An Explication of Wordsworth’s “Nutting”

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. Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being: and, unless I now
Confound my present feelings with the past;
Ere from the mutilated bower I turned
Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings,
I felt a sense of pain when I beheld
The silent trees, and saw the intruding sky.—
Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades
In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
Touch—for there is a spirit in the woods.
                                                (1798. From Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” lines 38-56)

In Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” the narrator of the poem recounts an incident from his youth in which, going out to gather hazelnuts, he comes upon a “virgin” bower where, to his own surprise, he discovers in himself a capacity for wanton, violent destruction and yet manages to learn from it. The story, told to an unnamed “Maiden,” reads as an instruction upon the necessity of a close, physical  relationship between man and nature for the development of man’s capacities for imagination and self-awareness.

With line 38 Wordsworth is well into his story, his boyish self having reached his destination and the hazel trees with their “tempting clusters hung.” He lies down with his cheek on a rock and tells us, “I heard the murmur and the murmuring sound,” (38) repeating the syllable “mur” so many times that alongside the direct meaning of the words there is an onomatopoeic sense of the sound of a nearby brook “where fairy water-breaks do murmur on /for ever” (33-34). Wordsworth’s language achieves a similar effect six lines later when, in describing the young boy’s violent attack on the hazel tree, he employs a combination of alliteration and onomatopoeia to immerse his reader in the aural experience of the bower once more—but to completely different effect. The repetition of the harsh “b” in “both branch and bough” (44) mimics the violence of the boy’s breaking the branches in its abruptness, creating in language the sounds of the branches breaking under their brutal onslaught and shocking the reader with their sharpness. Coupled with the onomatopoeic “crash” (44), (whose shock power is fortuitously increased by its relegation to its own line by the width of the column in our version), these harsh sounds serve to set us in the bower next to the boy as he attacks the trees. We hear, in the childlike glee of “crash,” the boy’s delight in his own power of destruction just as we hear in the “b”’s the crack of the branches.

Another aspect of Wordsworth’s control of sound in his language and the creation of his aural space is his handling of the meter throughout. During the long dilation in which the boy anticipates his attack on the hazels and revels in excessive detail of the surroundings he is about to ravish, the rhythm relaxes and slows. So it is a complete shock when from this slow, relaxed rhythm springs the sharp, dramatic, and direct “Then up I rose” (43) with scarcely time for a breath between “air” and “then.” That the shift from one mood to the next happens mid-line allows the violence to erupt without warning, taking the reader completely by surprise. The contrast between the passive description of the “vacant air” and the active, monosyllabic power of “Then up I rose” further emphasizes the shock of the once empty air being filled by the body of the boy. From there, the violence proceeds so quickly that it is over in a matter of five lines (43.5-58.5). In contrast to the amount of time (more than 20 lines) spent on the delay of his satisfaction through anticipatory description, this flash of action feels even briefer. Its power to shock increases in proportion to that brevity. It is as if the narrator, looking back on his action, is so ashamed that he cannot bear to dwell on it, preferring to practically skip from the anticipation to the aftermath with just enough room for the facts in between, calling to mind the comment about potentially confounding “present feelings with the past” (38-39).

In the last 18 lines, Wordsworth makes careful use of caesurae twice: once following his speaker’s recognition of the “intruding sky” (53) after which come both a period and an em-dash, and once around the all-important word “touch” (56), which is cushioned on either side by silence: a line break on one side and a dash on the other. In this first instance, the caesura’s purpose is mainly to acknowledge the dramatic shift from the first person narrative recollection to the second person exhortation which ends the poem. We do not see the entrance of the Maiden and the revelation through apostrophe that the poem has a specific audience coming at all. However, Wordsworth’s use of a dash immediately following a period, forcing us to pause an extra moment after the revelation of the narrator’s guilt to consider his growth, makes us anticipate the shift which follows.

Wordsworth’s second application of silence in the carefully cushioned “touch” in the last line, sets it off from the rest of the poem by silence, drawing our attention to it and its powerful exhortation. Though it is enjambed with the line above it “with gentle hand / Touch—,” (55-56) because of the line break we cannot help but pause, however briefly, in anticipation of what it is we (and she, the Maiden) must do. And once we have been told, we have a beat in which to take it in. These two pauses force us to read the last line and a half slowly. The em-dash forces us to stop after “Touch,” setting it apart and strengthening its implicit imperative. Though his ending command is strong and hortatory, it is not asking the listener to repeat the violence, but rather it asks her not to recoil from it. She must touch and touch gently. We—and the maiden—must not allow the preceding violence to stop us from communing with “the spirit in the woods”—or even with our fellow man—through physical contact.

That such an imperative exists in the poem is a recognition of the agency of the person the exhortation is being delivered to—in this case, the Maiden. That the speaker asks his listener to be gentle underlines that not only might the listener be capable of the violence, but that she might be so repelled by it that she withdraws completely. We and she must not let the awareness of our own power for destruction prevent us from communing, from rejecting separateness and choosing togetherness.

The end of his story, turning as it does from parable to instruction, becomes interesting when considered in the context of the Maiden. Much of the imagery in the poem relies upon an extended metaphor of rape which, read conventionally, casts nature in the role of the passive female (the hazels who “patiently gave up / Their quiet being” (57-58)) and man (meaning humanity) in the role of the aggressive violator. Through words like “sullied,” (57) “ravage,” (45) and “forced” (16), Wordsworth characterizes the boy’s brutalization of nature as a sexual violation of it, comparing his violence to that of a jealous lover who seeks both to possess the object of his desire through domination and destroy it so that it might not be enjoyed by anyone else. This pervasive metaphor paints a horrifying image of the boy’s interaction with nature, helping the reader to understand the terrible violation involved—and at first it appears to go no further than that.

However, with the realization in the final three lines that the poem was intended for the audience of a young girl, herself a virgin (“Maiden”) like the hazel bower, the rape metaphor takes on a new and deeper meaning, as does the message of the poem itself. If the story, this parable about the ideal manner of communion between humanity and nature, is not directed at a boy, but at a girl, why use the gendered metaphor of rape? If indeed Wordsworth is characterizing virgin nature as weak and female in the parable, why is the lesson for the virgin addressed to be gentle with nature? Shouldn’t she, hearing the story, identify with nature herself and take it as a caution to watch out for violent men? Evidently things are not quite so simple if the poet believes, rather, that the Maiden possesses just as much of an inherent inclination towards violence as the boy in the story.

Read with this in mind, it becomes clear that Wordsworth created this apparent contradiction in order to convey to the Maiden and to us, the readers, that we are both violator and the violated in one. The Maiden who listens inhabits both sides of the parable: she has the capacity and the power to be virgin nature and violating boy at once. With this in mind, we realize that our gendered image of the rape metaphor arises only from the societal connotations of the words Wordsworth employs; after all, a male can be just as much a “virgin” (21) as a female and words such as “sullied” and “ravaged” have no inherent gendered meaning. Our reading of nature as female arises entirely out of our conception of rape as an act perpetrated by the male against the female, but Wordsworth upsets this when he reveals that, in telling the story of the nutting boy to a young girl, he frames the story at once as an admonition against turning away from the violence that the boy (and we) are capable of, but also as a revelation about the capacity for violence in all of us. We discover the Maiden is the listener, along with us, and she is not only being warned against turning away from the potential violence of the other, but she is being warned against the capacity for violence in herself. Wordsworth casts her in two roles: listener and the rapacious boy. She, just like he, has the power to violate and mutilate nature. The closing exhortation, then, is not simply to be gentle with nature, but, like the boy in the story, to become self-aware, to recognize one’s capacity for destruction, and, by understanding that capacity, to moderate it.

Much of Wordsworth’s lesson about the ideal interaction with nature relies on his use of personification to give weight to the deeds of the boy. Of course, inherent in the rape metaphor is the personification of nature as a being capable of being violated and sullied. When we are told that the hazels “patiently gave up / Their quiet being,” we understand the assault as having been tolerated by the abused. In the moment of violation, the boy is reduced to his act: he does not exist beyond its violence, beyond the “merciless ravage,” the act of dragging the branches down. Wordsworth gives the capacity for interiority not to the boy, but to the trees, who suffer their violation in silence, accepting their abuse with a humanity inconceivable in their violator. This reversal not only gives weight to the boy’s offense in giving feelings to the violated, but emphasizes the inhumanity of his act.

However, the boy’s humanity is only suspended during the act itself; in the moments after his violation it is returned to him as we witness his realization of what he has done and the budding of his subsequent self-awareness. Wordsworth effects the return of the boy to his humanity through further personification of the trees and of the sky: in the moments after the ravaging the poet recalls “a sense of pain” when he “beheld / The silent trees, and saw the intruding sky” (53-54). The sky, being an inanimate (and ever-present) part of nature cannot intrude, but in the moment following his attack, the boy’s imagination takes him over and he imagines the sky as an unwelcome witness to his violence: he himself feels violated, even in his act of violation. It is this personification of the sky as intruding upon him (ironically, since we know him to be the true intruder in the scene) which allows the boy to finally comprehend the gravity of what he has done and resume his humanity. Alone in himself, he could give himself over to his primal passions and instincts, unmoderated, gleefully losing himself in inexplicable violence. However, when he suddenly, by the power of his imagination, feels as if he is not alone, that the trees about him and the sky above him are sentient and personified, he sees what he has done as an outsider would and becomes truly self-aware, comprehending fully his power for destruction.

The importance of his recognizing in nature such a sentience is driven home by looking to the beginning of the passage, when the speaker laments the heart’s “wasting its kindliness on stock and stone” (42) because these things are “indifferent” (41) to the heart’s affection for them—“indifferent” because they are not sentient and have no feelings. “Stock” not only refers to a tree trunk, but also, according to Merriam Webster, “something without life or consciousness.” As such, Wordsworth emphasizes to his reader the young boy’s initial ignorance of nature and inability to conceive of it as being sentient or possessing something of a spirit. Personification plays an essential part in conveying Wordsworth’s message as it forges a link between the boy’s capacity for imagination and his budding self-awareness, in order to set him up to be able to maintain the ideal, gentle relation with nature. This importance is further driven home in the last line of the poem, when the poet gives as his reason to the Maiden for being gentle in her interaction with nature that “there is a spirit in the woods” (56), which, of course, is exactly the realization that drives the boy to remorse and self-awareness.

These few lines of Wordsworth’s poem trace the growth of the narrator from a selfish, instinctive boy to a self-aware and conscientious man. Essential to that development is the boy’s understanding of his own power for destruction and, rather than allowing fear of his own capacity for violence to lead him to isolate himself, his embracing of that destructive power as a part of himself. Wordsworth, as the self-aware man who narrates the story, understands his power, but even more importantly, understands that the complex relation between man and nature is a necessary one and that its foundation is physical connection. To be self-aware, man must not fear himself or his capacities, but know and understand them, allowing him to deepen his connection with the world around him. By the end of the poem, the boy has gained this understanding and the hope is that we and the Maiden have as well.

Citations

“Stock.” Merriam Webster. Merriam Webster. Web. 28 Sept. 2015. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stock&gt;.

Wordsworth, William. “Nutting.” English Romantic Writers. David Perkins. 2nd Ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. 303-304. Print.

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