Planning to take an afternoon train out of London, de Botton meets M. in Euston Station, where he finds it “miraculous” that he can find her in the crowd. The train heads into the countryside as night falls, and de Botton is thrilled by the swaying train cars and “the prospect of eating something cooked in a moving train.” They disembark at the Lake District’s Oxenholme Station around nine in the evening along with a few other travelers, and de Botton wonders about all those on the train for whom his stop is unexceptional, just “one stop among many.” Near the empty station, de Botton and M. rent a car.
As in his second essay, de Botton feels a palpable thrill at the prospect of train travel. His suggestion that his station may have been just “one stop among many” for the other travelers both recalls the anonymity of traveling places and suggests that equally rich experiences might await at all the places train travelers only experience as signs in a station; again, traveling reminds de Botton of the endless possibilities he can encounter away from home.
De Botton sees his motivations for traveling to the Lake District as at once personal and historical, harkening back to the late 18th century, when people from the city first started to visit the countryside “to restore health to their bodies and, more important, harmony to their souls.”
De Botton’s explanation suggests that there is no strict division between the historical and the personal; indeed, as Nietzsche suggested at the end of the previous chapter, travel can help people understand the historical underpinnings of the world they live in.
De Botton and M. arrive at their mediocre hotel and wondered about an owl they hear outside the window. William Wordsworth was a crucial impetus for de Botton’s trip; the author read the poet’s Prelude in bed as M. declared Wordsworth “an old toad,” although she later recited lines from his “Intimations of Immortality” that she claimed “moved her perhaps more than anything else that she had ever read”: “What though the radiance which was so bright / Be now for ever taken from my sight / Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; / We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind.” De Botton cannot bring himself to continue reading after he finds an old guest’s hair in the headboard, so he goes to sleep amidst the owl’s cries.
The owl’s cry confirms that M. and de Botton have transitioned from the city to nature but also underlines their discomfort in the country. As de Botton continues to discover throughout the chapter, nature (here, the owl) is indifferent to their presence. M.’s ambivalence toward Wordsworth reflects the poet’s simultaneous ridicule and praise from critics in his own time. And the poem she recites foreshadows the “spots of time” that de Botton explains at the end of the chapter: although “the radiance” is “taken from my sight,” Wordsworth can “find / Strength” through memory.
Wordsworth was born in 1770 in the Lake District, where he spent his childhood “running wild among the Mountains” and went on to live his entire life. He walked vigorously in the mountains or by the lake every day despite—as one acquaintance put it—his hideous, insect-like legs. During these walks, he wrote short poems about nature, a subject that previous poets had often neglected.
Although Wordsworth lived in the same place his whole life, he nevertheless found constant novelty and fulfillment there, which suggests that he may have something to teach travelers who are bored with the places where they live.
De Botton excerpts Wordsworth poems about the lively mountains, a sparrow’s nest and a nightingale’s song, behind which he sees “a well-developed philosophy of nature” that claims that the countryside “was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.”
Wordsworth attempted to translate his meaningful encounters with the natural world to a broader reading public through his poetry, which reflects art’s power to spread aesthetic values to a wider audience.
While critics from the poet Lord Byron to the editors of the Edinburgh Review ridiculed his naïve wonder at nature, and others even began parodying his work in literary journals, Wordsworth was not fazed, and continued to hope that his work would brighten the lives of “the young and the gracious of every age,” making them “more actively and secretly virtuous” by showing them the beauty in nature.
Wordsworth gave his critics little credence, which suggests that his strategy—communing with nature in order to overcome city-life’s obsession with status—was working. He saw nature as providing a more reliable and purer conduit for virtue than people could, and his poetry aimed to reflect natural beauty rather than win him literary fame.
While Wordsworth did not expect his readers to come around to his side during his lifetime, within 20 years he was a literary star—readers frequently memorized his poems, and tourists began flooding the Lake District. He was named England’s poet laureate and, by his death in 1850, his belief in the curative properties of nature had successfully entered British public opinion.
Just as M. declared Wordsworth “an old toad” before admitting that she loved his poetry, his critics quickly had a change of heart once he converted the English reading public to his way of thinking. The fact that numerous readers (M. included) chose to memorize Wordsworth’s poems suggests that they managed to bottle the beauty of nature for later use, as it were.
While Wordsworth lamented urban congestion and poverty, his true complaint was “the effect of cities on our souls,” for he thought that cities led people to an obsession with social status and “relentless desire for new things” that they did not truly need. He thought that this began eroding the quality of human relationships, and lamented that neighbors in London did not know one another’s names.
For Wordsworth, cities eroded the soul because (paradoxically) the more people surrounded themselves with others, the less they acknowledged those others as human and the more they focused on their own personal advancement. People in cities seemed to narrow their expectations and desires, becoming unreceptive to their environments.
Feeling “afflicted by a few of these ills” as he walks out of a gathering in London one day, de Botton becomes infatuated with the sight of a cloud overhead, and begins to calm down as he recites part of Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” to himself: “… [Nature] can so inform / The mind that is within us, so impress / With quietness and beauty…”
As when he flies on airplanes, a cloud—a common reminder of nature’s transcendence of and indifference to human life—draws de Botton out of his petty anxieties and reminds him of the “quietness and beauty” that Wordsworth so prized. Notably, clouds suggest that people can find serenity through nature even while they live their normal lives in cities.
Walking through the Welsh Wye Valley with his sister in 1798, after a difficult few years, Wordsworth had a revelation and wrote this famous poem while sitting under a tree. Its subtitle is “On revisiting the banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798,” and it emphasizes the opposition between city and countryside. A later portion of it reads: “How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods, / How often has my spirit turned to thee!” Elsewhere, like in The Prelude, he also wrote about nature’s ability to help him survive the emotional turmoil of city life.
Wordsworth’s highly specific subtitle suggests that he wants to remember a particular moment in nature, rather than simply the Wye’s beauty as such. While he translates this beauty through his poetry, then, he continues to emphasize the observer’s physical presence in and active engagement with nature.
De Botton asks why nature would have this healing effect, and turns back to his own trip, when he and M. eat breakfast in their hotel while their landlord promises that the pouring rain will stop. They drive through the bustling little town of Ambleside to the Great Langdale Valley, “where nature was more in evidence than humans.”
Again, the city-dwellers head deeper into nature, although de Botton does not yet seem to fully grasp Wordsworth’s defense of it. Unlike with his previous trips, de Botton seems to have relatively fewer expectations for his trek in the Lake District—while he goes having read Wordsworth, he does not seem to anticipate any life-changing realizations or complete serenity, as he did in Barbados.
Huge oak trees line the path, and de Botton notes the orderliness of their branches and leaves, which he contrasts with other kinds of trees. The heavy rain “gave us a sense of the mass of the oaks,” which represent “ordered complexity” and patience to de Botton. Wordsworth liked to sit beneath trees, and similarly lauded their “patience and dignity,” which he argued represented “a temperate show / Of objects that endure.” This would presumably lead people to seek “whate’er there is desirable and good.”
Although de Botton’s lengthy description of the oak trees might seem unnecessary, he wants to illustrate how the transformations that Wordsworth promised require an active attention to and reflection on the things one sees. This foreshadows his arguments in the final two essays. De Botton also teases out the “patience and dignity” Wordsworth saw in the oaks by noticing how they relate to other features of the environment—the rain and the soil that feed them—which suggests that he is beginning to see the interconnections among elements of nature (and perhaps also beginning to see humans’ entanglement in it).
De Botton notes that Wordsworth’s argument relies on the premise that human identity can change “according to whom—and sometimes what—we are with.” He suggested that natural objects like mountains and trees could influence people, although they are not conscious, by “suggest[ing] certain values to us” and inspiring virtue. In particular, he thought of “sanity, purity and permanence.”
While in previous chapters de Botton tried to explain how new places often fail to change or enticingly fit a person’s character, he now asks how travel can help shape that character. His model of travel is not that of an individual who moves through an inert place, but rather an individual in dialogue with the environment.
To Wordsworth, flowers suggested “humility and meekness” and animals “were paragons of stoicism.” He was inspired by a bird that sang near his house and a pair of swans that moved nearby. After the rain passed, de Botton and M. hear a group of birds calling out and then see another, a black-eared wheatear, fly off around the valley. A sheep comes down to the path and chews grass, and the sheep and de Botton stare at each other—the author wonders, “what makes me me and him him?”
Again, to translate nature into virtue, people must actively attend to and reflect on the environment rather than merely immersing themselves in it. De Botton’s dialogue with the sheep, although it may seem inane, reflects the conflict between his immediate receptivity to the animal that stares him in the eyes and his knowledge that the sheep’s perspective may be completely irreconcilable with his own.
From a bush by a stream ahead, de Botton hears “a noise like the sound of a lethargic old man clearing his throat after a heavy lunch” and then a rustle in the bushes, after which whatever animal hides there realizes “that it has company” and goes silent. De Botton considers it “a contemporary, a fellow sleeping and breathing creature alive on this singular planet in a universe otherwise made up chiefly of rocks and vapours and silence.”
Although he does not see the animal in the bushes, de Botton nevertheless attends to it and finds it fascinating precisely because he knows nothing about it besides its fellow presence on Earth. He begins to hint at why nature’s unknowability contributes to its value for humans, which he explores in more depth in the following essay.
Wordsworth himself wanted people to notice animals more deeply, to “abandon their usual perspective” and see the world from both “the human and the natural perspective.” De Botton suggests that confinement to a single perspective might be a source of unhappiness. In one of his books, Wordsworth expressed his wish that the “arrivals and departures of birds” would be tracked in newspapers and perhaps offer psychic relief.
Just like when traveling to foreign countries and experiencing another perspective on the world, imagining the perspective of nature can comfort humans by expanding their universe of concern. Wordsworth’s suggestion that bird migrations are newsworthy exemplifies what it would mean for humans to fully integrate the natural perspective into their everyday lives.
The poet Samuel Coleridge thought Wordsworth’s writings could direct the mind to the novelty in everyday things, awaken people to the wonders of the world, and perhaps, de Botton suggests, “encourage us to locate the good in ourselves.”
As with the exotic, the benefits of nature come from seeing the layers of depth and meaning behind things that others might ordinarily find banal.
After three days, M. and de Botton head back to London and notice the very temporary character of nature’s psychological benefits. Wordsworth would have disagreed, however, as he remarked after a walk in the Italian Alps that “scarcely a day of my life will pass in which I shall not derive some happiness from these images.” He thought particular scenes from nature could give people “both a contrast to and relief from present difficulties,” and he called these scenes spots of time. This explains Wordsworth’s “unusually specific” subtitles, which usually name a location and an exact date.
While the immediate benefits of time in nature are short-lived, Wordsworth’s “spots of time” allow people to preserve nature for later use, as it were. These “spots of time” call back to de Botton’s first chapter, in which he argues that memory (in addition to anticipation and imagination) selectively emphasizes the most striking parts of a trip while erasing the mundane experiences that connect them (like transit or sights one might encounter at home).
De Botton had a “spot of time” too, when he and M. ate chocolate bars near Ambleside and he noticed a group of trees with stunning “health and exuberance,” indifferent to the travails of human life. The author says he “was tempted to bury my face in them so as to be restored by their smell.” He was only receptive to the scene for a minute and did not even remember it until, during a traffic jam in London, he suddenly returned to the trees and stopped feeling anxious about his upcoming meeting.
Just as de Botton’s trips in Barbados and Amsterdam are worthwhile because of momentary details he remembers, his trip to the Lake District leaves him with a single—but immensely valuable—spot of time that helps to heal his frustration and anxiety at the traffic jam.
Beside a lake near where de Botton and M. stayed, Wordsworth saw daffodils “dancing in the breeze” and kept them alive as a spot of time, writing: “For oft when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood. / They flash upon that inward eye… / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the Daffodils.” De Botton agrees that images like this can help relieve the pain of city life, and signs his chapter: “On Travelling in the Lake District, 14-18 September 2000.”
Wordsworth, too, uses spots of time to heal his weariness and bring a dose of beauty back home with him. Indeed, his poems are similar in this function to the word-painting of John Ruskin, which de Botton discusses in his eighth essay. The author signs his chapter in the style of Wordsworth’s captions, although his model usually referenced a particular moment (or spot of time) while de Botton references the entire duration of his trip.