Happy birthday to Wordsworth the eco-hero

Radical: Wordsworth described the start of French Revolution as “that great dawn”.

Was Wordsworth the first ‘green’? England’s great poet of nature was born 250 years ago today, and a new biography argues that the environmental movement owes its whole existence to him.

Climbing in a strong wind to the ravens’ nest high on the Cumbrian mountainside was terrifying.

But the local farmers – who saw the birds as a menace, capable of attacking young lambs – had offered a reward for anyone brave enough to steal the eggs from the nest. So, the teenage boy set off and would never forget clinging to knots of grass and narrow cracks in the slippery rock.

This adventure is a highlight of The Prelude, an epic poem William Wordsworth wrote about his own life. Regarded as one of the greatest works of English literature, it explains the hugely important part that the natural world played in his upbringing.

Now Jonathan Bate (an expert on the poet) has written a book claiming that this connection to nature has had consequences for us all. Called Radical Wordsworth, it argues that poems like The Prelude changed the way we look at the world.

When Wordsworth was a boy, the Lake District (where he grew up) attracted relatively few tourists. But in the course of the 19th Century, the inspiring poetry he wrote about it drew more and more visitors to the area.

Worried that the landscape could be ruined by new railways and hotels, a clergyman called Hardwicke Rawnsley started campaigning to preserve it. The result, in 1895, was the formation of a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty – now known simply as the National Trust.

Meanwhile, deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s poetry, John Muir (a Scotsman who emigrated to America) campaigned successfully to have the wild countryside around Yosemite Valley in California made into a National Park.

The whole idea of national parks, Bate argues, comes from Wordsworth. His writings persuaded people that the unspoiled countryside was an inspiring place to be, and that beautiful sites should be preserved for the benefit of the whole nation. Above all, he taught us to value our relationship with the natural world.

Was Wordsworth the first ‘green’?

Extinction rebel

Some say that, without Wordsworth’s poetry, people would have carried on taking the natural world for granted. During the Industrial Revolution, most were carried away by the idea of new machinery and factories and the money that could be made from them – few thought about or guessed at the environmental consequences. Wordsworth provided a counterbalance at a crucial moment.

Others argue that – despite Wordsworth’s good work – the green movement as we know it has only really got going in the last 60 years. A more important writer was Rachel Carson whose book Silent Spring, published in 1962, awoke people to the damage pesticides were doing to the environment. Many would say that the first Earth Day, which took place in 1970, was the true beginning of international ecological awareness.

You Decide

  1. What is the most challenging mountain, cliff, or structure that you have ever climbed?
  2. Can poetry really change anything?

Activities

  1. Make a painting of the young Wordsworth climbing up to the ravens’ nest.
  2. Write a poem about any aspect of the natural world. Learn it by heart and recite it to your family.

Some People Say...

“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.”

Socrates (around 470-399BC), Greek philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scholars generally agree that romantic poetry, such as Wordsworth’s, seems often to express an ecological point of view. Preferring what nature can teach to what man has taught; finding truth in rural, pre-industrial communities – both of these seem equally characteristic of the green movement and romantic poetry.
What do we not know?
Whether this overlap is enough to support the specific idea that Wordsworth, the father of romanticism, was actually a green. Many have pointed out that while linking romanticism and ecology may look fine on the surface, the comparison can easily become meaningless. Romantic poetry can be invoked to support any number of clashing ideas of ecology – and often is.

Word Watch

Cumbrian
Cumbria is the second-largest county in England. Situated in the north-west and bordering Scotland, it includes the Lake District.
A highlight
“…oh at that time / While on the perilous ridge I hung alone, / With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind / Blow through my ears! / The sky seemed not a sky / Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!”
Epic
Originally a long poem describing the deeds of heroes, such as The Iliad, Homer’s poem about the Trojan War. The word has now come to mean anything which lasts a long time.
Radical
Derived from the Latin word for root, it is commonly used of politicians demanding thorough reform.
Yosemite
The American park covers nearly 1,200 square miles and attracts around 4 million visitors a year.
Industrial Revolution
The process, starting in the mid-18th Century, by which factories with modern machinery became the most important part of the economy.
Rachel Carson
An American author and scientist (1907-1964).
Pesticides
Chemicals used to control pests. Carson wrote in particular about the use of insecticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to kill mosquitoes.
Earth Day
An event promoting protection for the environment which takes place around the world on 22 April every year.

Subjects

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