“Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!”
These are the words of Wordsworth recalling his earlier enthusiasm for the French Revolution. He saw it as the dawning of a new age of hope where all people were free and equal and lived in harmony. He went to live in France to experience the new society. However, paranoia and fear gripped the new revolution. War was threatened. The Reign of Terror had begun. It became a dangerous place for the young English poet, and he left France.
He returned to England a sadder man. However, he did not lose his dreams. He decided to use his poetry to express his ideals. He wandered through England gathering the stories of ordinary people and these inspired his poetry. These were his heroes. He would use emotion and psychological truth in his poetry. He was told emotion was not to be trusted, as many of us were, but he saw emotion as a central part of our makeup. In one of his poems ‘The Ruined Cottage’ he tells the story of how a family was ruined, how the husband deserted his wife, Margaret. She is broken and in despair.
Wordsworth describes her watchfulness at her husband’s desertion:
“On this old Bench
For hours she sate, and evermore her eye
Was busy in the distance, shaping things
Which made her heart beat quick.”
(Ruined Cottage MS b 490-3)
She looks to the horizon hoping to see her husband, Robert, come home but he never does. She is powerless to save her children or herself. This is a tragic narrative to the social and political context of its time. Margaret and her children perish. Yet for Wordsworth she is not dead. She is alive in Wordsworth’s poem. To those who read his poetry she is alive. Even though unnoticed by the world Wordsworth brings her to life and stirs the conscience of his readers. Wordsworth is regarded as the poet of nature. In 1790 he went to the Alps. He was struck by the majesty of the mountains. He could feel his own smallness. The beauty of the Alps, he imagined, helped him touch eternity. This vision of the sacredness of nature would never leave him. He believed that by helping people appreciate nature their spirits would be refreshed. Their spirits would be free. This was also a protest against the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution. The opening line of his poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ show us this love for nature:
“Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”
His early poetry was not, seemingly, religious as such but yet it lifted the spirits of people and it led some to faith. Our appreciation of nature, our appreciation of sunsets comes from Wordsworth and the others in the Romantic movement. They opened our eyes to the beauty around us.
For St. Bonaventure, the world is the perfect expression of the Father. It expresses the Word (Logos) who is the exemplar. The cosmic order is a vast symbol in which God speaks his majesty. The world is a symbol that is meant to be read. Wordsworth would have approved. For St. Bonaventure, this symbolic dimension of all things is disclosed through the incarnate Word of God (Logos), Jesus the Christ. He sees St. Francis as the one who, through his fidelity to the incarnate Word, is able to interpret mystical meaning within the great symbol of creation.
“Aroused by all things to the love of God, he rejoiced in all the works of the Lord’s hands and from these joy-producing manifestations he rose to their lifegiving principle and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself and through his vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is utterly desirable. With a feeling of unprecedented devotion, he savoured in each and every creature – as in so many streams – that Goodness which is their fountain source.”
On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical focused on the environment called ‘Laudato Si’. He took the title from St. Francis’ ‘Canticle of the Creatures.’ He tells us that in nature God has written a precious book “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe” (Laudato Si, paragraph 85). He cites the hymn of St. Francis showing us our interconnectedness.
In expressing our unity, we have a responsibility to care for the earth and the poor. The interdependence of people and the planet is described in the phrase “integral ecology.”
Wordsworth would have been happy to see this day.