Thursday, February 24, 2005

Week 04 William and Dorothy Wordsworth

Albert Wlecke's Lectures on William Wordsworth, 1997
English 102 (Romantic and Victorian Lit.)

*In Memoriam Albert O. Wlecke
*Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of California, Irvine

*Below is my transcription of Albert Wlecke's lectures on Wordsworth in an upper-division survey course for which I served as a graduate student assistant. I will be posting my own materials on Wordsworth, but thought that I might first pass along these notes on comments by a scholar who dedicated much of his life to thinking about Wordsworth's poetry and prose. Albert passed away a few years ago after retiring from UC Irvine, and I think he would be pleased to have these notes offered to interested students. I always found his lectures insightful and clear. Enjoy!

Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” Week 1.2 4/2/97

All the English Romantics were at first sympathetic to the French Revolution. Wordsworth and Coleridge were even spied upon by ignorant government agents. But when the Revolution led to war with England thanks to the September Massacres, the Terror, and Napoleon’s empire-building, some former supporters felt betrayed.

At first, the Revolution was seen as the advent of a new dawn (the symbol of the French Revolution). What went wrong? See The Prelude, Book 2, where Wordsworth refers to the “melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown.” Meyer Abrams argues that High Romanticism is best understood as a movement that occurred after the failure of revolutionary ideals. Abrams says that the Romantics’ answer to societal problems begins with the realization that reformers must begin with the heart of mankind, not with attempts to tinker with social institutions. That is, they reject social determinism. Social and political transformation presuppose a transformation in the sensibility and consciousness of individuals.

In “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” we see the displacement of the French Revolution’s political ideals into the theory and practice of literature. “Liberty,” “equality,” and “fraternity” are transferred to literary theory, to certain claims about the composition and effects of poetry.

See, for example, Norton 6th. edition page 151, the “spontaneous overflow” passage. This idea is new, and it opposes the older, mimetic/pragmatic theory of neoclassical authors. Wordsworth’s is an expressive theory of poetry; the author’s personal feelings may rightfully be expressed in his poetry. So Wordsworth is psychologizing literature. We might ask, “but isn’t poetry a species of language, just as earlier authors would have insisted?” Yes, it is, but Wordsworth is interested first and foremost in the creative process that leads to successful composition.

The political implications of this idea are important. Wordsworth’s theory expresses the emergence, according to many critics, of middle-class individualism. Wordsworth claims the right to discuss his own inner feelings. “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” claims this individual freedom; it claims freedom from literary conventions. [My note--a corollary of this tie to the middle class would be Wordsworth’s choice of “low and rustic” speech and situations for his poetry: he has displaced the universal and primary passions onto country people, but this category of “country people” is itself in the process of being shaped by urban, middle-class-driven developments and ideas. The same goes for the concept of “nature”--external nature was already under threat by the Industrial Revolution when it became part of the solution for the problems caused by technology and urbanization.]

Wordsworth says that poetry comes from impulse. He argues against poetic diction, against flora legium. He wants to listen to shepherds talk. The point is to recover a more democratic language, as opposed to the language of aristocratic pride and elitism. The word, “spontaneous” has for its root sponte--“of one’s own volition.” Wordsworth will compose not according to stale rules but in accordance rather with his own will and imagination.

So poetry should combine free choice and impulse. Feeling must first move the poet, but then he must freely choose to express that feeling. In Wordsworth, we see a commitment to artistic liberté--to artistic freedom, to the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” as the source of poetry.

See page 142. Here we can find Wordsworth’s commitment to égalité. Wordsworth says that his “principal object” is to choose incidents from common life and to make a selection of language really used by men. He has backed away from his emphasis on “spontaneous overflow”: he now says that the poet’s goal is not to express his own merely private idiosyncrasies, but instead to express a universal. He must demonstrate general psychological laws, universal emotional states. His task is to reveal a universal, common human emotional nature.

When Wordsworth writes on page 142 about a “state of vivid sensation,” he is using the language of British empirical philosophy. See, for instance, Locke’s doctrine of the “association of ideas.” For Locke, an idea is any object of consciousness, including feelings. Locke is trying to inquire into the laws of the mind, and such inquiries are part of the empirical tradition Wordsworth follows.

Also in accordance with his egalitarianism, Wordsworth says that he has chosen to take his model from “low and rustic life”--i.e. from what we might call the lower class. Here, he says, the "essential passions of the heart" find a better soil and are freer. Feelings are purer in poor country people than in rich aristocrats or in the urban middle class. This notion on Wordsworth’s part amounts to a kind of primitivism, along the lines of Rousseau.

Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” Week 1.3 4/4/97

Last time, we talked about the displacement of Revolutionary ideals into poetic theory. We spoke in particular about the displacement of liberty and equality. The latter comprises Wordsworth’s ideas about the value of low and rustic or common life and common, democratic language.

Now let’s move on to examine how “fraternity” shows itself in Wordsworth’s theory. See page 149, the passage in which Wordsworth writes about the differences between the “man of science” and the poet. If poetry is the individual poet’s expression, how is it that he sings a song in which all can join with him? Well, Wordsworth the empiricist, who writes about selecting his language from men in a “vivid state of sensation,” assumes that there is a general human nature. It is not an Aristotelian nature based upon reason; rather, it is a nature based upon the passions, upon the human being’s capacity to feel. All people, thinks Wordsworth, are potentially capable of experiencing the kinds of emotion we find in his own poetry: compassion, love, sorrow, and so forth. The point is that the poet can find in himself these essential, universal feelings. He is, therefore, the source of human community.

But what about “alienation”--the social context that surrounds Wordsworth’s poetic program? The poet is the only person who has not forgotten what it is fully to be a human being. Of course, the idea that there is a common human nature is not easily accepted today. But in any case, the poet is the binding principle; through his poetry, we the readers can rediscover our own humanity.

Wordsworth says that the poet is the “rock of defense” for human nature. What, then, is the attacking agent? Social conditions: war, industrialism, capitalism. We must see that our unity lies in the common capacity to experience universal feelings--the “essential passions of the human heart.” Poetry is a kind of therapy for alienated people.

See page 150: Wordsworth says that “in spite of differences of soil and climate,” the poet binds men together by “passion (impassioned expression) and knowledge [of the heart]” the whole of humankind. The emotions expressed by the poet, says Wordsworth, transcend political, cultural, and historical situations.

See page 144 bottom: Why do we need the poet? Because he can help us recover our sensibility, our capacity to feel. In particular, he can help us feel universal passions instead of the mere shocks that accrue from our present need for “gross and violent stimulation.” Wordsworth is explicitly setting up a hierarchy of humanity, with the highest humans being those who can feel in the absence of “violent stimulation.” At this point, we can see that Wordsworth is very much a pragmatic critic; that is, he is interested in the effect of his poetry on his audience.

The claim that humanity is rapidly falling into a state of “savage torpor” also shows the radical quality of Wordsworth’s thinking. Something new is happening to humanity, he claims. This era is like no other before it. The notion that people are being reduced to “savage torpor” has political implications: if British citizens become unfit for “voluntary exertion,” they will obviously not be able to exercise their free will in running a democratic society.

Wordsworth refers to the forces currently shaping nineteenth-century England: war and urbanization. He refers to what Marx would later call the “alienation of labor.” All these forces threaten human sensibility, the capacity to feel. The thirst they create for “violent stimulation,” says Wordsworth, is a great threat to democratic values and practices. His narrative goes like this:

social conditions > savage torpor > appetite for “outrageous stimulation” > inability to feel “essential passions” and to act freely > isolation > loss of democratic sentiments and institutions.

Sensationalism is the enemy of freedom and fraternity. Wordsworth presents the poet as the doctor who will restore certain political ideals.

See page 387. Coleridge’s theory of creative imagination, the “esemplastic power,” reminds us of another important Romantic claim: originality, radical newness. The primary imagination, says Coleridge, is the “living power and prime agent” of all human perception. [So even to perceive and render intelligible the world that appears to us is vitally creative.] And the use of [secondary or poetic] imagination amounts to repeating the creative acts of a god who is pure, unpredicated (unlimited) Being. The poet repeats the divine act of creation; he creates ex nihilo, in a moment of pure being. According to Coleridge, the artist can imitate god by creating something entirely new and original. He is not the only Romantic who hopes that something unprecedented can be brought forth. Emerson, for example, says that we can judge a book to be “good” if it leads to new ways of thinking, and bad if it claims to be “the last word” on a given subject.

Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” Week 2.1 4/7/97

Today we shall discuss three topics (we discussed only the first topic this session):

1. Revolutionary epistemology: philosophical idealism.
2. “Culture” vs. “nature.”
3. Romantic attitudes toward “nature.”

Coleridgean imagination is one source of the Romantic emphasis on the possibility of “pure beginnings”--the chance to create something radically new in human affairs. This idea is the poetical analogue of the political hope during the 1790’s that a “new dawn” was beginning.

Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Pope, Johnson, and others are philosophical realists; that is, in response to the question, “how do we make our experience intelligible?” they locate the source of intelligibility in things themselves. During the Medieval Era, the answer to this question would have been, “faith.”

But philosophical idealists like Hume and Kant assume something far different: they say that the source of intelligibility is to be located in the way we think about things. Kant says that we cannot know the noumenal world of supposed "things in themselves"; we can only know the phenomenal world that appears to us. So he analyzes how the mind actively constructs the phenomenal world, how the mind imposes schema or categories of intelligibility upon phenomena.

Hume the skeptical idealist says that cause/effect relationship is the product of the way the mind is constructed to connect events and ideas (in accordance with associational psychology). The mind imposes a cause/effect relationship on events and ideas; such a relationship is not intrinsic to things themselves. Hume’s claim undermines the traditional arguments in favor of god’s existence. How, for example, could one rationally prove that there is a “first mover” if cause and effect are products of the mind and not properties of the universe?

Kant effects a Copernican Revolution in philosophy. Just as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory displaced human beings from the center of the universe, so Kant’s insistence that we structure all perception through mental “categories” shifts the object of investigation from some “noumenal” source of reality to the way the mind construes experience and sense data. According to Kant, the categories [of space and time] are like a pair of spectacles that we can never remove. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, among others, will draw out the implications of this insight. In any case, Kant’s idealist claim is the philosophical analogue of political revolution: it becomes plausible to think of “cultural revolution” if we say that our institutions are human-made [i.e. that they are similar to Kant’s “categories”--ideological lenses through which we see the world, our relation to others and to the state, etc.].

Culture might well be thought of as a series of tales told by parents and other authority figures to a child before it is old enough to “fight back.” Later, the growing child begins to “rewrite” the cultural script/s that he or she has been handed. The child becomes an “epistemological revolutionary.”

See page 387: Coleridge says that the secondary imagination is an echo of the primary imagination. The secondary imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate.” Let’s illustrate this idea with a diagram:

mind >>>>> lens (i.e. cultural scripts) >>>>> world of experience ("mighty world of eye and ear")

Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” Week 2.2 4/9/97

1) Culture vs. nature
2) Romantic attitudes toward nature
3) Greater Romantic Lyric (“Tintern Abbey”) [we did not get this far today]

Wordsworth wants to hammer out a new vocabulary, one free of poetic diction.

1) Culture vs. nature

“Expostulation and Reply”/“The Tables Turned” were both included in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. Matthew is the cultural conservative who takes the side of culture as opposed to nature. The poems show some comic irony since William’s pro-nature view must be published in a poem. Why is William sitting on a stone? Wordsworth tends to define things by their location; he deals with states of mind in terms of physical location. [This tendency has to do with meditative technique.] The location of the speaker or character begins to define the spiritual and moral nature of the thing described. See, for example, the “vale profound” in “The Solitary Reaper.” The same could be said of Keats.

Coleridge says that poetry should awaken us from the “lethargy of custom”; it should strip from our perceptions the “film of familiarity.” He implies that consciousness is radically socialized. (An example would be the ordinary mid-C19 American southerner’s inability to see slavery as anything but “normal.”) The Romantics often use dream metaphors to show that one must “sleep” to awaken from a socialized consciousness and to find an imaginative alternative state of consciousness. The Romantics are suspicious of “normal” ways of thinking. Keats’ heroes are usually dreamers.

The metaphor of light is another staple of Romantic poetry. Light generally stands for the principle of intelligibility. In the Wordsworth poem we are examining, Matthew says that William is acting like Adam--as if there were no cultural past. But William himself wants to experience nature without cultural baggage; he wants to be Adam. In keeping with this desire, Wordsworth favors radical empiricism. His speaker says that “our bodies cannot choose but feel.” Sensation, in other words, has little to do with will. We should not intellectualize our sensations.

In “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth promotes rural language spoken “in a state of vivid sensation.” That is, he promotes an empirically based language.

The phrase “wise passiveness” indicates that we should leave ourselves open to empirical sensations. This notion amounts to “secular Quakerism.” William opposes Matthew’s obsession with intellectualizing. It is better to make way for a different kind of wisdom.

To attain that wisdom, we must listen to nature attentively. Nature, then, is an expressive language to be read without the help of cultural authority. See Emerson’s essay, “Nature.” In this essay, Emerson writes that words are “the signs of natural facts; natural facts are the signs of spiritual facts.” In other words, natural phenomena can be read for their moral and spiritual significance. See also Melville’s Moby Dick, in which Ishmael interprets things in this Emersonian way.

In “The Tables Turned,” William admonishes Matthew that if he does not stop studying so much, he will “grow double.” That phrase has a double meaning; it signifies both that Matthew will become hunched over with “scholar’s stoop” and that he will grow “double-minded.” His mind will become so filled with arguments and counter-arguments that he will not be able to decide on anything. Wordsworth here looks forward to what Matthew Arnold would describe as a key problem in the Victorian Era: the destruction of the Christian world view resulted in the proliferation of new, incompatible arguments. Arnold calls this situation “multitudinousness.” It amounts to radical pluralism, to a breakdown of consensus on the most basic questions about human nature and society. Similarly, Lionel Trilling writes that the multiplicity of books in the twentieth century threatens us with meaninglessness.

Wordsworth favors the light of empirical nature, not the abstract light of culture and the past. He would have us examine ourselves and the world by “the light of things.” In William’s notorious terms, “One impulse from a vernal wood” is a better teacher than any of the sages.

In connection to this claim for the light of nature, recall Wordsworth’s own moral confusion over the French Revolution. In “Tintern Abbey,” the relevant phrase is “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world.” To overcome his confusion, Wordsworth turned first to the reading of William Godwin. But nature is his ultimate guide; nature gives us sensations, which then lead to therapeutic feelings. We cannot solve our moral dilemmas solely by intellection. Nature, not reason or books, is the best therapist.

Nature; Greater Romantic Lyric; Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey.” Week 2.3 4/11/97

1) Romantic attitudes toward “nature.”
2) The Greater Romantic Lyric. Its meditative structure.
3) “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”

1) Romantic attitudes toward “nature.” In general, civilization corrupts people, so they must go back to nature. Romantic praise of the natural is negation (i.e. nature negates culture’s pernicious effects.)

a) Romantics consider “nature” as the antithesis of inherited and institutionalized practices of thought, self-alienated ways of making sense and assigning values and priorities.

b) They also see it as a substitute for traditional religion. By the mid-Victorian Period, “doubt” becomes endemic to the whole middle class. Religion is a source or moral knowledge, a source of faith that the world is intelligible. Recall the Monks’ mystical experience of ultimate oneness with god. Such experiences account for the importance of meditative technique to the Romantics. See Thomas Merton’s modern work on the subject of meditation. In “Tintern Abbey,” nature substitutes for religion.

c) Romantic “nature” is a vehicle for self-consciousness. City life leads to Arnold’s “buried life”--a life in which people’s real identity has been lost. So the Romantics’ preoccupation with natural phenomena amounts to a search for the true self, for one’s real identity. See Thoreau’s Walden Pond: “the wilderness is the salvation of the world.” Nature makes people know what they truly are, what god wants them to be.

Nature is an expressive language. See pg. 195 Norton, “The Solitary Reaper.” This poem is a good example of Wordsworth’s ability to write in a way that is at once mimetic and expressive. The speaker says that the “vale profound overflows with sound.” The sound of the Reaper’s voice, that is, echoes through the deep vale. Wordsworth uses mimetic language to describe or imitate nature: he represents a sound in nature. But at the same time, his mimetic imagery expresses something about the speaker’s reaction.

“The Solitary Reaper” is about the speaker’s emotional reaction to the Reaper’s song. The speaker’s emotions carry his mind beyond the vale. In the second stanza, we enter a world of pure imagination via the speaker’s analogies about the Arabian traveler and the cuckoo birds in the far-off Hebrides. The poem’s natural images represent an overflowing mind; they provide us with an expressive subtext about the mind’s responses to nature. Nature, then, provides a set of images that manifest our inner lives. We can read in nature and natural images the workings of our own imaginations and emotions.

d) “Nature” is a source of sensations--healthy feelings. It is therapy for a diseased, overcivilized heart. Humans can discover emotional health in nature. Such health leads to moral and spiritual clarity.

e) Nature is a provocation to a state of imagination. Sensation leads to imaginative vision. See, for example, the poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” page 186. The speaker is traveling through nature when something stops him. He becomes Geoffrey Hartman’s “halted traveler.” What stops him? “a host of golden daffodils.” Notice the Miltonic, biblical connotations of the word, “host.” In this poem, sensation (the perception of the daffodils) transforms itself into vision. The sight of the daffodils leads the speaker to think next of the heavens: the flowers are like stars. Wordsworth insists on the earthly location of the speaker’s source of vision--the flowers appear “along the margin of the bay”--but at the same time something heavenly is glimpsed.

See also Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” The poet starts with simple sensation, and then his speaker’s imagination takes off thanks to his complicated reaction to simple sensation. The generic way to put this move is to say that for the Romantics, imaginative miracles lurk in ordinary sensations. As Blake would say, one can find “infinity in a grain of sand.” It is only the Coleridgean “film of familiarity” and the “lethargy of custom” that keep us from seeing these miracles. Part of meditative technique involves staring at a small object until the meditator sees god. That is another way of saying that he or she “awakes from the lethargy of custom.”

f) Romantic “nature” is an expressive language, a vehicle for self-consciousness. As in “The Solitary Reaper,” natural images provide us with a way of thinking about human feelings and the self. So the natural image is at the same time an expressive one. (For example, if a tree can survive a great storm, the person who perceives it can survive his or her own trials.) The phrase “vale profound” is both mimetic and expressive. We shall see this tendency in Victorian poetry, too: nineteenth-century poets are constantly drawing moral and spiritual meanings from nature.

2) The Greater Romantic Lyric (including “Tintern Abbey” and “Intimations of Immortality”). “GRL’s” follow a three-stage pattern:

a) They begin with a description of the scene. The scene turns out to be filled with mysterious emotional and moral meaning. The natural location embodies vital half-perceptions on the speaker’s part and offers leads to be explored in the rest of the poem.

b) Then they move to the speaker’s analysis of the scene’s hidden significances. A “problem” must be enunciated, clarified, explored. In “Tintern Abbey,” the first twenty-two lines concern the location, and then we move to the speaker’s past experiences with this scene, his memories. In this second stage, the diction of “Tintern Abbey” becomes more abstract.

c) They end with the achievement of an affective (i.e. emotional) resolution. The resolution is intended to allay the speaker’s anxiety and solve his problem.

Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century poems fit the definition Abrams gives for the Greater Romantic Lyric: Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”; Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; Yeats’ “Among School Children”; and Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” come to mind.

Wordsworth's “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Week 3.1 4/14/97

Today we cover as many as possible of six points about "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey."

1. This poem is what Abrams calls a "Greater Romantic Lyric." In stage one, the poet describes the scene, which embodies some disturbing feeling or memory. In stage two, the speaker analyzes the scene and sharpens his sense of the problem that besets him. In stage three, the speaker arrives at an affective resolution.

2. Wordsworth's biography.

3. The relationship between the poet's mind and nature.

4. Wordsworth's religion of nature.

5. The way in which sensations derived from nature provoke a complicated emotional response. Contemplation of nature leads to introspection, heightened self-consciousness.

6. The power of memory. See "The Solitary Reaper," in which the first stanzas turn out to be memories. See also "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Wordsworth often describes nature as remembered; he writes a poetry of after-imagery. The memory of experience is central to his work.

In connection to point 6, let's discuss the paradox of nature. The poet's relationship to nature is changing; he can no longer respond to its images as he once could: those "aching joys and dizzy raptures are no more." This recognition of loss depends on memory, which creates in the speaker consciousness of his problem. Memory, therefore, cuts both ways: it helps connect us with nature, but it also reveals the loss of our ability to respond to nature. This notion of "loss" is a recurring motif in Wordsworth--he deals with time as the experience of incremental loss.

See page 136. The Wye is in western England. It arises in Wales and runs east. "Tintern Abbey" was a last-minute inclusion in Lyrical Ballads.

1. Verse Paragraph (VP) 1: "Five summers, with the length of five long winters" have passed. This poem concerns Wordsworth's relationship to nature first at the age of 25, and then at 28. Lines 1-22 set the scene, so the diction is appropriately mimetic. Wordsworth has seen the location he describes once before, five years ago during a walking tour.

VP 2: Now we move to analysis, and the poem's diction therefore becomes more abstract. The speaker begins to analyze what the scene has meant to him during his five-year absence. Memory, remembered sensations, will be important to him. The idea is that "affective memory" allows the speaker to remember past feelings. On the basis of this remembrance, he will be able to respond to the present experience. (See also Proust.) In VP 2, Wordsworth begins to recognize a loss: the relationship between his own mind and external nature has been broken. Once he realizes that this is true, he begins to work toward an affective resolution.

That resolution starts to take effect at line 102: "Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods . . ." Threatened with loss, the speaker has nonetheless found a way to say that even though his relationship with nature is no longer as direct or intense as it used to be, he still loves nature.

2. Biographical information. Winter is a period of sterility, and it has been "five long winters" of the soul for Wordsworth. He has broken with nature. Nature is "always there"; it is cyclical and so revives annually, but the mind is not necessarily so capable of reviving itself: mind and nature can go in opposite directions. Wordsworth himself has been through a painful period of disillusionment concerning his revolutionary hopes for France. He has had a child by Annette Vallon, but cannot even return to France because England is already at war with that country. Because of his disillusionment, Wordsworth was thrown into a state of moral confusion over the betrayal of his utopian hopes. He has come to feel "the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world." The war era was a time of intense and radical questioning--the old, stable ways of life and modes of thought have come into doubt.

3. By the age of 28, however, Wordsworth has revived. Once again, he re-sees the sights that delighted him five years ago. One can, then, return to nature; it is always "there" as a restorative force. This last recognition is central to the speaker's hopes for resolution: much depends on his ability to respond to nature.

4. Wordsworth's "religion of nature." When the speaker says that the landscape has not been to him as to a blind man's eye, he points out that he could have forgotten his first experience. He is anxious on this point: will memory someday fail him? At this point in the poem, though, the speaker denies this possibility by using litotes. Overall, "Tintern Abbey" is a positive poem, but we should bear in mind that the speaker's positive assertions play against fear and denial. The poem is a meditation, and the one meditating is engaged in acts of emotional overcoming.

When the speaker uses phrases like "unremembered pleasure," his language has begun to grope; he is uncertain about the mind's mysteries. He is trying to describe a psychological process, and of course he cannot entirely clear up the mystery about the way the human soul and mind become what they are. (This "mysterious" quality of the mind's growth is a prominent motif in The Prelude.)

Perhaps, thinks Wordsworth, his remembrances have led him to retain a certain moral capacity. Nature is the best teacher after all; it can help him develop the desire to do good, positive things. It can help him replace the crumbling schemes of morality and make the world intelligible again. Nature can satisfy the speaker's basic need to make sense of the world, to arrive at moral intelligibility. Culture cannot assist him since it is on the brink of incoherence (Arnold's "multitudinousness" is too much at play.)

The idea is that sensations lead to memory and meditation, which lead to the discovery of a "gift," a blessed mood or intuition, that turns out to be the antithesis of unintelligibility. Notice the poem's mystical claims: "we see into the life of things." Wordsworth is saying that nature can lead us to the ultimate metaphysical, spiritual insight. In this regard, nature's power is religious: it leads us to a state of mind in which we may glimpse the ultimate reality.

Wordsworth's “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Week 3.2 4/16/97

"Tintern Abbey," continued. Last time, we described Wordsworth's ideas about poetry being a "religion of nature." The "burden of the mystery" must be lightened both in the merely physical sense and in the sense of "enlightenment." When the speaker says we can "see into the life of things," he is describing a feeling, a moment free of unintelligibility. This metaphysical state is intensely private, and the speaker's memory of it is tenuous.

To justify this moment, the speaker turns not to rational argument but to "experiential proof." He says that the feeling works for him: "Yet oh how oft in spirit have I turned to thee, O sylvan Wye!" The feeling opposes the ordinary world's falsely raging, feverish pulse. The apostrophe to the Wye is similar to the Psalm-writers' trust in god--"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want"--except, of course, that the praise has been translated into the language of a nature-worshiper.

The point is that Wordsworth's poetry of nature transforms itself into the poetry of self-consciousness. Representations of natural scenery turn into descriptions of the poet's state of mind. As the poet translates his feelings (i.e. the "state of mind" just referred to) into words, he begins to rationalize them. This intellectualization amounts to a poetry of self-consciousness.

Wordsworth is committed to "self-expression." The idea is that an inward emotion is pressed out, is turned into language. The poet's language, then, is emotion socialized. His language, that is, makes his inward mental states or feelings available to his readers. The poet's words also rationalize his emotion. For example, he may see a tree groaning under the wind but holding firm, and then write a poem about this experience of nature. In writing the poem, he makes the experience--as represented in his words--a vehicle for self-representation. The poet's language "holds the mirror up to his own inward life."

Romantic poetry, then, aims at successful acts of self-representation. Self-representation is an act of self-consciousness, a doubling of the self to itself. "Being-to-oneself" is the goal. The aim is also to contain and understand powerful feelings.

So Wordsworth's nature poetry becomes poetry of self-consciousness. In other words, we move from stage 1 of the Greater Romantic Lyric to stage 2.

The "smoke" in "Tintern Abbey" is a signifier, but its meaning is uncertain to the poet. This uncertainty is a common moment in Romantic lyric: a physical thing is seen as symbolic, but the poet cannot explain precisely what it signifies. (See, for example, Ishmael's reflections in Moby Dick about the "whiteness" of the whale.) The lyric poem is partly about different interpretations of symbols. In Wordsworthian terms, lyric poetry is full of surmises.

A sensation leads to an assumption that the sensation is meaningful; then the poet begins to make surmises about the possible meanings. At the moment the surmising begins, the poet shifts into the poetry of self-consciousness and away from mere nature.

What could the smoke in "Tintern Abbey" signify? The presence of gypsies? On second thought, says the poet, perhaps it is from a hermit's cave. The idea of a hermit makes the poet remember his own former state as a practicer of meditation, a seeker into "the life of things." The surmise about the hermit, then, brings to the "surface" of consciousness a displaced memory of the poet's own self.

See page 137. At least the poet realizes that he is full of "sad perplexity." He understands, that is, that he no longer feels the same way about nature as he used to. The loss he recognizes occurred sometime after his last visit five years ago. (Notice that the interval between possession and loss differs from that of the "Intimations of Immortality" ode. In the latter poem, Wordsworth concerns himself with what has been lost in the passage from infancy to adulthood.)

The speaker says, "I cannot paint what then I was." (Again, "was" refers to 1793.) The word, "paint" reminds us of eighteenth-century poetic theory, which often compared poetry to the mimetic art of painting. Wordsworth is partly implying that he cannot find the words to express the feelings he had in 1793. However, he may also be hinting that he is reluctant to express what he was then, what he felt. Why? Perhaps because it is painful for him to face up to what he has lost. He may fear that the loss is irrecoverable.

Nonetheless, the speaker does tell us exactly what he felt like in 1793. His relation to nature consisted in "an appetite, a feeling and a love." His language names a variety of natural elements, but syntactically the poet equates them with acts of emotion. See "were" at line 79: the things he describes were "a feeling and a love." The experience described is that of consciousness of nature being inseparable from consciousness of self: in 1793 at the Wye, to see was to feel--no need to distinguish seeing from feeling. Mind and nature were one, and no reflection was necessary. This state of oneness with nature is what the speaker knows he has lost.

Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"; "Intimations of Immortality." Week 3.3 4/18/97

In "Tintern Abbey," the speaker suggests his former oneness at 23 with nature. But at line 83, he says the time is past. There is much discussion in the poem about "gifts" ("recompense") and losses. See Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying. Taylor says that when threatened with the unforgivable sin of despair, a Christian should work actively to practice the virtue of hope. He should think about what god has given him. Wordsworth works out the problem of despair in secular terms--he counts his gifts from nature. (The root meaning of "grace" is "gift.")

See line 93: The speaker says that he has felt a "sense sublime." This is rather vague language, but it amounts to Romantic pantheism. Many Romantics attempt to break down the distinction between the divine and the non-divine. For them, everything is divine, including humankind. For a pantheist, god is an impersonal creative force or act; "the god principle" would be a better description than would the personal god of Christianity. See Emerson's "Nature." See also Shelley's "Mont Blanc." The creative principle or energy is in nature and in human beings, not in an external agent. The good news for Wordsworth is that he can discover in himself this same creative energy--even five years after it seems to have left him, he retains the "sense of something far more deeply interfused."

If Wordsworth cannot tell the reader exactly what this energy is, he can say where it is: in nature and "in the mind of man." Thus, awareness of nature is in fact an act of self-consciousness since the speaker himself has within him nature's creative principle or energy. Wordsworth "has felt" this energy, and continues to be able to feel it. This realization leads him to his resolution: "Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods." He has asserted that there is a fundamental continuity between nature and the human mind.

We "half-create and half perceive" nature, says Wordsworth. This statement verges on philosophical idealism.

In Christian iconology, the anchor is a symbol of hope. So Wordsworth borrows this symbol and applies it to nature. His hope is that he will continue to feel the "sense sublime," his old oneness with nature's energy. Nature, he says, is the basis of his moral being. Or rather this basis consists in his ability to respond to nature. That is why he feels so much anxiety over what he has lost and may lose again. Altogether to lose one's ability to respond to nature would be disastrous. By Victorian times, of course, no one is able to put much faith in the idea that nature is a viable substitute for religious belief. Coleridge, who never left off his Christianity, said that when Wordsworth wrote "Tintern Abbey," he was essentially a pagan, a nature-worshiper. Had he held on to his pantheism, it seems unlikely that Wordsworth would have been appointed laureate by Victoria.

The main context in "Tintern Abbey" is dramatically self-expressive: the speaker wrestles with the problem of combating despair with hope. So why is there so much grand language in the poem? So much emphasis on large sublimity? Often in Wordsworth, the emphasis is on finding sublimity in small things. Perhaps the dramatic context of the poem accounts for the scope of its claims and language.

On to "Intimations of Immortality": Here, the problem to be analyzed is not the relation between mind and nature but rather the relation between the adult's mind and the child's mind, between adult self-consciousness and the child's more innocent sense of itself. The radical idea in this poem is that the child's intuitive sense of itself turns out to be closer to the truth of human nature than is the adult's self-conscious sense. To grow up is to become self-alienated, to be put into a "prison-house."

Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality." Week 4.1 4/21/97

The lecture on the Immortality ode will be divided into six points:

1) Wordsworth attempts in this poem to provide new grounds for the ancient belief that the soul is immortal. He makes this attempt without recourse either to Christian theology or philosophy. He does not follow in the path of Descartes' Meditations, which tried to deduce the soul's immortality by appeals to "reason." Rather, Wordsworth bases his claim upon his own "recollections of early childhood," as if he constituted a "church of one." At base, he is at work writing a new cultural script.

2) "Intimations of Immortality" is a Greater Romantic Lyric.

3) The poem pursues the theme that there is continuity between the child's state of mind and adult consciousness. It does not concern itself much with "Tintern Abbey's" main relationship--that between mind and nature.

4) "Intimations" is about loss. The kind of loss differs, however, from the one in "Tintern Abbey": it has nothing to do with the poet's inability to respond to nature. In fact, the poet of "Intimations" has no problem responding to nature. What he has lost is "the glory and the dream" that he sensed as a child.

5) In "Intimations," the poet uses the ancient myth of pre-existence. He does not take this myth literally, but instead uses it as a metaphor with which to explore psychological truths, truths about "human nature." (Freud uses the Oedipus myth for a similar reason.) See also Keats' Endymion, which employs its primary myth as a way of dealing with imaginative growth. Wordsworth uses the myth of pre-existence as a metaphoric structure within which to examine the losses that occur as a child's mind enters society. He is interested in the socialization of the act of self-consciousness. This interest runs all through the nineteenth century; we can find it in the Brontes and Dickens, for example. These authors see childhood in terms of loss.

6) "Intimations" depends for its resolution upon the power of affective memory to help the adult recover childhood feelings. On the shadowy surmise that we can recover such hard-to-define feelings, Wordsworth bases his claims for the soul's immortality.

2 elaboration) Here is how we might divide up the stanzas of "Intimations of Immortality" into the three stages of the Greater Romantic Lyric:

a) The scene is delineated in stanzas 1-4.

b) The analysis comprises stanzas 5-8. This is the point at which the poet tells a story about growing up and, in so doing, employs the myth of pre-existence.

c) The affective resolution runs from stanza 9 through stanza 11. The "joy" the speaker feels comes to him because of the power of affective memory to recall a shadowy early childhood. Notice the metaphor of "fire"--here it is a way of figuring human life, as in Shakespeare's "That Time of Life Thou May'st in Me Behold."

3 elaboration) Wordsworth claims that the break between childhood and adulthood need not be absolute. Memory (not the Church or philosophy) provides the means to maintain this continuity. The phrase, "natural piety" is not a reference to Wordsworth's "religion of nature." Instead, it has to do with Roman pietas. Aeneas remains loyal to his father and to his household gods. Virgil's hero, in other words, remains loyal to Troy's cultural past, its venerable "cultural scripts." For Wordsworth, however, the past that deserves loyalty is not the father's (i.e. church, state, and culture) but the child's. Wordsworth will be true to his own shadowy recollections of childhood. Notice that he insinuates this radical doctrine by using traditional Virgilian language about piety.

4 elaboration) Stanza 1 is about loss. The speaker laments, "The things that I have seen I now can see no more." A "glory" has passed. (Traditionally, the word "glory" refers to the halo around a saint's head.) "Intimations" is full of multiplying images of natural light, so the reference to "glory" is important. One can learn a lot about this poem just by underlining its references to darkness, shadow, and light. The poem is not about the speaker's loss of connection to nature; on the contrary, he can respond to nature. But the "light" to which he refers is not of nature.

When the speaker was a child, everything seemed to him to be "apparelled in celestial light." This sartorial metaphor, again, indicates that the light Wordsworth has lost is not of nature--it only seemed to him that nature was clothed with "celestial light." Now, beautiful though the heavens are, they can be described as "bare." The tree reference indicates what critics today might call the presence of an absence. The key question in the poem is the nostalgic line, "Whither is it fled, the glory and the dream?" What has happened to the "visionary gleam" that formerly surrounded the speaker's perceptions? This question was so difficult for Wordsworth to answer that he put "Intimations" aside for two years before arriving at his myth of pre-existence.

5 elaboration) In working out this myth of pre-existence, Wordsworth treats life metaphorically as a "solar journey." The soul, he writes, "has had elsewhere its setting." The location of our present state, that is, depends upon our perspective. In order to pass from the state of pre-existence, the soul must "set" like the sun in the west; in order to pass the barrier into the mortal state, the soul must "rise" or be "born."

pre-existence | mortal state
("set") >>> | "rise" (be born)

Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality." Week 4.2 4/23/97

When Wordsworth says that "our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting," he echoes the Phaedrus. See also Trilling's book, The Liberal Imagination concerning Freud's view of the basis for religion. [But Freud himself does not say that the "oceanic feeling" explains the existence of religion; rather, he refers to the child's helpless longing for its father as that existence.] What we are pre-exists what we and society say we are. Wordsworth suggests that there is a self, a reality, prior to socialization.

The phrase, "Trailing clouds of glory do we come" is another instance in "Intimations" of the rising/setting sun metaphor. The phrase is accurate as an observation of nature--sunsets often are trailed by light-suffused clouds. Translated into human terms, Wordsworth's metaphor means that we retain some faint memory of a pre-existing state.

Soon, however, "shades of the prison-house" begin to close in around the growing child. Shadows of adulthood start to obliterate the memories of the pre-existing state. Even to be born is to be socialized, to lose one's freedom fully to possess oneself in thought. ["Self-determination" would be an appropriate term.] Adults are enslaved by others' ideas about who we are--that is, by cultural scripts.

The phrase, "light of common day" refers to principles held commonly in a given social context; i.e. within a certain "epistemological establishment." So Wordsworth opposes "visionary light" to the shadowy prison house of socialized self-consciousness. Of course, the terms one uses depend upon one's point of view: from the perspective of a person who has faded "into the light of common day," Wordsworth's "visionary light" might well be termed a "shadowy recollection."

See pg. 192. Wordsworth implies that the child is in possession of a basic truth that precedes "the light of common day." The child is at play in this poem, but he plays in the light of his father's eyes: he is fast and eagerly becoming an adult. Moreover, we should consider the role of language since learning to speak in itself is a way of becoming socialized.

The child in "Intimations" is a "little actor [who] cons another part." When he puts on his adult persona, he puts on a mask. Indeed, the word persona means "mask." Of course, as the child grows, he quickly internalizes these masks and consequently becomes "self-alienated." The adult belies the infant soul's immensity, its immeasurability. A child, insists Wordsworth, is the "best philosopher" because he or she intuitively comes closest to the truth that adults have forgotten. The father in the light of whose eyes his son plays is blind.

In the scheme of "Intimations," there are two kinds of self-consciousness: a) that of the adult, who, when asked who he or she is, must say, "I am x, y, z . . ." That is, the adult self accords with various societal predicates: names, job roles, relations, etc. This sort of predicated existence involves loss of liberty; the sentence, "I am x" is the discourse of the shadowy prison-house. b) that of the child, who is not compelled to predicate its existence. Children are "immense," unlimited, uncontained by mortality. See DeQuincey on "The Immortality of Youth." We must stop at Wordsworth's depressing line, "deep almost as life," and leave it to students to examine the strategies Wordsworth uses to overcome the threat of despair.

Wordsworth's The Prelude. Week 4.3 4/25/97

In The Prelude, Wordsworth’s expressive theory is tied to his concerns about regaining “freedom” (i.e. self-possession). See pg. 182 Norton. Wordsworth’s epic is a meditation on the mind at the height of its creative powers. See line 130: the speaker has “preserved and enlarged this freedom in himself.” Expression has led to true liberty. Poetic expression involves the translation outward of inner life via language. It socializes acts of self-consciousness. Wordsworth apprehends himself in order to express himself; this process is what a Romantic poet might call “liberation.” At base, the French Revolution’s ideal of liberty has been psychologized.

The Prelude is an autobiography, a search for self-knowledge. Autobiography is, of course, a common genre all through the nineteenth century. Dickens, the Brontes, and others all wrote within it. In Great Expectations, for example, Pip’s ambition is to become a “gentleman.” As always, the middle class valorizes personal mobility. But such fluidity creates problems as well as solves them--if traditional societal roles are lacking, the subject may well ask, “who am I? how can I justify my mobility?”

We should remember that the “Immortality” ode is a precursor of Freud’s theory of the unconscious. The idea is that we are unaware of vast areas of the self and that our social training does not allow us to discover these things. Freud’s clinical technique consists in getting the patient to make available autobiographical discoveries. The same may be said of The Prelude: the poem is an act of autobiographical writing that the poet hopes will lead to liberty, to full consciousness of the self.

Wordsworth’s autobiographical impulse arises also from nineteenth-century historicism. Romanticism is a philosophy of becoming, not Platonic being. To explain what a thing is, you must tell us how it became. You must write its history. In The Prelude, Wordsworth writes a narrative about how he became what he is--a poet. The poem, then, historicizes Wordsworth’s self.

Wordsworth rewrites the cultural script about what it means to be a poet. But what is this new poet? Is it possible that he should be the hero of his own tale? Milton had a poetic agenda mapped out from his youth, but Wordsworth is doing something radically new.

How much help can “nature” lend him as he writes? Nature, for the Romantics, is a negation of culture. But then, being a poet is a deeply cultural role, so Wordsworth must engage in autobiography, the self-historicization of his gifts. How did he get to be a poet?

Notice that the concept of “god” is not operational in The Prelude. Nature itself, not god, is Wordsworth’s teacher and guide.

The Prelude is a sustained act of self-representation in narrative form. As in Saint Augustine’s Confessions, we get a narrative about the author’s spiritual development. Wordsworth, with nature’s guidance, gradually recognizes his own imaginative power. Wordsworth’s epic contains a double narrative: a) an historical narrative that deals with the speaker’s growth from boyhood to maturity, and b) the story of a man in the act of telling his own autobiography. That is, Wordsworth explains to his readers why he decided to write his own story; it is as if he has been forced into writing it. During the writing process, new recognitions keep cropping up. Again, the structure of The Prelude resembles that of Augustine’s Confessions: the author halts his historical narrative to express his present reactions.

The Prelude is an act of self-consciousness. It does two things: it represents Wordsworth’s historical self, and it registers his response to this act of self-representation. Self-consciousness, therefore, can always double upon itself.

Wordsworth's The Prelude; Introduction to Keats. Week 5.1 4/28/97

In the Invocation, nature replaces god as the poet's source of inspiration. Spiritus means "breath." See Acts on the founding of the Church; Peter is "inspired" by the Holy Ghost. In Wordsworth, nature is "half-conscious" of the joy it brings. That is, the poet personifies nature and credits it with a teleological purpose.

In The Prelude, the line "the world is all before me" is happy, not sad as it was for Milton's Adam and Eve. Perhaps the sense of newness causes anxiety in Wordsworth's speaker, too, but he takes care of the fear by using litotes.

The phrase "correspondent breeze" implies that while nature inspires the poet, he too is a creative agent. Creative acts, then, are mutual; they result from the marriage of mind and nature. Nature provides stimuli or providential sensations, and the poet responds to them. As usual in Wordsworth, sensations lead to acts of imagination.

See page 213, lines 237ff. The poet has been blocked in his attempt to write. Wordsworth is anxious about wasting his talent and being a "false steward." The Protestant tradition imposes upon him a moral obligation to develop his talents. At this crisis point, Wordsworth turns to the past, to childhood: "was it for this?" he asks? Did nature train him as a youth only to find him a confused adult who is unable to write? With this question, we arrive at the second narrative in The Prelude.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home