2. Wordsworth and the Lyrical Ballads
We now begin a sequence of 4 lectures on the poet who many of us regard as the most important writer of the past two centuries, under whose capacious wings we still find protection, and under whose inspiration most Anglo-American poetry as developed.
Wordsworth has never been an easy sell, and this is due both to the peculiarities of his verse, and to the figure of the poet himself, the man who in no way inspires the immediate sense of intimacy you get when reading Lord Byron, for example. Wordsworth is not the first poet who one would like to have a meal with! That distinction would go to the more energetic and open Keats, or even to Coleridge, a wonder of talkativeness and opinions, who impressed anyone who ever met him with his volubility, brilliance, and occasional generosity, in spite of his all-too evident human imperfections.
No, Wordsworth was not a clubbable man. He was often dour, silent, seemingly aloof in the sense of his own superiority. The coldness of the man, often presents itself in the poetry, which Keats memorably characterized as:
“the egotistical or Wordsworthian sublime.”
He’s not for everyone’s tastes. If Byron was, in the famous assessment, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Wordsworth, whom Matthew Arnold linked with Byron as the two poets who would be remembered at the end of the 19th century, has struck many readers as sane, haughty, and impossible to know. The man who called the poet:
“a man speaking to men”
in the Preface to the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads, Lyrical Ballads in 1800, that most important document in the history of English aesthetics, often seems troublingly opaque. Much of his work is as unassimilable as the man himself.
Biographers divide Wordsworth’s life into two pieces, where the first half, which represents his growth, conflicts, and his creative energies, is followed by a second half in which the former rebel and integrator gradually came to be replaced by an increasingly conservative, orthodox, even stodgy old man, a church of England believer, and finally, upon the death of Robert Southey in 1842, the poet laureate. Robert Browning, from the next generation, memorably lamented Southey by saying:
“Just for a handful of silver he left us, just for a ribbon to stick in his cloak.”
What happened, to produce such a momentous decline? Wordsworth was born in Cumberland in England’s Lake District in 1770, the second of five children to Anne and John Wordsworth. His father was an attorney and chief law agent for Sir James Lowther.
In other words, he came from a solid middle-class, conservative family background, to whose status he returned in the second half of his life, after a somewhat troubled radical youth. His mother died when he was seven, and the children were farmed out to various relatives. Among the five siblings, William was especially close to his brother John, and to his sister Dorothy, who was 18 months his junior, both from whom he was separated for a nine year period when he was shipped off to school.
He went up to St. John’s College Cambridge, where he was not a particularly distinguished student. In the summer of 1790, he did what many contemporary American students might do, he took a walking tour in Europe, in France.
The difference of course was that the Bastille had been stormed exactly one year before, and coming to France with his friend Robert Jones, he felt he was arriving in a new world. The early promise of the French Revolution had filled liberals, especially young people, with hope and excitement. Wordsworth returned to France after completing his degree, and probably was involved there, and subsequently in London, in radical political circles. He also had an affair with a French widow named Annette Vallon, by whom he sired a child, and whom he probably would have married had not the growing hostilities between France and England made it difficult if not impossible for him to return to France.
The years of 1793-1798 were spent in confusion, the kind typical of young people today,
about a career, about money, family, sex, and so forth. A small legacy from his friend Raisley Calvert who died in 1795, gave him some degree of financial freedom. That same year, he met Coleridge, who was clearly the major influence on his creative and imaginative life. It’s been said in fact that Coleridge’s greatest work was Wordsworth, that without the overseeing inspiration of his junior friend, Wordsworth would not have blossomed so quickly into the great poet he became.
Collaborating with Coleridge, he produced the first volume of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, and then traveled to Germany with Coleridge and Dorothy, settling into Goslar in the Hartz mountains, during the coldest winter of the century! At this time, he began piecing together the long work which eventually took shape over the next seven years, as his great verse autobiography, The Prelude, to which we’ll return in lectures 4 and 5.
By1802 he had returned to the Lake District, married and old childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, and settled down at the age of 32 to become a pater familias, two of his five children died young, and increasingly a national figure and person whom visitors wanted to meet.
His greatest creative work was essentially finished by 1814, on year after he became distributor of stamps for Westmoreland, an office that paid him between 400-500 pounds per year. He spent the remaining 35 years of his life, writing poetry that was more conventional than that of his earlier years, and fussing with the Prelude, which remained unpublished at his death in 1850.
Wordsworth’s great creative years were the decades between 1797-1807, and it is to the poetry of that decade, which we’ll devote the rest of these lectures. Wordsworth is a poet at once commonplace and sublime, and as such he inspires feelings of doubleness or ambiguity. Byron referred scathingly to “the simple” Wordsworth, by which he did not intend a compliment, but meant a “simpleminded” Wordsworth!
Yet simplicity is not the same as simplemindedness, and Wordsworth’s poems are often deep in their simplicity, just as to take an opposing example, Ezra Pound’s complex modern works, can often seem stunningly shallow.
In his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth says that his goals include the reformation of the language of poetry, his intention to use the language really spoken by men and women. That is, he wishes to affect changes in diction, the kind of change that poetry undergoes regularly as one fashion becomes outmoded and worn out. He also calls poetry, in a famous formula:
“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”
(and says that a poem)
“takes its origin in emotion recollected in tranquility.”
His second major aim is to trace the primary psychological laws of human nature, with special reference to how the mind associates ideas in a state of excitement. He says he wants to take real human incidents and:
“throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them the primary laws of our nature.”
In other words, he proposing a democratization of the language and the subjects of poetry, and the philosophical plumbing of the depths of human nature. Coleridge, writing about the collaboration with Wordsworth, had this to say in his Biographia Literaria:
“During the first year Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both……it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
You can hear in Coleridge’s use of the Romantic, something of what we spoke of in the last lecture. So here we have a summary of many of the individual points we’ve made, and which are the basis of so much of English Romanticism. Nature and imagination make a pair of complementary opposites. Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborate, the first working on ordinary life and rendering it more exotic, the latter taking the exotic and bringing it down to the level of believability.
Remember the two bookends of the Lyrical Ballads are the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, that gothic poem of supernatural mystery and inexplicable crimes on the one hand, and Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth’s autobiography reminiscence and philosophical speculation which begins with an actual spot on the Welsh border.
The very title, Lyrical Ballads gives us some clues to its author’s intentions, and to its place in the history of English poetry. A ballad is traditionally a narrative poem , written in what are called ballad stanzas, usually anonymous. We associate ballads in any language with the beginnings of national identity. They’re like folk songs and tell simple tales in a bare, almost ascetic style.
A lyric, on the other hand, is more personal, usually with a first person speaker. It tends to deal with personal emotions and states of mind. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is an updated ballad, an attempt to recreate a more antique and mysterious form. Several of Wordsworth’s contributions to the volume use the ballad form, but update it to render incidents from everyday rural life.
Many of Wordsworth’s poems contain the simple pieties for which he has been praised and derided in equal measure. In one, “Expostulation and Reply,” he jousts intellectually with Matthew, an older, teacher figure, and who urges him to read and study deeply. Yet to whom he defends his apparent, wasteful, idleness. He says:
“The eye, it cannot choose but see,
we cannot bid the ear be still.
Our bodies feel where err they be,
against or with our will.
Now less I deem,
That there are powers.
Which of themselves or minds impress,
That we can feed this mind of ours,
in a wise passiveness.”
Notice here, two hallmarks of Romanticism. First, Wordsworth’s inheritance from John Locke of the language of sensationalism, how the powers of nature figuratively impress themselves upon the tabula rasa of the mind. Second, note how passive experience is an educational tool, allowing us to grow and prosper.
In the following poem, called “The Tables Turned,” Wordsworth urges Matthew to leave his book and listen instead to the music of the Throstle, one of those Romantic birds, were really teachers in disguise. Let nature be your teacher.
Many of these poems offer both charming platitudes and characters who seem to exist on the margins of society or consciousness. Wordsworth was fascinated throughout his life with such figures: children, old men, beggars, poor people. This fascination owes a great deal to his psychological and political radicalism.
What do we owe to the poor?
What can we learn from them?
These are questions that many of the poems in this volume pose. Some do it in a relatively straightforward manner, urging upon their readers Wordsworthian version of charity. Yet never pity, an emotion that Wordsworth, like Blake, came to detest. Blake wisely said:
“Pity would be no more, if we did not make somebody poor.”
No, instead, Wordsworth urges us to honor the humanity of even so marginal a figure as the old Cumberland beggar, who walks along regardless and unfeeling, but who brings an entire community to a consciousness of its collective purpose and humanity by showing us that:
We have all of us, one human heart.”
For all the eccentricity of many of the characters in these poems, Wordsworth’s main theme is community, where the relations among disparate creatures who seem to have little or nothing to do with one another. This is very radical.
In addition to the relatively simple poems and Lyrical Ballads, both the first and then the second expanded edition of 1800, there are other that are more complicated, both in thought and reworkings of poetic form or figurative language.
Take for example, a pair called “The Two April Mornings,” and “The Fountain.” In both, the Wordsworth figure goes up against Matthew, the old village schoolmaster, in philosophical argument that is both simple and deep.
In the first poem, we have a complicated time scheme, in which the village schoolmaster expresses surprise that this April day is exactly like a previous one 30 years before, when he came to the grave of his daughter Emma who had been dead for 9 years. Turning from the grave, he sees another blooming girl, who is herself another mirror image, like the day, the cloud and the season. This time, she’s an image of the dead daughter. In the penultimate stanza, Matthew acknowledges:
“There came from me a sigh of pain
Which I could ill confine;
I looked at her, and looked again:
And did not wish her mine!”
In other words, a loss cannot be compensated for, even or especially by that which most resembles it. Wordsworth is working with two related themes, the first concerning human consciousness and psychology, and how we deal with grief. The second is the idea of poetic figuration. After all, metaphor and simile (comparisons) are the basis of poems. Things resemble one another in differing degrees. As it is with human life and human relationships, so it is also with poetic constructions. Things resemble, yet can never fully stand-in for, or become, other things. Loss is irreplaceable. Comparisons are never the same as identity.
In “The Fountain,” Matthew laments the fact that he is old and bereft. He says:
“And yet the wiser mind
Mourns less for what age takes away
Than what it leaves behind.”
Our memory of past joy is both a blessing and a curse, because we’re constantly aware of what has been taken. In a statement at once transparent and very deep, Matthew acknowledges that:
“My life has been approved,
And many love me;
but by none of me,
am I enough beloved”
I wonder how much love is enough? How much love does a human being need in order to survive? The Wordsworth figure volunteers to become a surrogate child, saying:
“And, Matthew, for thy children dead I’ll be a son to thee!”
At this he grasped my hand, and said,
“Alas! that cannot be.”
A loss, in other words, once endured, can never be undone, however much we try to fill a void. So Wordsworth’s twin interests, human psychology and the association of ideas on the one hand, and poetic diction or linguistic association on the other hand, work together.
At the same time, for the poet who we normally associate with the natural world and with the blessings that nature can bestow, upon him, there’s a troubling and quite modern response to nature that comes from a different perspective.
In a poem called Nutting, originally part of the long autobiographical sequence that become the Prelude, Wordsworth complicates his memories of childhood and of nature. The poem treats a child’s unbridled freedom and active course.
Wordsworth ultimately classified the poem in subsequent printings of his poetry, among the exalted title of “poems of the imagination,” as if wishing to prove something about the relationship between a sense of morality and the childhood pleasures of stealth and destructiveness.
In this poem, written in Miltonic blank verse, Wordsworth combines the grandeur of Milton’s epics, with the ordinariness of the Bohemian adventures of a ten year old boy. The young boy goes out for a walk in the woods, done-up in rags, and comes upon a certain grove. Notice the manipulation of language and undertones of something more than mere nature appreciation in the following line:
“O’er pathless rocks,
Through beds of matted fern, and tangled thickets,
Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook
Unvisited, where not a broken bough
Drooped with its withered leaves, ungracious sign
Of devastation; but the hazels rose but the hazels rose
Tall and erect, with tempting clusters hung, A virgin scene!”
Sexual suggestions have been planted. The boy is forcing his way into a scene that virginal and endemic. Like Eden, it’s also temping to him as well. What is the temptation to, or for? The boy sits and watches, voluptuously observing the scene, and relishing its beauties and his power, a sense of false inflated generosity fills him up until at last, (and here are the poem’s concluding 12 lines):
“Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being: and unless I now
Confound my present feelings with the past,
Ere from the mutilated bower I turned
Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings,
I felt a sense of pain when I beheld
The silent trees, and saw the intruding sky. –
Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades
In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
Touch-for there is a spirit in the woods.”
Much in this section is characteristically Wordsworthian, and it’s troubling for that. The boy is characterized as a rapist. He has mercilessly ravaged the hazel bower in an act of youthful bravado. The sense of the child’s potential criminality was always on Wordsworth’s mind during these years, and in addition to the fidelity of his own sense of himself as a young boy, it may have owed something to his feelings about, and participation in the events in France and England associated with the tumult of the French Revolution.
In any case, the picture Wordsworth paints of himself, here and in the Prelude in general, includes moments like this of what we would call modest juvenile delinquency. He dresses this up in the style of English heroic poetry, thereby lending it a seriousness of purpose, that had never been accorded to childhood before this time.
Wordsworth both glories in, and is ashamed by his youthful adventures. We’re especially taken by use of the adverb, patiently, to describe how the bower gave itself over to the boy. Of course, trees have no volition, and so they have little chance or little choice but to give in. Fighting back is not a realistic possibility.
Yet the woods are personified too, so their patience is a sign that they realize, first of all, that this is the kind of stuff that little boys do. Next, that their own limbs and leaves will in fact grow back, in subsequent seasons.
Readers have always been struck here, as in Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, by the relationship of a final tag line, a moralizing gesture, we might call it, with the adventure and the story that precede them. We’ll discuss the relationship of a moral to the Ancient Mariner in lecture 7.
Wordsworth wishes to impress upon himself, and upon his reader, the way in which a human conscience, and consciousness, comes into being. He’s honest about the inability to remember, saying that:
“unless we now confound our present feelings with the past,”
This inability to remember is a major concern. Yet after the event, or so he says he recalls, he felt a sense of pain. The rapist feels guilt as he beholds what he calls “the intruding sky.” What a wonderful combination of adjective and noun that is. The sky is intruding because the boy has ripped away at the protective fabric that made a canopy of the trees. The hole now allows the sky and sun to peer down at the guilty party.
Yet of course, the real intruder is the young Wordsworth himself. So his figurative language implicates him, as much as his own professions of feeling. The moral of the poem sounds an awful lot like an admonition, “please don’t walk on the grass.” As he urges upon a fictive reader the dear maiden that he addresses, the lesson that he’s learned.
Is this the sum total of his knowledge? Certainly not. The poem has given us a Sunday School tagline, attaching it to a tale of sexual criminality which is entirely natural. This is what little boys do, so any urging of a reader or listener to walk piously and gently through the woods, is going to fall, at least in part, on deaf ears.
One thing is obvious, Wordsworth believed in the educative value of landscape. In fact, the subheading of book VIII of the Prelude, is called love of nature leads to love of man, a formula that readers who are impressed with Wordsworth’s misanthropic side, might wish to contest.
In any case, the landscapes Wordsworth favors, even one like the hazel bower in Nutting, let along the starker mountainous landscapes that fill his reminiscences of the Lake District, or of traveling in Wales and France, all represent places of peril, with suggestions of infinity and images of exposure. There is always something relentlessly sublime about them, even when they seem benign and pastoral.
We may observe this connection between nature and danger, or even between life and death, in a sonnet written in 1802, Composed upon Westminster Bridge. Wordsworth and Dorothy were taking a carriage to leave London, in order to visit Annette Vallon and Wordsworth’s young daughter Caroline in France, during a temporary suspension of the hostilities between England and France. Also, we might say, to bid them farewell because Wordsworth was about to marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson. The sonnet is as follows:
“Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
Wordsworth does exactly what he and Coleridge talked about doing in their poem. He’s taken a commonplace event, the beauty of a perfect, still morning picture, and complicated or deepened it. Things begin to look like their opposites, the city is paradoxically clothed, wearing the beauty of the morning like a garment.
Yet it is also, of course, naked. All of the artifice and architecture of the city, human constructions like ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples, lie open and suggest vulnerability as they merge with or into the fields and the sky. In other words, nature and culture, or nature and the city, a famous pair of dichotomies, blur into one another. The deep calm that communicates itself to the speaker, suggests other kinds of depths. The houses, like the people within them, seem asleep. That mighty heart, of the city as a personified object, like the individual hearts of its citizens, is lying still.
The city is most beautiful when it is clothed and naked. It is most beautiful when it is most like a corpse. Death seems to linger not far beneath the surface, even in a poem celebrating the dawning of a new day. Wordsworth was well-aware of such paradoxical connections. He was attuned to childhood blessedness, and criminality, just as we was aware, even before the current fashion of today for ecological consciousness, of the ways in which humankind is an intrusive presence in the natural world.
His simple pieties are, in other words, everywhere complicated by his sense that things can be more troubled and troubling than they initially appear. Just as his simple language can reveal depths of poetic association that are the mark of an original imagination.
In the next lecture we’ll look at a mysterious series of poems known as the Lucy poem, and then move on to his two greatest lyrics, Tintern Abbey, and the Ode:Intimations of Immortality.