It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it, in fact, something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough.
–Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”
In a footnote to “To the Small Celandine,” Wordsworth observes that “it is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse.” The subtext of Wordsworth’s comment is that he is not really surprised by the fact that “vain” poets ignore the small celandine: it is an “unassuming” weed, “careless of its neighborhood,” and its beauty was appreciated exclusively by the “thrifty cottager,” until Wordsworth himself came along. A more clearly articulated dismissal of the artificiality and snobbery of his predecessors can be found in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. Surely, however, no sane person,–least of all Wordsworth, who admired Shakespeare–would include Shakespeare in a general accusation against the snobbery of poets. So, despite the subtext of the footnote, there must be some other explanation for the omission of this flower from older poetry.
Perhaps earlier poets’ neglect of this flower can be partially explained by the previous footnote, in which Wordsworth carefully informs his readers that the small celandine is none other than “the common pilewort.” Shakespeare is more likely to write poetry about the medicinal virtues and symbolism of herbs and flowers than about their “pleasant faces.” His “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” is echoed by the matter of fact Culpeper, who informs us that rosemary “helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses.” In his description of Eden, Milton (who was also admired by Wordsworth) vaguely mentions “flowers of all hue” and “without thorn the rose,” but it is to a magical healing plant in another poem that he devotes a painstaking, Worsdsworthian description: “a small unsightly root,/ But of divine effect…The leaf was darkish, and had prickles on it/But in another country…Bore a bright golden flowre…” If Shakespeare had chosen to write about pilewort, he would probably have incorporated it into a satirical poem or a comedic scene, and it is difficult to imagine Milton writing anything either indecorous or mundane enough to warrant a specific pilewort reference.
Macaulay remarks that, while rugged scenery is–unlike a certain pretty, medicinal weed–present in pre-Romantic literature, it is consistently regarded with distaste.
In the south of our island scarcely any thing was known about the Celtic part of Scotland; and what was known excited no feeling but contempt and loathing. The crags and the glens, the woods and the waters, were indeed the same that now swarm every autumn with admiring gazers and stretchers…Goldsmith was one of the very few Saxons who, more than a century ago, ventured to explore the Highlands. He was disgusted by the hideous wilderness, and declared that he greatly preferred the charming country round Leyden, the vast expanse of verdant meadow, and the villas with their statues and grottoes, trim flower beds, and rectilinear avenues. Yet it is difficult to believe that the author of The Traveller and of The Deserted Village was naturally inferior in taste and sensibility to the thousands of clerks and milliners who are now thrown into raptures by the sight of Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond. His feelings may easily be explained. It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers, till there was as little danger of being slain or plundered in the wildest defile of Badenoch or Lochaber as in Cornhill, that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of the lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.
Although Macaulay’s explanation is sensible and cannot be completely discarded, I wonder whether it accounts for the full story. Wordsworth, in particular, writes not only about the beauty of nature, but also about the awe and danger sometimes associated with it. For example, regarding the mountains in the part of England in which he grew up, he attests that
…images of danger and distress,
Man suffering among awful Powers and Forms;
Of this I heard, and saw enough to make
Imagination restless; nor was free
Myself from frequent perils; nor were tales
Wanting,—the tragedies of former times,
Hazards and strange escapes, of which the rocks
Immutable and overflowing streams,
Where’er I roamed, were speaking monuments.
In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis outlines an entire web of associations and beliefs about the natural and metaphysical world(s) which were held by medieval and early modern people. This web had, at some point between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, come undone. Isn’t it possible that it was this same gradual stripping of associations and the substitution of new ones which helped to free Wordsworth to write about plants without alluding to their planetary influences or their medicinal uses, as well as to allow him and and his contemporaries to appreciate the beauties of the wild Scottish landscape? Although Wordsworth still associated mountains with danger, the habit of disregarding old poetical and aesthetic conventions and creating new ones led him to appreciate their beauty as well.
Of course Wordsworth may be thinking about his more immediate predecessors when he wonders at the neglect of the small celandine. Poets such as Erasmus Darwin had continued the Renaissance tradition of involvement in all disciplines of gentle study,–including philosophy, art, and natural science–while, like Goethe, adapting their scientific mindset to the post-Bacon era. Instead of referencing the four humors, angelology, or herbs to expel evil spirits, this group of eighteenth century poets tends to describe natural phenomena in minute detail and reference Linnaean classifications. Wordsworth adopts these poets’ interest in nature for its own sake as well as the descriptive style of their “empirical” poetry, but drops their scientific pretensions. It may be that members of this school actually did neglect the small celandine because of their snobbish tendencies.
It is clear from a few lines in The Borderers that Wordsworth himself was keenly aware of the changes in attitudes which had occurred within the previous few centuries. When Marmaduke asks Oswald whether he prefers roses, poppies, or nightshade, Oswald replies that he prefers “that which, while it is strong to destroy, is also strong to heal.” I think that this line, which occurs early in the play, together with a dense volley of references to “saints,” “masses,” “Mary” etc. in the first act, serves to set the historical scene–the story is supposed to take place in the thirteenth century.
In addition to freedom from the old associations, another factor which would have made it easier for Wordsworth to pay attention to the small celandine is his specialist attitude towards poetry, which he discusses in his preface to Lyrical Ballads.
If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.
While the well-rounded Renaissance poets and those who come just after them are pleased to dispense dietary advice and share their views about the natural world, Wordsworth sharply defines himself as a poet, in contrast to a man of science. While he and his successors do, as he had predicted, grapple with the outcomes of science, they do so as outsiders. If Wordsworth had been a doctor, like Vaughan, or even an amateur medicine enthusiast, like Shakespeare, it might have been difficult for him to keep his interests in plants’ uses from boiling over into his poetry (medical herbs did not fall out of widespread use until the early twentieth century). Because Wordsworth was a specialist, he labored under no such difficulty.