3. Life and Death, Past and Present
The last lecture examined some of the ways in which Wordsworth negotiated a path between simplicity and complexity in his diction, figures of speech, conceptions of human psychology and human development, and his depictions of human transactions with other people, and with the outer world.
This lecture deals with two of his longer lyrics, and a series of shorter poems that have baffled and moved readers, even since their publication in 1800. These are the so-called Lucy poems, which Willard likes to distinguish from the Desi poems (of which there is not really a series), which concern the death of a young girl.
Whether there was any single person Wordsworth was thinking of in this series of elegiac poems, is unknown, unknowable, and probably irrelevant, although all kinds of half-baked theories have been set forth to explain how his imagination was working when he composed most of them in that terrible winter of 1798/99 which he and Dorothy spent in Goslar, while their friend Coleridge was elsewhere in Germany, perfecting his language and meeting and reading German writers.
For their part, the Wordsworths spoke no German, and they didn’t know anyone. Consequently their sense of their own isolation in a foreign country in winter, was greater still. What makes this group of five poems, of which we’ll discuss only four, so peculiar, are several things.
It’s not just the identity or non-identity of the girl who was their subject, but the ways in which Wordsworth has imagined and reconstructed a human life and the consequences of her death. As we’ve suggested previously, the line between life and death in his poems, is a very tenuous one at best. Lucy herself exists almost at the margins of existence, as we learn in the poem entitled She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways:
She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways
“She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Halfhidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!”
Nothing could be simpler or more perplexing than this poem. Note the absence of anything difficult in its language or metaphors, and note as well, nothing conceptually or philosophically difficult.
Yet the lines hover or shimmer, like Lucy herself, on the very verge, the margin of indecipherability. In her life, there was no one to praise Lucy, but there were a couple of people who loved her.
She lived in the private realm of the affections, rather in the public realm of praise. She’s like that character in Emily Dickinson’s lyric, a nobody (I’m Nobody, who are you?), whose life and death produce no great tidal waves in public consciousness.
Yet a way or a path, is naturally something that has been trodden, however slightly. Wordsworth complicates matters even in the first line, by having it both ways at once. She lives isolated, yet not entirely, in a primeval forest.
Note the way the second stanza is bracketed. This is the only one that contains similes or metaphors. Lucy herself is not mentioned here, but the items she resembles, are. Once again, we can detect a tremor of paradox. A violet is small, modest, unobtrusive, and underfoot. It’s the common, ordinary, flower of early spring. Yet a star is distant, cold, isolated and remote, suggesting infinity and the far reaches of space.
Lucy is beloved for her commonness and equally for her remoteness. Wordsworth subtly reminds us that Lucy’s very name, confers upon her the status of a light bearer. Lucy is from Lucia, lux, the Latin word for light. Violets are common and plural, a single star is more precious for its singularity.
Wordsworth continues his little story in stanza three, where Lucy was so unknown that few could know when she died. How come? Because there was no one around her, or because she herself inhabited such a tenuous border between life and death, that the different between the two states, was less rigid than we normally think.
The poem has a wonderful austerity. The only word that suggests emotion is that slightly gassed exhalation oh, at the end of line 11, “oh the difference to me,” followed by a statement that refuses to qualify what can barely be spoken. All Wordsworth’s speaker is able to do, is to exclaim the difference to him, yet he cannot say what the difference consisted in.
For a so-called Romantic writer, think of the associations we often make between Romantic and excessive, Wordsworth is speaking in a subdued and chaste way. The next two poems flesh out the erotic relationship between the speaker and Lucy:
“Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known”
Recounts a night when he rode to Lucy’s cottage beneath an evening moon. He’s the conventional lover, coming a courting. The poem dramatizes the workings of his imagination, especially the way the mind associates ideas in a state of excitement, and the way this association is similar to what a poet does when he makes metaphors. The speaker’s eye is fixed on the moon, he’s semi-hypnotized and in a trance. As he climbs the hill, the moon comes near and then sinks beneath Lucy’s cottage roof. He’s been sleeping in a kind of dream, fixing his eye on the moon. Then when he sees a drop beneath the cottage, he awakes with a shutter. The poem’s last stanza is startling:
“What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover’s head!
“0 mercy!” to myself I cried,
“If Lucy should be dead!”
How are we to take this sudden premonition? Does he associate the dropping of the moon with Lucy’s disappearance and death? Has he been sleeping in a trance, and now that he’s been awakened from it, he is able to acknowledge the irreparable fact of human mortality? Is his dream a crazy fancy? Whatever answer we give, must be modified by another fact. Originally the poem ended with another quatrain, which far from clarifying matters, complicates them still further.
“I told her this, her laughter
light as ringing in my ears.
And when I think upon that night,
My eyes are dim with tears.”
So in the actual initial rendition of the anecdote, Lucy heard her lover’s fearful fit, and scoffed at it! Yet it turns out that he was right all along! His fears of her mortality, turned out to be justified. The original brightness represented by Lucy and the supervising moon, has been blotted or dimmed by the eye-filling tears that paradoxically clarify his vision.
Any acknowledgment of mortality, always wins in Wordsworth’s poetry. Even before the deaths of his two small children, or before them of his beloved younger brother John, a sailor who drowned in 1805.
It would be natural of course, to say that people in an earlier period, when infant mortality, indeed mortality of all sorts, was more prevalent than it is today, that these people lived more in the presence of death than we do.
Yet of course, we all die, and Wordsworth was hardly oversensitive to this matter. What is poetically important, is the way in which he finds language, images, tones, and metaphors, by which to express such complicated, and also universal dilemmas and feelings.
In the third poem, Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower, Lucy seems more like a piece of the natural world than a human being. We would expect him to say three years she grew in stateliness and beauty, before nature, clearly a rival of the poet for her affections, takes over to supervise her growth and education.
Nature is almost like a goddess, saying she will become the girl’s law and impulse. These are words with connotations from Newtonian physics. In two extraordinary stanzas, Wordsworth has nature make Lucy into a spirit of the natural world, who exists on a permanent border between various conditions:
“She shall be sportive as the fawn
That wild with glee across the lawn
Or up the mountain springs;
And hers shall be the breathing balm,
And hers the silence and the calm
Of mute insensate things.
The floating clouds their state shall lend
To her; for her the willow bend;
Nor shall she fail to see
Grace that shall mould the Maiden’s form
By silent sympathy.
The stars of midnight shall be dear to her
and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.”
Lucy will share in the vigor of the doe, and the stillness of mute, insensate things. Both the cloud on high, and the willow beneath, will bow down to her in homage. In the wonderful injammed run-on line, we hear of the stark relation of indelicasy and sublimity.
” Even in the motions of the Storm, grace”
Those two rough, antithetical monosyllabic words, melting into one another, in the same way that storms can produce grace, if properly experienced and viewed.
Finally, Lucy herself seems to become absorbed into the very river whose beauty she absorbs, as she leans over it, ingesting its music into the visible beauty of her face.
Then, as before, she dies. Nature takes Lucy to her. The poet once again, refuses to mourn, preferring only a simple statement of mortality and its acceptance.
She dies and left to me this heath,
this calm and quiet scene,
the memory of what has been,
and nevermore will be.”
As often happens in Wordsworth, a place comes to stand for, or represent a person. He allows the calm heath to be all of Lucy that he now has. Whether this suffices, he refuses to say.
The power of his refusal is exceeded in the final poem, a perfect either line lyric, in which Lucy’s name never once appears. Nothing could be more evident in this poem than the fact of her death, although this too is never mentioned. Rather, it seems to take place in the blank space between the first stanza and the second, between the past tense and the present. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course;
With rocks, and stones, and trees.”
What is certain is Lucy was once alive, and now is not. Although Wordsworth curiously refrains from words like alive and dead. Instead he gives us this event from the standpoint of his mental grapplings with it.
Once I was asleep, he announces, and felt something akin to superhuman invulnerability, now I am awake (we can infer this), and understand the limits of imagination and mortality. While I was sleeping and dreaming, I though that Lucy could never die. Now I have awakened to the unreality of my dream, and I accept her death.
Yet the paraphrases we’ve just given, do not do full justice to the poem. When Wordsworth was dreaming, Lucy seemed to him a thing, an invulnerable thing, but a thing nevertheless. What is she, now that she is dead? Well, certainly she must be a thing now.
If in line three he dreamed she could not feel the touch of earthly years, what dies she feel now? Well, clearly nothing! She is without motion or force. These are more words from Newtonian physics, as is diurnal, the poem’s only trisyllabic word. Alive, she seemed like an object, dead, she’s rolled round. Again, she’s an object.
So was Wordsworth’s earlier dream of her immortality a deception? Or was it curiously and oddly correct in its anticipation of her current state? For Wordsworth life and death exist not so much as rival points of origination and destination, as spots on a continuum. He’s a poet of process, natural, physical, and psychological process.
For this reason, two of his most characteristic works, are the long meditative lyrics “Tintern Abbey” (1798) and the poem known as the “Intimations Ode” (1804), both of which seek to explain the life cycle and to come to grips with the losses and gains in human change.
We spent some time, in How to Understand Poetry, on Tintern Abbey, using it as an example of how poets can think, in their poems. So we refer you back to that lecture, if you want another approach to this poem. It was, coincidentally, the last poem composed for Lyrical Ballads. The publisher told Wordsworth and Coleridge that they needed something hefty to end the book, which was a little too short. So this is what Wordsworth came up with.
He was making a walking tour near the Wye Valley near the Welsh border, with his sister. He had visited this particular spot five years earlier, and the intervening time, as we mentioned, was the period of his great psychic and vocational uncertainty.
At this point he had begun to gain confidence in his powers and prospects. He’d become reunited with his sister, and was on his way toward the confidence of adulthood. Recent critics have made much of the fact that in 1798, Tintern Abbey was a place where homeless people, vagrants, gypsies, all of them were congregating, and when the river itself was beginning to show signs of industrial pollution. So the industrial revolution and political upheavals were taking their toll.
Yet this is far from Wordsworth’s primary concern in the poem. Instead, he wishes to examine how one can change and remain the same. After all, the poem begins with a “here I am again” motif. There are 22 lines of natural description, testifying to a natural repetition of experience. So Wordsworth is now, as he says in line 66:
“changed no doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills, when like a row I bounded over the mountains.”
Whatever he was then, he no longer is now, no matter how the human being remains constant to itself. His boyish days are gone, and so are the days of early manhood. I cannot paint what then I was, he announces, again reminding us that memory is a difficult process, and that metaphors of painting or seeing are inadequate to grasp something far more fluid.
He says that nature was, in his youth, everything to him. In fact, the recollection of the Wye valleys and the beauty of the sea, have kept him alive and alert during the intervening years, especially during moments of loneliness or in cities. They have also affected his moral life, he claims, in moments of mystical, almost death-like trances, when he says:
“We are laid asleep in body and become a living soul”
(the mind stays quiet and even the eye stays quiet, so that)
“we see into the life of things.”
(It was not always thus of course. The sense of peace has been hard-won. In youth, pain and pleasure were intimately allied, but he says)
“that time was past and all its aching joys are now no more, in all its dizzy raptures.”
(Meanwhile, Wordsworth has learned, or been forced, to listen to)
“the still sad music of humanity.”
That is, he’s learned the facts of mortality and been amply chastened and subdued by them.
What this poem enacts, as well as proposes, is the very process by which dizzy raptures can be transformed into the abundant recompense of maturity. It’s the transitions and rhythms of his poetry that demonstrate the continuities that he claims exist in his own lifetime.
Nowhere is this sense of time’s movement more clear, than in the poem’s structure. It began with the here and the now, with the steep and lofty cliffs of a pastoral scene that connects the landscape with the quiet of the sky. It then circles in and out, back and forth, then around Wordsworth’s life, as he re-imagines the details and ideas through which he has grown.
At the end, he turns to his sister, who has been with him all along on this trip, though we would hardly know it, since she has gone unaddressed for the first 111 lines of the poem! It essentially proves his adage that love of nature leads to love of man. He tells her that she reminds him of himself at his age:
“In they voice, I catch the language of my former heart, and read my former pleasures in the shooting lights of thy wild eyes.”
Although there were only 18 months between them, Wordsworth is treating himself as old, and his sister as something of a kid. Of course, we are genetically more like our siblings than like our parents or children, so it’s interesting that Wordsworth is doing something here, related to what he did in the Matthew poems.
He’s reminding us of the uniqueness of human lives, but also of their resemblances. One person cannot replace another, but one person’s experience can certainly repeat another’s, or reflect it. This is just as within your own life, when you are constantly amplifying or repeating old patterns of behavior and feeling, and also forging ahead onto new paths. So even if Wordsworth is gone, what does he mean by this “separated from his sister?” Does he mean death? He never says, but says:
“even if he is gone and can no longer catch from thy wild eyes these gleams of past existence”
He can rely on her to remember that he came with her to the banks of the Wye as a worshiper of nature. The poem circles back at its conclusion to the literal and figurative place at which it began, in the natural scene. Repetition and remembering in the sense of recalling and putting back together, go hand in hand in Wordsworth’s poetic strategy, and also in his psychology.
Tintern Abbey is written in a style that Wordsworth made his own, a combination of Miltonic blank verse, and colloquial diction, with paragraphs composed of long sentences that demonstrate the mind in the act of working things out. He said that although the poem is not officially an ode, which is traditionally the highest lyric form, he wanted people to hear music in it, something ode-like in its transitions, and in its impassioned verse.
Four years later he developed a more varied style and form, and a more ecstatic diction for his second great lyric that goes over some of the same thematic material as Tintern Abbey, the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” from recollections of early childhood, is a genuine crisis poem. We mean that not only does it represent a crisis in an adult’s crossing over into full maturity, but also that the composition of the poem, cost Wordsworth considerable psychological and emotional energy. He wrote the first four stanzas in 1802 and stopped at an unanswerable question:
“wither is fled the visionary gleam, where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
Then he was unable to complete the poem, to answer his own question. Coleridge however, helped him along. After he saw the first four stanzas, Coleridge, in the spring of 1802, wrote the poem that become known as “Dejection: An Ode” (see Lecture Eight), which he published in October on Wordsworth’s wedding day. This was some wedding present, we assure you!
Coleridge’s poem represents a chapter in the two men’s ongoing creative relationship, each one inspiring and then learning from the other. We’ll take a look at Coleridge’s ode in lecture eight. Coleridge showed Wordsworth how to imagine loss, and how to compensate for it. Everything in the first four stanzas of Wordsworth’s poem, suggests loss and diminishment, things out there that look beautiful, but they can no longer feel their beauty. The loss he announces in visual terms.
Just as the city, in Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, is both naked and clothed, so in this poem Wordsworth recalls a time when everything on the earth appeared to him as he says:
“Appareled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream.”
Yet because it is a dream, it is unreal. Then also, because it is a glory, which is the technical word for a halo, it is something of an illusion. Finally, because it is apparel, it is like clothing that must be removed, in order to reveal the truth beneath the surface.
The dreams of childhood, in other words, are replaced by the doubts, the occlusions, the difficulties, of adulthood. The golden years and golden visions, are followed by adolescent uncertainties and an inevitable sense of loss. Although Wordsworth hears joy from every corner, he cannot share in it, because, as he announces ominously before reaching the dead-end at the conclusion of part four:
“But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
A series of single objects, tree, field, and flower. Then pansy is from the French word for thought, pensee, in a nice etymology. This reminds Wordsworth of singularity and isolation, which inevitably leads him to feels and thoughts of loss and diminishment. How can we ever find compensation for the loss of childhood splendor?
He now moves into several ways of imagining our earthly progress. In stanzas 4-8, he rehearses the old Platonic myth of preexistence, namely that when we are born, we forget everything we knew about our glorious prenatal existence. All earthly learning, according to Plato, is a kind of unforgetting or anamnesis, which Wordsworth supplements with the gradual losses suffered by a child, as he grows up from early glory and dignity in the accomplishment of ordinariness.
As the youth becomes a man, he sees the glorious star of his life, fade away into the light of common day, and is simultaneously seduced by mother earth, or mother nature, to forget the imperial palace whence he came. In his investigations of childhood and its blessedness, Wordsworth tries two different takes, so to speak, on one subject. In stanza 7 he looks at a child as a sociologist might. The child imitates all the plans and games that adults have projected upon him, playing one role after another:
“As if his whole vocation
were endless imitation.”
After all, how does a child learn anything except by absorbing and imitating other models? That’s how a behaviorist would see it. Calling him a “six year’s darling of a pygmy size,” an unfortunate phrase that has disturbed many readers from Coleridge on, is one way of looking at a youngster.
Yet Wordsworth now tries another model for this vision of childhood. Rather than think of the child as a little imitator, he now construes him as “a best philosopher,” the one who knows more than adults ever can. Coleridge hated this phrase as well, saying there was nothing in stanza eight that Wordsworth said about a child, which could not be equally applied to a dog or a stalk of corn.
The child is an eye among the blind, capable of reading the eternal deep, whereas we adults are lost within our own knowledge of mortality, which is the one thing a child does not know. Yet Wordsworth goes on, admonishing the child for his own part, in growing up, for willfully taking on the mantle of growth, which is also a mantle of enslavement. He says:
“Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!”
So the child has gone, within the space of 20 lines, from being the best philosopher, a reading eye, to a blind coworker in his own enslavement! Those last three lines are as gripping as the last two lines of stanza 4 were. Now Wordsworth seems to be equating life with death itself. We are gradually weighted down with the freight of years and consciousness, and the knowledge of mortality. Heavy as frost prepares us to hear, we suspect in the final phrase, deep almost as death. Yet it is life that is deep.
It’s for this reason that a miraculous rebirth occurs in the 9th stanza which initiates the poem’s final movement and its most resonant statement of compensation. As we grow up, we are simultaneously burned down and burnt out, yet something revives.
“O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!”
That rhyme, embers and remembers, does what all brilliant rhyming does. It shows that embers are embedded in remembering, and vice versa.
Yet what do we remember? Is it our past existence? No, it’s our past within this existence. It is for the fact of the intellectual life, the intimations, more than the immortality, that Wordsworth gives his song of thanks and praise. It is for:
“the obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections”
All this uphold us, as he calls them. The final two stanzas return to the almost biblical language of praise and ecstasy that he used earlier. Now he can rejoice, but only as a bystander, as he says to the birds and lands, other frolicking parts of nature:
“We in thought will join your throng”
Separation and togetherness will go hand in hand. What Wordsworth has gained, is what he calls the philosophic mind, at the end of stanza ten. What he really has learned is a poet’s way of thinking in metaphors and other figures of speech. The glory and the glories of childhood have faded. Yet the ability to use and recycle them, to sublimate them into poetry, these remain.
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.”
Wordsworth has moved through the life cycle, from the past, into the present, and into the future. As we had said in the old Cumberland beggar, we have all of us, one human heart. So now Wordsworth is able to speak at the end of his great ode, of the one human heart by which we live.
At the end of the poem, at the end of the day, quite literally, Wordsworth confers about the clouds that gather round the setting sun, a sober coloring, which comes from his own eye, one that hath kept watch over a man’s mortality.
Because of our shared, common experiences, the single race we run individually and generically, he is able to derive joy from the sunset, and even to transmute the pansy from stanza four into something new and beneficent. He says:
“To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
How deep is that? Wordsworth will not say, just as he will not say how deep is life, or how deep is his feeling for the dead, fictive Lucy. Yet he will go on to explore his own feelings for the death of human consciousness, in his greatest poem, the epic autobiography the Prelude, about which the next two lectures will be concerned.