Literary England II: The Wordsworth-Lewis Link

Prior to my recent England trip with students, the only time I can recall reading English poet William Wordsworth was in one of our sessions in preparation for the trip.

For today’s blog post, I was simply going to include Wordsworth as one of three authors whose homes we visited.

Then, just yesterday, as I was doing more research on him, I discovered a stronger connection with C. S. Lewis than I had imagined. I decided Wordsworth needed a post of his own, especially as I wanted to put a spotlight on that connection.

For eight of Wordsworth’s most productive years, he lived in Dove Cottage in the picturesque village of Grasmere, located in the Lakes District, an area of England I’d never seen before.

Wordsworth’s poems, especially those from his early years, are quite focused on nature. In fact, for the first thirty-plus years of his life, one could say that nature was his religion. That’s why he’s considered one of the originators of Romantic poetry. The beauty of the Lakes District certainly can help engender such feelings. The back yard of his home is a garden with a hill from which one can see the nearby village and mountains.

I knew Lewis called himself a Romantic and that he had referenced Wordsworth occasionally, but until yesterday’s research, I didn’t know how strong that link was.

I don’t know how I missed it, but Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, takes its title from a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy–Impatient as the Wind.” You can even find that quote on Lewis’s title page. Wordsworth’s poem is about memory and an intense longing for a love who was lost to death. Lewis’s memoir also focuses on that intense longing for joy that Wordsworth enunciated. Lewis even attempted, at first, to write his autobiography as a long poem in the Wordsworth style in his classic, The Prelude.

Romanticism was one of Lewis’s philosophical stops on his journey to Christianity. I also read that when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, the fictional tale of his roundabout path to Christian faith, it not only took that form with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, but also with Wordsworth’s The Prelude in mind.

Lewis couldn’t stop at Romanticism; it didn’t fulfill that longing ultimately. He mentions Wordsworth in Surprised by Joy, and in chapter XI, “Check,” he describes how a walk he took (Wordsworth loved walks also) gave him a sense of tasting heaven, and how he longed to find that experience again. He realized, though, that he couldn’t replicate the exact experience, but that it wasn’t the experience itself that was the issue—instead it was the stab of joy that he could still remember.

What Lewis eventually learned was that you cannot recapture that very moment; that would be idolatry. Then he said,

Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life. I am sure that all that sense of loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believed it.

Lewis says Wordsworth made this mistake all his life, but in my research I saw that he finally came to orthodox Christian faith and was known as a strong Anglican. I would need to research more to see how that influenced his later writings, but at least one source noted that he moderated his nature worship and brought it into submission to Christianity. I sincerely hope that is true.

The Wordsworth-Lewis link is most interesting. I’m glad I could add this to my ever-increasing boatload of knowledge about English literature.

Lewis: A Warning about Nature Worship

The Four LovesIn The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis issues a warning about love of nature. It’s not that nature is a bad thing; contemplation of nature might lead us to contemplation of the One behind nature. However, we must not be led astray. When we look at nature, we are not seeing God but merely an image of His glory. Here is where Lewis offers a warning:

We must not try to find a direct path through it [nature] and beyond it to an increasing knowledge of God. The path peters out almost at once.

Terrors and mysteries, the whole depth of God’s counsels and the whole tangle of the history of the universe, choke it. We can’t get through; not that way.

What, then, is the proper path? Lewis continues,

We must make a detour—leave the hills and woods and go back to our studies, to church, to our Bibles, to our knees. Otherwise the love of nature is beginning to turn into a nature religion. And then, even if it does not lead us to the Dark Gods, it will lead us to a great deal of nonsense.

These words from Lewis have a special significance, I think, because he himself so greatly appreciated nature. We must keep everything in its proper perspective. Enjoy what God has created, but never allow His creation to be a substitute for Him.

Lewis: Nature Is Our Sister, Not Our Source

NatureC. S. Lewis, in a number of his works, both books and essays, comments on the nature of Nature. Some people, he says, think that Nature is all there is, and that we simply spring out of this mechanistic, impersonal “thing.” Yet, as he reminds his readers continually, how can one even trust that conclusion if one’s own reasoning ability comes from this mechanistic, impersonal source? In an essay called “On Living in an Atomic Age,” he writes,

If Nature when fully known seems to teach us (that is, if the sciences teach us) that our own minds are chance arrangements of atoms, then there must have been some mistake; for if that were so, then the sciences themselves would be chance arrangements of atoms and we should have no reason for believing in them.

Why trust what science (both real and pseudo) tells us if there is no basis for trusting one’s own reasoning? After all, if there is no Intelligence behind our existence, what can we really know for sure? He continues,

There is only one way to avoid this deadlock. We must go back to a much earlier view. We must simply accept it that we are spirits, free and rational beings, at present inhabiting an irrational universe, and must draw the conclusion that we are not derived from it. We are strangers here. We come from somewhere else.

No matter how much “at home” we may think we are in the world around us, there is this nagging feeling, this sensation, that this is really quite temporary, and that our place in it is only a passing stage of what we call “life”:

C. S. Lewis 8Nature is not the only thing that exists. There is “another world,” and that is where we come from. And that explains why we do not feel at home here. A fish feels at home in the water. If we “belonged here” we should feel at home here. All that we say about “Nature red in tooth and claw,” about death and time and mutability, all our half-amused, half-bashful attitude to our own bodies, is quite inexplicable on the theory that we are simply natural creatures.

Even as he stated in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and repeated in Mere Christianity, how, if there is nothing outside of Nature, can we have any idea of right and wrong? “If there is no straight line elsewhere,” Lewis notes, “how did we discover that Nature’s line is crooked?”

So what is the real nature of this Nature that surrounds us? He concludes,

What, then, is Nature, and how do we come to be imprisoned in a system so alien to us? Oddly enough, the question becomes much less sinister the moment one realizes that Nature is not all. Mistaken for our mother, she is terrifying and even abominable. But if she is only our sister—if she and we have a common Creator—if she is our sparring partner—then the situation is quite tolerable.

Nature is not our enemy; Nature is not our source of anything; Nature is merely the creation of God as much as we are. We are in this together.