5. Spots of Time and Poetic Growth
We ended the last lecture with Wordsworth’s formula for the so-called Spots of Time.
One objection that has traditionally been lodged against any long poem, was articulated by Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century when he said that a long poem was always a contradiction, that poems must be intense, well-crafted, and essentially short.
He was thinking of lyric poetry of course, and his prejudice is one that is shared by many readers. If we want to read a long narrative, we prefer fiction. If we wish to read philosophy, we take it in a prose form. A long philosophical poem, strikes us as nonsensical, like that camel that is really a horse designed by a committee.
Yet Wordsworth’s language, his mixture of the abstract and concrete, the general and particular, and his peculiar ways of making metaphors out of ordinary words, are certainly part of his claim on our attention.
Another claim would be the testimony of many nineteenth-century readers who found in his work a kind of guide, a teachers, and an authority on matters of emotional and mental health. John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot, were all careful readers, as was in this country, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the 19th century, literature has an almost religious power to move and convert. John Stuart Mill is the best case in point. Son of the utilitarian philosopher James Mill, J.S. Mill was something of a prodigy. He mastered Latin and Greek at an early age, and by 20 he knew just about all there was to know. Yet one thing had been omitted from his education, that is, the education of the feelings and senses.
So like an American in the 20th or 21st century who has missed-out on certain facets of becoming a full human being, Mill had what can only be termed a nervous breakdown.
In a pre-psychological age, there were neither therapists, nor drugs to help him. So Mill did the next best thing, he got better by reading. Here’s what he says in his autobiography about reading Wordsworth in 1828:
“He had tried at the depth of his depression to read Byron, only to discover that Byron’s passions and state of mind were too much like his own. Wordsworth on the other hand, did something different. For one thing, he addressed himself to rural subjects and scenes, and to these, Mill says he felt a very strong affinity.
The scenery itself would not have been enough to recommend the poetry. Many other poets do scenery, and of course landscape poetry does it better then poetry can. Yet it was the states of feeling in Wordsworth’s poetry that most moved Mill. He says:
“They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings….I felt myself at once, better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth, but poetry of deeper and loftier feelings, could not have done for me at that time, what his did. I needed to feel that there was real permanent happiness and tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, to only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and destiny of human beings. The result was that I gradually but completely emerged from my habitual depression and was never again subject to it. I long continued to value Wordsworth less according to his intrinsic merits, than by the measure of what he had done by me. Compared with the greatest poets, he may be said to be the poet of unpoetical natures, possessed of quiet and contemplative tastes.”
Throw out your prosac, pick up your Wordsworth. For Mill and Arnold, George Eliot, and thousands of others who came to regard Wordsworth as the sage of Rydal Mount, the home in Grasmere to which he moved his family, and in which he received visitors from England and abroad, Wordsworth taught us how to profit from feeling. “It is the hour of feeling,” he announces in his early poem To My Sister. He also taught us how to feel.
He did this in his shorter poems of course. Mill singled out the Intimations Ode. Yet he also did so in the longer passages and more strenuous terrain of the Prelude. The earliest written parts of the epic are the childhood vignettes. Without knowing it, Wordsworth came upon his subject in the very act or process of recalling scenes of childhood, those moments that gave him the necessary strength and confidence, in spite of his intervening wanderings and disappointments as a young man, to proceed with his great life’s work.
When you pick up the Prelude, you find the first 270 lines are a kind of meandering effort to locate the poet in a landscape. Like Milton’s Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost, he can say that the earth is all before me. By which he means not only must he find a place to live, but also and more pertinently, he must find a subject about which to write.
Yet his dilemma is a common one to anyone who has ever sat down with pen in hand to express or create something. He finds he has nothing to say. Full of eagerness and hope, confident of his education, preparation on the store of ideas and images that he can dip into, Wordsworth finds that he can’t really get started. He asks himself, what might I write about?
Then he goes through a vast list of possible subjects, all to no avail. He says he finds either some imperfection in the theme, or something wrong with himself, and ends up drooping and recoiling. Then he asks the question, was it for this that I was born and raised? He asks was it for this that the Derwent River blended his murmurs with his nurses’s song? He brings himself back to strength by the simple act of recalling his childhood:
“Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up Fostered alike by beauty and by fear”
Exactly what does Wordsworth attribute to these twin foster parents? Nothing less than first of all, the sensitivity to external scenes, and next, a moral sense developed within the young semi-criminal boy, who performs modest acts of theft, like a contemporary kid who actually steals the neighbor’s car. Finally, an artistic sense that arises from the mind’s transactions with nature.
Let’s look at some of these examples from the first book of the poem, and then from some following ones. So many of Wordsworth’s early memories deal with matters of guilt, not only because these were the origins of his strong conscience, but also because they allow him and us to make a connection between the development of the super ego in childhood, and the various disasters that may have befallen him and his friends in the middle sections of the poem in which he reports his involvement in and confusion by the French Revolution.
In swift succession he tells us how when he was a kid, he set traps for woodcocks, but occasionally stole the birds that by rights belonged to another boy. Or how he and his chums roved like plunderers to steal eggs from a bird’s nest on a crag. In both cases, the modest act of stealth is followed by feelings of guilt and retribution. He says:
“When the deed was done I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.”
(then later, hanging upon a cliff he says)
“…at that time
While On the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth—and with what motion moved the clouds.”
These are acts characterized by solitude and fear, and then amazement and a sense of being impressed by the surrounding natural scene. Best of all is the description of stealing a small rowboat one evening by moonlight. The young Wordsworth takes the boat, he fixes his eye on the shore from which he is rowing, and the shoreline becomes a mountain, almost human, rising up as he moves out from the bank. It seems to pursue him. The further away he goes, the larger the illusion of the hills crag and its forceful domineering presence become:
“I fixed my view Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; for 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.”
The mountain seems to be chasing the boy, matching his rising through the water, with its own uplifting, as he sees it apparently come after him. The result? Wordsworth returns the boat and is haunted for days afterward, with the fictive creations of his guilty conscience. He says:
“o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion.
No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees.
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams…..”
Everyone has events in their lives, which for no logical reason, get attached to the memory, that produce psychological or emotional consequences far in excess of any original provocation. No one can say why one thing, rather than another, is going to stay in the mind. Wordsworth poses to himself this very dilemma when in book II of the Prelude, he asks a question about memory. He says:
“Who knows the individual hour in which his habits were first sown, even as a seed. Notice the organic metaphor there. Who that shall point us with a wand and say this portion of the river of my mind came from yon fountain. Hard task, vain hope, to analyze the mind, if each most obvious and particular thought, not in a mystical and idle sense, but in the words of reason deeply weighed hath no beginning.”
As we’ve said, beginnings and endings are paramount in Romantic poetry. One thing among many that distinguishes this poem from conventional autobiography, is that it nowhere follows or adheres to a strict chronology. It’s never first this happened, then that happened. The poem has a structure of its own, and it meanders as the mind does, although there is a general structure which we’ve mentioned, that resembles that of book I. It’s a tale of hope and encouragement, succeeded by despair and questioning, succeeded in turn by the reestablishment of confidence and the reintegration of psychological forces.
In other words, it’s a secular version of a Judeo-Christian myth of a fall from Eden, and a return or restoration through some kind of a higher force. In this case, it’s not God himself who restores the fallen creature, but his own powers of memory and imagination.
In mentioning the several parallels between Wordsworth’s epic and normative Judeo-Christian thought, we call your attention to those moments like the little episodes we’ve just covered in which Wordsworth seems to be involving a sense to which we might give the label, religious.
Perhaps sublime is a better word, because not only do these episodes involve a moral schooling, like the end of Nutting, but because they also seem to put us in touch with matters that stretch beyond our sensory capacities. Alone in nature, Wordsworth often seems to be in the presence of a greater force. The early 20th century critic A.C. Bradley put it memorably:
“Everything is natural, but everything is apocalyptic.”
We happen to know why. Wordsworth is describing the scene in the light of memory. Apocalyptic is another key term for much of Romantic poetry, since so much of it deals with the conditions under which learning is possible. Apocalypse is the Greek word for the last book of the Christian bible, the one we call Revelation. It literally means an unconcealing, a stripping away of the veil, just as St. John of Patmos had visions rolled before him.
Only Blake, among the major Romantic poets, had what we might call Christian visions. His Christianity was certainly of a heterodox or surprising sort. Yet Wordsworth, although he became conventionally religious with age, and indeed wrote a book called the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, a history of the church of England in sonnet form (we assure you this is not a work appealing to most contemporary tastes), he was no Christian at the time of the composition of the Prelude.
Yet this did not prevent him from making the scenes of his childhood and even young manhood seem religious in their overwhelming affects on him. Much in the remembrances in this poem, stretches towards infinity.
Take for example, the simple childhood memory of skating at night on a frozen lake. Wordsworth begins with his confederates all playing games, and hearing the noises coming from themselves and their surroundings. Then he separates himself from the pack. It’s an act of isolation with imaginative consequences. Here’s how the except goes:
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Not seldom from the uproar
I retired Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain; and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep”
This incident dramatizes a sense of vertigo, and the child’s sense of excitement in chasing an optical illusion. Yet still more, a sense of abandonment, of giving up the body to the wind, and in one onrush of movement, reproduced in one 14 line sentence that stars and stops, pauses but impels us forward, just as the young boy is impelled forward, and back upon his heels. As the young boy loses control, the world seems to spin around him. He is at its center, and he becomes lost into the ecstasy of his own dreaming state.
Remember how in Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth had described those moments of learning in which we are “laid asleep in body and become a living soul.” So also here, the youth is given a first taste in participation in something that begins as ordinary experience, but then becomes something greater, deeper, and more mysterious. Sometimes it’s difficult to see whether a particular remembered even is beneficent or scary, precisely because Wordsworth is able to tease a positive result from events which at the time, were horrifying.
The most beautiful of these is the major apocalyptic experience that Wordsworth describes at the beginning of the poem’s last book. This is either book XIII or XIV, depending on which version of the poem you are reading. He’s recalling an event from the summer of 1791, when with his friend Robert Jones, he climbed Mt. Snowden in north Wales, in order to watch the sunrise. Interestingly we never learn whether the fellows got to watch the daybreak, because what happens earlier is more important to them.
The entire episode contains a series of details which to careful readers of Wordsworth will have begun to assume an almost symbolic weight. The travelers are together, yet after a certain point, Wordsworth replaces all mention of we and us and our, with a simple I, as he’s separated from the others, just as he was when skating as a child.
Anyone who’s ever trekked in the mountains, can testify to the fact that when climbing up, your glance is predominantly downward, toward your feet, in order to keep your balance. In the following lines, the very gesture by which the traveler raises his head to look up at the sky, instead of down at the earth, also assumes a major symbolic importance. Here’ show the 50 line section begins:
“It was a close, warm, breezeless summer night,
Wan, dull, and glaring, with a dripping fog
Low-hung and thick that covered all the sky;
But, undiscouraged, we began to climb
In other words, everything is conspiring against sight, the traveler’s chat, which soon gives way to private meditation and concentration, and the men wind on in silence. Wordsworth seems to be involved in a heroic quest, saying:
“With forehead bent Earthward, as if in opposition set
Against an enemy, I panted up
With eager pace, and no less eager thoughts.
Thus might we wear a midnight hour away,
Ascending at loose distance each from each,
And I, as chanced, the foremost of the band;”
Something intervenes, a flashing light, a startling gleam, and the pensive traveler literally sees something and then as so often happens in this poet, so attuned to all of his senses, he hears something. Everything suggests an apocalyptic revelation, an intuition of something infinite in its depth and consequences. Here are the lines:
When at my feet the ground appeared to brighten,
And with a step or two seemed brighter still;
Nor was time given to ask or learn the cause,
For instantly a light upon the turf
Fell like a flash, and lo! as I looked up
The Moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
Allover this still ocean; and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,
In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic, that appeared
To dwindle, and give up his majesty,
Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.”
Wordsworth is seeing a metaphorical sea, composed of mist, with 100 personified hills upheaving their arching backs before him. The moon appears like a divinity, benignly supervising the activities below, and the actual sea, the Atlantic, which is audible but not visible, gives up, as in some vast cosmic struggle, his own majesty to the moon. For her part, the moon is like a pagan goddess, sovereign and supreme. The Atlantic may be usurped, but not so the moon. He says:
“Not so the ethereal vault; enchroachment none
Was there, nor loss; only the inferior stars
Had disappeared, or shed a fainter light
In the clear presence of the full-orbed Moon,
Who, from her sovereign elevation, gazed
Upon the billowy ocean, as it lay
All meek and silent, save that through a rift
Not distant from the shore whereon we stood,
A fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing-place
Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable, roaring with one voice!
Heard over earth and sea, and, in that hour,
For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens.”
Wordsworth’s vision soon dissolves. Yet he immediately makes meaning of it, or reads the incident as a symbol of something greater. Even before he tells us what this vision represents, we readers can respond to the grandeur of the scene in which sigh and sound are coworkers. The language of nature is compounded with the language of power and politics, and the overwhelming sense is, well, the sense of overwhelming! The innumerable streams all roaring with a sense of the deafening music that bespeaks something cataclysmic and apocalyptic. The effect is certainly like that of a last judgment.
Yet for Wordsworth, as it turns out, the moon is an emblem of something both greater and humbler than either God or the end of the world. It is a symbol of what he calls:
“a majestic intellect, its acts
And its possessions, what it has and craves,
What in itself it is, and would become.
There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege.
One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth,
Mid circumstances awful and sublime,
That mutual domination which she loves
To exert upon the face of outward things…”
This is a long quotation. The language here is prosaic, abstract, ordinary, and pretentious in equal measure. If not pretentious, then at least aspiring to higher matters. The power that nature has put forth in this moon, which Wordsworth reads from and reads into the scene, is nothing less than the power of the human mind, although Wordsworth certainly makes it sound like a divine mind.
This is the mind, especially within higher beings like poets, which is able to work with sensible impressions, yet not remain enthralled to them, which is able to work upon able be worked upon, by the outward life of the senses.
Wordsworth was more attuned than virtually any other poet of the past 200 years to the operations of the human mind, and at his distinctive achievement, or one of them, to have written poetry that shows how the mind operates while thinking. His language vacillates between the ordinary and the sublime, which are also the poles of his vision.
Wordsworth took seriously the notion that a poet is, in addition to a man speaking to men, also a man who is teaching other men and women. At the end of the Prelude, he gives thanks to various people, his sister, his wife, and above all, to Coleridge, who have been helpful to him, to regain sanity and strength.
He thanks especially the last of these, Coleridge. The whole poem has been many things, epic, autobiography, a philosophical and psychological treatise, but it has also been a verse epistle, a letter addressed to Coleridge, who in 1805 had gone off the Mediterranean in search of physical and mental health. At the end of the poem, Wordsworth looks back, only seven years really, to the days in the late 1790s when he ancient Coleridge were in one another’s company virtually everyday, talking about poetry and planning their individual and collective works.
Wordsworth began the Prelude with an illusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Thinking of where he might go and what he might write, the said at the beginning:
“The earth is all before me”
This echoes the end of Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve leave paradise. Milton’s last lines are these:
“The world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest and providence their guide, they hand in hand with wandering step and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.”
At the end of his poem, Wordsworth is able to echo Milton yet again, harking back now to the beginning of Paradise Lost, where Milton says that it is his intention to justify the ways of God and men. Now Wordsworth, addressing Coleridge, calls him his perfect audience:
“It will be known by thee at least my friend, felt that the history of a poet’s mind is labor not unworthy of regard, to thee the work shall justify itself.”
Then to what else does he look forward? Well, he anticipates the day when he and Coleridge will be able to resume their collaboration as joint instructors of their readers. Wordsworth’s didactic or pedagogic purpose is firm and firmly articulated. He says”
“what we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how. Instruct them how the mind of man becomes a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which he dwells.”
So then, this poet of nature turns out, after all and above all, to be a poet of humanity, of the mind of man, and of the depths of the human psyche, a far greater and nobler terrain than the natural world. This is a terrain that he wishes to explore with a coworker. The collaboration, both actual and imagined between Coleridge and Wordsworth, is the greatest literary relationship in English literature. It lasted for only a short time, and indeed it burned itself out, owing to the ego of one party and the neediness of the other.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was arguably the most gifted and self-destructive, perhaps the most human of all the Romantic poets, the one with whom everyone can identify for at least one reason; he wanted to do more than he ever accomplished, and he had no one to blame but himself.
In his very failures however, he proved himself superior to all but a handful of other poets, and it is to his life and work that we will turn in lecture six.