Wordsworth’'s poem 'The Primrose of the Rock': From Pythagoras and Pantheism to Christianity

by Fred Blick
Wordsworth’s contemplation of the primrose, as seen in ‘The Primrose of the Rock’ of 1831/5, illustrates the development of his spiritual beliefs concerning death and renewal. The poem reveals a change from a playing with the idea of continuity by Pythagorean transmigration of the soul to a conventional belief in orthodox, Christian Resurrection; from Pantheism to Christianity. The result was, as can be seen from the link below, one of the most touching of his ‘spots of time’ poems. This ‘spot’ was recorded in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal for 24 April 1802 only a few days after she had memorialised the daffodils of Ullswater.
In a subsequent, unfinished poem, the doom-laden ‘The Tuft of Primroses’ of May-autumn 1808, Wordsworth clearly associates the primrose with illness and death, but also with relief in the thought of survival and renewal (see ll. 1- 20). Mary Wordsworth sister, Sara Hutchinson had become terribly ill in May 1808. Her illness is referred to in lines 37- 48 as ‘a Friend’ to whom ‘ … came danger with disease’. Worse, Wordsworth’s brother John had died in a shipwreck in 1805. His death is also referred to in the poem – ‘how much is gone’ (ll. 72-4), ‘Of best Friends dead or other deep heart’s loss’ (l. 74), ‘ How many mute memorials pass’d away’ (l. 77). Of the primrose itself the speaker takes some consolation in its survival,  ‘That little flower remains, and has survived’ (l. 79). Up to this period in his life Wordsworth seems to have seen continuity in the natural process of renewal and in the continuity of perceived phenomena, such as in a child’s uplifting sense of immortality as associated with the Rainbow; not primarily in a belief in Christian Resurrection. Like St. Basil in the later part of ‘The Tuft … ’ who chooses a hermit’s life, he seeks relief in solitude and then in recollection (as in ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’). ‘The Tuft …’ poem is an elegy for the inspired days of the ‘happy Band’ of Dove Cottage (Coleridge’s ‘Gang’ of ‘A Soliloquy of The Full The Moon’, 1802).
By the end of 1812, the anguish arising from the deaths of two of his children had produced a profound, compensatory, religious effect upon him which coincided with the family’s move from the smoky Allan Bank at Grasmere to the elevated Rydal Mount in the following year.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

Wordsworth’s early vagueness about Christianity had been a source of uneasiness on the part of his friend and collaborator, Coleridge, who was an outspoken and convinced Unitarian. Coleridge wrote of Wordsworth to John Thelwall on 13 May 1796, ‘ … this man is a Republican and at least a semi-atheist’. Then he wrote to the Revd. J.P. Estlin on 18 May 1798, ‘He loves and venerates Christ & Christianity – I wish he did more’. The truth was that up to about 1808 Wordsworth was a tepid Anglican Christian who did not agree with all Christian dogma. He certainly displayed Pythagoreanism and Pantheism and found Deity in Nature as part of an interpretation of ‘the one life’. In contrast, Coleridge saw ‘the one life’ as part of Unitarian Christianity.
In his ‘Immortality Ode’, fifth stanza, Wordsworth contemplates Pythagorean transmigration:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,

However, like Coleridge’s, Wordsworth’s ‘one life’ is associated with Harmony. Both of them owed much to the Pythagorean concept of a harmonious universe based on the ‘music of the spheres’ – a harmony (in the Greek meaning of ‘a fitting together’) running through all things and constituting a finely tuned ‘One’ and, consequently, initiating ‘the one life’.
Inspired by the sound of the wind-harp wedged in a window, Coleridge wrote in his ‘The Eolian Harp’ (the 1817 version),

O the one life within us and abroad
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where – …

Wordsworth was undoubtedly interested in the music of the spheres and in universal Pythagorean harmony. He was clearly aware of Shakespeare’s references to it in his plays and he knew, therefore, that Lorenzo was alluding to it when he addressed Jessica in the famous star-lit scene towards the end of The Merchant of Venice (Act V. scene i. 58-63). This evidenced when in The Prelude, Book First (1805, 351-55) Wordsworth writes:

The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath
And harmony of music.
There is a dark Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society.’

Wordsworth is speaking here of ‘the one life’ and of the macrocosm/microcosm equation which prevailed in Renaissance aesthetics and also of concordia discors, the harmony of discord, a concept derived from Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BC) and emphasised as ‘unity of opposites’, by Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC). This is also evident in Wordsworth’s 1828 preliminary ‘Argument’ for ‘On The Power of Sound’ which commences ‘Thy functions are ethereal’. There he summarizes the theme of its Stanza 12 as ‘The Pythagorean theory of numbers and music, with their supposed power over the motions of the universe.’ The stanza reads,

By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled,
As sages taught, where faith was found to merit
Initiation in that mystery old.

The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still
As they themselves appear to be,
Innumerable voices fill
With everlasting harmony.  (lines 177-184).

This display of Pythagoreanism appeared long after he had committed himself more fully to Christianity; but it looks as if it was planned much earlier. He was very proud of it. In a letter to Alexander Dyce dated 23 December 1837 he held it ‘… equal to anything I have produced’.
In a much simpler but sensitive vein, Dorothy wrote in her Journal for 24 April 1802,

Saturday 24th. A very wet day. William called me out to see a waterfall behind the Barberry tree. ― We walked in the evening to Rydale ― Coleridge and I lingered behind ― C stopped up the little runner by the Road to make a lake. We all stood to look at Glowworm Rock ― a primrose that grew there & just looked out on the Road from its own sheltered bower. The clouds moved as William observed in one regular body like a multitude in motion a sky all clouds over, not one cloud. On our return it broke a little out & we saw here & there a star. One appeared but for a moment in a lake pale blue sky’.  (Journals, Woof ed., p. 91).

Glowworm Rock 1890s

Glowworm Rock 1890s

The particular occasion; a wet day; possible apprehension at the waterfall; Coleridge’s deliberate stopping of the stream’s flow on the walk as if to stop the flow of time (so that the occasion would become one of Wordsworth’s inspirational ‘spots of time’); the ‘primrose’ clinging to the solid ‘Glowworm Rock’; the ‘multitude’ of ‘clouds’ and the ‘star’ seen ‘but for a moment’ – must have been an especially memorable combination. The record of how ‘We all stood to look at Glowworm Rock ― a primrose that grew there & just looked out …’ has the flavour of a solemn ceremony, the participants intent on memorializing a special occasion. Dorothy’s words fit the scene most beautifully and poetically, but they are loaded with an appreciation of the Pantheistic, animal vitality of natural phenomena as found in Greek Myths and Ovid.
Almost thirty years after that record, in 1831, Wordsworth finished ‘The Primrose of the Rock’. Its composition had begun in 1829 when Dorothy first became seriously ill and it was published in 1835, the year after Coleridge’s death after long illness. Like ‘The Barberry-Tree’ of Spring 1802, which commences ‘Late on breezy vernal eve’ (l. 1), the poem recalls that occasion of 1802, fanned by ‘the vernal breeze’ (l. 6). In 1831. Wordsworth was aged sixty-one and he knew too well that Dorothy’s health had failed. Coleridge was also extremely ill. In the poem Wordsworth recalled the rock where the ‘glow-worms hang their lamps’ (l. 3). And, as in ‘The Tuft of Primroses’, his theme was the persistence of the primrose flower and of the ‘Rock itself to which it ‘adheres’ as ‘A lasting link in Nature’s chain’ (ll.11 and 17). The love (including its sexual elements) symbolized by the light of the glow-worm (see Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Glow-worm’) had by 1829 been transmuted by age (‘That love which changed’, l. 37), into ‘God’s redeeming love’ (l. 36) with the certain prospect of a ‘rise’ to an ‘eternal summer’ (i.e. to Christian Resurrection, ll. 46-7). He could have composed no more moving souvenir of that happy, distant and contemplative occasion. Since that time he had merged his Darwinian Pantheism with Faith in the God of Christianity. Natural renewal had been replaced by Resurrection. Or perhaps he had simply clarified his ideas and had never really seen any conflict between different aspects of Deity.
The full poem can be read here. You can see it as a song in two parts, the first meditating on life’s changes through time and celebrating the first seeing of the persistent primrose of the ‘living rock’; and the second a Christian song in Recollection of that occasion, but embracing all ‘Deity’ (l. 54).
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in Romanticism journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.