbing, undisturbed;
As if their silent company were charged
With peaceful admonitions for the heart
Of all-beholding Man, earth's thoughtful lord;
Then, in full many a region, once like this
The assured domain of calm simplicity
And pensive quiet, an unnatural light
Prepared for never-resting Labour's eyes
Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge;
And at the appointed hour a bell is heard—
Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll
That spake the Norman Conqueror's stern behest—
A local summons to unceasing toil!
Disgorged are now the ministers of day;
And, as they issue from the illumined pile,
A fresh band meets them, at the crowded door—
And in the courts—and where the rumbling stream,
That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,
Glares, like a troubled spirit, in its bed
Among the rocks below. Men, maidens, youths,
Mother and little children, boys and girls,
Enter, and each the wonted task resumes
Within this temple, where is offered up
To Gain, the master idol of the realm,
Perpetual sacrifice. Even thus of old
Our ancestors, within the still domain
Of vast cathedral or conventual church,
Their vigils kept; where tapers day and night
On the dim altar burned continually,
In token that the House was evermore
Watching to God. Religious men were they;
Nor would their reason, tutored to aspire
Above this transitory world, allow
That there should pass a moment of the year,
When in their land the Almighty's service ceased.
Triumph who will in these profaner rites
Which we, a generation self-extolled,
As zealously perform! I cannot share
His proud complacency:—yet do I exult,
Casting reserve away, exult to see
An intellectual mastery exercised
O'er the blind elements; a purpose given,
A perseverance fed; almost a soul
Imparted—to brute matter. I rejoice,
Measuring the force of those gigantic powers
That, by the thinking mind, have been compelled
To serve the will of feeble-bodied Man.
For with the sense of admiration blends
The animating hope that time may come
When, strengthened, yet not dazzled, by the might
Of this dominion over nature gained,
Men of all lands shall exercise the same
In due proportion to their country's need;
Learning, though late, that all true glory rests,
All praise, all safety, and all happiness,
Upon the moral law….
Wordsworth stands at the head of a line of English poets, writers, and thinkers for whom nature and the appreciation of nature represent the fundamentally benevolent shaping forces of the human spirit. They see the degradation of nature as harmful to the quality of the development of humanity. This interconnection between the beauty of the natural world, the rectitude of the human spirit, and the strength of its development is what supports their environmental concerns. In his verse, Wordsworth gave this relationship voice and authority, making it a foundation of Romantic thought. It was a vision transmitted from Wordsworth to the novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) as she expressed it in Silas Marner, her tale of the beneficial influences of living a simple life close to nature. It was the basis for the indignant vision of an industrialism that violates the essential relationship between people and nature that fired Charles Dickens in the writing of Hard Times. It is at the core of the resonant sermons of the late-Victorian John Ruskin—who met Wordsworth in 1839—when Ruskin fulminates against the Industrial Revolution's destruction of the natural world. Through Ruskin, Wordsworth influenced the sensibility of the great Indian political leader, Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948). To many in the twenty-first century, Wordsworth's adoration of nature and reluctant acceptance of a tamed technology may seem quaint. However, it is exactly Wordsworth's understanding of the importance of nature and the limitations which ought to be imposed upon industrial technology and commercial incursions into nature that either guide or underpin a great deal of present-day environmental thinking and action.
Bloom, Harold, and Neil Heims, eds. William Wordsworth. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003.
Miall, David S. "The Alps Deferred: Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass." European Romantic Review 9 (1998): 87-102.
The Wordsworth Trust. 〈http://newsite.wordsworthtrust.org.uk〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).