Friday, 13 September 2013

Nutting by William Wordsworth

Originally Nutting was meant to be included in Wordsworth's magnum opus, The Prelude, but he decided to omit it, because it had no real bearing on the "plot" (if The Prelude can be said to have a plot) and it served well as an independent entity. Nutting is a self-contained poem with a sort-of plot and moral, in the manner of nature preservation. Carol Rumens in the Guardian discusses the fairy-tale-like aspect of the poem.
As in all his profoundest poems, the moral "story" is seamlessly entwined with the psychological one, and both are realised through a rich mixture of naturalistic and idealised pastoral imagery. The "fairy-tale" qualities are apparent from the start. The poem begins with a quest. The young boy sets off, armed with his nutting-crook and wallet: he is dressed in raggedy old clothes, for the practical reasons proposed by the "frugal dame" - but an element of disguise ("More ragged than need was!") is strongly suggested. Having forced his way through the brambles and over the "pathless rocks" the young adventurer finds the treasure he is seeking. And, although there are no monsters or goblins in sight, and the lesson is purely psychological, he learns like any young hero that treasure is not as easily taken as he had believed. 
The boy goes to the woods to look for nuts, and to prevent him from tearing good clothes, the old woman he rents his room from, Ann Tyson, tells him to wear his old clothes. There is a sense of mystery and excitement in his "disguise." The boy perhaps a little too confidently ( he smiles "at thorns, and brakes, and brambles") thinks this is unnecessary, for he is not doing any particularly strenuous activity. Then Wordsworth adopts a delightful tone, as the boy enjoys his liberty and sense of discovery at exploring a "pathless" wood, a path possibly untrodden by others.  He comes across a Paradise, to his exultation, in "one dear nook unvisited," which he claims as his kingdom.
... Not a broken bough
Droop's with its wither'd leaves, ungracious sign
Of devastation,but the hazels rose
Tall and erect, with milk-white clusters hung,
A virgin scene! - A little while I stood,
Breathing with such suppression of the heart
As joy delights in; and with wise restraint
Voluptuous, fearless of a rival eyed
The banquet ...
The Grotto Rydal Hall Lake District

The unknown scene is viewed with sensuous delight, a strange adjective for a peaceful woodland scene, when it would be more suited to perfume, or spices of the Orient, or a pretty girl, or something. He is happy to come across a previously uncharted territory, and sits beneath the trees and plays with the flowers. Rumens writes:
Both the laden hazel-tree and the "dear nook unvisited" have magical qualities, and a moral suggestiveness which the boy partly responds to. He defers gratification, experiences sheer delight in the loveliness and abundance of his surroundings. But then another, more primitive self breaks through and lays waste to the trees. The hero of this fable is also its monster.
Abruptly the speaker breaks away to ponder about some beauties, and he tries to justify a reason for what he did that he regretted. About to withhold from gratifying his greed for nuts, he is overwhelmed by the beauty and luxuriant scenes. It seems like he is unwilling to part with the treasures in this wood, because beauty is transient, and will not last through the seasons. He gives in to instant gratification of the senses; in this case, greed and gluttony.
Perhaps it was a bower beneath whose leaves
The violets of five seasons reappear
And fade, unseen by any human eye,
Where fairy water-breaks do murmur on
forever, and I saw the sparkling foam,
And with my cheek on one of those green stones
That, fleec'd with moss, beneath the shady trees,
Lay round me scatter'd like a flock of sheep,
I heard the murmur and the murmuring sound,
In that sweet mood when pleasure loves to pay
Tribute to ease, and, of its joy secure
The heart luxuriates with indifferent things,
Wasting its kindliness on stocks and stones,
And on the vacant air. 
Interestingly, the "murmuring sound," is mentioned in Paradise Lost, which comes from water issuing from a cave, which means that Wordsworth probably had Paradise Lost in mind when he wrote this. As he worshipped Milton and took him for a model (as Keats took Shakespeare) this is more likely.

The untarnished virgin imagery is coming out here; the violet (flowers are often used to describe pretty girls) are out only for 5 seasons, and after their bloom, fades away, rather like young lasses who, after their first beauty, decline. Thus he must act to claim the joy they give him. But it sounds disturbing, this sense of transience and fragility. Violets are also mentioned in one of the Lucy poems:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!
And are small with a tender fragrance. Like Lucy, the violets are scarcely seen, and sheltered by the moss, and fade away. In his wilfulness to claim his property, he cannot resist nature's charms and fells the hazel bushes and the bower.
Then up I rose,
And dragg'd to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage; and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower
Deform'd and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being ...
Nature is given human treatment, and the effect is that of rape, pillage and deformity as a metaphor for killing nature, which is unable to resist such force from cruel man. This might for all you know be a metaphor for greedy man who build factories and fell trees to clear land for development. A rare and secluded beauty is ripped apart by a greedy boy, and you can't help but compare it to ravishing a defenceless virgin. Defloration was considered a highly important, emotionally-affecting and potentially ruinous event in those days, which makes the rape-imagery more powerful in its time than now.
The movement of the syntax over the blank verse lines has been almost relaxed until this moment, rhythmically one of abrupt high drama: "Then up I rose." No reason is given: none is needed. A natural human impulse drives the boy to jump up and rake the trees of their hazel-nuts. After he has seized the hoard, the sight of the "silent trees" themselves and "the intruding sky" awakens another response, a terrible sense of guilt at the destruction caused by his innocent greed. That he has "deformed and sullied" the "bower" is the wisdom, the "knowledge of good and evil", that he has painfully achieved – and so he imparts the lesson to his listener
Now the formerly shaded woods are destroyed, for the sun peeps through the trees, who remain silent over his crimes. And despite getting his treasure he is filled with guilt that overwhelms his pleasure.
Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings
I felt a sense of pain when I beheld
The silent trees and the intruding sky. 
And so he tells his moral to his "dearest Maiden!" possibly Dorothy Wordsworth, to
move along these shades
In gentleness of heart with gentle hand
Touch - for there is a spirit in the woods.
For Nature has a life-force which we cannot ignore, and a soul of its own, very Romantic. The lesson is not a hard one, but the power of the ravaging boy upon the nuts and flowers gives it a special place among Wordsworth's nature-poems. I would not call him a Byronic hero, but the sympathetic hero's cruelty to the nuts and flowers, and his sensuousness share some things in common with a Byronic hero. Noticeably, nature here is portrayed as calmer than the more visual and intense scenes in Coleridge's conversational poems; the excitement is all from the speaker, not the scene itself, unlike the moving torrents of water commoner in Coleridge. But this might be Wordsworth's own personality: his style tends to be sonorous but calm and measured; Coleridge, lyrical, excitable and irregular. Coleridge must see the movements in nature; Wordsworth is content with its calmness, which reflects both men's characters: Coleridge was intellectual, excitable and volatile; Wordsworth steady, down-to-earth and calm.

The parallels between this and Paradise Lost seem quite clear. The boy is tempted by an Eden-like bower, where he experiences voluptuous bliss, and thinks he is in a fairyland of happiness and eternity. He is tempted to destroy the place to pick his hazels, and this he does, only to regret as he sees the intruding sky - possibly an allusion to Adam and Eve surprised in their nakedness? This would mean that Wordsworth is Eve or Satan. Imagine sober old Wordsworth as a Satanic figure!

Nutting could be an interesting re-write of Paradise Lost.  Instead of sex as sin, it is Nature as the Tempter, and unlike Paradise Lost, there is no external devil to whisper temptations into Eve's ear. The devil lurks within the boy, and there is no Satanic tempter. We must not blame the source of temptation for our actions, Wordsworth seems to say, we must blame ourselves - in this case, Wordsworth the Destroyer. Perhaps he was criticising Milton's morality, which seems too unrealistic and obvious. Wordsworth's temptation is more subtle, too. One criticism of Milton by the Romantics (it might have been Hazlitt) was that Milton, though grand and impressive, lacked the human touch, which Wordsworth has, though he can only do the egotistical sublime really effectively (a complaint from Keats). Or could Wordsworth be reading Satan as a personification of our own base desires (rather than a separate enemy out to conquer a kingdom). The boy does end up destroying his newly-discovered kingdom - but this time, the kingdom belongs to him. This makes the Satanic figure more complex - and you can tie it in with the Romantic Gothic exploration of the evil unconscious, or repressed base desires. In Hogg's Confession of a Sinner, it is not fully apparent whether the evil Satanic figure is the villain's repressed subconscious or a mythical figure. Nutting doesn't sound Gothic, which makes it more realistic (Wordsworth despised the Gothic genre), and yet he might have been influenced by the same things that influenced the Gothics (Gray's Elegy in the Churchyard is one thing).

Another influence cited is Spenser's The Faerie Queene, (a very popular influence on 19th century poets)  in the scene whether Sir Guyon goes to Acrasia's Bower of Bliss, a beautiful haven of nature. To defeat her (a nymphomaniac who tempts men and turns them into beasts) he destroys the bower to prevent more men from being tempted into that poisonous paradise, just as Wordsworth the boy destroys the real-life bower. However, Guyon is supposed to be good, and Wordsworth commits a sin in destroying the bower, so Nutting may be a rewrite of Spenser's morals (perhaps Wordsworth thought Spenser was thoughtless and giving the wrong message about nature).
Acrasia by John Melhuish Strudwick

It seems there was an earlier, longer version of the poem, in which the speaker addresses a girl called Lucy (possibly the same Lucy as in his Lucy poems), who is confronted with rape. Wordsworth eventually tidied it up to publish the finished version of "Nutting," but after the publication of that poem, he had Mary Hutchinson copy out the verses for the original version, which is far more disturbing than the published one, which indicates he considered the first version important, and had not fully given it up.

There are two early drafts. One is this:

The other is this:

A few scholars suggest that the bower in Nutting is associated with Spenser's Bower of Bliss in the Faerie Queene. It is hard to see how the bower in Nutting is the same, because the bower in Nutting is good and natural, whereas the Bower of Bliss in the Faerie Queene is artificial and entraps people and turns them into beasts. The boy, however, does turn beastly when he destroys the bower, and the same voluptuousness is applied to the natural as Spenser did in the artificial bower. Wordsworth may have drawn parallels, but in his own case, chose to make the bower good, wholesome and delightful instead. It is unlikely that the message and morality in Nutting was drawn from The Faerie Queene, and Wordsworth might have been indulging in a personal literary joke.
Sir Guyon in Acrasia's Bower of Bliss by Thomas Uwins

Lucy has some education and culture, having known "some nurture," and so her violence in treating the hazels is all the more shocking to Wordsworth, particularly with her "cruel" eagerness, "tempestuous bloom," and "an enemy of nature" "far beyond the Indian hills." What makes it particularly disturbing is that she is female and gently nurtured. Yet the Lucy poems deal with a girl who lives in seclusion unknown and unloved by most, so the gentle nurture is surprising, because you think of a rustic recluse, not an educated and refined girl. This might indicate that Lucy has some similarities with Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of Wordsworth, an educated woman who gave up a life of comfort to live with her brother in the countryside with very little company (by the standards of that time).  Lucy represents Wordsworth's ideal woman, a Rousseauan ideal rather than a reality, and yet intrigues us with her mystery, because no one really knows who she is.  While Lucy normally has no voice, and seems passive, here Lucy is actively destroying hazels, and the speaker is directly addressing her instead of thinking or imagining about her. She is violent and imperfect here, instead of the supposedly perfect (but I would dispute the perfection of the Lucy of even the other poems). In the other poems she is a friend of nature; here, she is "an enemy of nature."  And in the other poems Wordsworth deemed her worth worshipping; here he is giving her a moral lesson based on his mistake of destroying the bower. He tells her to treasure nature, to be gentle and restful, and the superiority of nature to man. The final version still shows a moral story, but here the listener is passive and not violent; and the main action comes from the speaker. Literary theorists will wonder why (jealousy on Mary's part, etc etc) but it is more effective to cut out the Lucy parts, though it is less clear and lucid. Apart from the fact they are unharmonious and overmoralistic, it seems dull and repetitive to have two people committing violence on nature, and two people learning the same lesson, and two people with violent, destructive natures (potentially sexual?) The contrast between active and passive is more effective and interesting.

Then there's the sexual perspective, which is doubtful. True, he uses sexual rape language, but that could be to make the message more powerful. Then again, there might be a sexual subtext underneath the main "Do not harm nature" message. Perhaps it chronicles the process of growing up. The inconsiderate child who wants instant gratification learns that he must not pluck the branches, and becomes wiser, for his Eden is no longer eternal and unravaged. It signifies a loss of innocence, because he has committed a sin. Though instead of actually having sex he is killing trees, which is an interesting twist on the Paradise Lost Sin Story. Wordsworth might have had a sense of humour. But assuming that the sex angle is really there, it could signify puberty, which comes with violence and sexual energy and instant gratification. Lucy is supposed to be pure (at least in the other Lucy poems he wants her to be pure), and hence the violence the speaker disapproves of might be what he deems excessive sexuality in women.

Lucy is more real and less ethereal in the manuscript version, though it is less powerful, too clunky and more boring than the finished version of Nutting. It is however a useful guide as to his thoughts on the development of Lucy.

You see why he didn't publish the manuscript version. Apart from the fact it sounds awful (for Wordsworth, anyway), the theme of the poem is less clear and effective. "Nutting" is about loving nature; Lucy's presence would mingle too many themes and clutter up the picture.

1 comment:

  1. Just added your Lucy Goh(?) blog to dashboard, and will reply to your email soon.

    This is a great post. Your interest in "Nutting" keeps encouraging me to read it more closely. I definitely find the rewriting of Paradise Lost a valid interpretation, with the Edenic elements and the obvious fall. WhatI noted was that rather than woman actively tempting the male protagonist, nature is the feminized victim. Of course, feminized nature is still passive, and the female addressee of the last few lines is passive also. So definitely not a wonderful new rewriting of Eve, like in Shirley. (Actually, can't 3/4 of the post-Milton poems and novels in the canon be read as rewritings of PL? ;)

    Anyways, very well written and thought-provoking essay!

    I like your new blog background.