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.

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.

The whole idea of national parks, Bate argues, comes from Wordsworth.

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, 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. 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?

Activities

  1. Make a painting of the young Wordsworth climbing up to the ravens’ nest.

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 used 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 Homer’s poem about the Trojan War, The Iliad. The word has now come to mean anything which lasts a long time.
Industrial Revolution
The process, starting in the mid-18th Century, by which factories with modern machinery became the most important part of the economy.
Counterbalance
Something that has an equal and opposite effect on something in a positive way.
Earth Day
An event promoting protection for the environment, which takes place around the world on 22 April every year.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.