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The conceptions of nature in the poetry of William Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold Cole, Desmond William


This essay compares Wordsworth’s and Arnold’s conceptions of nature and suggests reasons for the differences found. Both poets were keenly sensitive to the leveliness of the external world, and found in nature a soothing and healing power for the troubled mind of man. Both derived sensuous enjoyment from the beauties of nature, and found in nature permanence, peace, and tranquillity. The fundamental difference in their doctrines of nature is in their conceptions of abstract nature. To Wordsworth, nature was a benevolent force which actively participated in the moral and spiritual growth of man. His was a doctrine of joy and optimism. To Arnold, nature was a great and indifferent force which man must transcend. His was a doctrine of stoicism and pessimism. The differences are mainly due to the progress in science and thought from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Wordsworth inherited the eighteenth century belief in a benevolent and all-powerful Deity, who manifested his goodness in nature. By a synthesis of this philosophy, the assumptions of associationist psychology, and his own experience, he explained the moral and spiritual growth of man. Wordsworth believed that through love of nature, man was led to love of his fellow man and of God. He believed that nature participated in man’s moral growth, through the senses, with the aid of some super-sensuous power – ‘a superadded soul’, an ‘auxilier light’, which he believed to be the imagination. Through semi-mystical and visionary experiences, he became convinced of the unity between the soul of man and the soul of nature. This was the source of his joy in nature. Arnold took for granted many of the assumptions of nineteenth century science regarding nature. Through these, and his own search for truth, he lost faith in a benevolent force in the universe. He saw no evidence of harmony or teleological purpose in nature. He found in nature only an edifying example of tranquility, steadfastness, and stoicism. The central tenet of his doctrine was of the superiority of man over nature, through his reason and conscience. On a broader basis, the change in attitude to nature between Wordsworth and Arnold is due to the changed conception of men’s place in the Chain of Being. In the eighteenth century, man held the most important earthly place in nature’s Chain of Being. In the nineteenth century, he lost that place. The Industrial Revolution created a materialistic world in which only the fittest survived economically. Biologists and zoologists reduced man to the level of all other creatures. He lost his favoured place in the Chain of Being, and for him nature lost all order and purposiveness. A pessimistic view of nature was logical and common.

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