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Lines Written in Early Spring
BY William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

This week, we’re reading William Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring.” 

The setting of this poem is quintessentially Romantic: a poet is sitting outside in springtime, surrounded by flora and fauna, filled with poetic thoughts. It is also quintessentially Romantic in the tension we sense between the speaker and the natural world. The speaker is deeply aware of the life all around him, a life which flows through him as well; but at the same time, he is conscious of a painful disconnect between humanity and the natural world.
Wordsworth famously wrote, “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This poem is about just that kind of spontaneous overflow of feeling, which for Wordsworth is the very source of poetry. Sitting in a grove on a day in early spring, listening to “a thousand blended notes”—the song of birds, the sounds of the wood around him—the poet is in a “sweet mood,” full of “pleasant thoughts”—and that very sweetness and pleasure leads to “sad thoughts” and painful reflection. “To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran; / And much it grieved my heart to think / What man has made of man.” The poet feels deeply connected with the beauty and life around him; he senses that in some sense, he was made for this connection with the created world. But that very connection leads to sadness at “what man has made of man.”
In the next three stanzas, the poet looks around him, and what he sees, everywhere he looks, is joy. On the ground, he sees periwinkle growing through tufts of primrose, and says, “’tis my faith that every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes.” That is quite a statement, isn’t it? The flowers do not just open in the spring air; they enjoy it. He looks at the birds hopping around him, and senses “a thrill of pleasure” in every motion they make. They are not just hunting for worms or twigs; they are having fun. They are enjoying their lives! Looking up at the leaves opening on every twig in this spring season, the poet says he cannot help but think “there was pleasure there” as well.
Flowers, birds, trees—Wordsworth does not speak of them as unthinking things, objects to be looked at or used. They are beings that take pleasure in their very existence, in doing what they are made for – blooming, growing, living.
In the last stanza, Wordsworth comes back to humanity and the lament with which the poem started. “If this belief from heaven be sent,” he asks, “If such be Nature’s holy plan, / Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?”
What has man made of man? Wordsworth does not answer that question directly. But I think what the poet laments—what leads to that note of sadness in the midst of all the joy around him—is that we human beings seem to have lost that sheer joy in existence which is all around us. Moments of connection with the natural world are precious but they are rare. And, as Wordsworth reiterates, this is something we have done to ourselves. It’s what “man has made of man”—and it goes against our own deepest nature, and against nature’s “holy plan” for us.
For me, Wordsworth’s poem, and his sense of the profound importance of even the smallest creatures around him, calls to mind Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. The Holy Father writes: “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” (12) “We are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.” (220)
I don’t know if Pope Francis reads Wordsworth, but I think he would find a lot to agree with in this particular poem!




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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