In a series of articles, I explore competing views of nature in the work of William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin (find the full series here). I have already described Wordsworth’s design which was soon to radiate out from the British Isles. In 1848, Ralph Waldo Emerson is recorded as having paid a return visit to the then aged Wordsworth. Emerson would go on to shape the thinking of Henry David Thoreau who developed a quintessentially American strain of romantic retreat in the woods of Walden.
The American philosopher William James was an admirer of Myers’ exegesis on Wordsworth and, like Mill, said he had been “brought to his senses” by his reading of the poet. Looking forward to the ancient three-tiered universe (Heaven, Earth, Hell in descending order) traditional to an older Christian cosmogony, James saw mankind’s religious instincts as being located largely in the subconscious, its apprehensions mediated by the “still small voice”. regardless of any particular belief system.
A subjective apprehension
On the whole, Wordsworth’s achievement could be described as instilling the belief that religious sentiment had its origins in a subjective apprehension of the sacred. Matthew Arnold said that whereas religion had previously depended on beliefs and assumed facts, Wordsworth’s bold conception of poetry as “the finest breath and spirit of all knowledge” had to gain traction, even to the point of challenge the sole authority of the Bible in mediating truth. Overthrowing orthodoxy, a reading of Wordsworth encouraged the idea that the genesis of religion lay in an essentially mystical apprehension. This was essentially the conception underlying the design of William James. Varieties of religious Live (1902)1 and the German theologian Rudolf Otto Das Heilige / The idea of the sacred (1917).2 Otto, for example, defined God as a fearsome power, something ganz other (entirely different) from the normal categories of human experience – a presence that can be apprehended but not defined in precise conceptual terms.
The Romanian-American scholar of world religions, Mircea Eliade, would later endorse this non-doctrinal definition of God. For Eliade, religion is a first experience: “It is not a question of theoretical speculation, but of a first religious experience which precedes any reflection on the world.3 Eliade invoked the concept of cosmic sacredness, the idea that Nature in its entirety is little less than a “hierophany”. Wordsworth undoubtedly played a determining role in the evolution of this conception in European and North American thought since his poetry has the irresistible effect of resacralizing what was already beginning in his time to become a desacralized world.
Next“The Apotheosis of William Wordsworth.”
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience  edited by Martin E. Marty (London: Penguin, 1982).
- Rodolphe Otto, The idea of the sacredtrans J. Harvey (Oxford: OUP), 1958.
- Mircea Eliade, The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion  (New York: Harcourt, 1968) p. 21.