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William Wordsworth

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Wordsworth is known primarily for converting poetics into a kind of subjectivized situation. Metre, diction, rhythm are all reconceived as being driven by passion and the dramatic projection of feeling. The larger aim in his work, as critics have noted, is to transform moments of intense feeling into poetic rhythm. We shall look at two key themes in which sentiment and passion work in Wordsworth: (1) the sentimentalization of nature, and (2) the representation of nature as teacher. Let us take our first theme: Wordsworth and the sentimentalization of nature. Wordsworth assumed that the natural world was to be found only in rural England. He was against industrialisation as it threatened to destroy nature. Therefore, critics have argued that he may be considered as a pastoral poet whose work defends rural life against the invasion of the city. Poems like “Daffodils”, “Tintern Abbey” focused exclusively on the rural settings, including farms, woods and its inhabitants. In many of his poems, authentic pleasure, passion and sentiments are found only in the rural countryside. When he writes poems like “Upon Westminster Bridge”, he is actually setting in place, as I have noted in an earlier session, a binary between the country and the city. Here is “Daffodils”, arguably Wordsworth's most anthologised poems. Please take a minute to read the poem carefully. I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought: For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils. Several of you I am sure have encountered this poem before. It begins like much Wordsworth, with a focus on the “I”, the speaker, the person who is watching nature, documenting it and responding to it with his senses but also documenting his response. The bliss of solitude in the last section of the poem is Wordsworth's sentimental memory of nature. It is not nature, it is the memory of nature and we will have to pay some attention to this. Let us take it step-by-step. As the speaker wanders, lonely as he says, he comes upon a crowd of daffodils and the sight energises him. Now, it is important to recognise how he documents the feelings that he encounters and experiences. All at once he sees a crowd of golden daffodils. Now in this particular segment, there are several complicated readings possible and I will offer you one. It may not be exactly what you have thought about before. The traditional way of thinking about it is that he comes upon the crowded daffodils, it is an aesthetically satisfying sight and later he goes back home, lies down on the couch and recalls whatever he had seen. It is however possible that there is a little something else going on in those lines. What I want you to pay attention to is a couple of awkward moments in the first half of the poem. When he comes upon these flowers, he is struck by their very number. Further, he does not say that he saw ten thousand, he says “ten thousand saw I”. All the flowers are turned towards him, looking at him, a crowd of daffodils singing and dancing and moving. There is also the problematic word “host” being used in the fourth line of the poem. A host, etymologically, and Wordsworth would know his Latin from the word “hospes”, means both guest and enemy. Now if we were to think carefully about the other meaning of the word “host”, enemy, what would the poem read like? The traditional argument has been that he meets this very enchanting sight of daffodils and it enthuses him and he goes back home and there his heart “with pleasure fills” when he recalls the daffodils. That is one reading. That is the more conventional and the more comforting reading, shall we say? But that is not all. If we look at his description closely, he says “ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance”. He does not say that they were flowers. He does not say they were a garden. They stretch in a never-ending line and there are ten thousand heads that are moving. The word “host” in conjunction with ten thousand sprightly dancing, tossing heads perhaps communicates a slightly anxious condition. And that is the alternative reading that I would like to offer you. While we might agree that it is aesthetically beautiful to see ten thousand flowers, I suggest that that is not the only passion aroused in the Wordsworthian speaker. The image of ten thousand, staring, waving heads can be seen as a little disconcerting and alarming. The speaker sees these heads extending almost to infinity. So, one might argue that there is a disquieting passion also at work in those first three stanzas. That is my thesis. It is a poem about passion and about being enthused by nature, yes. But the enthusiasm of nature is not only in terms of wonderful, pleasant passion, it is about something else as well. The last stanza complicates it. Wordsworth is a poet of memories and of the sentiments attached to memories, not the sentiments or the memories themselves, but sentiments and memories together. Note that the poem expresses a great joy not at nature but at nature recollected. You might of course be morally outraged at this reading of the canonical Wordsworth but one might argue that these ten thousand swaying heads would not be out of place in a horror film! The only way the speaker can deal with it is by recalling it when he is not at the heart of the crowd of daffodils. In the poem, the speaker expresses joy not at nature but at nature recollected, nature as memory. Nature's purpose or value is not only to induce joy but to generate a joy that can be enduring. So when the speaker has retreated from nature, when he is lying on the couch, he recalls the sight he has seen. And then he finds pleasure. Look at what he is saying, “they flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude, and then my heart with pleasure fills”. The key phrasing is “and then my heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils”. Nature is a source of endless joy, even when available only in memory. This rather utilitarian view of natural beauty can be found in “Tintern Abbey” as well. Let us look at an excerpt from “Tintern Abbey”. Though absent long, These forms of beauty have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye; But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind, With tranquil restoration: – feelings too Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps, As may have had no trivial influence On that best portion of a good man’s life What is he saying here? The speaker says he has owed his best moments to the recall of Nature when he is away elsewhere. This is about the memory of nature, not about nature per se. Let us now turn to the Intimations ode, where he says much the same things. But for those first affections, Those shadowy recollections, Which, be they what they may Are yet the fountain-light of all our day, Are yet a master-light of all our seeing Here, the synesthetic image of fountain light fuses the drinking in quality of the oceanic feeling that has its origin in the child at the maternal breast with the celestial visual imagery employed earlier in the ode. This is again a felt memory of early experience. What are we talking about here? What Wordsworth is talking about is not nature or the experience of nature, but the recollection of those experiences of nature. It is the ability to recall events and the sentiments earlier experienced that is crucial. “Tintern Abbey” in fact records his second visit to the Abbey. On this second visit, he recalls the sentiments from the first time. When he has moved away from daffodils, he recalls the daffodils. By the end of the “The Solitary Reaper”, he has moved away from the solitary reaper and he recalls her music in his heart. The poetic mind does not only recall nature, it recalls the sentiments attached to nature. That is the key to understanding the sentimentalization of nature in Wordsworth. So the focus is not on sentimental nature, it is on the sentimentalization of nature via memory. This is crucial. We will move on to another theme: Poetry, Passion and the Poetic Mind. In terms of poems of passion, let us take a look at Wordsworth's best-known "Strange Fits Of Passion Have I Known", one of his Lucy poems. Strange fits of passion have I known, And I will dare to tell, But in the lover's ear alone, What once to me befell. When she I loved looked every day Fresh as a rose in June, I to her cottage bent my way, Beneath an evening moon. Upon the moon I fixed my eye, All over the wide lea; With quickening pace my horse drew nigh Those paths so dear to me. And now we reached the orchard-plot, And, as we climbed the hill, The sinking moon to Lucy's cot Came near, and nearer still. In one of those sweet dreams I slept, Kind Nature's gentlest boon! And, all the while, my eyes I kept On the descending moon. My horse moved on; hoof after hoof He raised, and never stopped: When down behind the cottage roof At once, the bright moon dropped. What fond and wayward thoughts will slide Into a Lover's head! “O mercy!” to myself I cried, “If Lucy should be dead!” The poem is a fantasy, an effect of a morbid imagination. The poem ends with the conventional tears and sentiments of the age of sensibility. The poem is less on Lucy than on the effect of her death on the speaker. It is actually what Wordsworth termed “a fit of imagination” in the Lyrical Ballads. The “wayward thoughts” are the effects of a fertile imagination. For critics like Barbara Johnson, the phrase is resonant of Wordsworth's craft itself. “Poetry is a fit, an outburst, an overflow of feeling; and poetry is an attempt to fit, to arrange feeling into form” (“Strange Fits: Poe and Wordsworth on the Nature of Poetic Language”). It is important to recognise that it is the poet with a better mind and a man of feeling who responds like this to nature. Thus, Wordsworth is actually foregrounding not nature but the seeing-feeling poet at the centre of things. There is a traditional argument that Wordsworth is a poet of nature. No, Wordsworth is a poet of poets. He is not interested in nature per se, he is interested in the effects of nature on poets and poetic minds. His poetry is full of meditations of his processes of seeing. Thus, in the lines from “Tintern Abbey”, we can clearly note that it is not observations of nature, but the poet being aware of his observations that is the centrepiece. “I felt”, “I saw” and such are the reflections on how he observed various things. This makes Wordsworth less a poet about nature than a poet about poetic observations about nature. His speakers are concerned with questions like: How do I see? What emotions come to me? How do those emotions come to me? Nature is a teacher in some of the Wordsworth poems. Let us look at the famous boat stealing incident from The Prelude. One summer evening (led by her) I found A little Boat tied to a Willow-tree Within a rocky cave, its usual home. Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on, Leaving behind her still, on either side, Small circles glittering idly in the moon, Until they melted all into one track Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows, (Proud of his skill) to reach a chosen point With an unswerving line, I fixed my view Upon the summit of a craggy ridge, The horizon's utmost boundary; far above Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky. She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily I dipped my oars into the silent lake, And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat Went heaving through the Water like a swan; When, from behind that craggy Steep till then The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head.—I struck and struck again, And growing still in stature the grim Shape Towered up between me and the stars, and still, For so it seemed, with purpose of its own And measured motion like a living Thing, Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned, And through the silent water stole my way Back to the Covert of the Willow-tree; There in her mooring-place I left my Bark,— And through the meadows homeward went, in grave And serious mood Nature here chastises him for stealing the boat. The entire boat stealing incident showcases nature not as a pleasing, wonderful, pleasure inducing thing but as an entity willing to be a teacher, willing to chastise the speaker for doing wrong. In poems like “The Solitary Reaper”, the poet speaker is careful to note that he is now the sole source of the song he heard the reaper sing: The music in my heart I bore Long after it was heard no more. That is, the poet-speaker is able to recall, with pleasure, the song. I would like to connect this set of lines to some lines from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: [The] Poet binds together by passion and knowledge, the vast empire of human society as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The poetic mind in other words elevates the poet. He is above everybody else, but it also helps him evaluate his own experiences as the following lines show from The Prelude Book VIII show: The pulse of being everywhere was felt, When all the several frames of things, like stars Through every magnitude distinguishable, Were half confounded in each other’s blaze, One galaxy of life and joy. Then rose Man, inwardly contemplated, and present In my own being, to a loftier height […] Acknowledging dependency sublime. Occasionally in Wordsworth, there is a recognition that the mind is a little too influenced by the sights and sounds, that it too obsessively looks for and discovers traces and emblems of itself in the world around as in these lines from “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree”. And on these barren rocks, with juniper, And heath, and thistle, thinly sprinkled o'er, Fixing his downward eye, he many an hour A morbid pleasure nourish'd, tracing here An emblem of his own unfruitful life The poetic mind, like we have just noted, enables the poet to rise above the frenzy and politics of everyday life. When we look carefully at this valorisation and glorification of solitude, we see that it serves to distance the poet-speaker from the everyday messes of human lives. The poet-speaker moves away from everyday life and rises above it. The speaker seeks a transcendence of the material world and you will see this most notably in the Immortality Ode. One tradition of Romantic criticism, most notably M. H. Abrams, has seen this spiritualisation of nature as a huge achievement, later commentators like Jerome McGann (in The Romantic Ideology) have seen this as an evasion of contemporary politics itself. Passion, poetic mind, nature as teacher are complicated things in Wordsworth. Wordsworth's speaker is not interested in nature per se but in sentimental memories of nature recalled. It is also important to note that the poet’s transcendence of the material world can also be read as an evasion. So, it is not a question of just glorifying nature, it is not a question of possessing a poetic mind, it is a question of how the poet-speaker engages with the everyday world around him.