I visited Rydal Mount a few weeks ago, the home of poet William Wordsworth. My father-in-law was visiting us here in England, so we spent a couple of days in “the Lakes” (besides my father-in-law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were apparently also sighted in the Lake District that week).
Rydal Mount sits just on a sloped hill affording a view of both Windermere and Rydal Water. With the gardens elegantly manicured, inspired by the tender care the poet gave to every flower bed, stone and patch of green, the place feels like a dreamy sanctuary.
When we were leaving, my father-in-law bought me a collection of Wordsworth’s poetry from the gift shop. I will be reading those sonnets for the rest of my life. I was pleased to come across this one, called “Pastoral Character,” from the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (number 18):
PASTORAL CHARACTER, William Wordsworth
A genial hearth, a hospitable board,
And a refined rusticity, belong
To the neat mansion, where, his flock among,
The learned Pastor dwells, their watchful Lord.
Though meek and patient as a sheathéd sword;
Though pride’s least lurking thought appear a wrong
To human kind; though peace be on his tongue,
Gentleness in his heart – can earth afford
Such genuine state, pre-eminence so free,
As when, arrayed in Christ’s authority,
He from the pulpit lifts his awful hand;
Conjures, implores, and labours all he can
For re-subjecting to divine command
The stubborn spirit of rebellious man?
A few things stand out to me….
For one, Wordsworth’s portrayal is of what I would call a “pastor-theologian” or a “pastor-scholar.” Note the phrase “learned pastor,” and given the way ecclesiastical structures work in England (and noting the setting of the mid-1800s), many pastors/priests would be among society’s intellectuals, though the clergy often worked well beyond the pale of where most elites worked (like in remote country parishes, for instance).
Another observation is the restrained sense of power and authority. There is tension between exerting force and exhibiting meekness. I think good pastors live in this tension. The line, “meek and patient as a sheathéd sword,” is a powerful illustration of ministerial restraint. There is a might, a sharp-steel element of danger in the pastor. Not a danger posed to the flock, but to evil, to twisted thoughts, to deception. The place of conflict is the pulpit; the means of engagement is exhortation (“Conjures, implores, and labours all he can”) and the authority is that of Christ. But again, note that these images of strength are balanced with the weight of statements about meekness and peacefulness of heart.
Another observation, made from the initial lines, is that the pastor’s home (the “mansion” probably refers to a parsonage or vicarage) is a safe, open place wherein the members of the flock feel at ease. The pastor’s home is as critical as the pastor’s pulpit.
So the pastoral character is that of a soul exuding comfort and peace while also engaging evil in the realms of the pulpit and the hearth, the chapel and the home.