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Book Chapter

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Nature and the Environment


William Wordsworth is perhaps the romantic poet most often described as a "nature" writer. From his earliest poems describing places in the 1780s to his final poems (written when he was almost eighty years old), Wordsworth paid careful attention to the details of the nonhuman world in almost all of his poems and prose writings. What the word "nature" meant to Wordsworth, however, is not a simple matter. Wordsworth was a careful naturalist, always paying close attention to the physical environment that surrounded him: animals, plants, landscape, and weather. At the same time, he was a thoughtful literary artist, who described the "mind of Man" as "My haunt, and the main region of my song" (Home at Grasmere," lines 989-90; later, "Prospectus" to The Excursion, lines 40-41). So, does the poet objectively describe the details of his natural environment, or does he subjectively shape those sensory experiences into a unity in his mind? He does both, since the human mind, in Wordsworth's view, is "creator and receiver both" (Prelude [1850] Book 2, line 258), taking in the details of the world around him, but then shaping those details into his own mental creations. This helps to explain how he has played such an important role in recent years in the development of "environmental literature." In Wordsworth's masterful language, a simple poem abut daffodils can become a significant lesson about the operations of memory and the powers of the human mind. His long poems The Prelude and The Excursion trace the growth of the mind amid the powerful influences of the natural world -- mountains, lakes, forests, and sky -- and suggest how the operations of the mind in nature produce many of the most valuable aspects of each person: memory, imagination, and sympathy. HIs career as a poet also came to embody the nature writer as a wider cultural influence, much like Henry David Thoreau would do later in America.


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