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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 3, août 1996

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005725ar

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Article

'The Words He Uttered ...': A Reading of Wordsworth

Michael O'Neill

University of Durham


- 1 -

1

In The Excursion Book VII, a book much possessed by transience and decay, Wordsworth's Pastor concludes his eulogy for a still-living 'Priest' by imagining the latter's tombstone-to-be:

A simple stone

May cover him; and by its help, perchance,

A century shall hear his name pronounced,

With images attendant on the sound;

Then, shall the slowly-gathering twilight close

In utter night; and of his course remain

No cognizable vestiges, no more

Than of this breath, which shapes itself in words

To speak of him, and instantly dissolves.

352-60 [1]

The passage, with its air of hearing itself, of shaping itself into a self-entranced movement, rehearses hopes and fears central to Wordsworth's view of writing poetry. Against it one might set Marvell's invocation of his 'ecchoing Song' in 'To his Coy Mistress': 'Thy Beauty shall no more be found, / Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound / My ecchoing Song' (25-7). [2] Here the invocation is at the service of a sharply controlled play of attitudes: Marvell subjects his present 'Song' to time's indignities, yet he suggests the song's persistence; persistence, however, is treated with irony in that the 'ecchoing' mimed by the movement of the couplets speaks of hollowness as well as endurance.

By contrast with 'To his Coy Mistress', where self-consciousness adroitly tightens the screw of the lyric argument, The Excursion's absorption in the fate of words can eclipse the ostensible narrative. In the passage quoted above, desire that a name will last is bound up with trust that words will enable it to last; 'perchance' admits a note of uncertainty before the iambic solidity of 'A century shall hear his name pronounced' strikes a time-defying attitude, the poet hoping that an inscribed tombstone will give rise to 'images attendant on the sound' of the name it contains. 'Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph', [3] T.S. Eliot would write in 'Little Gidding', V, over a century later. There, the first line sees poems as enmeshed in yet resisting mortality by virtue of containing within themselves 'an end and a beginning'; the second line emphasises the epitaphic nature of poems. Paradoxically the fact that poems seek to give linguistic life to experience concedes that the poetic process is bound up with awareness of death.

2

If Wordsworth's passage suggests that poems aspire to the condition of epitaph, it implies, too, that epitaphs share in the nature of poems. What activates awareness of this two-way exchange is the close where the lines describe their own life and death; 'this breath' challenges the notion that all writing is ineluctably textual and sets off its own 'images attendant on the sound', including an image of the breath drawn by the poet composing the lines which his character speaks and the breath drawn by the reader re-shaping the lines. 'This' collapses the gap between the dramatic moment and the reading moment. By means of guileful rhythms the reader is lured to retrace the way 'this breath' 'shapes itself in words / To speak of him, and instantly dissolves'. Inevitably, or such is the impression created by the regular stresses, purposeful utterance shapes itself and 'dissolves'. The preceding lines have swayed between trust that something might endure of a good man's name and recognition of the temporal erosion that will remove all 'cognizable vestiges' of his existence. At the end of the passage, that journey between hope and despondency grows more inward. Behind these concluding lines is the fear that the poet's own words may dissolve; yet this fear is artfully mitigated by the fact that it can only be known so long as the poet's lines continue to be read.

3

The artfulness cannot, however, exclude the fear, a fear that shows itself in a moment of self-consciousness and has wider implications. The Excursion is haunted by a wish to preserve written memorials of goodness and suffering; its characteristic posture is that of the poet, or his surrogates, confronted by evidences making clear how easily it might come about that 'Even of the good is no memorial left' (I. 474). The result is a continual doubleness in the poem's outlook and texture, a doubleness well caught by another inscription (this time in Latin, so Wordsworth tells us, though he does not quote the original), the first lines of which are rendered thus in Book VI: 'Time flies; it is his melancholy task / To bring, and bear away, delusive hopes, / And re-produce the troubles he destroys' (VI. 515-17). Time's doubleness shows in the way that he brings and bears away, reproducing what he destroys, the final line denying the solitary comfort that Time might at least get rid of 'troubles'. This doubleness is mimicked by an antithetical phrasing that is expressively queasy rather than slick and by the fact that the words are a translation from one language into another. Doubleness is apparent, too, in the wish expressed by the ensuing lines for an escape from life's restlessness through trust in 'Time's eternal Master' (VI. 520). The wish is part of the poem's religious solution, yet the solution often serves to remind the reader of the poem's closeness to a tragic vision, a vision voiced in Book VI's best lines, given, like so many of the poem's best lines, to the Solitary. Here the 'tragic Muse' is said to be well served by, and to find scope for 'her highest art' in, the spectacle of rural life:

Amid the groves, under the shadowy hills,

The generations are prepared; the pangs,

The internal pangs, are ready; the dread strife

Of poor humanity's afflicted will

Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.

551, 552, 553-7

This sombre vision of the 'generations' being 'prepared' like sheep for a sacrifice, of the 'internal pangs' that lie in wait for 'poor humanity', has a force at odds with the 'divine philosophy' (VI. 559) which the Pastor subsequently invokes. Rather abruptly, the poem turns away from the vision of 'ruthless destiny' articulated by the Solitary; but, in doing so, it raises questions about the uses to which words should be put. For doubleness in The Excursion is the product of and a defence against the poem's self-division. The poem seems constantly to be in retreat from the explosive interventions of the Solitary, seeking to damp down problems and anxieties which his words express and create. It is noticeable, for instance, in Book VI that the Pastor's response to the Solitary leads into consideration of fit and unfit speech; the Pastor could, but will not, tell tales 'Of Man degraded in his Maker's sight / By the deformities of brutish vice' (574-5), and he is confirmed in this decision by the Wanderer who asserts that the Pastor's listeners would not wish that he 'Should breathe a word tending to violate / [His] own pure spirit' (583-4). One is reminded of the famous passage in the third Essay upon Epitaphs:

Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts....Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve. [4]

This tribute to the power of words is remarkable for its sense of how easily language can act as 'a counter-spirit'. The very flatness of parts of The Excursion is best understood as an attempt to avert the moral derangement and subversion that will be caused by a sensationalist or vicious use of language. Better linguistic flatness than moral badness, Wordsworth's super-ego seems to be telling him in places. As a result the poem can seem priggishly high-minded and stilted, yet it is, in fact, waging a perpetual war with the latent threat Wordsworth perceives in his medium, a threat bound up with the fact that his poem's worst character (the Solitary) has the most captivating tunes. 'Who', as Geoffrey Hartman asks rhetorically, 'is the Solitary, if not the Hamletian man in black, and a dangerous part of the poet's mind?' [5]

4

Central to the failings, but also the achievement, of The Excursion is the process of surfacing and submerging to which that 'dangerous part of the poet's mind' is subject. In Book VII of the poem the Pastor follows the passage with which this essay began by regretting the uses to which poetic gifts are too often put: the 'Noise' (363) of war only tempts the poet to write about it, and thus 'To multiply and aggravate the din' (366); the 'Pangs' of 'hopeless love' (367) supply subject-matter for the 'minstrel of the rural shade' (370) whose work serves 'insidiously to nurse / The perturbation in the suffering breast' (371-2). The Pastor may seem merely sententious as he wishes for someone to 'rise and celebrate / The good man's purposes and deeds' (375-6); but we ignore a central anxiety in Romantic poetry if we underplay Wordsworth's desire that good might prevail 'by song inspired' (386). Shelley, for example, uses the same image of infection in The Triumph of Life, when he has his Rousseau assert:

See the great bards of old, who inly quelled

The passions which they sung, as by their strain

May well be known: their living melody

Tempers its own contagion to the vein

 Of those who are infected with it I

Have suffered what I wrote, or viler pain!

 And so my words were seeds of misery,

Even as the deeds of others.

274-80 [6]

Rousseau makes a distinction between his own confessional writing and the restraint exercised by the 'great bards of old'. It is typical of the way binaries dissolve in Shelley's poem that the image of 'contagion' infects the account of the 'great bards of old'. Whatever Shelley's intentions, the distinction appears to be between a writing that to some degree quarantines its ill effect by working only on those responsive to it and a writing that, coming straight out of personal suffering, has an irresistible hold over the minds of others. But the passage reminds us that both poets are deeply concerned with the moral efficacy of writing. In A Defence of Poetry Shelley developed a sophisticated theory that locates moral hope in poetry's impact on the imagination. Wordsworth places his trust in a vigilance about language. Without such vigilance the mind 'will be perpetually imposed upon' (Essay upon Epitaphs, II); [7] with it, the mind is able to separate 'truth and sincerity from falsehood and affectation' (Essay upon Epitaphs, III). [8] Much of the fineness in Wordsworth's poetry derives from the fastidious self-consciousness with which it turns its back on, or registers its dislike of, 'falsehood and affectation'.

5

Yet the same self-consciousness is, in The Excursion, alive to the potential impermanence of language, even as it is the poet's task to construct a verbal memorial of various exempla: caution- or pity-inducing tales such as the 'sore heart-wasting' (1. 875) endured by Margaret. In Book IV the Solitary's impatience with Providence is chastened by the Wanderer whose 'eloquent harangue' (1276) is greeted by the 'I' of the poem in the following way:

The words he uttered shall not pass away

Dispersed, like music that the wind takes up

By snatches, and lets fall, to be forgotten;

No—they sank into me ...

1284-7

The first line's assertion is, with a certain defeated dignity, ready to undo its assertiveness. The declaration does not lay claim to being incontrovertible, as it would have done had the line been end-stopped; instead, the poetry passes into an imagining of its own denied dispersal. Laying bare anxiety about its value and capacity to endure, the writing lays bare, too, an ideological anxiety ghosting the poem. The Excursion rehearses and seeks to exorcise the traumatic 'loss of confidence in social man' (IV. 261) experienced by the Solitary; it puts its trust in a spiritual solution, but the unsteadiness of that trust is at one with the poem's often eloquent sense of the inadequacy of its medium, a sense felt palpably in the above assertion. In the first Essay upon Epitaphs, which appeared in a note to The Excursion, V. 978, Wordsworth writes that the impulse to commemorate is inseparable from belief in the soul's immortality. But, tellingly, he adds:

I confess, with me the conviction is absolute, that, if the impression and sense of death were not thus counterbalanced, such a hollowness would pervade the whole system of things, such a want of correspondence and consistency, a disproportion so astounding betwixt means and ends, that there could be no repose, no joy. [9]

Troubled by the fear of 'hollowness', the passage glosses well an aspect of the lines with which this essay began. Artistically, 'hollowness' (in the sense of empty oratorical gesture) is often kept at bay in The Excursion by the writing's glimpse of, even as it resists, a void at the heart of being. When the Solitary has his quasi-mystical experience of 'a mighty cityboldly say / A wilderness of building, sinking far / And self-withdrawn into a boundless depth' (II. 835-7), his subsequent response is one of post-visionary disenchantment, 'Oh! wherefore do I live?' (II. 876). The city he saw seems a figure for a sublimity that is at once 'boundless' and 'self-withdrawn', as though its splendour, made possible by the poetic imagination, had sucked existence dry and left it vacant of meaning.

6

Indeed, the Solitary's deepest longing is for 'Security from shock of accident' (III. 363). With depairing irony he envisages such security occurring when his 'particular current' is swallowed by 'The unfathomable gulf, where all is still' (III. 990, 991). As in a soliloquy by Hamlet, intense consciousness of self breeds a longing for extinction; in an analogous way this highly rhetorical poem dreams of a bare truthfulness of utterance. In the following two passages from Book IV Wordsworth imagines contrasting views of what lies at the centre of life, 'the heart within the heart':

Meanwhile, the heart within the heart, the seat

Where peace and happy consciousness should dwell,

On its own axis restlessly revolving,

Seeks, yet can nowhere find, the light of truth.

627-30

Even such a shell the universe itself

Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,

I doubt not, when to you it doth impart

Authentic tidings of invisible things;

Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;

And central peace, subsisting at the heart

Of endless agitation.

1141-7

Though the first passage is tethered to a preference for 'superstition' rather than 'apathy', it quickly assumes a wider force and seems descriptive of the poem we are reading, itself 'On its own axis restlessly revolving'. The line not only suggests the typically 'revolving' nature of Wordsworth's syntax, but also conveys the poem's deep conviction that the human condition is marked by lack of rest, rest being achievable only in the grave (in a Romantic reworking of the beguiling temptations of Spenser's Despair). 'Peace and happy consciousness' are what the Pastor peddles and what the Wanderer has discovered through his wanderings; and the latter's lines at 1141 seek to reassure the Solitary that there are 'Authentic tidings of invisible things' to be transmitted and absorbed. Undoubtedly, this second passage is finely written, yet, movingly desirous of escape from 'endless agitation', its vision of 'central peace' is close to a blank vacancy. Revealingly, the lines come to rest with a reminder of 'the heart / Of endless agitation'. Moreover, their extended comparison thrives on words which interweave moral abstractions with images of the sea's restlessness: 'tidings' means 'news', but the sound of the word also bring to mind the movement of the 'tides'; 'ebb and flow' and, less overtly, 'agitation' describe both the sea and life. The argument that the Solitary's despair is premature and ignores his own best impulses may persuade; yet the writing is conscious, too, that it has reached a place of clarification that is also a place of no return. If 'the ear of Faith' is the final arbiter, it is called into play as a reaction to the 'restless revolvings' of an acutely self-conscious poem. After the image of the raven's cry, which serves as an earnest of imaginative recovery, the poetry appeals to nature's 'inarticulate language' (1207). The appeal is both brave and aware of the threat posed by the poem's very medium language with its capacity 'to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve'.

Recognition by Wordsworth of this capacity should not be taken to validate deconstruction's yen for indeterminacy. Wordsworth is not writing a poem that automatically 'undoes' its proposed meanings. Rather, he is alive to the way language involves speakers and listeners in struggle about value. Critics of The Excursion can seem indifferent to the fact that the poem is playing for the highest possible moral and spiritual stakes. This may be because some influential criticism has suggested that the Solitary's anguish stems from his wish to reject the imaginative side of himself. In a bald yet subtle formulation of this view, Hartman writes: 'What would he escape from? Imagination....What he really shuns is the face of God, that is to say, his past strength, his dreams, his young intuitions.' [10] Like other major Romantic poems the poem wishes to believe that 'imagination' is intimately linked with 'morals', but it is haunted by the fear that some modes of visionary imagination are resistant to moral appropriation, that the imagination may have to forego its central place in Wordsworth's scheme of things if he is to embrace 'confident repose / In God' (VII. 1056-7). The case against The Excursion is that it suffers from too didactic a way of communicating answers to the problems it articulates, and that its treatment of the Solitary is too fraught with unresolved conflict. But the case for it is that its self-conscious concern with language and value has a kind of bewildered courage. Hazlitt notes that 'There is, in fact, in Mr Wordsworth's mind, an evident repugnance to admit anything that tells for itself, without the interpretation of the poet - a fastidious antipathy to immediate effect - a systematic unwillingness to share the palm with his subject.' [11] But that 'fastidious antipathy to immediate effect' is among the poem's most fascinating aspects. The Excursion's poetic force derives from its trust in 'the mind's excursive power' (IV. 1263), from the tenacious hope that its words can themselves be part of a process of 'Whispering those truths in stillness, which the WORD, / To the four quarters of the winds, proclaims' (V. 992-3). Wordsworth's Logos, like St John's, seeks to enshrine the eternal within the quotidian, though the gap between the 'WORD' and words is at times pronounced. Still, in The Excursion he is recognisably, for `all the differences of emphasis, the poet who wrote The Prelude. When Mary Jacobus writes, 'Wordsworth's straining of language to its limits has its own fullness', [12] she catches well - and, to some degree despite herself - how this great poet succeeds in outflanking the gloomier perceptions of deconstruction.

7

The passage in The Prelude, 1805, V. 619-29, which is Jacobus's immediate concern declares, 'Visionary power / Attends upon the motions of the winds / Embodied in the mystery of words' (619-21). Demonstrated in the passage is Wordsworth's capacity throughout The Prelude to achieve in his images and rhythms an 'embodiment' of 'Visionary power'. This 'embodiment' relies on 'the turnings intricate of verse' (1805, V. 627)—imitated by the passage's 'intricate' handling of line-endings and syntax—both to recognise and confer significance. The Excursion may be more cautious in its affirmations, less certain that 'the mystery of words' can embody 'Visionary power', readier to defer 'Visionary power' to some realm beyond language. But, through its self-consciousness about the limits and capacities of language, the poem admits yet resists the destructions wrought by time and human limitations. In a similar way 'Mutability' concludes with an image of devastation that is strangely healing as the poet's imagination sets to work on the 'unimaginable', Wordsworth hearing 'Some casual shout that broke the silent air, / Or the unimaginable touch of Time' (13-14); there, the 'casual shout' serves as a nonchalant emblem of the poem's own disturbance of the 'silent air'. Paul de Man says of this poem that it 'comes as close as possible to being a language that imagines what is, in essence, unimaginable'. But as he half-implies, the recognition 'in the privileged language of the imagination' of 'the authentic temporal consciousness of the self' is at the same time a poetic means of coming to term with, even overcoming, this 'consciousness'. [13]

8

At times impressively, The Excursion strives to imagine a match between words and things, aspirations and realities, temporality and the wish to endow with permanence: a match fleetingly suggested by the image of the 'snow-white ram' (IX. 441) 'In a deep pool' (IX. 439). This 'twofold image' (IX. 440) allows for difference—'Antipodes unconscious of each other' (IX. 449)—yet permits a glimpse of 'several spheres, / Blended in perfect stillness' (IX. 450-1). Characteristically, such a vision is bound up with the transitoriness of 'voice', as the 'Lady' says of the Wanderer:

While he is speaking, I have power to see

Even as he sees; but when his voice hath ceased,

Then, with a sigh, sometimes I feel, as now,

That combinations so serene and bright

Cannot be lasting in a world like ours,

Whose highest beauty, beautiful as it is,

Like that reflected in yon quiet pool,

Seems but a fleeting sunbeam's gift, whose peace

The sufferance only of a breath of air!

IX. 465-73

Shelley had his ideological quarrels with the poem, but the author of the late poems to Jane Williams is profoundly attuned to the still, sad music of these lines: lines that elegise, yet, in the act of elegising, suggest what is made possible by 'The sufferance ... of a breath of air'.

- 2 -

9

Romantic poems are self-conscious partly because of the mixture in them of self-assertion and self-doubt; they know of no mode of knowledge superior to their own, yet their sense of a contract with an audience is fragile. In Wordsworth's case, poem after poem seeks to create the taste by which it may be enjoyed. To re-read Lyrical Ballads is to inhabit a volume intensely engaged in a mission, capable of donkey kicks of irony. So in 'Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman, With an Incident in Which He Was Concerned' (the full title helps to set up the poem's poker-faced fun at the reader's expense) Wordsworth moves from dwelling with deliberate solemnity on Simon's swelling ankles (lines 67-8) to commiserating with a reader imagined as upper class ('gentle') but craving sensation: 'My gentle reader, I perceive / How patiently you've waited, / And I'm afraid that you expect / Some tale will be related' (69-72). The show of sympathy contends with restrained mockery, which passes into one of the most striking examples of poetic self-consciousness in Lyrical Ballads: 'What more I have to say is short, / I hope you'll kindly take it; / It is no tale; but should you think, / Perhaps a tale you'll make it' (77-80). At once the poet and the poet's projected narrative self, the 'I' here uses feminine rhymes in way that gives a wry twist to his implicit didacticism. The lines make clear that the challenge of finding 'A tale in every thing' (76) depends on a reader's readiness to 'kindly take it', to respond, that it, in a spirit of human kinship. But their tone is teasingly buoyant rather than priggish, and the poem's success lies less in any notion that it knows what is best for us than in the way it returns to the encounter with Simon Lee in the final stanzas. Here the crisp unexpectedness of the writing - its paradoxical conjunction of 'gratitude' and 'mourning' in the lines, 'Alas! the gratitude of men / Has oftener left me mourning' (103-4) - prompts us to construct, retrospectively, a 'tale'. This tale might be one about the sadness of human dependence or the pathos of old age; but it is, centrally, a tale about the strangeness of human interaction, a strangeness with complex resonances for a poem so concerned to arouse responsiveness in its reader. The poem uses its self-consciousness to activate a 'just and original reflection', to borrow Coleridge's terms of praise for Wordsworth. [14] But the final bending back of the poem on itself fosters an acutely unsentimental and question-inducing sorrow about the human condition and its representation in words.

As powerfully and subtly, 'The Fountain' uses its verbal and thematic 'rhymes' (15) to reinforce difference and sameness between past and present, youth and age, remembrance and oblivion, sadness and the unfeeling happiness of 'idle songs' (59). The poem is, in Michael Baron's words, 'a vehicle for reflection on the conditions of poetic communication'. [15] The sub-title's suggestion of mutuality ('A Conversation') is, initially, reinforced by the narrator's cheerful invitation:

Now, Matthew, let us try to match

This water's pleasant tune

With some old Border-song, or catch

That suits a summer's noon.

Or of the Church-clock and the chimes

Sing here beneath the shade,

That half-mad thing of witty rhymes

Which you last April made!

9-16

But the narrator is affectionate and faintly insensitive as he alludes to Matthew's 'half-mad thing of witty rhymes', seeing poetry in sentimentally nostalgic terms, missing, one feels as the poem develops, the human hurt that made the 'witty rhymes' 'half-mad'. The poetic 'conversation' between narrator and Matthew only confirms the isolation of each and the difference between the human and the natural. Far from poetry flowing as 'merrily' (22) as the fountains's waters, it is, Matthew suggests and the poem itself confirms, the product of painful, isolating awareness. Matthew's first response to the invitation described above is a 'silence' (17) that speaks eloquently of the way in which 'we are pressed by heavy laws' (45). Blackbird and lark may 'Let loose their carols when they please' (39), but 'The Fountain' looks before and after and is evidently the outcome of a clash between the desire for spontaneous delight in the present and fact of preoccupying self-consciousness. The balladic style that appears suited to 'some old Border-song, or catch' turns out to convey insights wholly at odds with Romantic primitivism. Matthew dwells on the mind's helplessness in the face of its determined workings: 'I cannot chuse but think ...' (26). Associationism may prompt consciousness, but consciousness cannot guarantee that its associations will be agreeable:

My eyes are dim with childish tears,

My heart is idly stirred,

For the same sound is in my ears,

Which in those days I heard.

29-32

The 'same sound' always carries with it knowledge of difference; loss is at the bedrock of existence, so much so that 'the wiser mind / Mourns less for what age takes away / Than what it leaves behind' (34-6) since what is left behind both sharpens awareness of what 'age takes away' and is itself vulnerable to decay in due course.

10

Wordsworth plays these sombre perceptions across singingly balladic lines to create a strangely undecorous, 'half-mad' sense of exasperation at the human condition. The narrator tries to jolly Matthew out of his 'complaint' (see 58), clinging to his conviction of happiness: 'I live and sing my idle songs / Upon these happy plains' (59-60). Here 'idle' picks up Matthew's earlier reference to the fact that his heart 'is idly stirred'; in both cases 'idle' has a complex effect. Matthew uses it to suggest chanciness, futility, foolishness; the narrator tries for a would-be Blakean innocence, yet his songs risk being 'idle' in the sense of irresponsible, just as his blithely clumsy attempt to console - 'for thy Children dead / I'll be a son to thee!' (61-2) - is met by Matthew's saddened inability to reciprocate: 'At this he grasped his hands, and said, / "Alas! that cannot be"' (63-4). Again, Matthew's words are made expressive by wordlessness, in this case the heart-wringing gesture of grasping his (rather than the narrator's) hands. [16] Though Matthew does conclude the poem by singing 'those witty rhymes' (70), Wordsworth hints at his isolation (he sings alone), the pastness of the singing (which attracts to itself all the poem's feelings about 'decay'), and the complicated mood of the singer that finds displaced expression in the reference to 'the crazy old church-clock / And the bewildered chimes' (71-2). If, as Stuart Curran suggests, the poem is a version of pastoral eclogue, pastoral is made to carry a surprisingly tragic burden. [17]

- 3 -

11

In 'Resolution and Independence' the poem's consciousness of itself as a poem is central to its achievement. This consciousness is shown by a characteristic feature of Wordsworthian and Romantic poetry: the poem's gradual, indirect, compelling shaping of itself into a journey. A central figure in that journey is figurativeness itself: relatively straightforward at the beginning, metaphor and its workings grow increasingly self-exploratory as the poem progresses. Even the opening's straightforwardness is deceptive. The poem does not simply move from happiness to depression before recovery as a result of the encounter with the Leech-gatherer. The opening's 'now' is conscious of a previously troubled 'then', as is hinted by the initial lines: 'There was a roaring in the wind all night; / The rain came heavily and fell in floods; / But now the sun is rising calm and bright' (1-3). In this poem, unlike 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality', 'There was ...' is not a formulation that looks back to some lost glory; rather, it intimates the unstable happiness of the present. This happiness, lithely conveyed through the lines about the hare in stanza 2, should not be underplayed; here, indeed, the poem's use of the present tense results in an epiphanic syntax. The hare in all its exuberant vigour springs forth from these lines:

The Hare is running races in her mirth;

And with her feet she from the plashy earth

Raises a mist; which, glittering in the sun,

Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

11-14

These lines suggest that happiness, in this poem, consists in an imaginative sympathy with fellow-creatures. But if the 'mist' that the hare 'Raises' is wholly natural, it hints at the imagination's aura-bestowing powers; certainly the imagination choreographs the verbal dance performed by plashy earth and glittering mist. In this recognition lies the seeds of subsequent disquiet. For the poet wishes to understand his happiness as a recovery of boyish lack of self-consciousness: 'I heard the woods, and distant waters, roar; / Or heard them not, as happy as a Boy' (17-18). That comparison points up the distance between the poet as adult and as boy, as does the later, more insistent, 'I bethought me of the playful Hare: / Even such a happy Child of earth am I' (30-1). In the former lines the desired lack of consciousness is asserted self-consciously; in the latter the poet's primitivism - his sense of himself as 'a happy Child of earth' - betrays the same kinds of fear as Keats's assertions of the word 'happy' in stanzas two and three of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. The poet has already retreated into the past tense; 'that morning', he confesses, 'fear, and fancies, thick upon me came; / Dim sadness, and blind thoughts I knew not nor could name' (26, 27-8). That past tense concedes that the vision of the hare could not last; at the same time, it consigns to the past the 'sadness' which the reader experiences in the present. But the only refuge from 'untoward thoughts' (54) of the 'despondency and madness' (49) that a wryly feminine rhyme sees as the lot of poets is the creative transformation of such thoughts attempted by the poem's second half.

12

Because the notion (often simplified) of the autonomous self has been under attack in recent criticism of the Romantics, appreciative analysis of the play of inwardness and self-exploration in Wordsworth's poetry has been unusefully vetoed. Thus Richard Bourke sees 'Resolution and Independence' as showing poetry's tendency to operate by means of exclusion and restriction; he writes: 'The act of restriction through which the poetic figure comes into its own cancels the act of inclusion which remains the reputed purpose of literary design'. [18] This hostile judgement has its own misdirected acuteness. If, as Bourke does, one reads the poem in the light of the universalist axioms of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the poet's wish to 'include' may seem to be undone by his poem's self-concern. Certainly the line, 'Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods' (5), is descriptive of the poem itself, which broods over its own voice. In his 'Preface to the Edition of 1815' Wordsworth singles out this line to show how the imagination operates:

... by the intervention of the metaphor broods, the affections are called in by the imagination to assist in marking the manner in which the bird reiterates and prolongs her soft note, as if herself delighting to listen to it, and participating of a still and quiet satisfaction, like that which may be supposed inseparable from the continuous process of incubation. [19]

His own poem 'broods' over itself in a secondary sense of the word: that is, it builds into its development worried anxiety about the function of a poet. In doing so, Wordsworth, arguably, points up a gap between his highly 'metaphoric' way of writing and a 'language near to the real language of men'. [20] 'Resolution and Independence' serves for the critic in Wordsworth as a test-case of the imagination's activity. The famous stanza (64-70) just after the old man has entered the poem almost deconstructs such activity as it runs in slow-motion 'the conferring, the abstracting, and the modifying powers of the Imagination'. [21] 'As a huge Stone ... (64); 'So that it seems ...' (68); 'Like a Sea-beast ...' (69); (and at the start of the next stanza) 'Such seemed this Man ...'(71): the largely monosyllabic diction and clearly signposted comparisons work less to evoke the old man than to indicate the poet at work. However, the writing is neither still-born nor laboured. Its 'modifying' phrases and movements engage the reader in the drama of sense-making staged in the poem: sense-making that is cautiously and intricately aware of its own processes, and reluctant to claim decisive success. The passage is prepared for by the lines, 'My course I stopped as soon as I espied / The Old Man in that naked wilderness' (57-8). When the Leech-gatherer is made the object of a series of likenesses, the poem's course, too, is 'stopped' before it continues in its one foot forwards, two feet sideways manner. The passage's would-be clinching 'Such seemed this Man' is noteworthy for its evasive verb. Wordsworth's claim that 'the two objects unite and coalesce in just comparison' over-simplifies the effect of a fine, risk-taking passage. [22] 'Resolution and Independence' marks a point at which latent tensions at work in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads manifest themselves. One such tension is the pull between what, in an essay on Shelley (Durham University Journal, July 1993), I describe as 'self- and other-awareness'. In the Preface Wordsworth suggests that a movement between the two forms of awareness is inevitable; after the poet has 'thought long and deeply' he will 'discover what is really important to men'. [23] But 'Resolution and Independence' is brought up against the difficulty of any such discovery. At the same time, the questioning of and imagining generated by the Leech-gatherer reinstates other-awareness, though the 'other' is now a mystery rather than an equivalent to the 'self'. Stephen Gill argues that the poem 'testifies to Wordsworth's capacity to seize on something outside himself, however trivial the material'. [24] Wordsworth's double operation in the poem—moving 'outside himself' while examining his imagination at work—is under-estimated by Bourke's reading.

Bourke is right to point out that Wordsworth emphasises Leech-gatherer's 'courteous speech' (93) and 'lofty utterance' (101), thus elevating his language 'above the reach / Of ordinary men' (102-03). [25] But, throughout the poem, Wordsworth is shaping intuitions on the margins of language. He is able in this poem to use the idea of language as ornament —the old man's 'words' (99) are 'With something of a lofty utterance drest' (101)—because it is what the Leech-gatherer is, rather than what he says, which is of first importance. What he says matters less for its almost banal content than for what it suggests (first) about the old man's self-sufficiency and capacity to endure, and (second) about Wordsworth's own ability to transform experience imaginatively. Words do not incarnate meaning in the Leech-gatherer's case; rather, they act as enigmatic signs towards barely graspable significance. Sternly rebuking Sara Hutchinson for not sufficiently admiring the poem in its first version, Wordsworth writes in a letter of 14 June 1802:

A person reading the poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controlled, expecting almost something spiritual or supernatural—What is brought forward? 'A lonely place, a Pond', 'by which an old man was, far from all house or home'—not stood or sat, but 'was'—the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible. [26]

Subsequently Wordsworth revised lines 55-6 to read 'I saw a Man before me unawares: / The oldest Man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs'. The change indicates loss of confidence that the effect he had aimed at in the phrase 'by which an old man was' was being communicated. In the revised lines the ambiguously positioned 'unawares' leaves the reader unsure whether the lack of awareness was the poet's or the old man's. That unsureness brings about an acute awareness of unawareness, making the reader debate the value of unawareness; it might be the poet's soon-to-be-rebuked unawareness (because self-pityingly engrossed by his 'untoward thoughts', 54); it might be the old man's sublimely indifferent unawareness. The writing, in the revised version, substitutes a complex self-consciousness for the more insistent mimicry of 'naked simplicity' attempted by the original version.

13

In answer to Bourke, then, it is necessary to say that Wordsworth is not trying (and failing) to make his words reinforce a predetermined egalitarian politics. Instead, he seeks to record an experience which brings out yet tests to the limit his poetic resources. In the recording of that testing, however, lies the poem's success. For it is Wordsworth who creates the dialogic effects which allow poet and reader to explore different perspectives in a way that supports Bourke's best insight, that 'Resolution and Independence continually draws attention to itself, to its particular evolution and status'. [27] It does in a fashion that prevents its resolution from being too resolved and suggests the troubling nature of poetic independence. The poem shows that it can, if it chooses, absorb the Leech-gatherer within a visionary mode in the stanzas starting 'The Old Man still stood talking by my side' (113) and 'While he was talking thus, the lonely place' (134). But in both cases the Leech-gatherer's talk leads the poet into a 'troubled' (135) reverie. In both cases the poet re-discovers that loneliness and uncanniness stir his imagination. In the first stanza Wordsworth continues, 'But now his voice to me was like a stream / Scarce heard; nor word from word from word could I divide' (114-15). Incapacity to hear properly is bound up with the renewed finding of imaginative power. Transforming the old man's speech into a natural force, one that is continuous and hardly audible, the simile illustrates the poet's discovery that loneliness and uncanniness stir his imagination: this discovery both passes into and covertly contends with the notion of moral efficacy, 'strong admonishment' (119), embodied in the figure of the Leech-gatherer.

14

In fact, the Old Man's effect, despite the heartened gestures of the final stanza, is less moral than imaginative. Because he sets going the poet's imagination, he can be said to 'admonish' Wordsworth not to despair imaginatively, not to dwell on the chilling exempla of 'mighty Poets in their misery dead' (123). Again, the second stanza mentioned above (134-40) gives quickened access to the hiding-places of the poet's power and a sense of the poet's bewilderment at the visionary seeings of his 'mind's eye' (136): 'In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace / About the weary moors continually, / Wandering about alone and silently' (136-8). Borrowed from Chatterton's 'An Excelente Ballad of Charity', the stanza form - rhyme royal with a final alexandrine - is used well by Wordsworth here (as elsewhere in the poem). Its central b rhymes 'wander' 'continually' in and out of one another, much as the Old Man's 'shape, and speech' trouble the poet's imagination. The transference of 'weary' from human wanderer to natural environment in the phrase 'weary moors' displays the 'conferring, the abstracting, and the modifying powers of the Imagination'. A weariness, not far removed from visionary dreariness, is experienced as a state in which human being and natural scene participate. The lines give access to an inner dimension in which time is experienced as a never-ending, haunting continuum. 'Silently' does much to suggest this inner dimension glimpsed by the poem, as though its words were negotiating with the state that prompts them into being. One might wish to adapt to these lines Arnold's famous comment on lines 19-21 of Tennyson's 'Ulysses': 'It is no blame to their rhythm, which belongs to another order of movement than Homer's, but it is true that these three lines by themselves take up nearly as much time as a whole book of the Iliad': [28] 'Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move' (19-21). [29]

15

For Wordsworth and Tennyson 'experience' is as much a question of the present-tense travelling through the lines as an extra-textual reality; the reader is caught up in a labyrinth of sound and syntax, temporarily denied recourse to narrative goals. Even when the stanza under discussion in 'Resolution and Independence' snaps out of reverie in the crisply deployed final couplet of the stanza, there is still a sense in which the preceding imaginative 'trouble' goes on. Wordsworth's resolution in the final stanza is obliquely but powerfully related to the imaginative independence reaffirmed, in however 'troubling' a manner, in the previous stanza. The confident future tense of 'I'll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor' (147) has at the back of its mind the on-going present implied by 'continually' (137).

- 4 -

16

Self-awareness at a formal level bears witness in Wordsworth's poetry to the way in which artistic 'emotion ... is gradually produced', to borrow Wordsworth's phrase in the 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads' (1802). [30] In keeping with its 1807 epigraph, a phrase from Virgil's fourth Eclogue, line 1, 'Paulo majora canamus' ('Let us sing a loftier strain'), 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality' is, throughout, conscious of its status as a poem. This consciousness, never narcissistic, reveals itself in the poem's daring switches of register. In the opening stanza, Wordsworth defeats the epigraph's promise of loftiness (so far as diction is concerned) by writing with a bareness that has complex effects. It wrongfoots us if we are expected declamation, yet its presence in a stanza form of some intricacy prevents it from seeming facile. In fact, the largely monosyllabic nature of the language creates a strong sense of the words emerging under the pressure of loss and remembrance, as they move to the tread established by the poem's iambic base. Only in the brilliant flashback of 'Apparelled in celestial light' (4) does the diction—with mimetic deftness—array itself in something more gaudy. And yet the yearning apparent here continues into the second line of the stanza's final quatrain where the word 'whereso'er' lifts itself out of the surrounding numbness:

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

Turn whereso'er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

6-9

The lines suggest a writer engaged in concentrated struggle, the stressed 'now' referring to an emotional state and to the verbal apprehension of it occurring in the poem.

17

The 'Ode' tests any study of the self-conscious poem, that is, the poem concerned with its own workings, since self-consciousness, that is, awareness of the self, is its central theme, the source of elegiac lament and of 'thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears' (206). Awareness of itself as a poem is everywhere apparent—in the deliberate mingling of different line-lengths, in the dramatic use of the opportunities for turn and counter-turn offered by the ode form, in references to natural and human song or utterance, in the implications of the motif of hearing. And yet in places it is an awareness that seems brought into being by a sense of the superiority of lack of self-consciousness, of that intuitive 'joy' (70) which is the privileged experience of childhood. I say 'in places' to take on board Helen Vendler's point that 'Some extraordinary revaluation of his childhood experiences clearly occurred between the initial composition of the first four stanzas and the later completion of the poem'. [31] But, throughout, the poetry manages not to be knowing, for all its art and cunning. Art and cunning are at the service of a vision, the writing persuades us, which 'saw something, got a shock', as Hopkins puts it. [32] As with many of Wordsworth's poems, the poem presents both a question and an answer, but the answer is given in such a way that troubling aspects of the question are never wholly banished or repressed.

18

What the question is emerges fully at the end of stanza 4: 'Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?' (56-7). In fact, the question is that provoked by the gap between the two questions: 'Whither is fled ...?' and 'Where is it now ...?' Is there a 'now' in which what has fled survives? Even before the different answers proposed by stanzas 5-11, there are inklings in the first four stanzas that the answer to that 'now' is 'here in this poem, the very poem which laments the loss of "the glory and the dream"'. Stanza two may mime a deadened vitality, offering merely the husk of nature worship; only a certain tight-lipped refusal of expressiveness redeems the opening couplet ('The Rainbow comes and goes, / And lovely is the Rose', 10-11) from banality. Yet it is, in fact, The Prelude to one of the most affecting sections in the poem. 'What a stroke', wrote Hopkins of the next line, [33] and indeed the yearning Moon is as much the focus for the poet's yearning as the moving moon in The Ancient Mariner. Wordsworthian self-consciousness subdues itself throughout this stanza to the knowledge of a vanished, pre-verbal 'glory'; poetic power reins itself in.

19

As if in partial rebuke of this stance, the third stanza opens more robustly:

Now, while the Birds thus sing a joyous song,

And while the young Lambs bound

As to the tabor's sound,

To me alone there came a thought of grief:

A timely utterance gave that thought relief,

And I again am strong:

19-24

In miniature, the lines describe a drama of 'grief' and recompense. The rhyme of 'song' with 'strong', kept apart for five lines, suggests that strength lies in song, and Wordsworth's 'timely utterance' suggests the curative properties of expression. At the same time the 'relief' may lie in the thought's release from repression. Anxiety is signalled by the writing's insistence on its recovery of strength and by its scrambled tenses: Wordsworth emphasises the presentness of the 'joyous song' audible in the natural world. But he ascribes to consciousness a capacity for withdrawal from the present: 'To me alone there came ...'. The lines bring together the poet's and the poem's self-consciousness. Wordsworth indicates his awareness of 'aloneness', a solitariness which sets him part from nature. Yet in that aloneness abides the capacity for strength, even if strength is shown only in the overcoming of weakness. 'To me alone there came a thought of grief' anticipates the close of the poem, and its assertion that 'To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears' (205-6). The connection between the two assertions goes deep; it implies the poem's discovery of affinities between grief, poetry, and consolation. The chanciness of such a discovery contributes to the final declaration's impact: 'can give' (emphasis added) and 'often' suggest that the deep thoughts cannot be summoned at will, though they may, all being well, manifest themselves without warning.

20

To say that Wordsworth's great ode opens itself to hazard is not to deny the measured control apparent throughout. Yet this control is finely uncoercive; the poem's originality lies in the fact that it comports itself in a manner at odds with the 'endless imitation' (107) affectionately mocked in stanza 7. There, the manacling rhyme between the 'newly-learned art' (92) by which the child learns and the readiness with which 'The little Actor cons another part' (102) only confirms the absence of freedom being described. When Wordsworth scales the heights, as in the magnificent ninth stanza, he does so by escaping his own stateliness. The movement of these lines is in itself an indication of the poem's fineness. They begin with an affectingly grave resurrection of feeling, 'O joy! that in our embers / Is something that does live' (132-3). That residual 'something' is the more heartening for its unmelodramatic minimalism. The stanza's first use of the full pentameter constructs a richly confident assertion: 'The thought of our past years in me doth breed / Perpetual benediction' (136-7). Here, as throughout, the general, 'our past years', passes into the individual, 'in me', without forfeiting its validity. But the subsequent lines get caught up in a current of negative formulation: 'Not for these I raise / The song of thanks and praise' (142-3), writes Wordsworth, implying that he is composing a 'song of thanks and praise', even as 'thanks and praise' give way to a reliving of 'obstinate questionings' (144). These 'questionings' communicate their continuing urgency in the short-lined, appositional triplet:

... obstinate questionings

Of sense and outward things,

Fallings from us, vanishings ...

144-6

Sandwiched between 'questionings' and 'vanishings', 'outward things' retain a stubborn but ghostly otherness; if their 'outwardness' makes them lesser than the inwardness which is their unspoken antagonist and (in the poem's terms) spiritual superior, it also gives that inwardness something to 'question'. At the centre of the poem, the 'song of thanks and praise' finds itself validated by the troubling and mysterious, by 'Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized' (147-8). There, Wordsworth's rhythms have none of the buoyancy of song; rather, they mime the misgiving movement towards realisation they describe. If the 'worlds' in which the child - discovering itself to be a 'Creature', the product of an act of creation - are 'not realised', the words chosen by the poet realise, with great sureness, that unrealised state. Helen Vendler argues that 'the Ode represents the acquisition of the power of metaphor', [34] and there is truth in this. The Ode, by its very existence and through its linguistic power, displays that capacity of poetry to 'mark the before unapprehended relations of things', which Shelley sees as 'vitally metaphorical'. [35] Most evidently, perhaps, this 'power of metaphor' shows itself in the apostrophic address to the 'Child' in stanza 8, as 'thou Eye among the blind, / That, deaf and silent, reads't the eternal deep, / Haunted for ever by the eternal mind' (111-13). The Child as 'Eye among the blind' rebukes the adult poet, but can only be imagined by him in words which themselves call up 'the eternal deep' and tremble on the brink of another metaphor, that of the 'immortal sea' (166) which manifests itself fully at the end of stanza 9. But in the ninth stanza, what is arresting is the fact that Wordsworth impedes metaphoric realisation of his subject as he articulates 'Blank misgivings'.

Throughout, the Ode displays what Harold Bloom calls 'aesthetic dignity in representing individual human suffering'. [36] But that 'dignity' is the more impressive for incorporating within itself bewilderment and doubt: 'Those shadowy recollections, / Which, be they what they may ...' (152-3), for instance, where the words I have emphasized let go of the possibility of definition even as they cling tenaciously to the notion that those 'recollections' had and still have 'being'. Again, the poem is able to make its own words the pathway to something which the reader is persuaded lies beyond language; they, like the 'recollections', have power to 'make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake, / To perish never' (156-9). The effect of these lines derives from their use of line-endings and rhyme; every shift is a transition in the direction of 'the eternal Silence' which briefly, but powerfully, brings the poem to a caesural halt. The ensuing words take assertion to the point where its overthrow is glimpsed as a dialectical possibility in the words 'To perish never'; the inversion brings before us the fear that the awakened 'truths' may 'perish'. Later, when Wordsworth develops the conceit-like image of the 'season of calm weather' (164) he makes us aware of a qualification which we can set aside ('Though inland far we be', 165, where 'far' is much more than metrical filler) yet which lingers with us, rather like the implications of the seasonal image; what happens to us when the 'weather' changes? The 'mighty' alexandrine which concludes stanza 9 strikes a triumphant note - 'And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore' (170) - but it, too, is a vision subject to changes in spiritual weather. At the same time, it (in combination with the preceding line, 'And see the Children sport upon the shore', 169) reinforces the view that the poem is the place of discovery, since the advance from the child who is an 'Eye among the blind' but is also 'deaf' is made by and for the adult consciousness composing the Ode.

21

The last two stanzas bring to a head the poem's negotiations between loss and recompense, discontinuity and continuity, nature and consciousness, affirmation and doubt, experience and art. The start of stanza 10 recalls the opening of stanza 3, but this time the poet is able openly to apostrophize, 'Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!' (171), in a way that blends assertion (the poet is in a position to accept the 'joyous' song of the birds) with recognition that elements from the natural world have been subsumed within an artefact, a poetic structure. This recognition struggles to accept itself in the stanza. In the line, 'We in thought will join your throng' (174), 'in thought' cannot but bring to mind the 'thought of grief' mentioned at the start of stanza 3. At the same time, 'in thought' seeks to redeem 'thought' from solely giving rise to 'grief' and looks ahead to 'the philosophic mind' (189) praised at the stanza's end. That this 'mind' rhymes at a distance with 'what remains behind' (183) confirms its association with knowledge of loss. The poem does not merely talk about the complex process of loss and recompense; it makes us conscious, through its own conscious reworking of previous words and images, of itself as the space in which a stay against the losses affectingly recorded even so late as stanza 10 can be articulated. That consciousness still seeks to negotiate with the natural, as the opening apostrophe of stanza 11 illustrates: 'And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, / Think not of any severing of our loves!' (190-1). The 'severing' of their 'loves', however, can scarcely be avoided by a poem that concedes in its wording that 'love' is projected, not received; it is 'Thanks to the human heart by which we live' (203) that 'in my heart of hearts I feel your might' (192). 'I feel' turns bravely away from the claims and inconsolable sufferings associated earlier with 'I see'. In 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality' feeling comes in aid of loss of vision, and makes us aware how precarious, deliberate, and humanly created is the comfort it brings.

- 5 -

22

Charles Taylor writes in Sources of the Self that in the Romantic period, 'the work of art ... doesn't so much manifest something visible beyond itself as constitute itself as the locus of manifestation'. [37] Over forty years ago M. H. Abrams described the Romantic preference for seeing 'the perceptual mind as projecting life and passion into the world it apprehends'. [38] But Taylor's wording adds a valuably new emphasis. What intrigues me in this essay on Wordsworth's poetry is the process by which it seeks to 'constitute itself as the locus of manifestation'. 'Constitute itself' implies both the building up and hints, perhaps despite Taylor's intentions, at the potential problems involved in that building up. Poetic self-constitution can either stress, or seek to heal, the gap between words and world. Wordsworth often literalises metaphor, as when he invokes, at the start of The Prelude, the river that 'sent a voice / That flowed along my dreams' (I, 275-76). 'Along', there, makes the mind into a channel through which the river's projected 'voice' can, literally, 'flow'. Elsewhere word and world enter into more elusive relationships. In a fine article, Brooke Hopkins seeks to make Wordsworth seem less egotistically sublime than is often argued; Hopkins points out, by way of Bakhtinian notions of the dialogic, how often Wordsworth sets going in The Prelude a sense of the 'narrator looking back and quoting, indeed (re)citing, his former voices'. This works well with the parody of the narrator's attachment to Godwin (1805, X, 814-29). But while Hopkins is fascinating on Wordsworth's 'acts of poetic impersonation' [39] he introduces a false clarity. Whether past and present selves, or voices, are distinguishable is a major focus of the poem's concern with itself. The famous extended simile in 1805, Book 4, lines 247-68, comparing the exploration of 'past time' (263) with the act of 'down-bending from the side / Of a slow-moving boat' (247-48) and inspecting 'the bottom of the deeps' (251), implies the difficulty of parting 'The shadow from the substance' (255). What the poem here becomes the 'locus of manifestation' for is its discovery that the relation between past and present selves is less dialogic than 'perplexed' (254), to use the word employed by Wordsworth in the passage. Here one would wish to observe that the poem's self-consciousness concerns its inability to portray the self's truthful consciousness of itself. But in the act of communicating this inability the poem re-establishes a notion of order in the midst of perplexity, and holds out the possibility of discovering 'the things which there abide / In their true dwelling' (257-58). For Wordsworth in The Prelude, perplexity often betokens entrance into the self's mysteries. And the way the self is constituted finds a mirror in the poem's process of imaginative self-constitution.

23

'Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont' is a complex example of Taylor's point since what it manifests is, in part, a recognition of absence and the need for concealment. The poem begins with three stanzas that recall the poet's implicit sense, in the past, that a particular place was the very image of a tranquillity desired both in life and art: 'Whene'er I looked, thy Image still was there; / It trembled, but it never passed away' (7-8). 'Image' alludes to the reflection of Peele Castle in the water; but it has about it, too, the poet's internalising of the sight into an 'Image' reproducible in poetry. There is in the calm of the opening an aestheticised, deceptive, trance-like stillness: 'How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep; / No mood, which season takes away, or brings' (9-10). Here 'perfect' suggests a 'perfection' that is removed from the inevitable vicissitudes of living; 'mood' makes clear the element of subjective desire; yet the feeling of being outside the cycles of the seasons contains a slightly eerie element. If the poet in this state is protected from whatever the season 'takes away', he is, more ominously, cut off from whatever the season 'brings'.

24

The rest of the poem marks an emergence from this mood into another, more intricate mood, one that is able to subsume within itself, but move beyond, the earlier longing for art to be an 'Image' of a desired calm. At the poem's centre Wordsworth laments a loss ('A power is gone, which nothing can restore' (35)), a loss of poetic power related to a 'deep distress' (36) of a personal nature; he also arrives at a stoic knowledge. But before this central admission the poem spins, then breaks, a web of might have beens and would haves between lines 13 and 33. This movement of the poem rehearses how the poet would have represented the Castle were he a painter and still in a state of 'fond delusion' (29). Subtly the writing allows us to inhabit this conditional state, even as it implies the poet's ultimate exile from it. The lure of what is to be forsaken, 'the gleam, / The light that never was, on sea or land, / The consecration, and the Poet's dream' (14-16), is still evident. The poet gives a local habitation and a name, in his rhythmically lingering, understatedly yearning stanzas, to what 'never was'. As Wordsworth dallies - 'A Picture had it been of lasting ease' (25), 'Such Picture would I at that time have made' (30) - it is clear that he is reluctant to leave behind the image of what later he will dismiss as 'the Heart that lives alone, / Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind' (53-4). But at 'So once it would have been,—'tis so no more' (33), the poem breaks decisively with what has gone before. It is now that the poem itself - rather than the imagined pictures hung in the gallery of previous stanzas - becomes 'the locus of manifestation'. And it is into its own 'now' that the poem enters with a sudden access of sobered authority: 'The feeling of my loss will ne'er be old; / This, which I know, I speak with mind serene' (39-40). 'I speak' claims that full presence which, since Derrida, critics have taught themselves to mistrust; but the phrase earns its level-toned discovery of a place where the poem can, so to speak, plant its feet. 'This, which I know' is, however, the crucial assertion, the word 'This' fusing into one experiential knowledge and the moment of poetic utterance.

25

The poem's new-found composure is in intimate contact with sadness, as can be detected in the movement from the assertion that 'A deep distress hath humanized my Soul' (36) to the declaration that the poet now speaks 'with mind serene'. That latter declaration is at once a whisker and a world away from the state of 'fond delusion' in which Wordsworth would have placed the castle 'Beside a sea that could not cease to smile' (19). Wordsworth's serenity springs from, yet serves as a bulwark against, 'deep distress'; his command of a stoic rhetoric concedes that calm is an acquired condition, just as his temperately rhymed and rhythmically measured stanzas speak eloquently about the 'loss' they imply is unutterable. The closest that Wordsworth gets to mentioning that his brother John was drowned at sea in 1806 is the return in lines 41-44 to a language of what might have been:

Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,

If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,

This Work of thine I blame not, but commend;

This sea in anger, and the dismal shore.

Throughout the poem Wordsworth seeks to chart the humanisation of his feelings and art by reference to Beaumont's picture of 'Peele Castle, in a Storm' (as the sub-title describes it). Reference to an art-work in another medium allows Wordsworth to explore what he is (and should be) doing in the poem itself. Playing uncensorious critic to his friend's 'passionate Work!' (45), Wordsworth is able to admit into art the possibility of representing passion, anger, and 'pageantry of fear' (48). Nor does he deny that he still looks in art for consolation. This is a nuanced aspect of his newly 'humanised' condition. Instead of a rejection of art, there is, now, a movingly provisional trust in it. The poet has been taught by life that he cannot live by art alone; yet this does not lead him wholly to reject or indeed dogmatically to moralise his song. Instead, art's 'pageantry' allows a controlling stay against, even as it permits confrontation with, 'fear'. So in the following stanza the poet writes:

I love to see the look with which it braves,

Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,

The light'ning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves.

49-52

The lines are precisely judged: 'sublime' confers on the painting high aesthetic status, yet it knows its own pedigree, that it comes from a stable of words used for art-works, a knowledge that hints, almost tenderly, at art's reworking of event into 'pageant'; 'I love to see' sustains this tenderness, the poet delighted by art's 'braving' of experience. That the Castle's 'armour of old time' is 'unfeeling' suggests both the poet's longing for some such protective 'casing' and the sharply 'feeling' attitude with which the poet views 'the deadly swell' (47), a phrase that gives 'deadly' its full force.

26

Again, there is a glissade between this and the following stanzas: if in the stanza just discussed Wordsworth admires the Castle for being 'Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time', in the penultimate stanza he bids 'farewell' (53) to 'the Heart that lives alone, / Housed in a dream' (53-4). Art's 'casing' is there to be delighted in when it appears fearlessly to confront fear, but for the 'Heart' to be 'Housed in a dream' is felt by the poet to be dangerous. The poem concludes, then, with an acknowledgement of art's consolations that is accompanied by a determination to confront 'frequent sights of what is to be borne' (58), a line in which the poem's tenses resolve into a present that stretches out into the foreseeable and unforeseeable future.

27

In keeping with this complicated stance the final line, drifting away from a 'mind serene', entangles; its double negative dignifies the 'hope' it tempers: 'Not without hope we suffer and we mourn' (60). 'Self-consciousness' in 'Elegiac Stanzas' describes the poem's movement in and out of states of awareness, as registered in dexterous arrangements of syntax and rhythm, and its awareness of itself as putting a brave face on grief. The poem is kept from merely seeming to adopt 'unfeeling armour' by the pulls one senses it experiences to the end between desire for wisdom and pleasure in art ('Oh, 'tis a passionate Work!—yet wise and well; / Well chosen is the spirit that is here' (45-6)): 'yet' implies mistrust of the 'passionateness' that exercises power over the poet; and the haltingly incremental phrasing - 'well; / Well chosen' - suggests the poet fortifying himself in an attitude. At the same time, the poet hopes that an art-work's 'chosen' 'spirit' is somehow inherent ('the spirit that is here'). This takes one back to 'Resolution and Independence' where the Leech-gatherer appears to the poet as 'by peculiar grace, / A leading from above, a something given' (50-1), phrases that do much to validate the poem's sense of engagement with a reality outside itself. For all their inwardness both poems seem to negotiate with realities they cannot pretend fully to understand.

- 6 -

28

William Hazlitt pointed out that Wordsworth's 'poetry is not external, but internal; it does not depend upon tradition, or story, or old song; he furnishes it from his own mind, and is his own subject'. [40] The view is now a cliche; much contemporary criticism of, say, The Prelude has tried to dismantle it, pointing out that the would-be subject of Wordsworth's epic is far from unitary. Nor are modern critics any more anxious than Hazlitt to give priority to the 'internal', a category which calls to mind, precisely by repressing, the 'external'. Yet, as Charles Altieri has argued, Wordsworth resists the kind of theoretical analysis which shades into demystification of any 'possible positive role for poetic eloquence'. [41] He does so through a mode of expressiveness that suspends the possibility of summarizing understanding. So, at the centre of the central spot of time in The Prelude (1805), we read:

Forthwith I left the spot,

And reascending the bare common saw

A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,

The beacon on the summit, and more near,

A girl who bore a pitcher on her head

And seemed with difficult steps to force her way

Against the blowing wind. It was in truth

An ordinary sight, but I should need

Colours and words that are unknown to man

To paint the visionary dreariness

Which, while I looked all round for my last guide,

Did at that time invest the naked pool,

The beacon on the lonely eminence,

The woman, and her garments vexed and tossed

By the strong wind.

XI, 301-15

Keith Hanley writes of the mysterious woman in the passage:

If she is at bottom a figuration for what Lacan describes as the phase of language-acquisition, as the ultimate encounter with the carved initials 'inscribed / On the green sod' [1805, XI, 300-1] reveals, she nonetheless offers a glimpse of a kind of saving foreclosure, through the memory of a prior relation with the mother ....

Hanley goes on to assert that 'The original, prelinguistic relation, it is suggested, may be carried through into the symbolic order'. [42] Though the psychoanalytical canniness of this argument is at odds with the uncanny impact of the writing, which thrives on not knowing what it is talking about, it is the case that the passage reaches back through language towards the 'prelinguistic'. In the lines quoted, 'Forthwith' is a temporal adverb that refuses to tell the reader why the child left the 'spot'. 'Ignorant where I was' (1805, XI, 299), the child presumably did not know what the adult poet knows about the significance of the 'characters inscribed / On the green sod' (1805, XI, 300-1). In 'Forthwith' can be discerned both pressure to project onto the child's action a subsequent encounter with interpretation (the adult Wordsworth tells us that 'Some unknown hand had carved the murderer's name', 1805, XI, 293) and resistance to that pressure. For the frisson of deciphering a murderer's initials is far from fully explaining the experience's continued hold over the poet. Those 'characters inscribed / On the green sod' are, indeed, emblematic of the poet's entrance into the process of reading and inscription, an entrance bound up with the discovery within the psyche of forces which do not easily lend themselves to interpretation. His birth as a poet may be rooted in confrontation with crime and guilt. But the reason for the importance of this confrontation remain obscure. Mary Jacobus quickly latches onto the 'meta-narrative represented by [Wordsworth's] revisions to the passage [in 1805]', and notes that this 'meta-narrative' suggests that 'Writing ... simultaneously remarks and recovers (displays and conceals) an originating, cryptic, undecipherable death'. [43] Yet the writing is reluctant to pass from narrative to meta-narrative. This reluctance bears witness to more than evasive repression about the 'originating, cryptic, undecipherable death' at the heart of writing; it shows how what for the post-structuralist is matter for relentless decoding is for the Romantic poet evidence of 'mystery'. In fact, Wordsworth will invoke what he calls 'mystery of man' (1805, XI, 328), a phrase which alliteration, stress, and the absence of any definite article make into a compound-noun.

29

This is not to argue that Wordsworth puts his trust in 'mystery' in any unquestioning or complacent way. His sense that he is making a poetic molehill out of a traumatic mountain shows in the colloquial parenthesis of 'in truth'. But the counter-sense that the 'truth' will not be contained by that shoulder shrug, that the sight is extraordinary, keeps the verse obstinately and awkwardly afloat, driving it on to the imagining of the needful 'Colours and words that are unknown to man'. There, the rhythm —its strong emphasis on 'are' converting the lack of knowledge into a quasi-eternal present—discovers a forcefulness that takes itself by surprise. Reading the lines, we confront the simultaneous, untwinnable yet co-existing, presence of the 'ordinary' and the 'unknown'. Central to this complex presence is the stolid, impenetrable literalness of the mutually reinforcing trio of images: 'the naked pool, / The beacon on the lonely eminence, / The woman and her garments vexed and tossed / By the strong wind'. Whether formalist or Lacanian, interpretation confronts that which resists interpretation. The passage's meaning is bound up with its staging of self-incomprehension. 'Staging' implies that this self-incomprehension is a rhetoric, an offshoot of the discourse of the sublime in which the self discovers its greatness in the act of finding that it is an enigma. Indeed, Wordsworth goes on to make an analogous case:

So feeling comes in aid

Of feeling, and diversity of strength

Attends us if but once we have been strong.

Oh, mystery of man, from what a depth

Proceed thy honours! I am lost, but see

In simple childhood something of the base

On which thy greatness stands—but this I feel,

That from thyself it is that thou must give,

Else never canst receive. The days gone by

Come back upon me from the dawn almost

Of life; the hiding-places of my power

Seem open, I approach, and then they close ...

1805, XI, 325-36

Yet, as often in his career, Wordsworth's writing makes 'rhetoric' seem an ungenerous term. Much in both passages has to do with his cunning manipulation of tenses and moods. In the first case he slips from the past tense of 'It was, in truth' to the conditional mood of 'I should need'. Here the art lies in the fact what is needed is both forthcoming and withheld—so that we intuit 'visionary dreariness' even as we perceive that this 'dreariness' is unrecapturable. Wordsworth communicates precisely by stressing the incommunicable nature of what he wishes to present. The poem's self-consciousness shows itself, as already indicated, in a baffled yet artful awareness of not quite knowing what moves it to utterance. At the same time, a present-tense groping towards discovery makes itself felt strongly. This process dominates and is thematised by the second passage: 'the hiding-places of my power / Seem open, I approach, and then they close; / I see by glimpses now' (1805, XI, 335-7). Here 'Seem' and 'see' play off against one another. 'Seeing' acts as an emblem of unaided, authentic responsiveness on Wordsworth's part to his own experience; yet part of that experience is that he sees what only seems. The 'hiding-places' of his power are the more credible for only seeming to open and for being available only to glimpses.

30

The poem's self-consciousness is bound up with its anxious trust in intuitions that may be merely subjective, even as they lie too deep for words. So Wordsworth continues, ' ... when age comes on / May scarcely see at all; and I would give / While yet we may (as far as words can give) / A substance and a life to what I feel' (1805, XI, 337-40). For all the inwardness of the writing, it is affectingly conscious of the unignorable fact of clock-time. 'When age comes on' reverses the celebration of memory in 'The days gone by / Come back upon me' a few lines earlier: 'Come back upon me' suggests a present-tense switch from the poet going back into the past to the past returning back upon the present, as if the past had 'Come back' in a spirit almost of loving reproach while Wordsworth was writing about it; by contrast, 'when age comes on' submits to the inevitable passage of time. Wordsworth's mid-sentence switch of pronouns (from 'I would give' to 'While yet we may') seeks to make general a personal predicament. But the way he formulated his mixed view of 'words' here is uniquely his. They have evident limits ('as far as words can give'), yet they are the means by which he seeks to lend 'A substance and a life to what I feel'.


 

Notes

[1]

The Excursion is quoted from The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, The Excursion, The Recluse Part I Book I, ed. E. De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949); The Prelude is quoted from William Wordsworth, The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995); all other poems are quoted from The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (1984; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[2]

The poem is quoted from The Poems of Andrew Marvell, ed. with intro. Hugh Macdonald (2nd edn.: London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956).

[3]

'Little Gidding' is quoted from The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (1969; London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

[4]

The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press) vol. II, pp. 84-5; hereafter Prose Works.

[5]

Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971) p. 307.

[6]

Quoted from Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman (New York and London: Norton, 1977).

[7]

Prose Works, II, 77.

[8]

Prose Works, II, 82.

[9]

Prose Works, II, 52.

[10]

Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814 p. 308.

[11]

William Hazlitt in a review of The Excursion, The Examiner (21, 28 August, 2 October 1814); quoted from William Wordsworth: A Critical Anthology, ed. Graham McMaster (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972) p. 117.

[12]

Mary Jacobus, Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference: Essays on 'The Prelude' (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) p. 99.

[13]

Paul de Man, 'Time and History in Wordsworth', in Romanticism, ed. Cynthia Chase, Longman Critical Readers (London and New York: Longman, 1993) p. 73; essay is reprinted from Diacritics, 17. 4 (Winter 1987): 4-17.

[14]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria: Or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) vol. II, p. 145.

[15]

Michael Baron, Language and Relationship in Wordsworth's Writing, Studies in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Literature (London and New York: Longman, 1995) p. 47.

[16]

See Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason, Longman Annotated Texts (New York and London: Longman, 1992) p. 295, note to line 63.

[17]

Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) pp. 100-1.

[18]

Richard Bourke, Romantic Discourse and Politcal Modernity: Wordsworth, The Intellectual and Cultural Critique (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993) p. 239.

[19]

Prose Works, III, 32.

[20]

'Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)', Prose Works, I, 150.

[21]

'Preface to the Edition of 1815', Prose Works, III, 33.

[22]

'Preface to the Edition of 1815', Prose Works, III, 33.

[23]

'Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)', Prose Works, I, 126.

[24]

Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) p. 201.

[25]

Bourke, Romantic Discourse and Politcal Modernity p. 238.

[26]

Letter quoted from William Wordsworth: A Critical Anthology, ed. Graham McMaster 86. For a facsimile and transcription of the poem with the reading Wordsworth gives in his letter, see 'Poems, in Two Volumes' and Other Poems, 1800-1807, ed. Jared Curtis (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983) pp. 318-19.

[27]

Bourke, Romantic Discourse and Politcal Modernity p. 229.

[28]

Matthew Arnold, 'On Translating Homer', quoted in The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London and Harlow: Longmans, 1969) p. 563.

[29]

Quoted from The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London and Harlow: Longmans, 1969).

[30]

Prose Works, I, 148.

[31]

Helen Vendler, 'Lionel Trilling and the Immortality Ode', The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Cambridge, Mass.: and London: Harvard University Press, 1988) p. 109.

[32]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a letter to R. W. Dixon, 23 October 1886, quoted from William Wordsworth: A Critical Anthology, ed. Graham McMaster p. 242.

[33]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a letter to R. W. Dixon, 23 October 1886, quoted from William Wordsworth: A Critical Anthology, ed. Graham McMaster p. 243.

[34]

Helen Vendler, 'Lionel Trilling and the Immortality Ode' p. 112.

[35]

Shelley's Poetry and Prose p. 482.

[36]

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994; London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995) p. 240.

[37]

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) pp. 377-8.

[38]

M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953; London and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) p. 68.

[39]

Brooke Hopkins, 'Wordsworth's Voices: Ideology and Self-Critique in The Prelude', Studies in Romanticism, 33 (1994) 281, 290.

[40]

William Hazlitt, 'On the Living Poets', 'Lectures on the English Poets'; 'The Spirit of the Age: Or Contemporary Portraits', intro. Catherine Macdonald Maclean (1910; London: Dent, 1967) p. 156.

[41]

Charles Altieri, 'Wordsworth's Poetics of Eloquence: A Challenge to Contemporary Theory', in Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory, ed. Kenneth R. Johnston and others (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990) p. 397.

[42]

Keith Hanley, 'Wordsworth's Woman in White', News from Nowhere: Theory and Politics of Romanticism, ed. Tony Pinkney, Keith Hanley and Fred Botting, 1995: Romanticism, Theory, Gender (Keele: Ryburn Publishing, Keele University Press, 1995) p. 78.

[43]

Mary Jacobus, Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference p. 18.

Auteur : Michael O'Neill
Titre : 'The Words He Uttered ...': A Reading of Wordsworth
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 3, août 1996
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005725ar
DOI : 10.7202/005725ar

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