In the year 1798 Wordsworth wrote a series of related poems which express his strong conviction that books and abstract learning are inadequate, compared to our direct experience, if we are to have a real understanding of what is important in life. He was a taoist in his thinking before the word had probably reached the West.
The taoists in China like the buddhists held personal experience as primary when it came to grasping the fundamentals. Their understanding of experience was/is unlike today’s egotistical distortion of the term. For example when a person exclaims – well I saw this happen and so this is wrong; ignoring the possibility of personal projections clouding their hasty assessment of a person or situation. This way of thinking is often driven by emotional prejudice. The taoist valuing of experience, as I understand it, is one derived from considerable mastery of the very process of experience. It is one acquired from deep contemplation and a sensitivity as to how the human mind can be clouded by irrelevant thoughts and feelings. A person can be prevented from really seeing, with a still clarity, what is passing moment by moment. I think there is plenty of evidence in Wordsworth’s poetry of him immersing himself directly in nature, and realising the depth of understanding that is made available from quiet contemplation, what we would call mindfulness.
The first poem in a series entitled Poems of Sentiment and Reflection written in 1798 is called ‘Expostulation and Reply‘. The trigger for writing the poem was that Wordsworth was asked by a friend how he can sit for half a day on a stone by a lake and not do anything but ‘dream’. Why can’t he do something useful for an intelligent man and at least get inspiration from others who have written words of wisdom in the past. Wordsworth replies by asking why we have to keep on seeking when our senses tell us so much about the world around us. And, with what I interpret as mindfulness, he writes …
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
He continues to entreat his friend to see things differently and becomes more passionate in the next poem, most likely written at the same time.
The Tables Turned
Up! up! My Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double;
Up! up! My Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife;
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! On my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher;
Come forth into the light of things,
Let nature be your Teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless –
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and Art;
Close those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
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I am a romantic who loves science; they are not incompatible in my mind, but Wordsworth was writing at a different time. An important taoist concept is dynamic balance, and that when things get out of balance then forces always come into play to bring about change and realignment. Wordsworth was experiencing directly what was happening to people’s minds as the Industrial Revolution gathered speed. Things were getting out of balance. As he says in another poem, ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours;’
The Romantics, who do not seem to be fashionable today, were like all true artists, ahead of their time, sensitive to the changes and imbalances that were happening in society and the wider world. In Wordsworth’s time Science in the service of the merchant class was in its ascendancy. The Industrial Revolution had begun to realign power in society so that whole new forms of exploitation of working people developed. At the same time more people were seeing Nature only in abstract form. This was partly because the increasing benefits of science and technology reinforced this view. One consequence of the new thinking was the splitting off of the individual self from the world around, it became ‘environment’. A further consequence was the revised notions of the mind as a machine that functions in the head or brain. A further split, enhanced by the scientists’ desire to be ‘objective’, was the splitting off of feelings from the intellect, with the result that thinking became isolated from deeper soulful experiences.
The third poem, ‘Lines Written in Early Spring‘ has Wordsworth again sitting quietly, taking in nature all around him. Here is a sample:
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate 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.
Also that same year, in ‘To My Sister‘ he entreats his sister to stop working, leave any books, get her coat and come outdoors because spring has started, ‘It is the first mild day of March;’. He encourages her to enjoy a day of idleness, with the lines:
No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar;
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year.
Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth;
-It is the hour of feeling.
I like the plea to tune in to nature’s calendar and define spring in personal terms based on the experience of the day not specific dates. I also like the dynamic interplay between nature and ‘man’, back and forth. This poem is less insistent compared to the challenge to his friend to put down books and come to your senses. It is more celebratory and refers to an experience to be shared with someone he knows will like it.
It is possible to get inspiration for a mindful appreciation of nature by reading poetry from the far East. I would contend that there is also a rich harvest of poetry to be found among our own poets that speaks the same language, if one only looks.