Mark Rutherford

Mark Rutherford is the pseudonym of William Hale White (1831-1913), under which he published an autobiography (1881), based in part on his own life, and several novels. The following episode, related here in two versions, occurred in December 1849.

From The Early Life of Mark Rutherford. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1913. pp. 61-3.

The most important changes in life are not those of one belief for another, but of growth, in which nothing preceding is directly contradicted, but something unexpected nevertheless makes its appearance. On the bookshelf in our dining-room lay a volume of Wordsworth. One day, when I was about eighteen, I took it out, and fell upon the lines --

Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her.

What they meant was not clear to me, but they were a signal of the approach of something which turned out to be of the greatest importance, and altered my history.

It was a new capacity. There woke in me an aptness for the love of natural beauty, a possibility of being excited to enthusiasm by it, and of deriving a secret joy from it sufficiently strong to make me careless of the world and its pleasures. Another effect which Wordsworth had upon me, and has had on other people, was the modification, altogether unintentional on his part, of religious belief. He never dreams of attacking anybody for his creed, and yet it often becomes impossible for those who study him and care for him to be members of any orthodox religious community. At any rate it would have been impossible in the town of Bedford. His poems imply a living God, different from the artificial God of the churches. The revolution wrought by him goes far deeper, and is far more permanent than any which is the work of Biblical critics, and it was Wordsworth and not German research which caused my expulsion from New College, of which a page or two further on. For some time I had no thought of heresy, but the seed was there, and was alive just as much as the seed-corn is alive all the time it lies in the earth apparently dead.

From The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Edited by His Friend Reuben Shapcott. London: Trübner, 1888. pp. 18-20.

During the first two years at college my life was entirely external. My heart was altogether untouched by anything I heard, read, or did, although I myself supposed that I took an interest in them. But one day in my third year, a day I remember as well as Paul must have remembered afterwards the day on which he went to Damascus, I happened to find amongst a parcel of books a volume of poems in paper boards. It was called "Lyrical Ballads," and I read first one and then the whole book. It conveyed to me no new doctrine, and yet the change it wrought in me could only be compared with that which is said to have been wrought on Paul himself by the Divine apparition. Looking over the "Lyrical Ballads" again, as I have looked over it a dozen times since then, I can hardly see what it was which stirred me so powerfully, nor do I believe that it communicated much to me which could be put in words. But it excited a movement and a growth which went on till, by degrees, all the systems which enveloped me like a body gradually decayed from me and fell away into nothing. Of more importance, too, than the decay of systems was the birth of a habit of inner reference and a dislike to occupy myself with anything which did not in some way or other touch the soul, or was not the illustration or embodiment of some spiritual law. There is, of course, a definite explanation to be given of one effect produced by the "Lyrical Ballads." God is nowhere formally deposed, and Wordsworth would have been the last man to say that he had lost his faith in the God of his fathers. But his real God is not the God of the Church, but the God of the hills, the abstraction Nature, and to this my reverence was transferred. Instead of an object of worship which was altogether artificial, remote, never coming into genuine contact with me, I had now one which I thought to be real, one in which literally I could live and move and have my being, an actual fact present before my eyes. God was brought from that heaven of the books, and dwelt on the downs in the far-away distances, and in every cloud-shadow which wandered across the valley. Wordsworth unconsciously did for me what every religious reformer has done, -- he recreated my Supreme Divinity; substituting a new and living spirit for the old deity, once alive, but gradually hardened into an idol.

What days were those of the next few years before increasing age had presented preciser problems and demanded preciser answers; before all joy was darkened by the shadow of oncoming death, and when life seemed infinite! Those were the days when through the whole long summer's morning I wanted no companion but myself, provided only I was in the country, and when books were read with tears in the eyes. Those were the days when mere life, apart from anything which it brings, was exquisite.

For another account, see Catherine MacDonald Maclean, Mark Rutherford: A Biography of William Hale White (London: MacDonald, 1955), which shows at greater length that "Tintern Abbey" was the key to Wordsworth's influence. As she doesn't document her sources, however, it is not possible to gauge the reliability of her description.

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Document created August 29th 2001