Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Excursion: Wordsworth's Art of Belief

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Excursion: Wordsworth's Art of Belief

Article excerpt

Wordsworth's image of his corpus as a "gothic church," with The Excursion (1814) as "the body" or nave, The Prelude (1805, 1850) as "the ante-chapel," and the "minor Pieces" as "the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices," gives pride of place to The Excursion. (1) Granting the Anglo-Catholic provenance and the Anglican tenor of this extended metaphor, one may wonder if The Excursion constitutes the distinguishing expression of Wordsworth's High-Church Romanticism. Or, allowing the Evangelical propensity of rural Anglican churches in Wordsworth's day, one may ask how The Excursion embodies the best of his Low-Church Romanticism. The latter question suggests the more avant-garde possibility. The still, small voice of the lyrics and of The Prelude becomes the certain trumpet of The Excursion, which reverberates as the crux of Wordsworth's art of belief. (2)

Wordsworth's relation to such Dissenting as well as Anglican evangelicals as Isaac Watts, John and Charles Wesley, and William Wilberforce is sometimes direct--the near influence always telling--but more often indirect--"the power of weak ties" made manifest (Ruef 429). Wordsworth would agree with Jane Austen, who, in an 1815 letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, observes, "I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest and safest" (Letters 109). Wordsworth would also concur with Coleridge, who, in Table Talk (1835), "avow[s]" that "the Christian faith is what [John] Wesley describes": "the identity of the reason and the will, in the full energy of each, consequent on a divine rekindling." (3) Wordsworth's appeal to this evangelical background sounds similarly discerning, respectful, straightforward, and non-ironic, as though he includes among the voices of his second long poem those of such "better angels of our [religious] nature" as Wilberforce, whose reputation as an evangelical saint remains secure. Thus allying individual talent with religious tradition, Wordsworth's deuteronomic epic of biblical proportions reveals his fierce affinity for the open mind and God-warmed heart of his evangelical precursors.

Francis, Lord Jeffrey--that "cultured despiser" of religion (in German Romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher's fine phrase)--condemns The Excursion as "mystical verbiage of the Methodist pulpit" (14). Founder Wesley's anything but mystical Methodism, however, feels deliberately grounded. "Wesley's distaste for the mystical approach to spiritual formation appears as early as 1726, when, as a college man in his early twenties, he 'began to see more and more the value of time" (Works I 467). Rather than cultivating a timeless inner closeness with God, Wesley recognized the importance of cultivating God's image in time. Understood in this way, religious self-formation is subject to the particular slowness, doubt, and hesitations that come with daily living" (Bennett 28). The Methodism of The Excursion, accordingly develops temporal "closeness with God." It grows outward to others. It bears up. It stays joyful.

In an 1815 letter to Wordsworth, Charles Lamb declares that "natural methodism" (note lower case) is what makes The Excursion great. (4) The lower case of Lamb's low-key but intriguing and unexplained phrase could signal his approval of how Wordsworth modulates from revival liveliness to the alternative vigor of scientific procedure (Brantley, Emily 33-9), or for how he employs evangelical vernacular to enliven nature worship. The Methodism of The Excursion, however, is not "lite": neither displaced into the laboratory nor turned pantheistic, it is welcomed to speak for itself. Thus, just as the Wanderer nuances how evangelicals read Nature's Book--for its Author's good news--so the Wanderer and the Pastor build on the dual innovation of evangelical theology: immediate revelation, plus perfection in the here and now. …

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