From Exultation to Ambivalence: The Diminishing Perspective of Faith in the Inherent Goodness of Man

An essay on Wordsworth, Browning, and Barrington

by Kane Prestenback | return to list of publications

Is man inherently good, or has humanity abandoned morality due to the lack of an innate appreciation of others? For the Romantic Period poet William Wordsworth, man’s innate goodness will always guide humanity toward the sublime. In the Victorian Period, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry expresses her diminishing faith while clinging to a belief that some of humanity still maintain an inherent goodness. However, by the Twentieth Century, Pauline Barrington’s poetry has reached a point of desperation, revealing a bleak perspective of humanity that is devoid of good. Wordsworth, Browning, and Barrington, among other poets of their time, demonstrate a conviction to their faith in humanity that corresponds with the changing perspectives of their respective eras, charting a path from a faith that is resolutely unconquerable to one that is devastatingly unmoored.

In Wordsworth’s “Prospectus,” the poet elevates humanity’s faith in inherent goodness, guiding the “discerning intellect of Man” towards faith and redemption from the effects of social ills (Johnston 61, Wordsworth “Preface”, line 52). He alludes to the rewards for man’s goodness foretold in the bible, “Paradise, and groves / Elysian, Fortunate Fields” (“Preface”, lines 47-48). Wordsworth’s conception of humanity is filtered through his intimate familiarity with the Bible (Pearson 197). However, he is notably willing to break out of traditional interpretation to admire humanity’s goodness, asserting that the biblical rewards are present in “the common day” thanks to the exquisite mind and goodness of man (Pearson 200; Wordsworth “Preface”, line 55).

Though Wordsworth acknowledges humanity’s troubles and man’s ability to inflict pain, his faith in humanity’s goodness is undeterred. Mentioning the “ill sights… solitary anguish… and confederate storm of sorrow” which consume humanity, Wordsworth asserts in his “Prospectus” that even these sights and sounds cannot dissuade him from celebrating humanity’s propensity toward virtuous action (lines 74-79).  He acknowledges that he must recognize man’s darkness and misfortune to assess an accurate portrayal of humanity, but the burden does not cause him to feel contempt for humanity. In Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Ouverture,” the poet continues to express unfailing optimism in the light of defeat. Despite evidence of Toussaint’s difficulties – presumably “[lying] now / Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den” –Wordsworth applies his faith in humanity and reassures Toussaint that goodness ultimately prevails (Wordsworth “Toussaint”, line 2).  Toussaint, the “most unhappy of men”, shall not succumb to losing his faith in humanity (line 1). Wordsworth challenges Toussaint to “Live, and take comfort” in the fact that his revolutionary ideas will persist and develop in the minds of men. Wordsworth has faith in humanity’s inherent goodness to take hold of Toussaint’s progressive ideas. Wordsworth turns to the sublime, considering “man’s unconquerable mind” as unquestionably directed toward the good of humanity, the metaphorical ally of “exultations, agonies, / And love” (lines 12-14). Wordsworth sees this sublimation is a direct answer to humanity’s struggles (Persyn 8). Persyn notes that, for Wordsworth, “the worldly forces of pain, deprivation, and perhaps of war, unintelligible and illegible to the poet but nevertheless heavy to the point of tyranny, are lightened by the imagination—by the mind of man—and its ostensible ability to turn to unity with nature to elide material loss and to affirm plenitude” (8).

If there is goodness in humanity, it must be extracted through condemnation of their actions and admission of their guilt. They must heed the words of the poet, for all of humanity’s sake, to think.

Wordsworth continues to espouse his faith in humanity’s goodness in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” His faith is asserted beyond “vain belief” when he shares anecdotal evidence of overcoming the oxymoronic “joyless daylight” (Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey”, lines 52-54). Despite the depressive darkness of the world, his spirit always returns to a positive outlook; out “of a sad perplexity, the picture of the mind revives again” (lines 62-63). The “still sad music of humanity” turns to “the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime” (lines 93, 96-97). For Wordsworth, this redemptive power to turn to the sublime lies in the soul of humanity, the certainty of a moral being anchored by “purest thoughts” (line 111). This certainty is echoed by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his “Ode to the West Wind.” Among the “Ashes and sparks” of humanity’s suffering, the words of the poet brace mankind toward the assumption of an inevitable good (Shelley, line 67). Shelley employs the seasons as a metaphor: Winter is humanity’s anguish; Spring is sublimation and redemption. Like Wordsworth to Toussaint, Shelley bolsters the human spirit, saying that “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (Shelley, line 70).

As the Romantic era gave way to the Victorian era, faith in humanity’s inherent goodness waned, and some Victorian poets grasped at the vestiges of their old faith. As Damrosch and Dettmar point out, a “crisis of religious doubt occasioned by biblical scholarship and scientific discovery… prompted an array of coping strategies and new ideas about the position of human beings in the universe” (574). Even poems which may not seem at first to be related to humanity’s inherent goodness reveal subtle glimpses of this diminished perspective. For instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” is viewed critically during its time as merely love poetry (Mermin 351), but a deeper examination reveals Browning’s characteristically radical and feminist perspective on the inherent goodness of humanity (Damrosch and Dettmar 613; Mermin 351). In the well-known “Sonnet 43”, she carefully follows the Petrarchan sonnet form, though her rhymes are not exact. For instance, in the first quatrain, “Let me count the ways” is coerced to rhyme with “Being and ideal Grace”, and in the sestet, “put to use” and “seemed to lose” are closely rhymed (Browning, lines 1, 4, 9, & 11). As Morlier points out, some critics of the time pointed to these slant rhymes as signifiers of Browning’s “faulty craft” (Morlier 97).  However, the imprecise rhymes may reveal the changing circumstances of the era – humanity’s imperfections breaking out of the order and structure of the past.

Browning tries to contain the imperfections within the structure of the sonnet, but the words belie the deeper truth lurking within. Barrett Browning notes the virtuous qualities inherent in men, who “freely… strive for Right” and “purely… turn from Praise” (Browning, lines 7-8). Christina Rossetti similarly insists on the virtuous qualities of men in “Goblin Market,” twice inserting the parenthetical caution that “Men sell not such in any town”, implying that humanity is not to blame for the antagonistic creatures of the poem – real men are inherently good and incapable of such cruelty (Rossetti, lines 101 & 556; Casey 66-67). For Browning, this belief in manly virtue is renewed by the intense love she feels for the poem’s subject. Browning follows this exultation of manly virtue with a subtle turn in the ninth line, also the line containing the traditional turn in the Petrarchan sonnet. She shifts from the Romantic sublime perspective which expands “to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach”, to a perspective that takes account of her internalized faults, anxieties, and “old griefs” (Browning, lines 2-3, 13). Most notably, she refers to a diminished sense of faith, mentioning the “love [she] seemed to lose / With [her] lost saints” and the “passion… with [her] childhood’s faith” (lines 9-12). Doing so she infers a change in the strength of her belief, indicative of the dimmed sense of faith emerging in the Victorian era. Matthew Arnold references this diminishing perspective in “Dover Beach”, acknowledging that “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full” (Arnold, lines 21-22). Browning is clinging to her formerly held beliefs, sensing a change to the validity of her belief in man’s inherent goodness. The love she feels has restored her wavering conviction in goodness and the order of the world. As Mermin attests, “the woman in the Sonnets finds her lover more passionate and alive than she is herself… he draws her back to life” (Mermin 362).

The end of the Victorian era brought with it further disintegration of faith in humanity’s inherent goodness. The dawn of the twentieth century and the eventual bleakness of the first World War engendered skepticism, ambivalence, and downright pessimism (Greenblatt 1017). Pauline Barrington examines the ambivalence and ruination she perceives in her poem, “Education.” For Barrington, “the day is grey as ashes on the hearth”, perhaps alluding to Shelley’s “unextinguished hearth… [from which] Ashes and sparks” scatter (Barrington, line 2; Shelley, lines 66-67). For Shelley, the ashes are a metaphor for the inherent ability for humanity to be restored through the words of the poet. For Barrington, these ashes serve as a simile for the dreariness that pervades the era. People’s perspectives have changed. They are less inclined to maintain the optimism of faith and goodness in their fellow man.

Barrington’s poem takes the form of a series of verses, each with an unrhymed tercet in iambic pentameter followed by a rhyming couplet of individual anapests or iambic dimeter. Each tercet depicts dreadful atrocities that humanity has become accustomed to in this era, or it foreshadows their inevitability. The final syllable of each line in the tercet does not rhyme, granting weight and finality to each statement. Each tercet contains the same internal rhyme in the first line with the repetition of “slipping, dripping”, increasing the depth of meaning for the words each time they are repeated. The words describe the action of another increasingly more consequential concept, evolving from “rain”, to a child’s “tears”, to “ink” in history books, to the uncontrollable devastation of “war” (Barrington, lines 1, 6, 16, & 21). The third verse changes the rhyme from “slipping” to “skipping”, as “blood is skipping, dripping drop by drop”, to more accurately portray the anxieties involved with the atrocities of “men… dying in the trenches’ mud (lines 11-12). Barrington has made humanity’s decline apparent. Even worse, humanity is teaching its children to continue down this dark path, as “the children play with soldiers made of tin” while they engage in a “mimic battle” that is later revealed as metaphorically analogous to the actual wreckage of war (lines 3 & 6). Barrington poses the question: “If the child is father of the man, / Is the toy gun father of Krupps?”, blaming humanity’s inevitable decline on the lessons men teach themselves (lines 22-23).

Barrington uses the couplets to indicate the shameful way which humanity now responds to such horrendous actions. Barrington does not believe that humanity responds with innate goodness, instead they sit idly by, continuing to “sew / row after row”, “dream / over your seam”, and so on (line 4-5, 9-10). The first line of each couplet begins with the anaphora “While you…”, morally condemning humanity for their inaction (line 4). Unlike the lines of the tercet, the lines of each couplet rhyme, resulting in an eerily poignant sadness. The combined effect of the shorter couplets, anaphora, and haunting rhyme scheme result in a lingering sense of condemnation.

The final verse indicates Barrington’s frustration and hopelessness by inserting an additional line between the tercet and the couplet. She demands, “For Christ’s sake think!” (line 24). Like Shelley and Wordsworth, she hopes that her words can guide humanity toward the greater good. But Barrington is far more desperate, having all but given up on faith in the goodness of humanity. She concludes the poem with a repetition of the couplet from the first verse, “While you sew / Row after row”, echoing the disdainful sorrow she feels for humanity’s inaction.

From the Romantic Period to the Twentieth Century, the changing perspective of faith in the inherent goodness of humanity notably corresponds with the perspectives demonstrated in Wordsworth, Browning, and Barrington’s works. Barrington’s assessment of humanity stands in stark contrast with Wordsworth’s expectation of man’s moral anchor. Wordsworth expects that man will ultimately do what is right. Barrington does not have as much faith. Instead, she indicates that when confronted with humanity’s calamity, man will simply remain inactive and ignore reality. Faith in the inherent goodness of humanity is extinguished, replaced by selfish individualism and inaction. And unlike Browning, Barrington’s faith in humanity is not restored; her faith cannot be restored when all she sees is a perpetual cycle of devastation and inaction. If there is goodness in humanity, it must be extracted through condemnation of their actions and admission of their guilt. They must heed the words of the poet, for all of humanity’s sake, to think.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 823-824.

Barrington, Pauline. “Education.” 1918. Masters of British Literature, Volume B, edited by David Damrosch et al.,Pearson Education, Inc., 2008, pp. 1178-1179.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “43.” Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1850. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 582.

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Greenblatt, Stephen, editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Author. Volume 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

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Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 862-874.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 396-398.

Wordsworth, William. “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 131-135.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to the Edition of 1814.” The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume V. Edited by William Knight, Macmillan and Co.,Ltd., London, 1896. E-book, Project Gutenberg, 2018,, Accessed 7 Oct 2022.

Wordsworth, William. “To Toussaint L’Ouverture.” Voices of the True-Hearted, no. 18, Apr. 1846, p. 288. EBSCOhost,