I remember once hearing a young father tell me that he would not influence his children to believe or to not believe that God exists. When the children reached adolescence or at least the age of rational choice based on rational argument they could make the decision for themselves. Since they had no experience of church or Sunday School it turned out they had no decision to make; they just refrained from doing anything different from what they had always done

The father was not a philosopher but no doubt he would have agreed with the nineteenth century liberal and utilitarian J.S. Mill:

The most important quality of an opinion on any momentous subject is its truth or falsity, which to us resolves itself into the sufficiency of the evidence on which it rests. It is indispensable that the subject of religion should from time to time be reviewed as a strictly scientific question and that its evidences should be tested by the same scientific methods, and on the same principles as those of any of the speculative conclusions drawn by physical science.

J.S.Mill “Theism”

Science may be useful or helpful when considering religious beliefs. Consideration of the world and what it tells us of God has been part of natural theology at least since Aquinas. One-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew has written an interesting work There Is A God (HarperCollins 2007) in which he explains why he changed his mind on God on the basis of recent scientific research. But in what way can science focused on religion make a judgement challenging the truth of God one way or the other? Mill points to “scientific methods” presumably referring to the empirical idea of the detached observer considering evidence impartially. But what evidence? Can God be known by the detached observer?

As Ian Robinson explains:

“Existence” as Mill uses it at once transfers the discussion to the wrong science, and to the kind of evidence we would demand for the existence of the planets or the elements. If the existence of God is the same kind of question as the existence of uranium or Uranos it can be investigated by physics. Scientists do occasionally discover new celestial objects but God has never been spied through a telescope. Therefore, thinks Mill, with what I had to call startling naivety, the existence of God is at best not proven. No, all that follows is God is not a celestial object. The methods of physical science apply to physical things, but we are told that God is spirit.

Ian Robinson The English Prophets Edgeways 2001

Religion does not start from the Mill’s rational viewpoint. As Robinson argues the Creed does not begin “I believe that God exists therefore….” ; it starts from an inside commitment. “I believe in God …”

So that the fact Mill in his essay thinks on balance the existence of God as first cause is more likely than not does not mean he commits to God as the “light of the world or saviour”. He questions whether Mill is speaking about religion at all. For what is religion?

Religion has to do with things like certain practices called sacramental, associated with the divine, with absolutes in morality, with credal belief in revelation, with prayer. It also gives us a picture of human life though not a picture to be contemplated in an art gallery. The central Christian image derived from the Old Testament, is walking in a way. That is how Christians prove the existence of God. “If ye love me keep my commandments”. I do not go as far as Wittgenstein that it makes no difference whether the crucifixion actually happened. What concerns religion is the attitude of the soul to the event, and the consequences for living.

Ian Robinson ibid

Conversion, repentance, a changed life, may have physical effects but strictly the measurement of such is not something science can yield; only a sense, within and perhaps in community, of a changed life. Curiously Mill as he describes in his Autobiography goes through a kind of conversion from the kind of desiccated education he has been subject to as a child by reading Wordsworth’s poetry -but this does not leads him to prioritise the inner life in his philosophy. Nor does he ask in what way Science proves the existence of poetry-though clearly, for him, poetry creates a “momentous” change.

So the young father was as deluded in his idea as he would have been in denying his children the practice of reading poetry, until they were of an age when such a choice could be made rationally. And while natural theology may make interesting reading religion is closer to poetry than it is to science.


Isaiah’s “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” could well be applied to William Wordsworth in 1812 . For that year saw the death of two of William’s children: Catherine aged three and three quarters in June and Tommy of measles in December at the tender age of six. He wrote this poem as an epitaph.

 Surprised by joy-impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-Oh! with whom 
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no vicissitude can find? 
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind- 
But how could I forget thee? Through what power, 
Even for the least division of an hour, 
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
To my most grievous loss!-That thought's return 
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 
Save one-one only, when I stood forlorn, 
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn 
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore. 

With Dorothy, grief perhaps was moderated by her frailty. She had never been a well child” (Bate J. Radical Wordsworth P363). Suffering convulsions when she was eighteen months, she was paralysed on the left side and at three and three-quarters she developed the brain fever that finished her.

With Tommy a great future was hoped for. “His sixth birthday came a few days after Dorothy’s death.” He was everyone’s comfort. The other children quarelled with each other but never with him. He was beginning to show a love of books and learning. His father loved him with what Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) called a “peculiar tenderness”. Wordsworth was hoping that this would be the son who would follow in his poetic footsteps. He would describe his boy of ” heavenly disposition,……… passionately fond of knowledge, ardent in the discharge of his duty but in everything else mild and peaceful.”(ibid. P. 365).

While not naming Tommy the poem seems suited to the child but its lack of specificity means that for every reader who has experienced grief a particular force of shared feeling.


Transported by delight you turn to share the emotion and the actuality of separation comes back to you with renewed force. The one with whom you are accustomed to share is no longer there. The renewal of the shock brings guilt-how could you ever forget?- and a vivid re-living of the first realisation of the death and the reconfirmed sense of the unalterability of what has happened.

The poem is a looking within at the emotions. We do not see out there. Until the final lines there is only the one central image of the tomb. We are not drawn to what looks striking about the scene that brings the joy; we are not invited to distinguish the one now dead, until with a summing-up epithet in the last line. And also we are not expected to commiserate with the poet, one William Wordsworth- he is not looking for our sympathy: he is too concentrated on attending to the grief working within him .

The poem is packed with a range of feelings which the poet has to work to understand. We as readers undistracted by images follow the confused to and fro of the poet’s emotions as they are worked into a fuller kind of understanding: and then, later, going over the poem in our minds we are given the freedom to relate these to ourselves and our own experience.

On first reading the last thing we expect on reading the first line and a half is a poem of mourning. The first phrase appears to promise a scene of wonder. When this is broken into by the next phrase “Impatient as the wind” we are probably confused. Then “I turned to share the transport” possibly more for us than Wordsworth’s contemporary readership puzzles us with “transport” until we recognise the appropriate meaning:

“the state of being affected by strong (now esp. pleasurable) emotion; exaltation, rapture, ecstasy. M17”. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The external scene that has conjured up that “transport” ,that has roused the poet is brought down to the central reality of loss:

                                    Oh with whom 
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no viccisitude can find? 
Love, faithful love recalled thee to my mind-
But how could I forget thee?


“Vicissitude” is another surprising word. Checking the S.O.E.D. the meaning that seems most fitting is “change or mutability regarded as a natural process or tendency in human affairs”. Note how the poet, changeable “impatient as the wind” with that word negated, is brought to the recognition of the unalterable, against himself ,as it were. The power of the poem-the emotion driving the series of broken phrases brings the poet to this point of self- accusation: “But how could I forget thee?”

The rhetorical question leads to an expression of guilt- common in the grieving-a feeling that one has let the mourned one down.

The reflection takes the poet back to the original feeling; here, alone, the poet pictures himself “when I stood forlorn”. The phrase “heart’s best treasure” inevitably in a Bible-steeped culture reminds the reader of the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is there will be your heart also”(St Matthew 6:21). This passage from the gospel also connects with the phrase “heavenly face” in the poem. Notably Wordsworth has also, in the letter telling of the child’s death quoted above used the epithet “heavenly” there. In the gospel passage Jesus speaks of the need to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”(Matthew 6.20).

This consolation is not however in Wordsworth’s poem

That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

While the implication of “heavenly” is potentially one of reconciliation with the grief that is a stage which has not yet been reached. The fact of separation is too brutal and something which the poet has to continue to face stoically.

What the poem encourages then is not so much transcending grief but facing it with stoical courage. What is notable about the poem is the rhythmic power that carries the poem through its sequence of intense feelings to its final agonised recognition.


Jonathan Bate Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who changed the World. William Collins 2020