This poem was originally published in the Lyrical Ballads, which is a collaborative collection of works by Wordsworth and Coleridge. When I was younger, I read the Lyrical Ballads several times. Then, on a trip to England, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Lake District and visit Wordsworth’s cottage. Doing so gave me a deeper appreciation of these works.
For me, I see a lot of mystical symbolism in this poem. First off, the yew tree is a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, which is why it is often found in cemeteries in England. Keep this in mind when reading the poem.
The poem opens with the writer beckoning a Traveller to rest at a yew tree. He describes the effect of the surrounding environment on a person:
Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.
I get the impression that sitting at the tree and listening to the sounds causes one to enter a state of altered consciousness.
The poem continues with reflections upon some ancient mystical Being who seems to have some connection to the yew tree:
Who he was
That piled these stones and with the mossy sod
First covered, and here taught this aged Tree
With its dark arms to form a circling bower,
I well remember.–He was one who owned
No common soul.
I feel that the person being described here is some form of fertility king, such as described in Frasier’s The Golden Bough. But as the poem continues, it appears that the fertility king had become unfruitful. Hence, a new king is needed in order to continue the cycle of rebirth and regeneration.
Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour
A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here
An emblem of his own unfruitful life:
The first part of the poem ends with the death of the fertility king, who left behind the yew as a symbol of his impending resurrection. Now a new king can emerge and take his place upon the bough.
On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears. In this deep vale
He died,–this seat his only monument.
In the second and final section of the poem, the Traveller is encouraged to take his rightful place as the new fertility king. He is warned to avoid feelings of pride and contempt and to focus on the mystery of “Nature’s works.” He is also instructed that:
… true knowledge leads to love;
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself
In lowliness of heart.
This poem is more complex than it appears. I encourage you to read this slowly and more than once in order to get the full effect.
Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, visit your local bookstore and buy a copy of the Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the investment.