William Wordsworth

  Lines left upon a Seat >
poem, analysis, commentary, criticism 

Landscape in the Lake District
by Turner and possibly also Girtin
Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake from Newlands
sold at auction in 2009
Alain R Truong

Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree
which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite,
on a desolate part of the shore,
yet commanding a beautiful prospect.

Lyrical Ballads (1798, 28)

--Nay, Traveller! rest. This lonely yew-tree stands
Far from all human dwelling: what if here
No sparkling rivulet spread the verdant herb;
What if these barren boughs the bee not loves;
Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.

--------------------------Who he was
That piled these stones, and with the mossy sod
First covered o'er, and taught this agèd tree, 
now wild, to bend its arms in circling shade,
I well remember.--He was one who own'd
No common soul. In youth, by genius nurs'd,
And big with lofty views, he to the world
Went forth pure in his heart, against the taint
Of dissolute tongues, 'gainst jealousy, and hate,
And scorn, against all enemies prepared, 
All but neglect: and so, his spirit damp'd 
At once, with rash disdain he turned away,
And with the food of pride sustain'd his soul
In solitude.--Stranger! these gloomy boughs
Had charms for him; and here he loved to sit,
His only visitants a straggling sheep,
The stone-chat, or the glancing sand-piper;
And on these barren rocks, with juniper,
And heath, and thistle, thinly sprinkled o'er,
Fixing his downward eye, he many an hour
A morbid pleasure nourish'd, tracing here
An emblem of his own unfruitful life:
And lifting up his head, he then would gaze 
On the more distant scene; how lovely 'tis
Thou seest, and he would gaze till it became
Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain
The beauty still more beauteous. Nor, that time,
Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,
Warm from the labours of benevolence,
The world, and man himself, appeared a scene
Of kindred loveliness: then he would sigh
With mournful joy, to think that others felt
What he must never feel: and so, lost man!
On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears. In this deep vale
He died, this seat his only monument.

If thou be one whose heart the holy forms 
Of younger imagination have kept pure,
Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know, that pride,
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties 
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. The man, whose eye
Is ever on himself, doth look on one,
The least of nature's works, one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful, ever. O, be wiser thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love,
True dignity abides with him alone 
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself,
In lowliness of heart.

Composed in part at school in Hawkshead. The tree has disappeared, and the slip of Common on which it stood, that ran parallel to the lake, and lay open to it, has long been enclosed; so that the road has lost much of its attraction. This spot was my favourite walk in the evenings during the latter part of my school-time. The individual whose habits and character are here given, was a gentleman of the neighbourhood, a man of talent and learning, who had been educated at one of the Universities, and returned to pass his time in seclusion on his own estate. He died a bachelor in middle age. Induced by the beauty of the prospect, he built a small summer-house on the rocks above the peninsular on which the ferry house stands. This property afterwards passed into the hands of Mr Curwen. The site was long ago pointed out by Mr West in his Guide, as the pride of the Lakes, and now goes by the name of The Station. So much used I to be delighted with the view from it, while a little boy, that some years before the first pleasure-house was built, I led thither from Hawkshead a youngster about my own age, an Irish boy, who was a servant to an itinerant conjurer. My motive was to witness the pleasure I expected the boy would receive from the prospect of the islands below and the intermingling water. I was not disappointed: and I hope the fact, insignificant as it may appear to some, may be thought worthy of note by others who may cast their eye over these notes.

The poem is in three parts: a short passage in which the yew tree and its setting are introduced, a continuation in which the story of the maker of the seat in the yew tree is told, and the conclusion in which certain generalisations (morals) are deduced from the life of the seat maker, and advice given on how to live.

There are five characters described or implied: Wordsworth himself, the man who wrote the lines and left them on the seat (the poet), the seat maker whose story is told, the traveller / stranger / reader who is directly addressed in the poem , and the reader himself. In addition, there is 'the world', or the idea that there is a society of people with whom the seat-maker has interacted, and who have effectively rejected him by neglect.

The introduction sets the scene and hopefully puts the mind of the reader into a receptive state: 'by one soft impulse saved from vacancy'. This, according to the poet, is the effect of the landscape on the mind, but these lines are meant to have a similar effect on the mind of the reader, whom the poet hopes to bring to a mental state in which he is ready to listen to what comes next, the story of the seat-maker. There are already two mysteries: the first, who made the seat and why, and the second, who wrote the lines and why did he leave them on the seat? If we have any curiosity, our curiosity is aroused at least to know the answer to these questions. In fact, at the end of the poem, our curiosity has been satisfied only in part. This is probably what gives us the feeling that the poem in itself is unsatisfactory, incomplete or else leaves us speculating on unresolved issues. We get the feeling that we have been given a puzzle, but that some of the pieces are missing to fully resolve it.

The story of the seat-maker is not straightforward. He is clearly a close parallel to Wordsworth, who, like the seat-maker, was educated at one of the Universities, was 'nurtured by Genius', who had no 'common soul', who was ignored by Society, and who returned to this barren countryside and took great, perhaps excessive, pleasure in it. The central issue with regard to this man is exactly this, the excessive reaction to the distant landscape. Having observed a close parallel between his own life and the dull scene before him in which he takes a 'morbid pleasure', he lifts his head, and the distant landscape strikes him as so beautiful that it moves him to tears. The reader / traveller / stranger is invited to confirm what the poet says with pressing immediacy: 'how lovely tis, thou seest'. The poet and the seat maker have become one in their appreciation of the beauty of the landscape, and the reader is invited to join them. Yes, we are all sitting on the same seat, all five of us.

It would seem that we are close here to what is generally regarded as Wordsworth's poetic ideal: the idea of the salvation of man through an appreciation of the transcendent beauty of nature. But this central experience is quickly dismissed with the words 'lost man!' who 'on visionary views would fancy feed / Till his eye stream'd with tears.' The emotion experienced is rejected in this context as being more appropriate to relations between sentient beings:

 Nor, that time,
Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,
Warm from the labours of benevolence,
The world, and man himself, appeared a scene
Of kindred loveliness: then he would sigh
With mournful joy, to think that others felt
What he must never feel...

This is clearly an impossible intimacy of knowledge of the seat maker's character. The poet is talking about himself, but he immediately rejects both this conclusion (that the seat-maker is himself) and also the conclusion that these visionary experiences constitute an important religious experience:

In this deep vale, he died, this seat his only monument.

Wordsworth goes on to explain that 'visionary views' obtained by observing nature cannot take the place of benevolent action in society as the source of and paradigm for religious experience, and he formulates a rejection of Pantheism, (ie the idea that God is Nature, and vice versa) in the final stanza, though he appears to fully espouse this same rejected view in the poem Tintern Abbey, published in the same volume, where we read:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean: and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

In Lines Left on a Seat, however, orthodox Christian morality is driven home. The deadly sin is identified as pride 'however disguised', and the reader / traveller / stranger is exhorted to 'suspect' and 'revere' himself, an exhortation which could be subject to various interpretations, but is probably related to the ideas that man is in part divine and should therefore revere himself, but that he often deceives himself about the motives for his actions and must therefore be wary (suspect himself). The visionary is dead. It is only pride that led the poet / seat-maker to look for salvation in visionary views. True religion resides elsewhere.

This, of course, is not the end of the debate. Wordsworth will continue to develop his thought and contradict himself at numerous turns during his career. We can see something of the Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis in these ideas and their progression. It is only by formulating the thesis (Pantheism) and its antithesis (orthodox religion) that Wordsworth's (indeed anybody's) thought can move forward. Having said that, it is also clear that Wordsworth was having difficulty in positioning himself with regard to orthodox religious views. As Coleridge pointed out (Allsop's Recollections, 8 August 1820): 'I will not conceal from you that this inferred dependency of the human soul on accidents of birthplace and abode, together with the vague, misty, rather than mystic, confusion of God with the world, and the accompanying nature-worship, of which the asserted dependence forms a part, is the trait in Wordsworth's poetic works that I most dislike as unhealthful, and denounce as contagious; while the odd introduction of the popular, almost the vulgar, religion in his later publications (the popping in, as Hartley says, of the old man with a beard), suggests the painful suspicion of worldly prudence.......' The point is that not only was Wordsworth uncertain about the significance and place of these visionary experiences per se, but he also had political motives for playing down their significance, and a forceful advocate against Pantheism at his elbow.

Interestingly, there is a striking similarity between Wordsworth's descriptions of transcendent experiences and experiences induced by Buddhist meditative techniques, which use a similar process of emptying the mind to provoke profound experiences of insight into 'reality'. And there is a similar warning in Buddhist philosophy against taking these wonderful experiences of blissful well-being and oneness with the world as the goal of meditation. The goal is benevolent action in the world by the elimination of self (pride), exactly as stated here by Wordsworth.

At all events, it is these ambiguities or uncertainties that make Lines Left on a Seat a difficult poem. It's difficult to understand what somebody is trying to say if he doesn't quite know himself, or changes his mind half way through. It is perhaps better to regard the poem as one moment in a continuing process of thought about the basis of religious belief and the nature of God. The death of Wordsworth's brother John was perhaps another moment in this process. Transcendent, visionary experiences induced by the contemplation of nature are perhaps not adequate to enable the individual to cope with this type of profound loss.

There is one other interesting issue which arises from the poem. The idea that this man, the seat-maker, is incapable of feeling normal human emotions, that he is outside the ordinary experience of human sociability:

Nor, that time,
Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,
Warm from the labours of benevolence,
The world, and man himself, appeared a scene
Of kindred loveliness: then he would sigh
With mournful joy, to think that others felt
What he must never feel: and so, lost man!
On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears.

This idea recurs in the poem Joanna's Rock. Addressing Joanna, in part a figure created from one of his future wife's younger sisters, he writes

AMID the smoke of cities did you pass
The time of early youth; and there you learned,
From years of quiet industry, to love
The living Beings by your own fireside,
With such a strong devotion, that your heart
Is slow to meet the sympathies of them
Who look upon the hills with tenderness,
And make dear friendships with the streams and groves.
Yet we, who are transgressors in this kind .....

In both cases, it is taken as a given that there is a class of people, Wordsworth himself included, who cannot receive normal gratification from easy social relationships, but must instead seek their emotional solace in rocks and groves. The fact that they have to do so is regarded as a negative: the seat maker is called a 'lost man' in Lines, and people who 'look upon the hills with tenderness' are called 'transgressors' in To Joanna. It is clear that for Wordsworth there is a certain amount of guilt attached to this condition, and a perception that others do not have, and do not need this type of transcendental experience to live well, and to show due respect to orthodox religion. Nevertheless, the experience of vivid, disturbing, momentary transcendental visions is regarded as central to what it is to be a poet. The contradiction plays itself out throughout Wordsworth's poetry, extending to the stripping out of action from the poems to leave just the moment, the feeling, the state to give meaning and significance to the action, rather than vice versa. This 'stripping out' parallels the idea of the emptying of the mind to achieve insight into reality. The less there is, the more we see. Writing of his own poetry, Wordsworth himself expresses this desire as follows in the Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads:

the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling.

It is a nice distinction which reflects an intellect thinking deeply about its subject, and it is clear that the critique which precedes this statement in the Preface is equally relevant today with the abundance of completely empty 'action packed' thrillers full of car chases, gunfights and sex.

copyright Paul Scott, all rights reserved