4. Epic Ambitions and Autobiography
As we’ve mentioned, John Keats coined the expression, the “Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” with specific reference to the older poet whose presence was unavoidable. Although we tend to think of poets or artists in general as self-absorbed, if not downright narcissistic, it’s true that Wordsworth seemed to his family and contemporaries, right from the start, as a self-absorbed creature.
At a dinner party in 1819 which Charles Lamb held in order to restore harmony between Wordsworth and Coleridge, who’d become estranged from one another, their mutual friend Crab Robinson noticed that things were proceeding very smoothly, he thought. He walked to one end of the table, which Coleridge was holding forth in his magical magisterial way, proclaiming the glories of Wordsworth’s poetry, and reciting it.
Robinson then moved to the other end of the table, where Wordsworth was also reciting and quoting…Wordsworth! He obviously knew a good thing when he heard it, especially if he had written it himself.
When 7 years old, his mother said he was the only one of her children about whom she had substantial worries, that he was the only one about whose future life she was anxious. She said that this life would be remarkable, either for good or for evil.
During the turbulent years of the 1790s, when Wordsworth may have been involved in radical politics, he probably also found he had a lot to feel guilty about. Some recent biographical speculation suggests he may even have been a double agent, working for the British Foreign Office, even during his year in Germany. Whether he betrayed friends or colleagues, we’ll never know. Yet the sense of guilt is large in Wordsworth, as large as the sense of his own ego.
These two aspects of his character, his moral disposition and his artistic sureness, contributed to the most remarkable aspect of his work, the accumulation of a body of poetry this is autobiographical in the modern sense, an epic in the classical sense. It is to these twin aspects of Wordsworth’s achievement that we shall turn our attention in the next two lectures.
Wordsworth was perhaps a disagreeable man, but also an important poet. His life, with all its uncertainties, blanks, and confusions (very key Wordsworthian words), was the necessary condition for his work. In the 9th stanza of the Intimations Ode, we hear a small echo from Hamlet, which suggests a lurking sense of guilt. Wordsworth says that he most gives thanks not for the simple creed of childhood, but for:
“those obstinate questionings of sense and outward things, fallings from us, vanishings, blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realized, high-instincts before which our mortal nature did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.”
His most memorable moments, in other words, are associated with guilt. Modern readers acquainted with Freud and the techniques of psycho-analysis, feel a strong affinity with the poet whose major work is an effort to remember, and even to exorcise earlier, deeply hidden memories. The irretrievability of such memories, haunts Wordsworth’s efforts to re-imagine his own past. For this, as for so many other reasons, we cherish him as a genuinely modern figure.
The Prelude is doubly novel, as an epic and an autobiography. The epic has inspired poets for more than two millennia, starting with Homer, that wellspring of European literature. The epic is a long poem that tells a story or stories, is individuals with connections with myths of origins, those of the cosmos or of nations. It’s a history and an explanation of how and why things have come to be, the way they are.
Except for Homer, of whom we know essentially nothing, the poet (or so the authorities say) of both the Iliad and Odyssey, every other great western writer, starting with Virgil, who was Homer’s greatest student, has had the urge to do an epic, and every one of them has written exactly one epic poem. In all of these cases, his life has been the preparation for it.
Virgil’s career was a model for those poets who followed him in western Europe, We can move from Virgil to the Renaissance, first in Italy, and then to the 16th century English poet Edmund Spencer, as examples of the way an epic moves on in literary history.
After Spencer in England, we move to the towering figure of John Milton, who was confronted, as all great writers of epic are, by the primary question of what shall I write my epic poem about? Milton was considering doing something with an Arthurian theme, like what Spencer had done. He had other possibilities as well, that he finally alit on his great and novel subject, man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe. Adam and Eve, the tragic tale of the Judeo-Christian fall, and the promise of redemption through Jesus Christ, this was his theme.
Milton composes not so much a national epic, as a religious one. Yet he also had a second problem, not just what subject to write about, but what language to write it in? Milton was a polyglot, and wrote in Italian and Latin, as well as English, his Greek and Hebrew weren’t too bad either.
Wordsworth had the burden of the past squarely on his shoulders. Like any great poet, he knew from an early age that he had the goods, the right stuff. So his problem was how to shape his work and his career, in such as way that he would be able to make a place for himself in the pantheon of European poets.
This would mean absorbing the models of his predecessors and then finding a place, carving out a niche for his own originality. The dilemma is a constant artistic one in the modern world. You can’t write a poem or paint a picture unless you know what poems or pictures are. You must set yourself to school at the feet or hands of the masters, imitating them sedulously until such point as you can forge your own path.
Wordsworth came upon the subject of his epic, almost by accident. The Prelude is a testimony to both hard work, and good luck. The poem is written between 1798-1805, yet was not published until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850. Its title was given by his widow, and during his lifetime it was simply referred to as “The Poem on his Life” or “The Poem Addressed to Coleridge.”
To make matters more interesting, for both scholars and the general reader, the poem exists in two different texts. Essentially completed in 1805 and in 13 books, the poem was fussed with, worked over and revised by its author, for the next 45 years! It was tinkered with so much, that fully 1/3 of the lines in the 1850 version (published first) are different from those of the 1805 version, not published until the 20th century.
In addition, you can make the fascinating effort to discover which version is better. Are first thought, best thoughts? Does revision heal and improve? Every reader must decide this for themselves.
The 1850 version represents Wordsworth’s more orthodox, conservative side, whereas the 1805 version has more of the heat and light that emanated from his recent, radical youth. So you go ahead decide. Sit down with a text with one version on one side of the page, and the other on the other. This is a long and boring task, Willard assures us!
The poem was meant not as a great life’s work however, but as a preparation for it. In a famous simile, Wordsworth compared the Prelude to the antechamber of a vast, Gothic cathedral. It was designed to compare him for his really great work, which he called the Recluse, which was to be composed of three parts:
I: Home at Grasmere, about the poet and his new residence in the Lake District, of which several hundred lines exist.
II: The Excursion (1814), Wordsworth’s longest finished poem, a lengthy and somewhat tedious dialogue among four different characters, each representing one side of his author’s temperament and mind.
III: This was never even begun.
Wordsworth said that the Prelude was written to determine how far nature and education had qualified him for such an employment. What happened of course is that without realizing it, Wordsworth wrote down everything he needed. So what was to have been a preparatory exercise, a warming up, ultimately preempted or came to stand for, the great work that it was to have been a prelude to.
The vast work came on its own, almost without the author’s realizing it. What was Wordsworth’s subject to be? Well, in some of the lines from the Recluse, written in 1798, he tell us:
“On man, on nature, and on human life”
So these are the subjects on what he intends to sing, man, nature, and human life. This is pretty heady stuff and far removed from the battles of Homer, the Underworld of Dante, or the mythic fall of our first parents described by Milton. Wordsworth knows that he’s moving into modern territory.
He wishes to write what we might call the first psychological epic, one that has enormous consequences for, as well as parallels to, the epic descent into the Underworld that his predecessors painted. Heaven and hell, he passes unalarmed. He said:
“Not chaos, not the darkest pit of lowest errabus, not ought of blinder vacancies, scooped out by help of dreams, can breed such fear and awe as fall upon us often, when we look into our minds, into the mind of man, my haunt, and the main region of my song.”
The Prelude is the first pre-Freudian, pre-psychoanalytic epic, because it’s an honest effort to plumb the depths of the human psyche, a single human psyche, and make it into the model for the common human collective consciousness. In other words, our minds are pretty much the same thing.
More than most poems, the Prelude was cobbled together. Very few works are begun at line one, and continued through to the end, although of course, this is the way we read and experience them.
Wordsworth began writing down some memories, scenes from childhood, vignettes, anecdotes, reminiscences, beginning in 1797 and continuing through 1798 and 1799. We now have these in a form called the “Two-part Prelude.”
What Wordsworth learned, almost without realizing it, was that his subject was in front of him. It was to be his own childhood and his own life, and how that life both prepared him for a career as a poet (the subtitle of the final poem is the growth of a poet’s mind), and could also be useful as a study of one man who came of age in the dawn of the French Revolution and had what in all purposes what we might label as a nervous breakdown.
Then how through effort and luck, he regained composure, mental and emotional health, and become the poet he became. The nadir of his life, during the lost years of 1793 and 1798, was a time in which, as he says, he:
“sick, wearied-out with contrarieties, yielded up moral questions in despair.”
The Prelude is almost a textbook for the modern self-help movement, an explanation of one man’s journey down into dissolution, and back into the reintegration of his faculties.
Most 19th century readers were lukewarm at best to the poem. It’s not an easy read. Thomas Babington Macaulay called it:
“that endless wilderness of dull, flat, prosaic prattle.”
This was a judgment warranted by many stretches of ordinariness, opacity, among its more lucid and exciting moments.
Yet for those people who are turned-on by Wordsworth, it remains a masterpiece. Coleridge called his friend a spectator ab extra, a looker from without, albeit a looker from within. The one man who was capable of generating the first genuinely philosophical poem. Dr. Burney, reviewing Tintern Abbey in 1800 called it:
“the reflections of no common mind, poetical beautiful, and philosophical, but somewhat tinctured with gloomy narrative and unsociable ideas of seclusion from the commerce of the world, as if men were born to live in woods and wilds, unconnected with each other.”
William Hazlitt said of the Excursion something that might well be applied to the Prelude:
“The power of his mind prays upon itself. It is as if there were nothing but himself and the universe. He lives in the busy solitude of his own heart, and the deep silence of thought.”
What a marvelous assessment, and how Wordsworthian in its diction. Nothing but himself and the universe! Although there are other people in his poem, you can easily have the sense, reading Wordsworth, that he doesn’t always pay attention to them, just as when reading Tintern Abbey that it comes as a shock or an afterthought in the author’s or poet’s part, when Dorothy heaves into view.
The sense of isolation, which is also the sense of a whole world, can be suggested by one important section from the Prelude, not in book V, which Wordsworth wrote in 1798 and then published in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads. We know this poetic excerpt as “The Boy of Winander,” who was a stand-in for Wordsworth himself. He’s a young child educated in, and by, nature. Here’s how this excerpt goes:
“There was a Boy: ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander!—many a time
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone
Beneath the trees or by the glimmering lake,
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,
That they might answer him; and they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud,
Redoubled and redoubled, concourse wild
Of jocund din; and, when a lengthened pause
Of silence came and baffled his best skill,
Then sometimes, in that silence while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind,
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
This Boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.”
We know from the manuscript that the boy Winander was in fact Wordsworth himself. The shape of the poem is naked and simple. There was a boy and he died. The story is of a natural artists, schooled in nature, like the Wordsworthian figure who exists with nothing but the universe surrounding him. He has no name, no family, no social identity.
The boy of Winander is like a tutelary spirit, associated with a place and its goings on. Of what do these consist? Well, childhood noisemaking, listening, whistling, and absorbing.
Yet the vignette is also a serious poetic rendering of issues from educational psychology. What is the boy doing? He’s making music. How? By blowing noise through his fingers to the owls, in order to provoke a response from them. Wordsworth is dealing with issues of cause and effect. First, the boy blows, then the owls answer, and we have a symphony of jocund din, echoes redoubling.
Yet notice the boy is blowing “mimic hootings” to the owls. He obviously has heard them shout before. So he’s the one, who by answering them, is responding to them, in order to instigate their response to him! In lecture one, we quoted Wordsworth:
“How shall I seek the origin?”
We may pose the same question here. It’s difficult in this poem to determine who or what initiates or began the exchange. You might call it the chicken and egg theory of artistic composition. Not only does Wordsworth write a little scene concerning artistic responsiveness and creativity, but he also extends his analysis of the boy’s mind to include what happens after the interchange with the heard, but unseen, owls.
Think about how echoes are a good example of how the mind works through memory, and the reliving of it. Think, for example, of Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, a poem we dealt with in the previous course. After the great noise comes a silence, during which the mind seems most responsive. It has been keyed and readied to receive what John Locke calls sensory data. The boy hangs listening and receives a double shock of mild surprise, one pat visual and one part auditory.
Notice the strange use of the present perfect tense, where the gentle shock has carried far into his heart, the voice of mountain torrents. It is as though Wordsworth wishes to reanimate the boy, making him alive in the way that this particular tense can do. So the boy hangs waiting and he hears a voice, not a sound, but a humanized voice coming from the mountain torrents.
What else? The visible scene comes in and attaches itself, or to use a more appropriate word, impresses itself upon his mind. Of what does that visible scene consist? It’s an image of rocks, woods, water, and sky. Yet we notice how even this scene contains an image of reception. The heaven, called uncertain because it is reflected, is received into the bosom (another personifying word) of the steady lake.
So the boy of Winander receives into his heart, a picture of a scene into which something else is being received. Nature has been animated and humanized. The mountain torrents have a voice, the lake has a maternal bosom. All of this reception might sound like something deadly. Being received into the lake might conjure images of drowning.
It comes as a total surprise when Wordsworth announces in the following lines that the
Boy, for all of his education in nature, simply dies, and that Wordsworth himself goes to observe the grave in the churchyard which “hangs” (Wordsworth’s word) like the boy upon a slope.
Notice in the last sentence, which we did not read, the strangely wonderful use of an adjective or adverb:
“A long half hour together I have stood.”
So it’s together, and it is as though Wordsworth has joined the boy and they are together. He is standing over the boy and they are bringing him up to his consciousness. He’s reviving the boy and representing him to himself, and to us, his readers. He’s also retrieving a past image of himself. Recall in the original manuscript, the listening boy was a young William Wordsworth.
His episode is a modest example of what Wordsworth does throughout his autobiographical poem. It attempts to revive the dead, and to revive those parts of ourselves, which we have only in our memory. So memory is the poem’s great theme. Remembering is heroic activity, and Wordsworth knew this, like Freud. How can you remember truly what you were?
By the way, autobiography, the second genre into which this poem fits, is a relatively modern one. Acts of remembering and telling one’s story, are acts of modern regainings and provings of consciousness. If you are honest, you realize that memory is not always reliable and easy, or ever that way. This is where Wordsworth’s heroism comes in.
Freud once said he had to psychoanalyze himself, because there was no one else there to do it for him. Wordsworth is the first poet of what we can call a double consciousness. He shows us how we can communicate with ourselves, as though you were not yourself, both retrospectively and at any present moment, by considering yourself simultaneously as the subject that remembers, and the object that is remembered. Here’s a sentence from book II of the Prelude:
“A tranquilizing spirit presses now on my corporeal frame. So wide appears the vacancy between me and those days which yet have such self-presence in my mind, that musing on them, often do I seem too consciousnesses, conscious of myself and of some other being.”
How do you know that what you think you remember, actually happened and was invented or simply reported to you by someone else. Are you the same person at 28, that you were at 10?
Wordsworth demonstrates the relationship between artistic activity, a highly specialized talent, and ordinary human consciousness and memory. Consider his definition of a poet in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. On the one hand he reduces the poet to the level of you and me, an ordinary person. He says:
“The poet is a man speaking to men.”
(Yet truly he’s got to be something different, something even superior. Wordsworth continues)
“A man endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul…”
(it goes on and on)
“…a disposition affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present…who has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels. Especially those thoughts and feelings, which by his own choice were from the structure of his won mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.”
In other words, the power is just like you and me, only more so, more intense. He can make absent things present, he can represent them. He has greater powers of expression, especially of self-expression. It is for this reason, among others, that the Prelude and Wordsworth’s total achievement as a poet, can be labeled as heroic. He shows us how memory and imagination can work together.
Memory is a way of learning something. It’s an educational instrument, and also comes to stand-in for an almost religious force in Wordsworth, because it allows him to connect the past with the present.
What we learn when we read the Prelude, and what Wordsworth learns in its composition, is reflected in the various childhood experiences he describes in the first two books. One kind of impression, impresses nature upon him. The second kind of remembrance and experience demonstrates how the mind of the child and of the man, gradually comes to surpass the outer world, the life of the senses and of nature itself.
At the beginning of his poem, he announces that he grew up, fostered alike by beauty and by fear. These two spirits, one feminine and one maternal, the other like some masculine superego (if we may use Freudian language), produce a gradual independence in the child.
In book XII, Wordsworth explains how his mind, after he suffers his nervous breakdown in the mid 90s, was able to regain mental and emotional health. Through memory he finds he psychological salvation. Here’s the section on what Wordsworth calls Spots of Time:
“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life that give
Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
The mind is lord and master-outward sense
The obedient servant of her will.
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood.”
Many facets of this passage deserve commentary, stating with the political claim that the mind is lord and master, an outward sense by which Wordsworth means our receptive faculties, is servant in the economy of our being. This is philosophically poetry and is abstract. So anyone who thinks that poetry must be full of lyrical expression or lightness of touch, or even rich in sensuous imagery, is going to feel a bit disappointed.
Yes we must recognize that Wordsworth uses words the way any great poet does, with an attention to their connotation and their figurative possibility. We’re struck by the epithet, renovating, meaning “making new,” and how it prepares us for repaired. We’re also struck by the almost sexual nature of a verb like penetrates, as applied to the virtue that restores us to ourselves. Finally, the use of a verb like lurks, points to something dangerous, hidden, and unforeseeable. Then to a noun like passages, with overtones of not only pop psychology, but also of landscape.
Throughout his epic, Wordsworth depicts movement in both time and space. Passages also refers to reading. We began this lecture thinking of the boy Winander, who appears in the section of the poem nominally concerned with education and books. Passages of poetry were never far from Wordsworth’s mind when he thought of learning and mental development.
So it’s an appropriate way to end this lecture and begin the next, by recalling that for a poet, reading and writing are as much a part of lived life, as overt actions and activities. In the next lecture we shall consider some of The Spots of Time, and how they work for Wordsworth as vessels of learning and of psychological renovation.