Thursday, November 27, 2014

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

This post is mostly about The Excursion, the massive poem that Wordsworth wrote in middle age, but I've given it a little prelude (ha, ha) about a much better-known poem from fifteen years earlier.

Strange Fits of Passion (1799)

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reached the orchard plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.

Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems while in Germany. This one, more than the others, is anecdotal. (Since then we've become so browbeaten by first-person anecdote in poetry that we take the form for granted.)

Portrait of Wordsworth by William Shuter, 1798

[Image source: Cornell University Library, where the portrait now resides. The likeness was taken on 26 April 1798, at Nether Stowey (according to Dorothy's Alfoxden Journal). William Shuter, a Bristol artist, was staying there; Coleridge must have organized the sitting. Five months later Wordsworth set off for Germany.]

The moon sets every day, but we don’t often see it do so. Canonical literature, though it's always going on about sunsets, virtually ignores the existence of moonsets, except in this poem.

We usually notice the moon when it’s full, and the big (or apparently big) moonrise that occurs soon after sunset is often remarked on. But a moonset near the full would occur near dawn, the coldest part of the night when (at least in temperate climes) we tend to sleep on, and even if we’re out and about the spectacle is usually lost in the mist. The little white ghost of a waning moon is hardly ever noticed when it sets during the hours of daylight. The most impressive moonset I've seen was a lazy moon on a cold winter night which became yellower and bigger, and finally just after midnight a smoky red as it dropped into the west. So rarely have I noticed a moonset in my fifty years that it hadn't really occurred to me that the setting moon must often go through the same colour changes as the setting sun.

If the moon is going to set earlier in the evening, not too many hours after sunset, it must be a brand-new sliver of a moon, which is probably not what most readers envisage while they're reading this poem.

However, the hill makes a difference. After crossing the “wide lea” westwards, with the moon spreading its light, Wordsworth’s lover starts to ascend rather sharply, and “Lucy’s cot” is on a ridge. Thus the moon could seem to “set” when still comparatively high in the sky. Wordsworth had often noticed the sharpness of Lakeland’s high night-horizons, and e.g. famously written of how “the stars moved along the edges of the hills”.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.

To realize the emotional charge of this, it’s worth going out on a suitable clear evening and making it happen. The roof should be quite close, perhaps less than a hundred meters away; it happens just as the lover arrives. The moon falls “at once” because it is the lover’s relatively rapid approach, not the moon’s own descent, that causes it to drop out of sight. In those nights without any streetlights, the instantaneous change in the light would have been dramatic. If you are suitably sensitized, it still can cause a shiver.   

The Excursion (1814)

The Excursion was not well received, and although Wordsworth continued to write prolifically for another thirty years, he would never again write a poem that was so plainly meant to epitomize the solid work of a poet now entering on the “years that bring the philosophic mind”. The first and last parts of the projected magnum opus that was to have been called The Recluse never emerged. Perhaps he was appalled by Coleridge’s eventual response to The Excursion, which consisted of nothing but an outline of what he, Coleridge, would have liked the poem to contain. The Recluse had been their dreamchild, but the two were now miles apart in their conceptions, and Coleridge’s uncompromisingly philosophical recipe looks like a splenetic outburst; he must have known Wordsworth would hate it.

Sooner or later you have to attempt The Excursion, though not until you’ve read The Prelude at least twice. But I don’t mean Book I of The Excursion, which incorporates an earlier poem, The Ruined Cottage, that ought to come near the top of anyone’s Wordsworth reading list.

The Ruined Cottage is a desperately sad narrative, an undramatic tragedy in the vein of Michael that charts the slow decline of a once-happy family through the ordinary reverses of poverty. After a brief and placid introduction the first blows are announced with such restraint that it is at first hard to understand them for what they are:

Not twenty years ago, but you I think
Can scarcely bear it now in mind, there came
Two blighting seasons when the fields were left
With half a harvest. It pleased Heaven to add
A worse affliction in the plague of war...  (I, 535-39)

It is Margaret, the wife, with whom the Wanderer sympathizes. The decline of her husband is described therefore with a certain moral distance in the Wanderer’s voice; what he is thinking about, and what we register painfully, is the effect of this decline on her:

A sad reverse it was for him who long
Had filled with plenty, and possessed in peace,
This lonely Cottage. At the door he stood,
And whistled many a snatch of merry tunes
That had no mirth in them; or with his knife
Carved uncouth figures on the heads of sticks –
Then, not less idly, sought, through every nook
In house or garden, any casual work
Of use or ornament; and with a strange,
Amusing, yet uneasy, novelty,
He mingled, where he might, the various tasks
Of summer, autumn, winter, and of spring.
But this endured not; his good humour soon
Became a weight in which no pleasure was:
And poverty brought on a petted mood
And a sore temper: day by day he drooped,
And he would leave his work – and to the town
Would turn without an errand his slack steps;
Or wander here and there among the fields.
One while he would speak lightly of his babes,
And with a cruel tongue: at other times
He tossed them with a false unnatural joy:
And ‘twas a rueful thing to see the looks
Of the poor innocent children...     (I, 566-89)

No wonder Wordsworth (who is the listener here) feels how “A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins...” (I, 619).

Behind the Wanderer's narration we can almost hear Margaret's voice. That's unusual. We know that Wordsworth did get on well with women (Dorothy, Mary) but he was an alpha male and  the speakers in his philosophical poems are men. To me it appears that he saw the experience and insights of women as valuable raw material for the male poet to employ as he sees fit. 

The rest of the story is structured around the intermittent visits of the Wanderer to Margaret, the time-gap between each visit being actively menacing (as in Chekhov’s story The Trousseau). Margaret’s husband eventually disappears; he joins a band of troopers and is never heard of again. The elder child is apprenticed far away. Margaret becomes obsessed with the idea of her husband’s return; it seems to her that with this event her real life would resume. In the mean time everything is neglected. Her infant dies, and after nine years of lingering she too passes away.

So far we are united with the Wanderer and with Wordsworth in their grief. We may not feel so sure about the Wanderer’s consolatory conclusion. First he says:

Yet still
She loved this wretched spot, nor would for worlds
Have parted hence; and still that length of road,
And this rude bench, one torturing hope endeared,
Fast rooted at her heart. (I, 910-14)

Was this attachment to the spot a good thing, I wonder? Had it been less, might Margaret have been able to live again? In fact, with repeated readings, I have come to think that the Wanderer recognizes the force of these questions, but sees further than them – sees that people do get trapped in their own patterns, and usually can’t break away from loves that destroy them, but that we ought to accept and revere these loves anyway, because they are the real person – the Margaret – that we know. How Margaret stayed rooted to her wretched spot, was how, fearfully damaged, she could make beauty. To express what should be is also to refuse a communion with what is; preaching displaces listening.   

Then he speaks of what she had felt even in her worst distress, “The unbounded might of prayer”. But it seems the “unbounded might” extended only to consolation, not to redress – so how boundless is that?

And then, there is stillness now: “She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.” The thought sparks an odd memory:

I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o’er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain,
Nowhere, dominion o’er the enlightened spirit
Whose meditative sympathies repose
Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,
And walked along my road in happiness. (I, 942-56)

Well for you! we might respond. “The passing shows of Being”... but isn’t that simply a way of saying everything that actually exists? If it now “appeared an idle dream”; well, one does become sleepy even after a terrible day. The talismanic “breast of Faith” seems to us to induce merely a counterfactual response to a disaster whose origin “pleased Heaven”. Reading The Excursion one constantly comes up against the stark disparity between what Wordsworth expects his readers to accept and the way we all now think.

In the 1814 Preface Wordsworth says hesitantly that “something of a dramatic form” is adopted. But “dramatic” gives a wrong idea of the pace of the poem. The four main speakers (all male, of course: the Wanderer, the poet, the Solitary and the Pastor) speak in effusions and apostrophes, like leaders of a Chorus. They are experienced men, indeed old men (the poet is the youngest). Though the Solitary introduces the possibility of conflict in Books II-III he too will gradually become a participant in the flow of contemplation that finally debouches (pleasingly, I think) into the family outing with the pastor’s wife and children that constitutes Book IX’s tranquil sea.

But when we first encounter the Solitary he jars on this consensual music.

“That poor man taken hence today,” replied
The Solitary, with a faint sarcastic smile
Which did not please me, “must be deemed, I fear,
Of the unblest...” (II, 593-96)

What he says here affects us, at first, not so much as a conflict of values as of manners; it makes short work of what we have just been listening to, the Wanderer’s effusion on the beauty of rural funerals. The Solitary, in more detail, proceeds to describe a far-from-idyllic rural community in which self-interest is conspicuously emphasized. In the midst of this narrative (and with a painfully incongruous relation to its context), the Solitary describes a revelatory scene above the mist (II, 830-81), something that Wordsworth had lingered on as early as in the Descriptive Sketches of 1793 (491ff. in the original version, 405ff. in the revision), and most famously in the scene on Snowdon at the beginning of the final book of The Prelude. These comparisons, however, draw attention to the particular features of the Solitary’s description; it is far from serene. Jumbled, confused and overwrought, it issues in a scalding anguish and a wish for death. The recollection of the scene makes him want to get drunk.

In Book III the sainted Wanderer (an “unmarked case” if ever there was one), coming upon an impressive scene of scattered rocks, is inspired to make his (not unexpected) apostrophe to Contemplation. The Solitary delivers his criticism: such exaltation is subjective. The same scene does not fill him with grateful outpourings, though it might have done so in the thoughtless days of happiness before the death of his wife and children. With a certain malicious enjoyment the Solitary unfavourably compares this Contemplation even with the concrete, though trivial, objects of the grubbing botanist and the chipping geologist. For him the place with the scattered rocks (which is certainly potent) generates only despondent thoughts of a wasted life and ill memories of his own bad decisions. Though the Solitary’s unhappy history and loss of faith clearly mark him, in the eyes of Wordsworth and his audience, as an unreliable commentator, his attack is directed squarely at the heart of The Excursion’s modus operandi, indeed at much of Wordsworth’s major poetry. Does nature merely reflect our own moods?

But the Solitary, like all the other major speakers in The Excursion, represents a portion of Wordsworth’s own thoughts. He directly voices some of Wordsworth’s recent experience of bereavement (see below); and his turmoiled, self-disgusted narrative undoubtedly reflects some painful soul-searching on the part of the poet. The Solitary in the contented years of his marriage, and earlier, had also been a contemplator of nature, as serious as Wordsworth. But his account of all this is now riddled with awkwardnesses of tone that persistently question the value of contemplative experience. For example, he says parenthetically:

            (Not as an intellectual game pursued
            With curious subtilty, from wish to cheat
            Irksome sensations; but by love of truth
            Urged on, or haply by intense delight
            In feeding thought, wherever thought could feed)  (III, 285-89)

In opposition to the surface sense, the negative words come thick and fast: game, curious, subtilty, cheat, Irksome. And what is not denied, the feeding, carries an implicit suggestion of self-indulgence.

When the Solitary reverts to his recent vision above the mists, he brings a yet heavier charge. This susceptibility to nature, he now asserts, leads not to illumination but to dazzlement (III, 716-722); he connects it with his own sorry story of a wild enthusiasm for the revolution in France, and of the increasingly desperate behaviour that he resorted to in the attempt to sustain it. Finally, his tale pursues another false path: in America he had tried to assume the role of a detached observer, but natural magnificence is found to be void of any value to someone who feels only condemnation of the raw human society that he witnesses. Far from coming to his aid, Contemplation merely skulks. It is reduced to an automatic but insignificant register of bird-song.     

In response, the Wanderer’s immediate references (at the start of Book IV) are to Faith, and also to Duty, that new touchstone that Wordsworth had proposed with such inspiring directness in the Ode to Duty (1805). Through slow circlings Book IV unfolds as a review of what Wordsworthian contemplation means. The Wanderer persuades us at some length that these contemplative engagements with the forms of Nature are true insights; his eventual (and less unbending) recipe for the Solitary’s despondency is to share in their exploration:

Then trust yourself abroad
To range her blooming bowers, and spacious fields,
Where on the labours of the happy throng
She smiles, including in her wide embrace
City, and town, and tower, - and sea with ships
Sprinkled; - be our Companion while we track
Her rivers populous with gliding life;
While, free as air, o’er printless sands we march,
Or pierce the gloom of her majestic woods;
Roaming, or resting under grateful shade
In peace and meditative cheerfulness;
Where living things, and things inanimate
Do speak, at Heaven’s command, to eye and ear,
And speak to social reason’s inner sense
With inarticulate language. (IV, 1193-1207)

This “inarticulate language” must, so we are urged, issue in “the joy of that pure principle of love”. And as for “Science” (alluding to the Solitary’s botanist and geologist),

            taught with patient interest to watch
The processes of things, and serve the cause
Of order and distinctness, not for this
Shall it forget that its most noble use,
Its most illustrious province, must be found
In furnishing clear guidance, a support
Not treacherous, to the mind’s excursive power.
– So build we up the Being that we are;
Thus deeply drinking-in the soul of things,
We shall be wise perforce... (IV, 1257-66)

When the Wanderer speaks of “Some acceptable lesson ... Of human suffering, or of human joy”, we may uneasily recall some of the questions raised by the ending of The Ruined Cottage. “Philanthropy” and “moral purposes” play a larger part in this intellectual structure than had been claimed in – say – Tintern Abbey (1798). The soul-searching review reflected in the Solitary’s narrative has led to a certain modification in Wordsworth’s thought; he now needs to call on Faith and Duty as expedients in order to save the appearances of the fundamental dogma that he cannot question, namely the value of his experience of nature. But now that the full significance of that title, The Excursion, is manifest, I don’t think we can call this a failure of insight. Wordsworth’s argument remains current. Something like this underlies what many people still consider the true, if inarticulate, purpose of those soul-journeys that we call “holidays”; they are not just about leisure. 

Wordsworth’s poetry is, more than most of our classical poetry, an open window. It points outwards, away from literature and towards some reorientation of our own lives (even if this only means a walk in the Lake District). This is one of the places (but there are many) at which it does so urgently: The Excursion is a serious call for those entering their middle years. I should perhaps add personally, that Wordsworth more than any other poet that I can think of seems to influence my own life in rather direct ways. In practice I take it for granted that an apprehension of nature is an undiluted communication with whatever it is that “really matters”, and my commonplace everyday decisions are influenced by this uninspected belief; as also such not-so-commonplace matters as my choice of companions and choice of life. It’s true, this is what I was going to do anyway; I don’t think to myself:

Hmm, now what would Wordsworth say about this?...

But “what I was going to do anyway” just demonstrates that I’m a follower; though the channels must be tortuous by which his vision trickled through grandparents and parents, rectors and teachers, into me. Much gets muddied in those unconscious descents from person to person; then a direct inflow from the source re-purifies it. Or does it stir it up and make it all the more muddy?

The “source”...  Oh, I see.  You mean Wordsworth.

No, I mean Nature, of course!

The Solitary puts his finger on one great problem with Wordsworthian contemplation; it is not transferable. If I happen to experience it, what value can that have for you? My experience is inarticulate and inexpressible. But what then justifies the centrality of contemplation in Wordsworth’s scheme? He has a difficulty that pulls him in two separate directions. For contemplation to have a credible social significance it has to be a common experience; and Wordsworth likes to portray several people sharing reactions to a single moment, as e.g. the sunset in Book IX of The Excursion (“While from the grassy mountain’s open side / We gazed, in silence hushed...”). But on the other hand, the convincingly transcendent value that Wordsworth attributes to the experience depends on its rarity. The touristic conception of an “excursion” (I mean in its more mundane sense) is in fact one way of resolving this conundrum. By getting out of our road we find a way of experiencing natural phenomena that are in themselves common but nevertheless do not seem commonplace. But the costs of mass tourism provide a troublingly ironic commentary on the pursuit of nature’s sensations, as Wordsworth himself was well aware and from which, in the sniffy spirit of those modern guidebooks that pour scorn on cheap resorts, he tried unpersuasively to distance himself.


Books III and IV are the most rewarding part of the Excursion, though some readers may feel repelled by the magnificent reproof of that subtitle, Despondency Corrected. Here we can witness how a determination to appraise his own raw experience, to sift it, leads him inexorably towards matters of motivation, behaviour, delusion and doubt; how things are instanced. I am finding it impossible to avoid the glamorous appeal of a crude generalization: in The Excursion  Romantic poetry is transformed, for better and worse, into Victorian poetry. In truth this is scarcely worth saying; it is more useful to say that (for perhaps the last time in his long career) Wordsworth is fully stretched by his material. The upshot is writing such as this:

                  high or low appeared no trace
Of motion, save the water that descended,
Diffused adown that barrier of steep rock,
And softly creeping, like a breath of air,
Such as is sometimes seen, and hardly seen,
To brush the still breast of a crystal lake.   (III, 68-73)

Within the soul a faculty abides,
That with interpositions, which would hide
And darken, so can deal that they become
Contingencies of pomp; and serve to exalt
Her native brightness. As the ample moon,
In the deep stillness of a summer even
Rising behind a thick and lofty grove,
Burns, like an unconsuming fire of light,
In the green trees;                           (IV, 1058-66)

Books V-VII are less demanding fare. They revolve around the churchyard in a neighbouring vale and they narrate, mostly in the words of the Pastor, the stories of villagers past and present. Books VIII and IX become interesting again, as Wordsworth dwells on the changes seen in his own time. Industry and incipient urbanism, the first steps in the ever-widening separation of humans from nature, are critical matters for him and for anyone who shares his vision, however muddily. His deepest insights are not those that he expresses openly but what is implicit in lines such as this:

                                                Hence that sum
            Of keels that rest within her crowded ports,
            Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays;
                                                                                                (VIII, 136-38)

This is Wordsworth’s muted report of the alienation (it can sometimes be exhilaration) that a traveller feels when witnessing only a snapshot of a whole lot of human activity going on at once without seeing any of the beginnings or the ends.

I should like to quote these lines, too. They are about what we now call light pollution.

                                    When soothing darkness spreads
            O’er hill and vale,” the Wanderer thus expressed
            His recollections, “and the punctual stars,
            While all things else are gathering to their homes,
            Advance, and in the firmament of heaven
            Glitter – but undisturbing, undisturbed;
            As if their silent company were charged
            With peaceful admonitions for the heart
            Of all-beholding Man, earth’s thoughtful lord;
            Then, in full many a region, once like this
            The assured domain of calm simplicity
            And pensive quiet, an unnatural light
            Prepared for never-resting Labour’s eyes
            Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge;
            And at the appointed hour a bell is heard,
            Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll
            That spake the Norman Conqueror’s stern behest –
            A local summons to unceasing toil!
            Disgorged are now the ministers of day;
            And, as they issue from the illumined pile,
            A fresh band meets them, at the crowded door –
            And in the courts – and where the rumbling stream,
            That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,
            Glares, like a troubled spirit, in its bed
            Among the rocks below.
                                                                                    (VIII, 156-80)

The poetry acknowledges that this scene, too, is nature. But it is a shock, and its might is comfortless.


Biographically The Excursion coincides with a desperate period of Wordsworth’s life. He had married Mary Hutchinson in October 1802; she became pregnant immediately and over the next eight years Mary bore five children. The couple’s sex-life, to judge from Wordsworth’s passionate letters, was intensely satisfying. But in 1812 they suffered the loss of two children; the four-year-old Catherine, their fourth, in June  and the six-year-old Thomas, their third, in December. Mary plunged into a long depression through 1813 and though the marriage was strong there were no more children. These painful events were reflected, above all, in the Solitary’s story in Book III, though Wordsworth soon expunged some of the more nakedly autobiographical references. His relocation to Rydal Mount, his acceptance of the government post, and his labours on The Excursion were all attempts to break with the past and move on.

Very few other poems were written in 1812-14. The famous sonnet Surprised by joy was written after Catherine’s death. Some transport of nature has moved the poet who automatically turns to share it with his favourite daughter; forgetting for a split-second that she is dead. His sense of loss is quickened; he loses Catherine for a second time. This natural grief is described self-critically by the Solitary in The Excursion (III, 686-95), while in Laodamia (1814) Wordsworth presents the theme of the loved one’s devastating return from a much more distanced perspective. This is a fine poem but a severe one in its conclusions. What began as a line of thought that helped him to come to terms with his own grief would lead eventually towards the pitiless uprightness of the Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death (1839-1840).

The inscription, Written with a Slate Pencil on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb, was composed in 1813. Black Comb is described here and in several other poems as a summit notable for its large views. The poem begins to tell us about a geographical surveyor who spent some time on this mountain (this would have been the ordnance survey triangulations of 1809). Once, while working on his maps, he has a visitation of nature in the form of a sudden darkness, which deposits him in

                                               total gloom,
In which he sate alone, with unclosed eyes,
Upon the blinded mountain’s silent top!

What contemplation there may be in this experience is left unvoiced. Though Wordsworth here as elsewhere draws inspiration from the rapid changes of weather in the hills, this time he chooses to emphasize the engulfing of mist, rather than its dispersal, as the critical event. The poem leaves a powerful question-mark hanging over its human scene of measurement and labour. It was an insight that Wordsworth confined to the safety of an “occasional” poem.

[It is true, as I discovered when I went to Black Combe, that such unobstructed views are not an unmitigated blessing. There is no higher ground within ten miles, and the great things are the looping “terraqueous” coastline, and the distant views of the Cumbrian massif, Wales, Man, Scotland, perhaps even Ireland. It should be amazing. But unless the air is particularly clear, this is all too far off. On a fine cloudless day with a haze reducing visibility to three or four miles, I stood on the flattish summit and saw no view at all!]

View from Black Combe towards the main Lakeland massif

Descent from Black Combe : Irish Sea and Duddon Estuary 

[Both images sourced from Andrew Whitworth's absorbing blog , describing walks up all the Wainwright summits (including the outliers) without using a car. It still is possible!  Or perhaps I should say "was", in view of the recent loss of Shap's bus service.]




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