By David Goodhew
William Wordsworth is one of the greatest poets of the English language. Yet it remains little recognized how deep a debt he owed to his Christian faith.[i] More than that, it was Anglicanism — and within it, the Anglo-Catholic tradition — that formed the poet’s faith.
Custodians of Dove Cottage in England’s Lake District — Ground Zero for Wordsworth studies — have (mostly) airbrushed Christianity from their narration of the poet and his poetry. Yet his works and the man himself cannot be understood without understanding his deep Christian faith. And in a world anxious about how we relate to nature and tempted to elide atheism with literature, Wordsworth’s faith has not a little to teach Anglicans today.
Wordsworth’s Faith Trajectory
Wordsworth grew up in an educational system in which faith was a given, regardless of whether it was deeply held. Into his early 20s, he considered ordination. Amid the tumult of the French Revolution, his ties to Christian faith loosened, though he never followed some of his contemporaries into atheism, and William Ulmer’s work shows how Christian understandings retained a hold on him even then. In Wordsworth’s mid-30s, he returned to Christian faith — and in a far more committed way than before. And Wordsworth’s trust in God, though battered by many troubles, remained with him until his death.
Key works, such as “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” lean toward pantheism. But for the bulk of the poet’s life, it was an increasingly orthodox Christian faith that he espoused. The hinge, for Wordsworth, was the death of his brother John in 1805 in a shipwreck. Wordsworth suffered many profound bereavements — notably the loss of four of his children. It was his brother’s death, however, that pushed him to a more active faith. In the abyss of grief, Wordsworth felt life had to be more than randomness, and he clung thereafter to the God of Jesus Christ. As he put it in his poem “Peel Castle,” “not without hope we suffer and we mourn.” As is widely noted, Wordsworth was a feeler before he was a thinker, and his journey from deeply felt grief to Christian faith is a paradoxical journey that not a few others, paradoxically, have made.
Years later, he wrote to an old friend:
The religion of gratitude cannot mislead us. Of that we can be sure, and gratitude is the handmaid to hope, and hope the harbinger of faith. I look upon Nature, I think of the best part of our species, I lean upon my friends, and I meditate upon the Scriptures, especially the Gospel of St John; and my creed rises up of itself with the ease of an exhalation yet a fabric of adamant.
Wordsworth’s faith was deeply influenced by Platonism — but given how many in the Christian tradition are similarly influenced, it is hard to be critical of him on that account.
In the other direction, Wordsworth’s profound love of the natural world makes him a key thinker for Christians and specifically for Anglicans in current times. Wordsworth saw the natural world as a kind of sacrament. And his profound valuation of creation has much to teach us. In his opposition to railways churning up his beloved Lake District, he was one of the forerunners of the conservation movement. In Wordsworth, there is a straight line between affirming the value of nature in literature to protecting nature in practice.
The faith dimension of Wordsworth’s poems deserves much greater consideration than it receives. Wordsworth studies are badly hampered by their lack of theological analysis. His greatest work, the autobiographical “Prelude,” was rewritten across his life. And as he rewrote it, he made it more overtly Christian in understanding. His lengthy poem “The Excursion” was avowedly theological in shape. And his “Ecclesiastical Sketches” — albeit not his finest work — were explicitly Anglican. Wordsworth’s “Duddon Sonnets” include homage to local priest Thomas Walker, whose lengthy ministry was deeply respected locally.
Wordsworth, Women, and Faith
Wordsworth’s relationships with women could be some way from the Christian ideal, notably when he fathered an illegitimate daughter while in his 20s in France, and then fled to England. This weighed on his conscience, and he sought to make amends. Beyond that, his relationships with women were crucial not only to his poetry, but also to his faith. The contribution Dorothy, his sister, made to his poems is well understood — most famously in “Daffodils.” The poet’s wife, Mary, was his emotional rock and contributed not a little to his poetical flow. What is little recognized is that Mary’s quiet but profound faith was central to Wordsworth’s faith. Wordsworth took time to return to the faith of his childhood, and his faith could waver after that return. Mary’s faith was altogether more constant and dependable. William Wordsworth was no saint, but in certain ways, Mary was. Many male Anglican leaders have had their ministry and faith propped up by their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters. Wordsworth shows this same dynamic at work in one of Anglicanism’s greatest literary figures.
Wordsworth the Anglican
Wordsworth’s Christianity was formed within the Anglican tradition. He was educated by a school and university steeped in an Anglicanism of the less-than-fervent 18th century. Wordsworth contemplated ordination as an undergraduate, and key family members were clergy (including a brother and a son). Wordsworth had a deep love of the church — hence his voluminous but not highly regarded “Ecclesiastical Sonnets.” He had a particular love of the rural church of his native Lake District, held alongside a deep wariness of Roman Catholicism, not uncommon in his age.
And Wordsworth greatly influenced Anglicanism. Harwicke Rawnsley, one of the earliest Anglican ecologists, was deeply influenced by the poet. C.S. Lewis used the title of a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy,” as the title of his spiritual autobiography.
Wordsworth the Anglo-Catholic
If Wordsworth’s faith is underplayed, his links to the Anglo-Catholic revival are downright ignored. Keble gave the oration at Oxford when Wordsworth received his honorary doctorate. Wordsworth knew many of the Oxford Movement’s key leaders, who themselves were such devotees of his verse that the movement drew more than a little from the ethos of his poems. A further key connection was Frederick Faber (author of “Faith of our Fathers”), who significantly deepened Wordsworth’s faith and had some influence in how he edited his poems in later life, to give them a more distinctly Christian interpretation. Wordsworth was not a card-carrying Anglo-Catholic (and cooled on Faber once the latter converted to Roman Catholicism), but was significantly influenced by the movement.
William Wordsworth is a great example of how faith (including Anglican faith) is often airbrushed out of the lives of great writers. On the Dove Cottage website, the main reference to faith is an attack on clerical corruption. It would be impossible to discern from Dove Cottage — as it would be from the syllabi of many American liberal arts courses — just how important Christian faith was to Wordsworth. Yet it was.
Dove Cottage in Grasmere is, rightly, the epicenter of Wordsworth scholarship. Half a mile away, the newly whitewashed tower of St. Oswald’s Church Grasmere shines across the vale. It is where Wordsworth and his family were buried. It embodies the Anglican faith that was so influential in Wordsworth’s life, and without which his poetry cannot be understood. The poet’s Christian faith has been all too often deleted from the record. If it can be recovered, we will not only appreciate his poems better; we will nourish faith.
[i] Valuable ways into Wordsworth’s faith can be found in volume three of David Edwards’s Christian England and Juliet Barker’s biography of the poet.