By George M. Young
Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Young, George M. "Walking the Path With William Wordsworth." Quest 96.6 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2008):213-216.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Though nothing can bring back the hourOf splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;We will grieve not, rather findStrength in what remains behind,In the soothing thoughts that springOut of human suffering . . .
Wordsworth neither ignores human suffering and loss nor morbidly dwells on it, but rather looks forward to the power and serenity that we gain through the pains and struggles that mark our human existences. We grow, develop, and evolve by falling and rising again, by forgetting and then remembering, by wandering off and returning again and again to nature, to God, who is our home. Wordsworth constantly reminds us that who we really are is what some translations of the Bhagavad Gita call the embedded self, the child that is the father of the man, the babe of Nature.
Blest the Babe,Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleepRocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soulDrinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye!For him, in one dear Presence, there existsA virtue which irradiates and exaltsObjects through widest intercourse of sense;No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:Along his infant veins are interfusedThe gravitation and the filial bondOf nature that connect him with the world.
Our connectedness, then, rather than our alienation, is Wordsworth's great theme: the connectedness of man and nature, man and man, God and nature, man and God. For like us, we learn in Book Fifth of The Prelude, nature too has a "self, which is the breath of God." And the theme of the entire Book Eighth is "Love of Nature Leading to the Love of Man." For Wordsworth, who witnessed the events of the French Revolution in person, the key to the brotherhood of mankind was not mass political action, but the man-by-man realization of our inner divine connectedness through nature. Wordsworth knew frustration, disappointment, and depression in his dealings with men and the world, but at the very depths of negativity, he remembers:
There are in our existence spots of time,That with distinct pre-eminence retainA renovating virtue, whence—depressedBy false opinion and contentious thought,Or ought of heavier or more deadly weight,In trivial occupations, and the roundOf ordinary intercourse—our mindsAre 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.
Wordsworth is the bard of a self-mending life, of repairs that go on when we are least aware of them, the healing spots of time. He reminds us again and again in a thousand ways that there is much more to us, and to our lives, than we are aware of. Indeed, the most important things about us may be those for which our conscious intentions can take least credit. In "Tintern Abbey," he lets us see how in times of wearying drudgery, memories of pleasant views—"spots of time"—from past rambles can quietly refresh us. He remembers the little cottages he saw in the valley.
These beauteous forms,Through a long absence, have not been to meAs is a landscape to a blind man's eye:But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the dinOf towns and cities, I have owed to them,In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;And passing even into my purer mind,With tranquil restoration: feelings tooOf unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,As have no slight or trivial influenceOn the best portion of a good man's life,His little nameless, unremembered, actsOf kindness and of love.
That blessed moodIn which the burthen of the mystery,In which the heavy and the weary weightOf all this unintelligible world,Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,In which the affections gently lead us on,—Until, the breath of this corporeal frameAnd even the motion of our human bloodAlmost suspended, we are laid asleepIn body, and become a living soul:While with an eye made quiet by the powerOf harmony, and the deep power of joy,We see into the life of things.
One of the earliest and still one of the most sensitive and appreciative readers of Wordsworth, was the late nineteenth-century English aesthete and critic Walter Pater, who wrote, in an essay from the 1890s:
This sense of a life in natural objects, which in most poetry is but a rhetorical artifice, is with Wordsworth the assertion of what for him is almost literal fact. To him every natural object seemed to possess more or less of a moral or spiritual life, to be capable of a companionship with man, full of expression, of inexplicable affinities and delicacies of intercourse. An emanation, a particular spirit, belonged, not to the moving leaves or water only, but to the distant peak of the hills arising suddenly, by some change of perspective, above the nearer horizon, to the passing space of light across the plain, to the lichened Druidic stone even, for a certain weird fellowship in it with the moods of men. It was like a "survival," in the peculiar intellectual temperament of a man of letters at the end of the eighteenth century, of that primitive condition, which some philosophers have traced in the general history of human culture, wherein all outward objects alike, including even the works of men's hands, were believed to be endowed with animation, and the world was "full of souls"—that mood in which the old Greek gods were first begotten, and which had many strange aftergrowths.
Although he published his works openly and wanted to be widely read, Wordsworth realized that many if not most readers would skim over the deeper levels of his lines. To most, he would be as he seemed to me in my sophomore year, a poet who wrote good descriptions of nature and the simple life. He was called by certain of his contemporaries "Wordswords" and "Worstwords," and the reigning literary tastemaker of the previous generation, Dr. Samuel Johnson, wrote a famous savage parody, not of Wordsworth himself but of the newly popular ballad form, which Wordsworth, who was supposed not to have much of a sense of humor, cheerfully reprinted in the Preface of 1800:
I put my hat upon my headAnd walked into the Strand,And there I met another manWhose hat was in his hand.
But Coleridge, then and now regarded as the best English literary critic of the early nineteenth century, was Wordsworth's ideal and actual best reader. Fellow seer, lifelong friend, collaborator, brother through marriage, avid student of the esoteric, Coleridge was one of the three people (Wordsworth's wife Mary and sister Dorothy the other two) that the poet trusted to grasp every nuance. He addressed The Prelude to Coleridge, referred to through most of the body of the poem as Friend. In the last book of the poem, after showing us the growth of the poet's spiritual awareness from childhood through his schooling and university education, through his time in France during the Revolution, his return to England, his work in London, his travels in Switzerland, and later his moving to the Lake District, each book pyramiding upon the previous, the whole builds at last to a capstone description of an ascent of Mount Snowden. As the poet emerges from the fog he has been climbing through, he finds a clear and glorious view, a summit of outlook and insight, in which he experiences full spiritual love and a power of imagination from which the poet has drawn
In the concluding passages, he addresses Coleridge, at last, by name and acknowledges Coleridge's contribution to the sense of life and body of work called "Wordsworth." "No wonder," Carlos Baker tells us, in his fine introduction to my well-thumbed 1961 edition of the Selected Poems, "that Coleridge, having heard this poem read aloud, rose up at the end to find himself â€˜in prayer.'" On that day, for that poet and that listener, the reading of a poem about the growth of spiritual awareness became itself a spiritual experience. Even for us who were or are sophomores in literature, the exo-teric Wordsworth offers much to appreciate. But regardless of how much or little we gain from early exposure to him, the deeper, esoteric Wordsworth will still be there, where he has been for two and a half centuries, steadfast, calm, waiting to speak to us when we are ready.
George M. Young, Ph.D., is a Slavicist who has taught Russian and comparative literature at Grinnell and Dartmouth colleges, although for many years he ran a fine arts and auction business. He is the author of many articles and books on Russian literature and religious philosophy including the translation of Elena Pisareva's journal called The Light of the Russian Soul: A Personal Memoir of Early Russian Theosophy, (Quest Books, 2008). Young currently teaches English literature at the University of New England.