Notes on William Wordsworth
The French Revolution. Wordsworth, like Coleridge, Blake, Southey, and many other democratic-spirited Englishmen, at first enthusiastically welcomed the French Revolution, and believed that it would amount to a “new dawn” for humanity. The Revolution (http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/) flowed in part from the Enlightenment ideal of progress, of the good life here and now: not in some displaced fantasy afterlife, not from the crumbs tossed our way from the king’s table as if we were dogs. If we have made our institutions, the idea goes, we should be able to change them at will and for the better. But in the wake of the extremist period of the Revolution (the Jacobin-inspired “Terror” of 1792-94), it became increasingly difficult to believe that the French upheaval was such a positive affair.
It has often been said that Wordsworth and his fellow poets didn’t really abandon their democratic hopes, but instead turned to their art as a way of expressing them, and even placed a great deal of emphasis on literary art itself as one of the main vehicles for promoting change. I think there is some justification for that understanding of British romanticism—Wordsworth himself, in the Prelude, offers many a verse observation that confirms it, at least with respect to his own development as a poet. If, in fact, the romantics more or less internalize the ideals of the revolution, weave them into literature, and then expect literature to help effect change (to put it baldly), it almost goes without saying that such a formula doesn’t solve the difficult question of how human societies make progress: do we start with the individual, or is that a bourgeois notion since progress can only happen when a mass movement or a revolution gets underway, as with America in 1776, France in 1789, Russia in 1917, or the recent anticommunist turnabouts in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Can any force short of a French Revolution influence the sensibilities of large numbers of individuals, and so help bring about eventual change? Let’s turn to Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads to see what he has to say about the relationship between literature and the prospects for meaningful change.
Literature and the Reformation of Taste. It has long been noticed that Wordsworth’s poems flow from a new, fundamentally democratic sense of life: his experimental Lyrical Ballads demand that we pay attention to a variety of humble people and outcasts who don’t come at us with a pinch of snuff and fancy aristocratic titles—the stuff of traditional poetry. “ Liberty , equality, fraternity” are still Wordsworth’s ideals even in 1798, though no patriotic Englishman would be caught directly supporting France by that date. In the Preface, we can recognize Wordsworth’s intent to address the major eighteenth-century concern over “taste,” usually expressed in terms of “decorum,” a commonly available set of rules according to which polite society perceives, thinks, and lives. This issue of taste is by no means trivial, as we sometimes take it to be when we say, “there’s no accounting for taste.” Underlying notions of taste are notions of how people are to get along with one another even though they may not agree on everything.
Wordsworth as a reformer of the public’s taste in literature shows disdain for old-fashioned aristocrats, but also finds distressing the still relatively small but growing urban population of readers. The aristocrats—aside from their blatant adherence to an unjust and inadequate system that awards people for high birth rather than merit, are too favorable to the decorum-laden “poetic diction” that would abstract even the most particular individual fish into a card-carrying member of the “finny tribe.” This kind of language merely dulls the senses and removes us farther than ever from the material world and from healthy, pure perception of the breathing world. It turns poetry into a concept-making-machine instead of a means by which to connect with nature and other human beings.
But the urban multitude comes in for some sharp criticism, too—Wordsworth has no patience with these seekers of “gross and violent stimulation” and admirers of “sickly and stupid German tragedies.” They are the early romantic period’s equivalent of today’s crime-show and reality-TV addicts, I suppose—people who have become so desensitized to anything healthy (like nature and stories about good folks, for instance) that their minds don’t perk up for anything but lurid tales of wrongdoing and vulgarly competitive scenarios where people eat hapless insects and chase one another around on fake deserted islands. Our emphasis on these “Gilligans gone Wild” and on the misconduct of criminal brutes brings out the worst in us, one can hear him saying. Not to mention the ceaseless round of consumerist one-upmanship and all-around “fetishism of the commodity,” as Karl Marx will one day label capitalist society’s confusion over the relative value of people and inanimate objects. Wordsworth is no proto-Marxist, but his criticism of early industrialist culture has some affinities with later and more radical critiques: a commodity culture tends toward atomistic individualism and against social cohesion.
Poetry—the Universal Orphic Song. What is needed? Well, in his Preface Wordsworth suggests a move away from a false urban and utilitarian interiority based on shallow pleasure-seeking and acquisitiveness and towards a more genuine, healthy interiority that brings strong individuals together. The latter kind of interiority helps us rediscover our connection to nature and to others; it gives us back our common capacity to feel uplifting emotions. Wordsworth’s poetics is universalist—he takes it as a given that right operation of feeling and imagination is possible for all, and that it will lead to similarly positive results for the individual and for society. But the current urban public’s interiority is vulgar—its immediacy is not that of self-presence and a sense of the deep universal truths of the human spirit; it entails only “instant gratification,” a mere object-relation that turns the object seeker himself into just another object. As Walter Ong might say, urban anonymity is that of mere facelessness in the crowd, and it actually keeps us from experiencing the deep nameless intimacy of the “I,” as opposed to the socially given attributes owing to our proper name—John, Jose, Mary, whatever.
The proper name is one compact but powerful instance of the “cultural scripts” that (from our very birth onwards) tell us what kind of beings we are, how we ought to relate to one another, what our relationship to objects and to nature ought to be, and so forth. We conceive of life’s purpose along lines fed to us by others. Shouldn’t we be able to erase the old scripts and replace them with new and better ones—can’t we make our world the way we want it to be: peaceful and purposeful?
Implicit in what has just been said is that false language, false understanding, and false living go together—problems with language are deeply implicated in broader problems of cultural coherency and change. As Gerald Bruns points out in his book Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language (New Haven: Yale UP, 1974), romantic theorists such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others assume that human language is to be understood as deeply processive—words aren’t inanimate, discrete objects or “things” that we arrange into decorous patterns, as they are in ancient and Renaissance rhetorical theory. The romantic word doesn’t either stand in the way of truth or move out of the way so we can simply “get at” the truth. (The same conception of the word as an object can occur whether, like philosophical idealists, we mean by “truth” something in our heads—i.e. prelinguistic images or “ideas”—or whether with empiricists like Bacon we mean something “out there” in a world of objects independent of the human mind. Rather, language and truth are closely bound up together—who “we” are and how we understand the world around us cannot be considered apart from the fact that we are linguistic beings. In Bruns’ terms, the romantics see words less a medium than as a function, a process, and this process connects us vitally to the world “beyond” language. In the most optimistic formulations of romantic poetics, he points out, the poetic word takes on an Orphic, almost magical quality to be part of the reality it speaks—not just a set of symbols describing that reality.
If any such thing is the case, it is vital that we “get it right” in our relationship with language. If our language is false and corrupted, we will live and understand falsely and corruptly. Since we can’t wish language away, what, then, can purify our relationship with it? You guessed, it—poetry. Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s and Coleridge’s kind of poetry, to be precise. At its best, and even if all writing amounts to a “cultural script,” romantic poetry is the bearer of a new gospel, a new and better “script” by which humans can live together. So when Wordsworth, as he says in his Preface, goes back to the rural countryside and listens to the speech of farmers, he’s doing it for philosophical reasons: the rustics are more sound in their ways and speech than city folk, so they have a living “script,” we might say, and not a mass of corrupted words with no relation to anything in the human heart or physical nature. Wordsworth really isn’t returning directly to nature, but rather to human nature in its best state.
Nature. I have placed this key romantic concern right after my comments on language to make a point. The point is that the romantics may privilege the human relationship with nature, but they are not (in the main) primitivists who think we can shed “civilization” the way a snake sheds its skin periodically. We can’t just “go back to nature.” Going to the countryside is good, of course, but when Wordsworth does this, there’s usually some human artifact (like, well, a ruined abbey) nearby. We can’t go back to nature in the simple sense because we were never really in it in the first place. Wordsworth doesn’t collapse “human nature” into oneness with the natural world of hills and dales, flora and fauna. He puts it into close affinity with the natural environment, but doesn’t say they’re exactly the same. His attitude is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of Ignatius of Loyola’s idea that nature is at best a vehicle for spiritual realization, at worst a hindrance. And Wordsworth finds that it isn’t a hindrance—it’s a great help.
Further, you can see by Wordsworth’s insistence upon the principle of selection from “nature”—from rural speech patterns and from the details of landscape, that is—just how far he is from any doctrine of primitivism. Nature may be our original “source,” but we can only repair to it for a time, not stay there permanently. The closest thing to it that we can return to in a more or less permanent way would be those “rural speech patterns” and to the profound truths of the human heart, those “essential passions” with which they are so closely bound. To be fair, however, the “essential passions” are indeed closely allied with what Wordsworth calls “the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”
All in all, I don’t mean to say that nature isn’t a profound concern for most of our romantic poets: Wordsworth and Coleridge, we might say, are in fact the first true “environmentalists,” and would in their own ways agree that the wilderness is what Thoreau later says it is: “the salvation of mankind.” They accept neither the medieval sense of nature as something fearful, hostile and alien, nor the industrialist instrumentalism that sees nature as a “resource” to be tamed and used as we see fit. They are much closer to the enlightened way of looking at nature some environmentalists promote today—as something endangered, something that must be respected and protected rather than conquered and used. How about, “ask not what your countryside can do for you, ask what you can do for your countryside”? The romantics, writing at ground zero of the Industrial Revolution, knew this was a difficult argument to make, and it continues to be difficult today. Most environmental groups gear their rhetoric towards the idea that we should preserve nature “because it’s useful to us” or “for our children’s children’s great grandchildren’s grandchildren.” It comes down to the same thing—for us, not for nature in its own right. What I have described may be a necessary rhetorical strategy, but it cedes a tragic amount of ground to crass Utilitarians who see only “timber” even in the midst of an old-growth redwood forest.
Science. Not all of the romantics are as scathing when it comes to science as William Blake, with his diatribes against the unholy trinity of “Bacon, Newton, & Locke,” but in general they interpret the advent of scientific discourse and practice disturbing. In his Preface, Wordsworth suggests that the poet’s song take us back almost to a new Eden, while the scientists labor in the fields, still with much of the sorrowful Old Adam and Eve in their hearts. Science, in Wordsworth’s view, “murders to dissect”—it takes things apart in an effort to understand and control them. Those dominant powers Reason and Social Utility demand such efforts at mastery over nature. Sir Francis Bacon’s empirical project was by no means as godless as Blake makes it sound—it follows the dual prescription of promoting god’s glory and ameliorating the human condition. But even in the Baconian emphasis on “experimenta lucifera” (pure science, “experiments of light”) rather than on “experimenta fructifera” (science for the sake of near-term improvement in living conditions), we can easily see the roots of romantic criticism against the scientific stirrings of their time: science, based upon building up knowledge from sensory observation and rational system-building derived from that observation, tends to become a pursuit for its own sake—yet another “system,” as Blake might say, that becomes its own justification without regard to the human beings who are supposed to benefit from it.
All of the romantics take issue with science as tending towards this condition—a snare for the naively optimistic rather than a vehicle for perpetual human improvement. They keep insisting that there’s something closer, more proper, to human beings than whatever lies at the far end of some grand march to knowledge and control. Perhaps what we really need “lies about us in our infancy,” and is never very far. The greatest wisdom is not to dissect things but to perceive their unity and not violate it. And how do we define progress anyway? Does it have to with production—i.e. with clever new ways to satisfy old desires and even create new ones, to gain mastery over the natural environment, to amass huge stocks of quantifiable, empirically verifiable knowledge? It isn’t self-evident what “progress” is, and the issue will become a major one from Wordsworth’s time forwards.
Below are some thoughts on the status of the poet and on poetic process.
The Value of Creative Imagination. I should mention first of all Meyer Abrams’ excellent study The Mirror and the Lamp, which offers an exhaustive intellectual history about the difference between mimetic (i.e. imitative) neoclassical theories of artistic creation and romantic expressive theories that privilege creative imagination. The key difference is that the mimetic theorist believes art mainly copies the external world, while the expressive critic says artists mostly express (that is, externalize) inner feelings, thoughts, and memories. As Abrams’ metaphor implies, the lamp seems to burn from an inner source, while the mirror reflects an image from the world outside. Romantic poets, then make available to us the inner workings of their own being, and in this act of spiritual publication lies the real value of art.
As Wordsworth explains in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the value lies here because expression is exactly the power that ordinary, unpoetical city folk have forgotten they possess, thanks to the “multitude of causes” (mainly the bad effects of living in a depersonalized urban environment and the political and military tumult of the late eighteenth century) that Wordsworth specifies in the Preface. There are many sophisticated formulations of what poets can do for us, but one of the most straightforward is Wordsworth’s claim in the Preface that the poet sings a song in which everyone can join. Poets are said to be in touch with nature and, therefore, with certain primal human passions, chief amongst them “love.” Poets are the individuals least “damaged” by modernity and the ones who can, therefore, think and feel in the absence of frenetic stimulation. They can still commune with the natural world and trace the unwritten laws of the human spirit—this power gives the broadest possible scope, thinks Wordsworth, to the vital operations of the imagination, that binding capacity we all have, at least in potential, even if circumstance has kept us from honoring or encouraging the gift.
Wordsworth, like the other British romantics, is firmly in the expressivist camp, but offers an interestingly modified version of expressive theory. He implies that the healthy functioning of the imagination requires the mind (and body) to open up to a “wise passiveness” wherein the perceiver soaks in every sensation round about, without reflecting or intellectualizing it into a grand synthetic whole, a moral emblem, or anything else. There is a trace of good old-fashioned empiricism in the poetic practice and theory of Wordsworth.
By empiricism, I refer to the science-tending doctrine that says what we know comes first from our five senses—not from abstract reasoning power all by itself. Imagination in faculty psychology terms is the image-making power; it’s the capacity that lets you see images even if there isn’t any direct sensory stimulus in your field of vision. If you’ve ever read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, you might recall the villain Archimago—the “arch image-maker” who keeps fooling Red Crosse Knight with all those false appearances. Well, empiricists like John Locke say that all our knowledge comes from sense experience: we see things that are out there in the world, and our simple perceptions get “associated” and combined into more and more complex, abstract, and general ideas. Memory stores all this idea-stuff, almost like a hard drive in our modern terms, and we can work with it and build on it intellectually, broadening our stock of knowledge. Locke is perhaps an early version of “information technology,” with the mind like a calculating machine with data storage capacity. The movement of information-processing runs from the particular to the general—thus the validity on “inductive method” in empirical writers like Sir Francis Bacon. That’s the way the mind works, and that’s the way we should patiently build up systems of knowledge. It’s good to keep this in mind when we consider the way Wordsworth deals with his immediate perceptions of nature. But Wordsworth isn’t simply an empiricist—what he suggests is that we “half create, and half perceive” (“Tintern Abbey”) the “mighty world of eye and ear.” Or as he writes in The Prelude, Book 11, the poets “build up greatest things / From least suggestions” (lines 98-99). Ultimately, and again in The Prelude, Wordsworth asserts the priority of mind over mere nature, and so in this way he approaches the proposition of Coleridge in “Dejection: an Ode” that “in our life alone does nature live.” What must the poet do for the people? By Book 13 of The Prelude (1805), the task is this: “Instruct them how the mind of man becomes / A thousand times more beautiful than the earth / On which he dwells….” However Wordsworth ultimately ranks mind over nature, his poetry promotes a gentle interplay between them. He is not suggesting that imagination creates new worlds in its own fiery crucible and that it takes us away from nature altogether into the exalted realm of free creativity. On the whole, Wordsworth talks about poetic creation and readerly pleasure in terms of a properly functioning mind, one in which sensory perception, memory, and the capacity to feel all work together. The result of this proper attunement is peace within oneself and harmony with others. Pleasure is the aim of life—it alone signifies internal and external health. As Freud would tell us, if we can’t feel pleasure, there’s something deeply wrong in our emotional state.
Wordsworth’s Method of Composition: Meditation. “Meditative” is perhaps the best way to describe Wordsworth’s account of how poems get composed in the poet’s head and then written down. Much of Wordsworth’s poetry seems to be based upon long-standing Christian meditative practices, at least indirectly. Meyer Abrams describes the structure of Wordsworth’s great odes by saying they begin with a meditation on a particular place. This act of contemplation helps the poet to remember and analyze a problem that he or she has been experiencing, and finally an “affective” or emotional resolution is achieved. The pattern goes something like this:
1) Our senses and imagination stir up memories, not all of them good ones;
2) Our power of analysis sets to work on the problem at hand
3) Our rekindled emotions help us resolve the problem, or at least show the way.
You will find this an accurate description of poems such as “Tintern Abbey” and “Intimations of Immortality.”
What I have just described is similar to the structure of the Spiritual Exercises (http://www.ccel.org/i/ignatius/exercises/exercises.html) advocated by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius has exercitants begin with “the composition of place,” and through that vivid recollection or imagining of either a real place or one associated with the life of Christ, he expects that meditators will begin to understand the gravity and repetitive quality of their sinful ways, and finally that this awareness will lead to a colloquy with Christ, a dialogue that should leave a person with hope for the future.
The Spiritual Exercises are supposed to clear away the mental errors and worldly confusions that are getting in the way of salvation, which requires devotion to God above all else. Theologically, we could say that the exercises help realign the will away from “the world, the flesh, and the devil” and allow a person to follow God’s plan more closely. From this meditation should flow a sense of spiritual peace and devotion, as well as a clearer sense of one’s proper vocation. What profession to follow? Should I take holy orders, or go on living as a business person or whatever, only with greater charity towards others and a better sense that my own desires and concerns aren’t as important as I used to think? The choice will depend upon the individual.
Well, meditation’s goal is always something like that, with or without the specific theological trappings: we must withdraw into ourselves for a time, removing ourselves from the corruptions that have set in thanks to the badness of our society and our own inner failings, and through intense contemplation arrive at a state of emotional and spiritual health and equilibrium. Clarity of perception might be another benefit, if we want to speak less of emotion and more of intellection. Buddhist meditation, for instance, is largely about letting “unconfusion” happen, opening oneself up to the discovery of truths that have always been right next to us. Wordsworth’s “wise passiveness” in the presence of nature, his soaking up the sights and sounds around him, has something of that quality to it. Except that his own background is more Christian-tinged; he probably wouldn’t find Eastern “self-annihilation” congenial but might instead opt for the retooling of the individual self and its purposiveness. At this point in his career, of course, Wordsworth isn’t exactly talking traditional theology—his God is “Nature,” and he isn’t trying to instill in us a sense that we have sinned against the light, either. I just mean that in general what seems to underlie romantic meditation is a long tradition of Christian meditative theory and practice.
The Status of the Poet—Prophet or Merchant? Almost everyone admires the romantic formulation of why literature is (or should be) valuable not only to poets but to everyone else. But we should also keep in mind the unpleasant notion of Marxist critic Raymond Williams that this formulation of the poet-prophet healing the ills of the community is partly the effect of the very causes it tries to overcome. Williams’ idea is that the more threatened and marginalized literary artists became, the more insistent and even grandiose became their claims about the value of their activity. The point is, how does a poet respond to the threat of being either eliminated as silly and anachronistic, or forced to adapt poetry’s message to what the growing and economically powerful middle classes want, or having to play the isolated “voice crying in the wilderness” all the more defiantly for lack of an audience? None of the choices offer much consolation, it seems—elimination, adaptation (i.e. selling out), or marginalization to a street-corner preacher in some dingy corner of London shouting at indifferent passersby, “what doth it profit a man if he gain the world, and lose his soul?” The father of capitalist ideology, Adam Smith (see his book The Wealth of Nations), predicted some such thing when he said that his principle of the “division of labor” logically applies to thinking, not just to physical employments. And if we can pay people to do our thinking for us, it makes sense to say as well that one day we will also pay people to do our feeling for us. In effect, that kind of statement acknowledges that even grand romantic poetry is one commodity amongst many others, and that as always in the marketplace, people will choose as it pleases them, for whatever reason or no reason at all. In a sense, art remains part of life, but by no means a privileged one—there are plenty of other things to do out there in a modern urban community, especially in one that follows the utilitarian line that the goal of society is the pursuit of undifferentiated individual pleasure. Jeremy Bentham puts it eloquently: “all other things being equal, pushpin [a game less sophisticated than checkers] is as good as poetry.” Evidently, we aren’t the first society to say, “do it if it feels good” or “whatever turns you on.” Bottom line: in Williams’ view, the effect of capitalism is to marginalize, specialize, and commodify the act of writing poetry. The poet is a specialized worker, not an exalted demigod. Modern literature continually confronts this problem of “social value,” and the simple fact that people (critics, moralists, the public) come up to literature with their hands in their pockets and make such a demand shows that Williams’ claims about literary “marginalization” have some genuine explanatory power.