The question is from the first lines of a poem by William
Wordsworth, written in 1841 in protest against plans for construction of the
Kendall to Windermere railway in the Lakes District of England.
Wordsworth was not impressed by the view that the railway
would place the beauty of the Lakes District within easier reach of these who would
not otherwise have access to it. He described such arguments as: ‘Utilitarianism,
serving as a mask for cupidity and gambling speculations’. Environmentalists
sometimes advance similar arguments these days, but few are as rash as
Wordsworth. The famous poet suggested that an appreciation of the beauty of
romantic scenery was beyond the capability of ordinary people:
‘Rocks and mountains, torrents and widespread waters, and
all those features of nature which go to the composition of such scenes as this
part of England is distinguished for, cannot, in their finer relations, to the
human mind be comprehended, even very imperfectly conceived, without processes
of culture or opportunities of observation in some degree habitual’.
Our rash assault on Lake Windermere took place late in
August, via the steam train from Haverthwaite to Lakeside.
It is hard to imagine that any reader of this blog would
have difficulty in appreciating the beauty of Lake Windermere, but I will nevertheless
add some of Wordsworth’s poetry below my photos.
Standing alone, as from a rampart’s edge,
I overlooked the bed of Windermere,
Like a vast river, stretching in the sun.
With exultation, at my feet I saw
Lake, islands, promontories, gleaming bays,
A universe of Nature’s fairest forms
Proudly revealed with instantaneous burst,
Magnificent, and beautiful, and gay.
(William Wordsworth, The
Prelude Book IV)
After our cruise on Lake Windermere we visited Grasmere.
Rest in peace, William Wordsworth. I hope our visit did not
disturb you too much. We were only in your beautiful Lakes District for one
John Stuart Mill, one of the most famous advocates of utilitarianism,
walked all over your Lakes District for the best part of a month in July-August
1831 and even spent about 4 days walking and talking with you.
After visiting Wordsworth, Mill told a good friend, John
‘all my differences
with him [Wordsworth], or any other philosophic Tory, would be differences of
matter-of-fact or detail, while my differences with the radicals and
utilitarians are differences of principle’. (See: Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill, 2007, p 74.)
The best explanation of Mill’s views at that time seems to
be that he was somewhat confused after setting out to expose himself to a
variety of different views opposed to radical utilitarianism - the secular religion
of his youth. Mill did this following a mental crisis which he attributed to
realization that even if all his (radical utilitarian) objectives were realized,
he would not be filled with ‘great joy and happiness’. In addition to the views
of Wordsworth, Mill became strongly influenced at that time by French secular
messiahs, Saint-Simon and Auguste Compte. (Mill’s involvement in that brand of
secular religion has been examined by Linda Reader in her book, John Stuart Mill and the Religion of
Mill embraced the poetry of Wordsworth because it helped him
to achieve a more tranquil mental state. I expect that vast numbers of people have been similarly helped by the imagery of the Lakes District conveyed
by Wordsworth’s poetry.