Among my many other vices, I like to read poetry. Mainly, I just leaf through The Oxford Book of English Verse, but lately I have been on a Wordsworth kick. He is a good early-morning-walk-with-your-dog-along-the-James-River kind of poet, and anyone who loved Milton as much as he did can’t be all bad. I have to confess, sometimes, however, that I find myself a bit skeptical. Consider the following lines from “Tintern Abbey.”* The speaker, after a long absence, has returned a beloved nature spot and now expatiates on what the memories of that spot — and the feelings it provoked — meant while he was elsewhere:
. . . . Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is the landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: – feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As my have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
It is the claim in the last few lines that interests me. Wordsworth seems to suggest that experiencing nature — particularly in rapturous and self-forgetful yet exquisitely self-conscious way that he favors — makes one a more moral person. There is something about the memory of nature that leads our souls to “little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and love.” Do we think that this is right? Does tramping through woods, mountains, or deserts really make you a better person? I’ve seen versions of this claim before, but I confess that I tend to associate it with a certain kind of Birkenstock-wearing self-righteousness that I find particularly annoying. On the other hand, I can buy into a theology of nature that sees its beauty as a reflection of the love of God, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the memory of such love would make one a better person. Hmmmm….
*The full title is “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” Writer of snappy titles, Wordsworth was not.