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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: On William Wordsworth’s “Nutting” – A Journal Excerpt Followed By A Reflection

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Sean Wojtczak provides an introspective analysis of William Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’ through a journal excerpt followed by a reflective piece of writing.

The older I grow, the more a sense of dread sinks into my heart during these long winter months. The barren scenes beyond my window, distorted by the darkening, deepening hues of night bring only melancholy to my mind, and I find myself longing with an increasing intensity for but one glimpse of life. It would be enough to hear the bursts of a squirrel’s chatter, or to spy the elegant step of a deer; but what I truly crave in these lonely hours is for another soul to sit next to me across from this dying fire.

The emotional hardships of Winter certainly come from the season’s longevity, but I would also argue that the true difficulty comes from the fact that the true climax of Winter’s majesty arrives within the first few hours of the first snowfall, and then it is gone until one more year can turn such sights entirely unfamiliar to our eyes.  While other seasons may gradually make themselves known to us (Spring, for example, must arrive slowly through a veil of muddy, melted snow) Winter simply appears one day. And yet, though it is true that this climax is fleeting, the beauty it holds must still be recognized.

This year, as I stepped into that wintry debut, I was at first overwhelmed by the absolute silence of the scene. Yes, the bare trees would occasionally creak in the wind, and the clumps of snow would fall from their branches, but these sounds seemed to harmonize with the silence rather than disturb it. The stillness was so suffocating that I felt at once minute against the scale of the sprawling dell and yet so boldly out of place within the uniformly frozen backdrop. And then that first icy wind greeted me. It burned my exposed throat and whipped my face, but my lungs rejoiced in the crispness of the air. Everything felt so fresh, and I was reminded of younger years when I would sprint across the hot sands before diving into the freezing waters of Lake Michigan. The shock of the cold, the jolt of energy, the grasp of the murky bottom against my toes, and then the rising, the kicking to the surface, and then finally, the surfacing and the tremendous gasp for air. It was always impossible not to scream with both joy and surprise when first diving into those waters. Now, the chilly air of this November morning felt equally refreshing, and I could not help but feel as if I was wading through thick waters as I trudged onward through the woods.

The landscape before me, blanketed in a mirror-glaze of snow, inspired in me that transcendent sense of discovery one tends to lose as they grow older and their imagination fades. Here was a well-known scene, and yet, in this newfound state, I felt as if I were the first to traverse it, for it was only my footprints which littered the ground, and only my breathing which upturned the tranquility. It was this errant spirit which caused my heart to turn inward as I witnessed the well-versed become unfamiliar, and I found myself walking slower and slower until I stopped completely in the morning light.

There, standing in that sublime atmosphere, it was impossible to not be influenced, to not let my ears play tricks on me. It was then that I first thought I heard his laughter again. Of course this was impossible, but there I stood, certain that I was hearing him laugh again. And as I remained there, listening, I grew almost certain that if I were to just turn around I would see him there, much younger than he was last, once more wearing his gray snow gear, once more trying to look up at me through his downturned hat, his eyes squinting in the sunlight once more…

Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Monk in the Snow’ or ‘Der Winter’, 1808.

It is here that I lift my pen from the page, as I have so often before, and lean away from the pile of nearly-blank pages before me. Next to this stack sits a glass of wine, a cup of coffee brewed in indecision, and an anthology of English Romantic poetry. I’m in the process of writing a piece which is supposed to serve as both a memoir and a eulogy for a dear friend. It’s an attempt at expressing the disconcerting harmony between loss and nostalgia that has been plaguing my heart these last few months, but no matter how hard I try to reframe these memories, I just can’t seem to express what came before this period of grief. Each attempt I make at materializing his essence upon the page only manifests my sorrow more, for these recollections are now enveloped in nothing but pain. I have always relied on the written word to serve as an emotional outlet and a source of solace, but lately it seems to only hurt me.

It is with these frustrations that I lift the volume of poetry from my desk and flip to one of my favorite poems from Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth’s “Nutting.” Like so many other of his great works, “Nutting,” can be understood in a variety of ways. To name just a few, it can be interpreted as the narrative of a loss-of-innocence, as a possible reworking of Adam and Eve, as a conservationist’s thesis, or as something entirely more abstract based on the abundance of sexual imagery. For me, however, the true power of this poem has always come from the dual-meaning which is found within the poem’s conclusion. As a memoirist in both prose and poetry, I have always been haunted by this poem and have returned to it again and again whenever I am struggling with writing. This is because it offers such a profound investigation into what we choose to write about and from where we should draw our inspirations.

In order to fully access this space for reflection, however, one must first understand the meta-narrative that is at work within the production of the poem. To briefly summarize the narrative of this poem, it is about a young boy who ventures into the woods to gather nuts. Along his campaign, he discovers “one dear nook unvisited,” and there he takes great pleasure in the tranquility of the space and the “banquet” that is offered to the senses. However, in a moment of impulsivity, he uses his crook to yank nuts off of a tree branch, which ultimately disturbs the scene and ruins the magic he had found within it. He regrets this action almost immediately and the poem ends with the young boy, now a grown man, warning his “dearest Maiden,” to “move along these shades / in gentleness of heart; with gentle hand / touch—for there is a spirit in the woods.”

The conclusion of this poem, however, is complicated by the observation that Wordsworth, as the speaker and composer of the poem, has once more taken from this nook, this time not with a crook, but with a pen. This is where the meta-narrative comes into play, and it begs the question: has this act of literary-harvesting damaged the nook in a similar way? Why or why not? What precisely is lost in this transaction, and what is gained? It is obvious that the nook is not physically damaged by Wordsworth’s penning of the poem, and yet, I still wonder what sort of abstract, sacred essence may have been lost or altered in the act. Wordsworth certainly lost something in the production of this poem, for the moment that someone else read it, the little secluded spot was no longer Wordsworth’s alone.

This loss in the transaction became truly significant for me, however, when I started to think about how it could apply to more intangible properties like dreams, emotions, and memories. In these scenarios, we play the role of the maiden and the spirit-in-the-woods, because, as we traverse our own planes of interiority in search of writing material, we still remain like the spirit which can easily be harmed by the transgressions. Whatever we take, and whatever is lost, is taken and lost from and by us. As writers, we must constantly interrogate ourselves to evaluate what we are willing to sacrifice for a piece of writing, and what we are truly willing to not just share, but give to others.

Another difficult matter that this reflection introduces is the question of what we should decide to do when writing about painful topics. How do we know that the very act of writing about these topics won’t hurt us? What boundaries should we set for ourselves when writing about emotionally intense topics? Where do we draw the line on what we should or shouldn’t write about when it comes to how it may affect us? These questions are important because, once more, when we write about these things, we are not only playing the role of the young boy yanking at the tree branches, but we are also the tree branches being influenced (and potentially damaged) by the process. So how far are we willing to sacrifice ourselves for craft?

Ultimately, I think that it is important that we do not have a collective set of answers to these questions, or some easy formula through which we may find the answers. It is an integral step in the creation of any piece of artwork to investigate what our intentions are in creating it, and whether the production of the work will do more harm than good. As writers, we must discover our own personal boundaries when it comes to sharing our personal lives and tackling difficult topics. The majority of William Wordsworth’s work is heavily based in memory, and I think that he knew just how frequently writers can tend to wander through the forests of their interiors. I would argue, then, that “Nutting” serves as a warning that we must always be vigilant as to which branches we choose to pull from. However, I also want to note that in this cautionary poem, Wordsworth never tells the audience to entirely avoid the woods. In terms of writing, Wordsworth actively encouraged people to delve into their interiors and reflect on what they might find. In fact, this is one of the core theses of his Romantic ideology.  Therefore, similarly, we should not avoid our own searches for material through introspection. However, as Wordsworth advises, we should act with a “gentleness of heart,” when we do so.

I cannot personally say at this point whether my own creative projects which deal with my friend are harmful or not. I know that they are genuine, and that when I finally do finish them I will never share them with anyone else. This is because they have always been for me and me alone. I also know that I most likely need more time before I can properly tackle these themes of loss, just as I know that the reason grief still pervades my writing so ceaselessly is because I am still in mourning. I do have faith, however, that one day writing can heal even this.

Sean Wojtczak is a twenty-two-year-old graduate of the University of Iowa. His work has been published in multiple journals and magazines, including the Keats-Shelley Association of America Blog. He currently resides in Iowa City where he works as a paralegal.
Twitter: @seanwojtczak