A summary of Wordsworth’s lesser-known Romantic poem about spring
‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ was written in April 1798, the year that William Wordsworth and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge signalled their arrival on the literary scene with their ground-breaking collection of Romantic poems, Lyrical Ballads. In some ways ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ can be seen as the precursor to Wordsworth’s more famous ‘Lines’ poem, ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’.
Lines Written in Early Spring
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ is written in quatrains rhyming abab; the metre is iambic pentameter, that rhythm of living speech (in the English language, at least) that was what Wordsworth was trying to capture in Lyrical Ballads, as his 1800 Preface would make clear. And the poem should be read in the context of Wordsworth’s other poems from this time.
In summary, Wordsworth sits in a small woodland grove and listens to the birdsong around him. But although happy thoughts are prompted by the birdsong, so are more sombre ones: nature has forged a strong connection between itself and the soul of mankind, but man has repaid the favour by making a mess of his relations with his fellow man. Wordsworth admires the flowers – the primrose, the blue of the periwinkle, the greenness of the woodland area in which he sits – and the birds which ‘hopped and played’ around him. The birds, and the twigs on the trees, seem to exist in a world of pleasure – at least, Wordsworth decides he must tell himself that this is so. This is the way nature is, and nature, in being the work of God, is like this for a reason. Wordsworth ends by reasserting his lament about ‘what man has made of man’.
The world of nature, in Wordsworth’s poem, is depicted as cooperative and pleasurable – there is none of the ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ that we get from Tennyson just over half a century later, in the wake of geological discoveries that cast doubt over the heaven-sent view of nature Wordsworth espouses. This is a pre-Darwinian world – although, interestingly, Wordsworth’s friend Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, would publish a book called The Temple of Nature in 1803, just five years after ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’, which proposed a remarkably proto-Darwinian (the other one, that is) view of nature, and contained the couplet: ‘From Hunger’s arms the shafts of Death are hurl’d, / And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!’ But that’s all by the by: the point is that Wordsworth, in ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’, presents the natural world of birds and flowers as one of calm agreement and pleasure, contrasted with the implied failure of mankind to live up to such a model. What precisely ‘man has made of man’ is unstated, and that’s probably for the best: to be explicit about how Wordsworth feels man has failed his fellow man – whether through allowing his fellow humans to starve from poverty and exploitation, or through reverting to savage violence (the poem was written against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, which followed hot on the heels of the Reign of Terror) – would be to limit the poem and to make it too time-specific. As it stands, the poem becomes timeless through its vagueness.
Forty years on, Wordsworth was to recall of ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’:
Actually composed while I was sitting by the side of the brook that runs down from the Comb, in which stands the village of Alford, through the grounds of Alfoxden. It was a chosen resort of mine. The brook fell down a sloping rock so as to make a waterfall considerable for that country, and, across the pool below, had fallen a tree, an ash if I rightly remember, from which rose perpendicularly boughs in search of light intercepted by the deep shade above.
This note is included in the excellent edition of Wordsworth’s poems, The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). If you’ve found this analysis of ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ useful, you can discover more about some of Wordsworth’s best poems here. For more discussion of his poetry, see our analysis of his poem about Milton, Wordsworth’s classic rainbow poem, and ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways‘.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, 1842; via Wikimedia Commons.