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Aesthetics: Wordsworth

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In this session, we will continue our reading of the English Romantic writers specifically of poetry via the aesthetics they employed. Today’s session is devoted to aesthetics and William Wordsworth. You will recall that we have discussed two principal forms of aesthetics that influenced the English Romantic writers: the sublime and the picturesque. The sublime was an aesthetics of awe and fear. It instilled in the viewer, a sense of immensity and incomprehensibility. Landscapes drawn by John Martin, Loutherbourg and others depicted extensive rolling land or sea of immeasurable depth, width and intensity, so that the mountains, oceans, the sky itself were instances of the sublime and humanity in comparison seemed very small. The sublime is importantly an aesthetics of awe and when the human perceives himself or herself in the presence of the sublime, it instils in them the idea that whatever they are seeing is incomprehensible. It is an aesthetic of boundarylessness and limitlessness. The picturesque in sharp contrast is the aesthetics of fairly well-defined lands bounded or hedged in with fences and walls. It instils in the viewer or the reader, a sense of peace and harmony. It requires variety but an organized variety: it would have a ruin strategically placed in the picture, for instance. Melancholy is built into the picturesque, so is poverty, but it is all organized. That is the difference between the picturesque and the sublime. Effectively you can read them as antagonistic aesthetics. Let us now look at an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805 edition). Note how he opens this particular excerpt: I found myself of a huge sea of mist, Which meek and silent rested at my feet. A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved All over this still ocean, and beyond, Far, far beyond, the vapours shot themselves In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes, Into the sea, the real sea, that seemed To dwindle and give up its majesty, Usurped upon as far as sight could reach. …from the shore At distance not the third part of a mile Was a blue chasm, a fracture in the vapour, A deep and gloomy breathing-place, through which Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams Innumerable, roaring with one voice. The universal spectacle throughout Was shaped for admiration and delight, Grand in itself alone, but in that breach Through which the homeless voice of waters rose, That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged The soul, the imagination of the whole. If we pay attention to this, we can readily make out the elements of the sublime. As Philip Shaw has pointed out, this is where Wordsworthian sublime makes its most significant presence felt. Note the description of vastness, boundarylessness and the sense of awe that these sights generate in the mind. We find what we could call a ‘universal spectacle’ which is by definition more or less incomprehensible. Nature here does not make one experience pleasure. Instead what the poem here shows us is how terrifying nature is. So, this is not the nature that we find in “Tintern Abbey”. What Wordsworth is talking about here is nature on an extraordinary scale or an astronomical scale, something so vast that we cannot even perceive it because our vision does not comprehend what we are seeing. In the late 20th and early 21st -century, the eco-critic Timothy Morton will speak about hyperobjects, objects which are so vast that we cannot hope to understand their dimensions. But Wordsworth in a fashion typical of him does not stop at the universal spectacle. Once he is no longer physically located near the mountains, he imagines bigger mountains. He believes that once he is out of sight of the mountains, his imagination is driven to even greater heights. He continues: A meditation rose in me that night Upon the lonely mountain when the scene Had passed away, and it appeared to me The perfect image of a mighty mind, Of one that feeds upon infinity, That is exalted by an under-presence The sense of God, or whatsoe’er is dim Or vast in its own being… This is vintage Wordsworth. In the “Solitary Reaper”, if you recall, he concludes the poem saying “the music in my heart I bore long after it was heard no more”, implying that it is the memory of the song that is crucial. In all poems of his, it will be the memory of something beautiful that drives his imagination. In the “Daffodils” as well it is when he comes back after seeing the daffodils and is lying on his couch at home that the daffodils flash upon his inward eye. It is the memory of the natural sights that drive him to greater heights of imagination. Here too having seen a hundred hills, he now meditates on it… He says a meditation rose on me that night upon the lonely mountains when the scene had passed away. Please note: “when the scene had passed away”. So what we see here is Wordsworth measuring humanity in comparison with nature: “and it appeared to me the perfect image of a mighty mind”. You should be able to see echoes of this in the later poem that is Shelley’s Mont Blanc where the sight of something grand produces a grand imagination. What he is saying here is that when the scene has passed away it appeared to him that the mountain is the perfect image of a mighty mind, of one that feeds upon infinity. The grandeur of nature is matched only by the grandeur of the human imagination. In other words, the poet who appreciates sublime nature has a sublime mind. So the grandeur of the scene he has just witnessed on Mount Snowdon is replaced by the grandeur of the imagination and the magnitude of the mountain is replaced by the ability to imagine magnitudes. So, here we see that the poet or the speaker is not simply a person standing and admiring nature. The poet is the man who witnesses this, goes back home and is able to build those mountains in his imagination. The sublime in nature is paralleled by the sublime in the imagination without boundaries, vast and terrifying. This is more or less in tune with what he would say in one segment of “Tintern Abbey” about the power of nature’s spectacle on the mind of the poet: “I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts”. These elevated thoughts, like mountains, are an elevated topographical feature and he calls it “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Let us take another example, this time from The Excursion… How divine, The liberty, for frail, for mortal, man To roam at large among unpeopled glens And mountainous retirements, only trod By devious footsteps; regions consecrate To oldest time! and, reckless of the storm That keeps the raven quiet in her nest, Be as a presence or a motion — one Among the many there; and while the mists Flying, and rainy vapours, call out shapes And phantoms from the crags and solid earth As fast as a musician scatters sounds Out of an instrument; The Excursion As you see, here he again describes vast, incomprehensible landscapes. Here again Wordsworth employs the sublime. Especially what we can identify here is the trope of obscurity wherein one cannot see very clearly the object of one’s sight. Of course also in use here is the rhetoric of excess. But it is not about being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, it is about being “one/ Among the many there”. As we know, Wordsworth, rather than being overawed here, sees the setting as generating the sublime imagination, “the sense sublime”, in fact. This suggests that the poet is at home in nature, he shared the same tumult, the chaos and the grandeur of nature because his mind is also sublime. The poet is a part of the “natural sublime”, in other words. This suggests that the poet is at home in Nature, he shares the same tumult, chaos of Nature because his mind is sublime. He is not really interested in nature per se. Rather, he is interested in the effect nature as on his mind and how he fits into nature. This was an instance of Wordsworth’s sublime. I now move on to the second aesthetics that Wordsworth has often employed in his poetry and that is the aesthetic of the picturesque. In poems like “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth prefers the quiet landscape, organized, and ordered. As we saw at the beginning of today’s session, the picturesque is a quiet landscape. It is not quite Arcadian but often pastoral, sometimes georgic. There’s necessarily visible labour in Arcadian landscapes but there’s definitely labour in the georgic landscape. The georgic landscape is a landscape of cultivation. You will recall that in our earlier session we did speak about Thomas Gainsborough and others who depicted pastoral lands and farmland, so we will look at couple of examples. We just looked at Wordsworth’s sublime. Now, let us look at an instance of Wordsworth’s picturesque in an excerpt from “Tintern Abbey”. The day is come when I again repose Here, under this dark sycamore, and view These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts, Which at this season, with their unripe fruits, Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves 'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms, Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke Sent up, in silence, from among the trees! With some uncertain notice, as might seem Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire The Hermit sits alone. Famous lines of course from “Tintern Abbey”. Let us look at what he is saying here. He is sitting and resting. There there are plots of cottage ground around him. It is a landscape organized and framed by boundaries, by the lines of hedge-rows. Now by definition plots are organized bits of land. It is not a natural topography at all. Remember what I told you about the picturesque: the picturesque is the landscape which has been harmonised, variety has been put together, fenced in and organised. Let us look at another excerpt here, this time from Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk. Where peace to Grasmere's lonely island leads, To willowy hedge-rows, and to emerald meads; Leads to her bridge, rude church, and cottaged grounds, Her rocky sheepwalks, and her woodland bounds; Where, undisturbed by winds, Winander sleeps 'Mid clustering isles, and holly-sprinkled steeps; Where twilight glens endear my Esthwaite's shore, And memory of departed pleasures, more. Again we spot here the bridge, the church, cottages, woodland, none of which overwhelm the senses or comprehension. What do you think the emphasis is on here? Clearly the emphasis is on the order, harmony and variety of the landscape. Hedgerows and fences that organise the land. Read the following excerpt from An Evening Walk. When crowding cattle, checked by rails that make A fence far stretched into the shallow lake, Lashed the cool water with their restless tails, Or from high points of rock looked out for fanning gales: When school-boys stretched their length upon the green; And round the broad-spread oak, a glimmering scene, In the rough fern-clad park, the herded deer Shook the still-twinkling tail and glancing ear; When horses in the sunburnt intake stood, And vainly eyed below the tempting flood, Or tracked the passenger, in mute distress, With forward neck the closing gate to press-- Then, while I wandered where the huddling rill Brightens with water-breaks the hollow ghyll As by enchantment, an obscure retreat Opened at once, and stayed my devious feet. The picturesque as we have already discussed in the earlier session was an aesthetics of property and ownership and that is why fences are so emphasised upon. The fences are barriers. They organize the land but they also delimit and mark ownership. In other excerpts from Wordsworth, we would also come across a closing gate and other such features. We are not looking here at vast open fields. We are looking at organized fields. We have also mentioned another element that the picturesque incorporates: poverty. The beggar woman, the peddler, the vagrant are all central characters in Wordsworth’s picturesque. They wander around looking for shelter. In some of the poems from Incidents upon the Salisbury Plain, you will discover, for instance, Wordsworth’s interest in the dispossessed. He uses the helpless woman trope in poems like “The Female Vagrant”, “The Ruined Cottage”, “Her Eyes Were Wild”, among others. Here is a small instance coming up of this variant of the picturesque as well. Oh! when the sleety showers her path assail, And like a torrent roars the headstrong gale; No more her breath can thaw their fingers cold, Their frozen arms her neck no more can fold; Weak roof a cowering form two babes to shield, And faint the fire a dying heart can yield! Press the sad kiss, fond mother! vainly fears Thy flooded cheek to wet them with its tears; No tears can chill them, and no bosom warms, Thy breast their death-bed, coffined in thine arms! What is important to understand here is that there is a politics to the picturesque like there is a politics to the sublime. The sublime transformed nature into something wild, huge, uncontrollable. The politics of sublime as Patricia Yeager, Neil Hertz and several critics and commentators have pointed out, was that it was effectively a masculine aesthetic. It showed the man (the emphasis is on the gender) overcoming something, conquering something vast and powerful. So the sublime was primarily about the masculine ethos of the age. Patricia Yeager has a famous essay on the female sublime and how it functions. The picturesque on the other hand is the organization of land around questions of property. So the aesthetic of the picturesque involves a land owner who can command that his land be fenced in or manicured or arranged in a certain way. Land can be beautified and organised only by one who has control over that land. The picturesque was obsessed with questions of improvement but one cannot go and improve one’s neighbour’s land, only one’s own. Hence we see that it requires sovereignty. The question of the picturesque had a lot of political subtexts to it including questions of ownership and property. As we have seen, Wordsworth employed both the sublime and the picturesque, sometimes often in the same poem, especially in extended works such as The Prelude. What we need to understand is that if the sublime is incomprehensible, the picturesque is ordered. If one cannot capture and comprehend the sublime, one can certainly do so with the picturesque. We need to remember that these are not politically neutral. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, all aesthetics have a political function.