Much has been written on Wordsworth’s (1770–1850) theological position and religious life, yet little has appeared specifically addressing his engagement with the Bible. There are important discussions in Geoffrey Hartman (1971) on Wordsworthian apocalypse, M. H. Abrams (1971) on his adaptation of biblical figures and narrative structures, and Edwin Stein (1988) on his biblical allusions. All three works are discussed and developed by Deeanne Westbrook in Wordsworth’s Biblical Ghosts (2001). Rather than survey these works, my aim in what follows is to give a sense of the range of Wordsworth’s biblical engagement, moving from the more direct to the more subtle, which is also the more powerful and rewarding.
To begin with the more direct: a contemporary of Wordsworth gives an account of “a plan suggested by Wordsworth, for the revision of the authorised version of the Bible.” We are told that Wordsworth’s general view was that the Authorized Version “was made at the happy juncture when our language had attained adequate expansion and flexibility, and […] its idiomatic strength was unimpaired by excess of technical distinctions and conventional refinements.” Wordsworth “was satisfied, too” with “its faithfulness in rendering not only the words but the style, the strength, and the spirit and the character of the original records,” and although he wished to leave “undisturbed the sacred associations which to the feelings of aged Christians belonged to the ipsissima verba which had been their support under the trials of life,” “he did not think that plain mistakes in the translation of the Bible, or obsolete words, or renderings commonly misunderstood, should be perpetually handed down in our authorised version of the volume of inspiration” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 3, pp. 471–472). We also know—from Wordsworth himself—his views on the Bible Society: that distributing Bibles is a “good thing,” but that “as to the indirect benefits expected from it, as producing a golden age of unanimity among Christians, all that [is] fume and emptiness; nay, far worse.” This, he argues, is because “discord and artifice, and pride and ambition, would be fostered by such an approximation and unnatural alliance of sects” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 3, p. 264).
As these examples indicate, Wordsworth is willing to express forthright opinions about the translation and distribution of the Bible, yet he does not extend this treatment to its content. Why not? It is not indifference, given his claim that without “the truths of the Gospel” our existence would be “an insupportable mystery to the thinking mind” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 3, p. 297). Rather it is because of his concern with the ways in which we engage with the Bible: he discerns a critical difference between an intellectual (judgmental, doctrinal, catechismal, historical) engagement and an affective, imaginative, practical one.
This is a distinction present through several different aspects of his work (as I will show), but it is expressed most directly and fully in his lifelong discussion of education. “Religious instruction,” he argues, is “the most important of all,” yet it is “too often given with reference, less to the affections, to the imagination, and to the practical duties, than to subtile distinctions in points of doctrine, and to facts in scripture history, of which a knowledge may be brought out by a catechetical process” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 1, p. 354).
“Human learning,” moreover, “as far as it tends to breed pride and self-estimation (and that it requires constant vigilance to counteract this tendency we must all feel), is against the spirit of the Gospel” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 1, pp. 344–345). Wordsworth trusts instead—to use Keats’s phrase—to “the holiness of the Heart’s affections.” Hence he approvingly recalls the Reverend Robert Walker reading lessons to the congregation “with impassioned emphasis, frequently drawing tears from his hearers, and leaving a lasting impression upon their minds” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 3, pp. 114–115).
In short, the truth of the Bible is not, for Wordsworth, underwritten by abstract philosophical or doctrinal validations that it is God’s word, but by its affective power. As he puts it in the Essays upon Epitaphs, “revelation coincides” with our “communications with our internal Being,” “and has through that coincidence alone (for otherwise it could not possess it) a power to affect us” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 2, p. 29).
Wordsworth considers the affective power of the Bible to be greater even than that of Classical literature. He writes that the “grand store-houses of enthusiastic and meditative Imagination, of poetical, as contradistinguished from human and dramatic Imagination, are the prophetic and lyrical parts of the Holy Scriptures, and the works of Milton; […] I select these writers in preference to those of ancient Greece and Rome, because the anthropomorphitism of the Pagan religion subjected the minds of the greatest poets in those countries too much to the bondage of definite form; from which the Hebrews were preserved by their abhorrence of idolatry” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 2, p. 139).
In the light of such claims, one might expect Wordsworth’s poetry to provide an extended engagement with the great biblical narratives. Yet despite one or two isolated instances (such as the celebrated New Jerusalem vision of The Excursion, ii, 859–916 in The Poems of William Wordsworth), his poetry does not offer the sorts of sustained biblical reimaginings found among contemporary works such as Blake’s The Book of Urizen, Byron’s Cain, and Felicia Hemans’s Sonnets on Female Characters of Scripture. Even in his prose, there is little direct discussion of individual figures or books in the Bible. In 1845 Wordsworth gave his views on “Paul and David” as “the two Shakespearian characters in the Bible; both types, as it were, of human nature in its strength and its weakness” (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 3, p. 455), but such comments are rare.
So where is the Bible in his work? As an object (rather than through textual allusion), the Bible appears occasionally in his dramatic and historical works: “And thus, in arms, a zealous Band / […] tore the book of Prayer,— / And trod the Bible beneath their feet” (The White Doe of Rylstone, 716–721 in The Poems of William Wordsworth); “With promises the Hebrew Scriptures teem: / I felt the invitation […] / the glowing phrase / Of ancient Inspiration serving me” (The Excursion, iii, 767–771). It also serves as a part of the record of parochial rural life found throughout Wordsworth’s poetry: the pedlar who “learned to read / His bible in a school that stood alone” (“The Ruined Cottage,” 54–55 in The Poems of William Wordsworth); Wordsworth’s guardian who “read / Her Bible on the Sunday afternoons; / And lov’d the book, […] / And made of it a pillow for her head (The Prelude, iv, 218–221 in The Poems of William Wordsworth); the burial rites accompanied by “the Psalmist’s mournful plaint, / And that most awful scripture which declares / We shall […] all be changed!” (The Excursion, ii, 603–605).
Wordsworth knew this biblically inflected rural life intimately, describing it in a letter of 1808 as follows:
"The labouring man in agriculture […] goes home from the field, or the barn, and within and about his own house he finds a hundred little jobs which furnish him with a change of employment which is grateful and profitable; then comes supper, and bed. This for week-days. For sabbaths, he goes to church with us often or mostly twice a day; on coming home, some one turns to the Bible, finds the text, and probably reads the chapter whence it is taken, or perhaps some other; and in the afternoon the master or mistress frequently reads the Bible, if alone; and on this day the mistress of the house almost always teaches the children to read, or as they express it, hears them a lesson; […] This kind of life [ …] is much more intellectual than a careless observer would suppose. One of our neighbours, who lives as I have described, was yesterday walking with me [and] I cannot but think that this man, without being conscious of it, has had many devout feelings connected with the appearances which have presented themselves to him in his employment as a shepherd, and that the pleasure of his heart at that moment was an acceptable offering to the Divine Being." (Wordsworth, 1876, Vol. 1, pp. 335–336)
The Bible here is part of a seamlessly integrated life, the religious aspect of which is grounded not in dogma but in a natural and spontaneous religious sensibility (the shepherd’s affective “pleasure” in the natural world, standing as an “offering” to God). It is unsurprising then that Wordsworth presents the natural world as a second Bible to be read alongside the scriptures: “the great God of Nature has mercifully spread out His Bible everywhere; the common sunshine, green fields, the blue sky, the shining river, are everywhere to be met with in this country” (1876, Vol. 3, p. 448).
It was Wordsworth’s self-appointed task to translate this “Bible of the Universe” into poetry, drawing on “the innumerable analogies and types of infinity” and “the countless awakenings to noble aspiration” offered by the natural world “to the ear of the intelligent, as it lies open to the eyes of the humble-minded” (Wordsworth, 1967, Vol. 3, p. 188). In these ways, his relationship to the Bible is continuous with his wider poetic project of attempting to fruitfully interrelate our affective and intellectual lives—in his terms, “feeling” and “judgment”—such that the former is not made subordinate to the latter. Throughout his major writings Wordsworth follows this interrelationship through the contexts of natural and cultivated forms of environment, of language, and of community. His hope is that scripture, the Bible of nature, and his own poetry will each play a role in this affective education.
Wordsworth also writes directly about the interplay of these factors in his own life. In a letter of 1825 he describes how friendship, the contemplation of the natural world, and meditation on the scriptures combine to give rise to a “natural” creed that he directly contrasts with the world of the “theologians” who “puzzle their heads about dogmas”:
"I never had a higher relish for the beauties of Nature than during this spring, nor enjoyed myself more. What manifold reason, my dear Sir George, have you and I to be thankful to Providence! Theologians may puzzle their heads about dogmas as they will, the religion of gratitude cannot mislead us. Of that we are sure, and Gratitude is the handmaid to Hope, and hope the harbinger of Faith. I look abroad upon Nature, I think of the best part of our species, I lean upon my friends, and I meditate upon the Scriptures, especially the Gospel of St. John; and my creed rises up of itself with the ease of an exhalation, yet a Fabric of adamant. God bless you, my ever dear friend." (Wordsworth, 1967, Vol. 4, p. 351)
Clearly expressed as this may be, there is no simple translation of such an outlook into poetry. Take the account of Wordsworth’s nocturnal ascent of Snowdon that provides the climax to The Prelude. Initially, Wordsworth’s way up the mountain is shrouded in mist, a counterpart to the resurgent “blank confusion” that besets the poem, yet as he approaches the summit—and without warning—“a Light upon the turf” falls “like a flash” (xiii, 39–40). Wordsworth steps out of the cloud into the clear light, which marks the opening of a vision that harmonizes the dualities that have troubled the poem, while simultaneously invoking Paul’s illumination on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3).
The biblical allusion is typical of Wordsworth: it is reticent, transient, and only a single facet of a diaphanous cluster of images of light that have suffused the poem. Its meaning is not self-contained, but is informed by the larger narrative context of the poem whereby Wordsworth has fallen from the divine intuitions of childhood into a judging, punitive, egotistical adult existence, preferring to “to sit in judgement than to feel” (xi, 137), and thereby becoming “A Bigot to a new Idolatry” “Zealously labour[ing] to cut off my heart” (xi, 75–77). “Zealous” is also Paul’s self-description in Acts 22:3, a man who had likewise lived a judging, punitive, egotistical existence, until God in turn had called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?” The illumination on Snowdon becomes not just a moment of divine revelation, but also one of self-revelation: Wordsworth is not only Paul the Apostle, he is also Saul of Tarsus.
This is only one of the many points at which The Prelude and the Bible touch and fuse, but—as might be expected from the foregoing discussion—such moments do not bear a meaning beyond the text itself: they carry no doctrinal message that is separable from or that sits over and above the poetic experience. Wordsworth is not attempting to ratify the Bible, but instead finds its truths made incarnate in the progress and regress of human lives.
The consequent undogmatic character of his verse has perplexed readers who have looked there for more explicit “Christianity,” but this perplexity is conterminous with the expectation that literature could be a rational extension of a Bible that is itself primary litigious or doctrinal. That, of course, is just what Wordsworth contests. He is perennially concerned with our unreflective cultural readiness—in all kinds of contexts—to subordinate human feeling to the judgments of reason.
This is no denigration of reason, nor of the rationalizations of dogma or law, but constitutes an attempt to reincarnate their truths in our humanity through the affective education that his poetry offers. Poetry comes not to beautify dogma but to humanize it, and to read literature—including the Bible itself—requires different hermeneutical priorities from those of theology. Wordsworth is not attempting to shine the steady light of reason on his poetic subject matter, but to offer a different kind of illumination, one in which “forms and substances” are “transfused with light divine,” and “through the turnings intricate of verse / Present themselves as objects recognised / In flashes, and with a glory scarce their own.”
[See also ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]
- Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton, 1971. Argues that Wordsworth’s poetry secularizes the internal narratives of Christian conversion and salvation and considers the Bible’s role in shaping those narratives.
- Haney, David P. “The Christian Wordsworth, 1798–1805/Wordsworth’s Biblical Ghosts.” Christianity & Literature 52, no. 1 (September 2002): 93–99. Provides a brief helpful overview of critical work on Wordsworth and religion, including a review of Westbrook (2001).
- Hartman, Geoffrey H. Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787–1814. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971. Argues that Wordsworth appropriates biblical apocalypse as a figuration of the relationship between the natural world and self-reflective consciousness, the former vanishing in the face of the latter.
- Roberts, Jonathan. “Wordsworth’s Apocalypse.” Literature and Theology 20, no. 4 (2006): 361–378. Provides an overview of the manifold critical approaches to this topic and argues that, unlike his peers, Wordsworth does not allegorize biblical apocalypse as violent eschatology.
- Stein, Edwin. Wordsworth’s Art of Allusion. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. A broad-ranging discussion of the subject, including a helpful section (pp. 158–163) on Wordsworth’s biblical allusions.
- Westbrook, Deeanne. Wordsworth’s Biblical Ghosts. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Perhaps the fullest discussion of Wordsworth’s biblical engagement, this is quite a theoretical work, helpfully reviewed in Haney (2002).
- Wordsworth, William. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. 3 vols. Edited by Alexander B. Wordsworth. London: E. Moxon, 1876.
- Wordsworth, William. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 2d ed. 8 vols. Edited by Ernest De Selincourt, Mary Moorman, Chester L. Shaver, and Alan G. Hill. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967–1993.
- Wordsworth, William. The Poems of William Wordsworth (collected reading texts from the Cornell Wordsworth series). 3 vols. Penrith, Calif.: Humanities-Ebooks, 2011.