Increasing compassion for animals led in Wordsworth's era to a polemic against hunting. Wordsworth's "Hart-Leap Well" is part of this campaign. Wordsworth's strategy and arguments in the second part of "Hart-Leap Well" are typical of the discourses that attacked hunting, chiefly for its cruelty, but Wordsworth was unusual in also leading readers in the first part of the poem to sympathize with the hunter's emotions, and he illustrates in the figure of Sir Walter the warrior virtues that hunting was said by its defenders to inculcate. The poem reaches more deeply, however, to explore irrational grounds of hunting's appeal in Sir Walter's enlarged sense of secure dominance, power, lust, and megalomania in the aftermath of the chase. As with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, egoistic self-assertion expresses itself in killing an animal and is figured as solitude. Just as Sir Walter embodies "the coarser pleasures of my boyish days" (as Wordsworth represents them in various poems), the figure of the poet possesses the more reflective, sensitive, and profound awareness that Wordsworth credits to his adult self. In "Hart-Leap Well" Sir Walter's mentality is that of the historical past, and the poet's represents the future. The poem offers a version of the Enlightenment plot of history as the moral progress of mankind. But in the end the poem may contemplate, with pleasure, the vanishing of mankind from the face of the earth, while nature remains in its beauty.

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